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The joy of mending things

Yuko Edwards' textiles piece Untitled (Skeleton) (2022) is made from many hands. The skeleton in question is soft: an assembly of fabric and thread, its patchwork of beige bones and flesh backed with flashes of red. Look at it closely and you'll see the stitches. Some are neat – small, even, methodical – while others are jagged and messy, puckering the faux suede. Nearby, a video titled On Skin plays. In it, we see the flash and dive of needles. This skeleton has been patched together piece by piece in a series of workshops. As they sew, many of its makers recall the times they, too, have been stitched up. They discuss the scars left behind. A wound is knitted together with sutures. Even after those stitches are removed or dissolve, evidence of their presence remains on the skin. Pale ridges, pink sheens, wrinkles and dips and nubs of tissue: the marks left behind are a memento, a reminder of that period of physical recovery. It's not called "being on the mend" for nothing. 

Edwards' piece can be found in Eternally Yours, a wide-ranging exhibition devoted to "care, repair and healing" at London's Somerset House. Free to the public and showing until 25 September, the show brings together a wide array of artists and craftspeople in its exploration of reuse, repurposing and repair. Community art projects such as Edwards' rub shoulders with other textiles pieces including Celia Pym's hole-ridden sweaters revitalised with extensive darning and Aya Haidar's scenes of Syrian refugee journeys embroidered onto the soles of worn-out shoes. Clothing is a consistent theme throughout the exhibition, used to explore both the practical and emotional possibilities of fixed damage and new life breathed into old fabrics. Other notable pieces including Ellen Sampson's scuffed, stained footwear, Tenant of Culture's post-apocalyptic upcycled garments, and a stunning Gee's Bend Quilt made by the isolated African-American community in Alabama now renowned for their intricate, intergenerational textiles work.

However, repair goes far beyond the wardrobe. From the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi (the visible mending of broken pottery, usually using powdered gold) to new innovations such as Peter Marigold's FORMcard (a meltable, mouldable form of bioplastic that can be used to quickly mend everything from a shovel to a lampshade), all sorts of methods for and approaches to repair are found here. At the centre of the exhibition there sits the Beasley Brothers' Repair Shop, a pop-up created by designer Carl Clerkin modelled on old East End repair shops that aimed to fix whatever you brought in. Over the course of the exhibition this "shop" has played host to a revolving cast of artists working with discarded objects, transforming them into pieces that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes functional.

For Somerset House senior curator Claire Catterall, the questions brought up by repair – questions about waste, longevity, and use – have been circling for a while. They were brought into sharp relief, though, by the pandemic. "It became much more about self-healing, and also about helping each other and [the] community," she explains. "This idea that a repair is something that's an act of care really came to the fore." Catterall began working on the show during lockdown, casting her net wide for all sorts of examples and ways of approaching this expansive topic. "I was almost not curating an exhibition… the process became very instinctive," she adds. "It was just trying to find things that unlocked a different way of looking at repair… and had [an] interesting resonance."

Fixing broken things

What do we mean when we talk about repair? Dictionary definitions tend to focus on the practical side of things, referencing the restoration of faulty goods to a state of usability or good condition. That could be anything from a broken dishwasher to a stopped clock. Often, when our possessions are damaged, we outsource their fixing to other people. The most commonly-repaired items at home are wooden furniture and lamps and other small lights, but even then many people express a level of discomfort or lack of knowledge about the skills required to mend them. We also live in a time where many of the objects we buy come with limited lifespans (often known as planned obsolescence) – especially technology and electrical goods. Last summer, the UK government brought in 'right to repair' legislation, meaning that manufacturers are obliged to make more spare parts available to customers. There is an environmental imperative for this. Electronic waste grew 21% between 2014 and 2019, causing myriad health problems, especially among children.

One hundred years ago, so many people had the skills to mend things, and they were passed down from generation to generation. And not only the skills, but also the tools – Claire Catterall

Although some objects may require specialist intervention, plenty of things used and worn around the home can be repaired there, if you know what you're doing. Every few years a new fervour for "make do and mend" techniques pops up, encouraging people to learn how to prolong the life of their clothes through sewing, darning and careful storage. Often, such fervour is coupled with laments about the practical skills that have fallen out of common knowledge. "One hundred years ago, everyone – well, I suppose not everyone, because lots of people had servants – needed to [mend things] themselves," Catterall says. "So many people had the skills, and they were passed down from generation to generation. And not only the skills, but also the tools… The tools almost [become] the manifestation of that repair and carry their own stories."

