Celebrating ten years: the Backbone of Britain

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Yesterday I popped into knit mecca Prick Your Finger in Bethnal Green to firm up my exhibition-and-celebration plans with the lovely Rachael Matthews. We're celebrating ten years (to the day) of Keep & Share, with a party next Thursday. The exhibition will stay up for a month or so, including a range of pieces from the Keep & Share archive, plus a new work called The Backbone of Britain.

This work comes with a story.

It is made from a collection of twenty cardigans which my dad found stashed in a chest of drawers when he was clearing out my great aunt's house - hand knitted, seemingly unworn, all acrylic. Within the collection, there is a range of styles - although there are multiple versions of several patterns, knitted in different colours and sizes. We think my nana, Gladys (Auntie Alice's sister), knitted them - but can't be sure, as she died a few years before they were found. My nana was a prolific knitter, and taught me to knit when I was little, so this pile of cardigans felt emotionally significant, as well as representing a staggering amount of effort.

For obvious reasons, I ended up with this collection of cardigans. I didn't feel a desire to wear any of them - despite my cardigan fetish, I don't 'do' acrylic - but didn't feel I could get rid of them either. So, for years they were stashed away in a cupboard, and each time I saw them, I felt guilty.

Last autumn I reorganised the studio, and the cardigans re-emerged from the cupboard. Still, I didn't know what to do with them. The huge pile of knitting continued to lurk, as I shifted it from surface to surface in the studio. The cardigans needed to be resolved!

A little later in the autumn, I met my wonderful friend Celia Pym, told her about the cardigans and asked for her help. Celia - accompanied by Rachael - came to visit me in Hereford on a gloriously sunny day. We drank tea and ate cake and looked at the cardigans together... talked about them... played with them. As you will see in the photos, the weight of all this skill and time and effort weighed heavily on our shoulders for a while! (That's Celia with her head in her hands.) But as we talked and played, a plan began to emerge. The cardigans organised themselves into a new form which will be unveiled at Prick Your Finger in a week's time.

Nana, or whoever knitted these cardigans originally, made most of this work. I have just arranged it a little. Many, many thanks to Celia and Rachael for their help!

During the playing process, we were thinking about the amount of effort that women like my nana have put into catering (and over-catering) for their families' knitwear needs over the years. Rachael suggested that we might think of such effort as the Backbone of Britain - and the name stuck.

Please come and see! All are welcome at the tenth anniversary celebration on Thursday 21st August, 2014 at Prick Your Finger, 260 Globe Road, E2 0JD - join us to celebrate between 6pm and 9pm. I’ll be giving a slideshow talk – sharing my experiences of a decade in experimental slow fashion knitting – at 7pm. 


Externalities and social goods

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I’ve been so busy recently - reading, writing, moving the studio - that I haven’t had chance to blog. But I have lots of ideas for things I want to blog about! So I have reminded myself that I don’t need to write the perfect blog post about each one. I figure that it’s better to capture the idea, even if it’s somewhat half-baked, than not at all. 

Therefore - here we go with one topic that was sparked by a paper I read for the research project I’m working on, Design Routes.

The topic is the not-particularly-exciting-sounding question of ‘externalities’. Externalities are a concept in economics, which I have heard discussed in terms of sustainability.

Simply speaking (and blatantly borrowing from Wikipedia), externalities are costs that affect a party who did not choose to incur that cost. So, for example, if an industry produces air pollution, which negatively affects the environment (and other people), and the cost of that pollution is not included in the price of the products the industry produces - then that cost is an externality. 

This is a big problem in sustainability terms, because it means that the price we pay for goods does not reflect their true cost in environmental and social terms - and so the economic system we live within encourages us to produce and consume at rates which are literally unsustainable.

(Of course, this whole concept is rather narrow-minded, in that it assumes that you can put a price on everything - and suggests that negative impacts are ok, as long as they are costed in. But that’s a problem of economics in general, rather than externalities specifically, I think. I certainly don’t want to see the world through the prism of the market, but I think you can borrow the idea to think about costs in broader, non-quantified terms - such as human costs, social costs, and environmental costs. That would probably (hopefully?!) horrify an economist, but it works for me.)

