Artist’s Process: another mending piece with Heather Cameron

Two images seen: To the left, a gray jacket sleeve showing different coloured threads doing visible mending designs. To the right: A photo of Heather Cameron, a Caucasian-Canadian fiber artist

UNSCRIPTED: Mermaid Spring links The Public Swoon’s performative work with the social handcraft that is a parallel thread in their exploration. Collaborating fibre artist Heather Cameron led a visible mending workshop as part of the Unscripted series in March.

Heather Cameron is a visual artist of settler heritage, living in Snuneymuxw territory. These days, she works primarily with textiles, using the rich historical and metaphorical associations the medium provides to explore issues of human relationship to nature, colonialism, labour, time, etc.She graduated from the Experimental Arts program at the Ontario College of Art in 1989.She has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, The Ontario Arts Council, the Saskatchewan Arts Council, the British Columbia Art Council and the Gabriola Arts Council. Her work is in the collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Saskatchewan Arts Council, the Dunlop Art Gallery and the Cambridge Art Galleries, as well as numerous private collections in Canada, the U.S. and Japan. She does all of her own stitching, by hand.

Here, she shares the deep roots of her practice:

Mending is not just the simple act of sewing on a button, or stitching up a torn seam, or darning a hole in a sock. Mending is a way to create positive change in the world. It is an effective action one can take to resist the horrors of fast fashion and relentless consumerism, and to reduce the mountains of textile waste in landfills. And even more, slow, repetitive stitching has been shown in academic studies to reduce anxiety and improve mood. 

Visible mending is not just functional – it is also an emblem of care, attention, patience and determination. We need these attributes in our troubled world, even to the point where the mended garment, once perhaps a sign of thrift or even poverty, has now become so popular that one can find countless examples of Etsy or eBay of vendors trying to monetize the trend. 

But mending really is basic enough that most people can do it. Archeological evidence shows that mending has been with us for at least 30,000 years, and textile historians believe that embroidery and stitched embellishment developed out of simple mending. Taking the metaphor of mending even further, anthropologist Margaret Mead is reputed to have said that the first sign of human civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed, evidence that someone had taken time to stay with the one who fell, bound up the wound, carried the person to safety and tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else (or something else) through difficulty is where civilization starts.

My own example of extreme mending happened when I lived on a remote island and kept chickens. One morning, I went to let them out of their pen and walked into a scene of carnage. Apparently, a raccoon or mink had finally found their way to the coop – I had been warned about them by the locals, but up til now there had been no sign of the murderous varmints.

But this morning there were feathers everywhere, bits of flesh, and only 4 chickens instead of 5. The remaining birds were all in a tizzy, acting very skittish. The poor rooster looked dejected at his failure to protect. I couldn’t figure out how the vicious killer got into the pen, but spent my afternoon reinforcing the fencing and putting on a new door.

Meanwhile, I saw that one of the hens (let’s call her Zelda, as I called all the chickens, except for the rooster, whose name is Thurston) had a big gash on her neck. She seemed lively enough, but wouldn’t let me get close for a look. After they went to roost in the evening, I went and got her from her perch, brought her inside and let her rest in a cage. There was a deep wound on the back of her neck, right down to the bone. Yikes!

I assembled an array of saline wash, hydrogen peroxide, scissors, tweezers, Q-Tips, a curved sewing needle, and silk thread, and then, following the excellent instructions on Backyard Chickens, cleaned Zelda’s gaping neck wound, packed it with antibiotic cream, and sutured her up. My able assistant held her quiet on the table – with her wings wrapped close to her body with a towel and her eyes covered, she stayed very calm.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so emotional making a stitch. The sutures I made were awkward and untidy and hardly correctly done, but they did the job. Zelda recuperated in her cage for a couple of days, and went on to live a happy life. The next time I was in town I went to a medical supply place and asked if they carried proper suturing needles, and told them my story of amateur chicken surgery. They were duly horrified. 

I repeat this story because I think it reflects the empowerment that knowing how to mend can bestow. As Elizabeth Spelman says in her book Repair: “Mending is an act of acceptance, resilience and renewal in a time of environmental, political, and civil upheaval. It encourages us to remember that we can get through more than we may feel we are able to, in what sometimes feels like a world of overwhelming sorrow and desperation.”

Reading List for visible mending:

Modern Mending: How to Minimize Waste and Maximize Style, by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald

Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto, by Kate Sekules

The Art of Repair: Mindful Mending, by Molly Martin 

Darning: Repair, Make, Mend, by Hikaru Noguchi 

Visible Mending: Repair, Renew, Reuse the Clothes You Love, by Arounna Khounnoraj 

Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World, by Elizabeth V. Spelman 

Kintsugi, The Poetic Mend, by Bonnie Kemske 

Website Resources for visible mending:

https://naokofukumaru.com

https://tomofholland.com

and a wonderful podcast with Celia Pym: https://harewoodhouse.podbean.com/e/celia-pym-textile-artist/