When I was home in early January, in the suburbs of Chicago, I visited a local boutique where I bought a heavily discounted sweater whose shoulder was dotted with holes. No matter: my mom, a nimble knitter, sewer, and weaver, darned my sweater using sock yarn to match its seafoam green color. As a craft historian, I was interested in observing her as she bent over my sweater, engrossed in its fibers. When finished, her work was essentially invisible; only upon close inspection could I see her zigzagging stitches camouflaged between my sweater’s bobbles.
Had I brought my sweater to Rachel Meade Smith and Sam Bennett of Repair Shop, I would have received a different kind of repair: visible mending, that is, a darn that emphasizes, rather than conceals a mend. Visible mending is widely used among menders as a mode of expression and a means to protest buying new or throwing away objects that have fallen out of use. Like many handcrafts, mending’s practical purpose (repair) has transmuted into an artistic process. Bennett and Smith’s practice sees compositional possibilities in using mending materials that enhance the existing fibers of a garment. The dynamic blue and red gradients that ripple through a pair of gloves the duo recently repaired exemplifies the painterly quality of this approach to mending.
Repair Shop feels especially relevant in this extended moment when the stakes for a culture of care have been exponentially raised. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the enduring, frayed seams of our social fabric inside out, and partisan politics continues to foreclose on the possibility of collectivity. To repair the objects of our world is to empathize with them as our friends and co-workers, and thus to reconsider the care we give our own person-to-person interactions.
The visible, meticulous stitches of Bennett and Smith’s work invites us to commune with the vulnerability of garments and to comprehend the fragility of our own bodies. I’m invested in mending not only because I’m partial to craft, but because our contemporary moment has only increased my affection for objects that show love on their surface. We can find “craft” in the act of making; it also describes the way that we relate to objects and how an object can transform into a conduit for emotion. Consequently, craft has long been used as a subversive tool to challenge existing hierarchies. With this in mind, Repair Shop’s mends transmit multiple messages: the labor and affect of the mender, the meditative process of repair, resistance to fast fashion, and care for a garment’s wearer.
Inspired by Celia Pym’s mending, Smith learned to darn in 2019 by closely studying diagrams of darning structures; she then passed the skill to Bennett in 2020. In 2021, they formed Repair Shop and began hosting monthly virtual sessions for darning basics, and for working with sweaters and other knit or woven garments. Today, Bennett and Smith each have about two to three mending projects queued at a given time. They also seek to expand Repair Shop’s repertoire to ceramics, and to bring their repair mindset to other organizations in a research and consulting capacity.
I personally am drawn to Bennett and Smith’s repair work because it is intimate labor. For one of Smith’s early commissions, she was entrusted with a cherished, tattered cardigan belonging to its owner’s deceased grandfather. She recalls feeling enveloped by the sweater’s human smell — that of Jared and his grandpa, Jonas. For weeks she spent several hours a day reconstructing the sweater’s armpits and sleeves; she became “immersed in the smell, in the materiality, and the minutiae of the mend — not knowing where it was going to go and trying to figure it out on the spot.” Both Bennett and Smith love to run at challenging darns and welcome the instability of a garment with the knowledge that they can “make do.”
What also interests me is the reciprocity of mending: the way fibers and stories take up residence in Bennett’s and Smith’s minds as they work, as well as how they stitch themselves into the very fabric of a mend. Bennett tells me about repairing a pair of black and white socks for an old friend that required her to negotiate the tension of her darn. She not only reinforced the socks’ heels with her grandmother’s yarn, but she also embroidered the names of Carl’s children inside each sock, so that they hug the bottom of his feet when worn, “like a support system.” Smith notes that “literally inhabiting” the clothes they repair is part of the process. She and Bennett tell me about wearing the gloves they co-repaired, even mending them while on their hands, and testing the strength and harmony of a darn by trying on a shirt or sweater.
Repair Shop ends each workshop session by urging participants to share darning with another person, enacting the generational transmission of knowledge through which handcrafts have historically been passed. Their workshop participants are inspired to mend by the appealing images of visible mending, and because they have holes in the clothes they love. Bennett also notes that darning is not a big financial or material investment, it just requires a garment in need of care, a needle, yarn, and a piece of fruit to support the garment’s tension while mending.
What can we learn from embracing what Smith and Bennett call a “repair mindset”? The fibrous flesh of Repair Shop’s mended garments, the superglued seams of my Chippendale creamer, and the taped spines of my books all argue that we can learn care, trust, and collaboration. Visible mending highlights holes in the fabric — textile, infrastructural, interpersonal — and lovingly integrates a solution that’s more than surface deep. Participating in maintenance means caring for threads whose strength we can trust — reinforcing sleeves to catch our wrists and reinvesting in personal relationships that strengthen our communities.