Review: The Mendfulness Clinic

Carolyn Burdett on being mendful and memoryful with Louise Wilcox’s one-to-one performance.

Image by Louise Wilcox.

Last Wednesday, just before 7pm, I log onto Zoom with more eagerness than usual.

When the first email about Birkbeck’s Arts Weeks 2020 – like so much else, gone online – popped into my inbox I clicked on ‘join’ almost as soon as I saw The Mendfulness Clinic. I’m glad I did as spaces were snapped up almost instantly. That’s unsurprising as the premise is entrancing: Louise Wilcox, an artist and performer with Dirty Rascals Theatre and currently a Fellow at Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Theatre, joins participants in a one-to-one clothes repair.

I am asked to let Louise know, prior to meeting, what I wish to mend and to make sure I have access to a needle and thread. Because I’ve recently moved and downsized to a tiny studio flat many of my clothes went to a local charity shop and I worry for moment or two that I have nothing that requires repair. But rifling through my partner’s more chaotic wardrobe I find plenty: bike-grease stained pale stone summer trousers; a favourite shirt, worn so much that the fabric joining the collar is frayed to holes; a dastardly-positioned moth hole in an overly-pricy merino biking sweater. I scoop up all these for my 30 minutes with Louise.

Basic hand sewing stitches sampler on Aida cloth. Originally taken for Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

At the last minute, though, I remember my glorious, airy, funky summer cardigan, ultramarine blue and composed of the softest, lightest cashmere. I bought it years ago at the Designer Warehouse Sale and for some reason I wear it only when I’m on holiday. It carries me to mid-Italy, evening sunshine, Campari-soda. Over years I have assiduously cared for it in my moth-infected world but must have missed spraying it last autumn. I have learned this about London moths – they need only one chance. The damage they’d wrought on my gossamer cashmere was laughable, and Louise laughed too when I showed her the multiple, gaping holes.

We set to, though. One of the treats of The Mendfulness Clinic is that Louise is undaunted (‘why not splatter them with more grease, or with paint, and make a feature of it’, she suggested of my partner’s bike-gunged summer trousers). She taught me a darn stitch for loose-knit weaves, needle passing in-and-out-and-up-and-down next-door stitches along the hole, and paralleled on the opposite side. The connecting threads begin to pattern themselves into the weave.

Edouard Vuillard,
Women Sewing (1912).
Wikimedia Commons.

The threads of memory tug too: sighing away from the sun-warmed terrace attached to the tiny converted chapel of my favourite Italian place, backwards in time to the excitement of a new dress when I was a child. This auspicious occasion took place, for my sister and me, once every year for the church anniversary (quite what it was an anniversary of, I realize I have never been sure). It then became our Sunday best dress for the rest of the year. My mother made all our clothes, other than school uniform, knickers, socks and pants. Both our grandmothers knitted, often taking the same pattern to make a cardi for each small girl. They always looked different because one grandmother knitted with loose tension, the other with tight, their personalities in their wool. We wore funny little shorts and tops, always matching though never exactly identical because my mother’s sewing was erratic, according to the time she had to stitch, her mood, her energy. She grew up in war years and austerity, and she made and mended: it was a normal way of life. I watched her rip apart the frayed middles of bed sheets, turning the outsides in and making the long stitch row that created a newly strong middle.

Jean-François Millet, Women Sewing by Lamplight (La Veillée) (1853-54).
Wikimedia Commons.

My mother’s was a cloth and wool world closer to the one the Victorians knew than the one I have mostly inhabited. We often see sewing Victorians in stereotypes: refined middle and upper-class women languid with their delicate needlework or, at the opposite end of the class spectrum, an exploited seamstress, her fingers bloodied and her eyes ruined from stitching through the night hours. But The Mendfulness Clinic made me think about the ordinariness of what the Victorians called ‘plain work’ – the making and mending of simple articles of clothing – and of how inventively they combined it with ‘fancy work’, the crochet and embroidery that decorated their homes and their bodies, gave shape to their imaginations, that permitted them to show off, to admire, to envy, to copy and to create.

So thank you, Louise and The Mendfulness Clinic: I sit now, for a moment or two in the day, with my needle and blue fine darning yarn, and put plain and fancy back into my own life.

Carolyn Burdett is Senior Lecturer in English and Victorian Studies in the Department of English, Theatre & Creative Writing.