We retain a huge appetite for those stories. The success of the BBC's show The Repair Shop – now in its tenth series and available to watch on Discovery+ in the US – is testament to our ongoing interest in expert manual trades, as well as the tales unlocked by repair. The show's premise is simple. In a workshop in England, a team of talented craftspeople come together to restore family heirlooms brought in by members of the public to their former glory. Overseen by furniture restorer Jay Blades, the team of metal workers, clock restorers, saddle makers, carpenters, and more fix peeling paint, make damaged woodwork shine, and stop beloved childhood toys from falling apart. The show's pull is in the narratives attached to each item. Although it might have the same gentle, nostalgic sheen as another much-loved BBC show, Antiques Roadshow, it is in fact antithetical in its format. Rather than featuring people turning up with tat and treasures alike, anxious to know whether they're worth something, this is a programme about the known value already embedded in objects. Whether it's a rocking horse with a dead husband's signature hidden beneath the saddle or a battered Louis Vuitton trunk that belonged to a globe-trotting great-grandfather, the subsequent restorations become emotional because they prolong the existence of something that is already so cherished.

There is something invigorating too in those works that acknowledge that repair doesn't have to be neat, and that wounds do not always heal without a trace

Repair often feels healing because it is a moment of redemption. After a couple of episodes of The Repair Shop, one is lulled into a sense of pleasant reassurance. The holes can be darned. The cracks will be smoothed over. The language of repair is one of great metaphoric significance: mending, fixing, restoring, rebuilding, piecing together. All are words we use for the objects we surround ourselves with, but also ones we apply to ourselves. We take solace in the idea that few things are truly beyond salvage.

Visible stitches

One of the great pleasures of The Repair Shop lies in the moment of reveal. It is a moment in which the object, previously faded or falling apart, becomes the finale of a magic trick. Suddenly it looks like new, evidence of all the hard work that has gone into this resurrection hidden beneath its newly polished exterior. Often, its owners cry at this miraculous transformation. However, not all forms of repair aim to obscure their handiwork. As demonstrated by Yuko Edwards, healing also leaves its marks.

Both in Eternally Yours and elsewhere, a lot of the most interesting artworks featuring repair refuse to obscure the changes and labour that have gone into them. Louise Bourgeois, who was recently the subject of a large retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, focused in her later years on contorted fabric figures whose seams were still visible. Often, the stitching was thick and bumpy as scars. "I have always had a fascination with the magic power of the needle," she once said. "The needle is used to repair the damage. It's a claim to forgiveness." In the case of Bourgeois, the damage being alluded to spooled back to her youth: an unfaithful father, a mother who died when her daughter was only 20. The language of repair is so often bound up in the idea of emotional or psychic damage, and the acts of care that might protect one from that pain. British feminist scholar Jacqueline Rose writes in her book Mothers of an impossible maternal task: an expectation that a mother must "repair the world and make it safe". In this she echoes US poet Adrienne Rich, who writes in her 1976 essay Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women about women performing the "activity of world-protection, world-preservation, world-repair" – embarking on "the invisible weaving of a frayed and threadbare family life".

As appreciation grows for the ways in which female-coded domestic tasks have been turned on their heads by successive generations of artists, repair emerges as a specific preoccupation. Zoe Leonard's Strange Fruit (1992-7) also makes use of visible stitches. Created as an extended form of mourning during the Aids crisis, Leonard's work was comprised from hundreds of fruit skins. After the flesh had been eaten, the peel was wired and stitched into a Frankenstinian approximation of a whole. Over time, the peel shrivelled and hardened. Even the stitches couldn't fully restore what was gone. Leonard alighted on sewing as a medium, having been taught by her friend and fellow artist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 of Aids-related complications. "This mending cannot possibly mend any real wounds, but it provided something for me. Maybe just time, or the rhythm of sewing," she later reflected. It was an act of memorial, an approximation of a resurrection. "They are like memory; these skins are no longer the fruit itself, but a form reminiscent of the original. You pay homage to what remains."

There is an honesty in the work of artists such as Leonard, Bourgeois, and Edwards. Repair is appealing for many reasons. It helps us think about how to care for the things we own. It makes us mindful of what we waste, and what we should hold on to. Hopefully, it asks us to be more thoughtful. But there is something invigorating too in those works that acknowledge that repair doesn't have to be neat, and that wounds do not always heal without a trace. Such works ask us to engage with repair as an act that doesn't just restore what came before. It beckons us to bend in closer and see the alterations, the points where the needle punctured the surface and pulled together something new.

Eternally Yours is at Somerset House, London until 25 September