The other day I came across a paper by Jeff Dayton-Johnson (download it here) about an economic framework for ‘cultural products’ - such as, in the case of our project, designs and products which are associated with particular places, and traditional craft processes. He argues that these cultural products contribute to ‘social goods’ - things which benefit society, like social cohesion and a sense of identity. Thus, the benefits are felt by third parties, external to the organisations and businesses which are producing the cultural products themselves. 

Reading this, I suddenly realised that externalities can be positive, as well as negative. (Of course, when I read the Wikipedia page, this was pointed out right away. But it was a revelation to me!)

The paper describes four different types of positive externality associated with cultural products. I particularly like the idea of ‘intergenerational externalities’, in which actions today contribute to a ‘dense and diversified cultural base’ which encourages and enables action in the future - it relates strongly to my idea of the fashion commons.

However, the producers of these cultural products don’t receive payment for the wider benefits they create, or at least contribute to. This is a problem because - to refer to trusty Wikipedia again: ‘if there are external benefits … less of the good may be produced than would be the case if the producer were to receive payment for the external benefits to others’. 

I’m certainly not arguing that we should try to quantify social goods - or that craft makers should somehow receive a payment in exchange for their contribution to, say, social cohesion - but I do think that this idea of positive externalities is a useful one in arguing for the importance and value of place-related products and traditional craft processes, beyond the price on the tag.


An Emotional Makeover and other stories: dreaming of upcycling services

Monday, May 19, 2014

Presenting an unseen piece of writing from the Keep & Share archives!

I wrote this for publication in early 2010, but I don't think it ever saw the light of day. So, here it is - outlining some four-year-old, but probably still relevant, thoughts on fashion upcycling. 

At the end, I've added some present-day reflections!


An Emotional Makeover and other stories: dreaming of upcycling services

Upcycling, at its best, has the potential to add value and dramatically extend the useful life of materials and products. An admirable goal - but as a maker concerned about the huge quantity of clothing bought and thrown away every year, I have a worry. Surely upcycling also has the potential to be a one-off event which simply creates more fashion items to be discarded in the usual way?

Once upon a time, a talented designer decided to set up in business. Wanting to be eco-conscious, she kept her fashion label small-scale and local, and used a particular style of outdated sweater, gathered from local charity shops, as her raw material. With painstaking effort, she re-fashioned the tired old garments to fit in with the latest trend. She was proud of her achievements when she sold each one at a premium price, having added value through her work.

Her pride was short-lived, however - before too long her 'upcycled' items began to appear in the charity shop racks, now out of fashion themselves. Her dismay only increased when the original, dated sweaters became ultra-desirable again, their appeal now described as 'classic'. How many such examples had she destroyed?

In this cautionary tale, the feel-good element disguises the small beneficial impact of this one-off upcycling 'event'. The increase in value is temporary; the upcycling process consumes resources; and the method of upcycling may preclude further future adjustments, consigning the materials in the garment to the scrap heap. This rather depressing scenario is a far cry from the life-affirming, positive upcycling proposed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002). Time to dream of a more uplifting upcycling future...

Upcycling services

Our clothing system is almost exclusively focused on the purchase of new garments and their rapid replacement, and upcycling activities that imitate the norm will do little to change it. To really see the benefit of upcycling - the sustaining of material value - we need systems that work in different ways: upcycling services, rather than upcycled products. Let's think of services as actions which add value to existing garments or materials, and replace the purchase of new items. 

Upcycling services have the potential to reconfigure our fashion landscape, divorcing fashion from consumption. If we can find ways to satisfy our fashion urges in ways other than the purchase of shiny new garments, our fashion system could become more eco-effective. According to McDonough and Braungart, eco-effective products and services replenish the world, with 'designed-in' positive side effects. Such a situation would mean that far from having to 'go without' to achieve sustainability, we could indulge our urges without guilt. An enticing idea, indeed, and one which may help us to imagine how we can tempt purchase-addicted consumers to change their behaviour.

Perceived value

In a typical upcycling system, materials have different applications over time; when something is no longer useful at one stage, it progresses to the next. Part of the difficulty of conceiving upcycling systems for fashion is that the useful life of a garment is largely defined by non-material, rather than practical, factors.

Van Hinte (1997) describes 'psychological life span' as the time that products are able to be perceived as worthy objects. The psychological life span of a garment is highly personal and subjective. Typically, a garment is high in perceived value at the time of purchase, and gradually loses this appeal as it falls out of favour. Both personal emotions, and a changing fashion context, have the power to affect how valuable we perceive a garment to be. A strong emotional bond has the power to make us want to keep, and keep wearing, a visually unremarkable garment; conversely, our perception of a garment as valuable may be prematurely cut short by fashion magazines deeming its style as totally 'out'. These complex factors combine to make it difficult to identify when a garment's useful life, in its current form, is 'finished'. Our upcycling services, therefore, will need to be creative and versatile, ready to adapt to different scenarios.

Similarly, we must consider that the value we add through upcycling will also be subjective. The fact that clothing serves a range of 'hidden' roles, such as identity and belonging, is at once a potential headache and a great opportunity. It opens up the thought that our upcycling services could be not only physical - such as repairing or re-fashioning - but also non-material, or even a potent combination of the two. Can you imagine a service which, rather than 'making over' your cardigan, instead enhances your emotions and desire for it?


“Contingency is, quite simply, the fact that things could be otherwise than they are.”

William Rasch (2000) quoted by Till (2009, p45)

Let's take a moment to consider the idea of contingency and its relevance to our brave new world of fashion upcycling. Jeremy Till (2009) discusses the fact that buildings are subject to unpredictable external forces, beyond the control of the architect. While great emphasis is placed on the shape and form of a building at its unveiling, the way that a space can cope with the changing needs of its users is far more important over the long term, and often overlooked.

Does this thinking hold lessons for the clothing sector? The media obsession with catwalk images demonstrates that we obsess over the aesthetic appeal of a new fashion look at the expense of a more long term view, just as for buildings. Fashion, too, is intrinsically contingent – our needs change over time, and part of the joy of fashion is the sheer unpredictability of tastes and trends. Somehow, fashion manages to pull off an impressive doublethink, simultaneously acknowledging and denying this fact. A designer presents a new range of garments, with the implication that they should replace those previously offered; but the new collection is given an air of permanance, a denial that they will ever lose their appeal. This hampers both customer and designer in contemplating the period after the purchase 'snapshot'.

The essence of contingency is that we know things will change, but not how, or when. Fashion needs to become more at ease with its contingency, and acknowledge the existence of future, as well as past, changing desires.  Our upcycling services – which, after all, will take place in this uncertain future – can then be planned to cope with, and even embrace, whatever the vagaries of fashion happen to throw at us.

Existing services

Traditional clothing services, such as shoe repair, tend to occur within a narrow remit: an occasional, brief repair 'event', carried out by an expert in a rather mundane transaction. If we're lucky, our shoes are returned back into regular service, but the process is not accompanied by any sense of celebration.

Looking at some quite different upcycling services will help us to broaden out our view. Swap-o-Rama-Rama is a clothing swap event where participants bring unwanted clothing and select new pieces from a donated pile, modifying the pieces to suit them in workshops at the event (Tremayne, undated). While the acquisition of used clothing is nothing new, the sense of community is refreshing. The upcycling here happens within a social group, and is carried out by wearers with the encouraging support of experts. Could the fashion 'buzz' of participating in an event like this replace the buzz of a Saturday shopping session?

The idea behind my Riot & Return label is to invite customers to join a 'clothing library', enabling them to borrow handmade children's clothes and exchange them as the child grows. The garments are designed to embrace the contingency of children: the promise of overprinting and re-cutting by the designer means that each garment will develop and change uniquely, gradually gaining in perceived value with each wearer. 

Gary Page's 1-2-6 project offers customers one dress with six lives designed-in, the physical transformations occuring at intervals controlled by the wearer (Earley, 2007). This service is planned out in advance, with re-fashioning 'events' involving several experts. There is an enticing sense of destination – the final stage – but the uniqueness of each step means that the wearer enjoys the journey and the time between each interval.

Worn Relics is an online virtual archive of fashion stories. Participants request a 'Worn Relic' label with a unique code which they sew into a treasured item of clothing, before recording details of the item on the project website (Hoette & ten Hoor, 2009). This non-commercial service has a sense of community and encourages conceptual upcycling: by taking the time to select and profile a favourite item, the wearer is likely to value their piece even more. Any future wearers can also access the profile and enjoy an emotional upcycling boost, when they discover the piece's hidden story.

Let's dream

So, our dream is to move from a world of new products to one of upcycling services, which sustain material value. We're looking for versatile services which satisfy our fashion urges and which embrace the exciting unpredictability of fashion. We know that perceived value is highly subjective, and because we're all different, we'll need a broad diversity of solutions. We have a few inspirational examples, but how will we come up with something new? It may help to consider the full scope of upcycling services by thinking about some contributing factors. 

  • Is the service a commercial concern or a community project?
  • Is it a continuous process with a gradual increase in value, or a brief, transformative event?
  • Is the upcycling carried out by an 'expert' or by the wearer themselves? If by the wearer, is an expert involved in providing advice or facilitation?
  • Does the increase in value happen quickly or slowly?
  • Is the upcycling a private, solo endeavour or a social, group activity?
  • Will the action occur frequently, seldom, or just once?
  • Is the system linear - with a definite beginning, middle and end - or is the upcycling cyclical, able to be carried out again and again?
  • Is the service pre-destined or opportunistic?
  • Does the garment have one user in its imaginable lifetime, or many users?
  • How much physical impact will the action have? Will it break in? Adorn? Repair? Re-fashion? Re-configure entirely? And/or will the upcycling be non-material, involving a change in perception?

At an idea generation workshop with MA Textiles students at Chelsea College of Art & Design in December 2009, small groups were given random selections of these descriptors and asked to imagine, through discussion and story-telling, what a service that fit those descriptors could look like. 

The first selection – physical modifications, continuous process, activity carried out by expert, and linear – inspired a concept where discarded jewellery items were used to adorn tired clothing, and developed into the idea that this service could travel around the world, with each area's distinctive jewellery transported to adorn the next location's garments. Another selection – non-material interventions, many users, cyclical, frequent, continuous process and group activity – led to a hilarious proposal for a drinking game where a group of friends invent fanciful stories to psychologically enhance their everyday items of clothing. Both ideas had an input into the following inspirational tale...

Once upon a time, a talented designer decided to set up in business. She loved fashion, but was bored with the usual way of doing things and hit upon the idea of a 'chain fashion' club. 

Paying members of the club were organised into chains of twelve, and asked to select an item of clothing and send it to the next person in their chain. Every month the garments progressed to the next person, and the next, until after a year the well-worn garment returned to its original owner. Members were encouraged to upload photographs of themselves in each garment to the project's website, and gained kudos in the community for contributing a particularly unique item, or for original styling. The owner often reported being more appreciative of their item when it arrived back from its long and eventful journey.

After a tentative start, the project grew and soon specialist and more complex chains were created. The designer found that her members were blogging about their addiction to the club and how they now found 'normal' shopping boring and isolated. She was pleased, and enjoyed thinking of the fashion pleasure and new friendships she had organised.

A more uplifting parable, then, to end, but remember – this is just one story of many. We need to work quickly, and cleverly, to generate the solutions for an enriching fashion future.

Earley, R. (2007) Ever & Again: experimental recycled textiles. London: TED.

Hoette, R. & ten Hoor, H. (2009) Worn Relics. [Online] Available at: http://www.wornrelics.com/ [accessed 19/1/10].

McDonough, W. & Braungart, M. (2002) Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things. New York: North Point Press. 

Till, J. (2009) Architecture Depends. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Tremayne, W. (undated) Swap-o-Rama-Rama. [Online] Available at: http://swaporamarama.org/ [accessed 19/1/10].

van Hinte, E. (Ed.) (1997) Eternally Yours: visions on product endurance. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.


I'd totally forgotten the detail of what I'd written in this article. Reading it now, I really like the idea of the 'chain fashion' club. I wonder if anyone fancies giving it a go with me, just for fun?

I'd forgotten, too, about the cards I'd made for brainstorming upcycling services - although they are sitting right here, on my bookshelf. I've even just dug through my old notebooks and - amazingly - found my notes for the workshop. Might these be of use to anyone? Should I send them out into the world? Maybe I will, one day soon...