What Holds Us Together: The Parallel Crafts of Darning, Medicine and Literary Criticism

Sarah Stewart | December 4, 2017

Mended heart

Image by SerenityRose

Scrolling through Instagram a few months ago, I came across a video about Celia Pym, a textile artist and finalist in this year’s Women’s Hour Crafting Prize who has been spending time at the V&A darning people’s clothes. In the last 10 years, Pym has been interested in invisible but mostly visible mending – that is, rebuilding damaged fabric in a garment, restoring the warp and weft to exactly match the surrounding fabric for invisible mending, or, in the case of visible mending, choosing different colours, materials and weaves to fill the hole, making visible where the damage occurred. A kind of kintsugi for clothes. Pym notes that repair is not actually the aim, but more of a byproduct: ‘my interest is really in the opportunity, through mending, to talk to that person. I find if I ask someone if they have holes in their clothes and could we talk about them, something real gets said that really interests me about grief, or maybe about loss, or maybe just about love’ (Victoria and Albert Museum).

Pym’s work captivated me because I am a student of literature – of texts, a word deriving from the Old Northern French texte, from Latin’s textus meaning ‘tissue, literary style’ (in medieval Latin, ‘Gospel’). This, in turn, derives from text- ‘woven’, from the verb texere. We conceive of texts as textiles woven of words, discursive patterns rendering and intervening in complicated networks of ideas and experiences. I am also an nth generation yarn-knotter (like my mother, I prefer crochet and embroidery) and find the regularity and familiar repetitiveness of this sort of handiwork brings my mind out of the PhD hamster wheel or whatever might be going on in my life at that moment. That said, I did discover that the pattern and colour scheme of a baby blanket I made recently reflected important themes from my thesis. I was amused by this, but not surprised as that is how literature and its analysis work: you grasp at connections and weave contexts from textual and historical evidence around them, literature and life filling out one another.

Filling out. That’s another thing that Pym likes about worn clothes: ‘When I started getting into mending things, the things I got brought to me seemed to have a lot to do with grief and loss. People would bring me things belonging to someone maybe who had died and, so you are looking at this sweater and you see the shape of the person. You know, the size of the man’s chest in the shape of the sweater’ (Women’s Hour). Holes, Pym says, tell you a lot about how a body moves. What attracts her, however, is the care that is taken in weaving anew over what is torn or rubbed away, filling in the holes that inevitably continue to spread, the act of caring that makes things lumpy with love.

It was this interest in care that brought Pym as a ‘darner in residence’ to the King’s College London medical school Dissection Room, where students learn about anatomy and disease by working with cadavers. The Parallel Practices residencies brought makers and medical and scientific academics together, in Pym’s case to explore questions and overlap around care and making, anatomy and mending.  A few days a week Pym would sit at a table in the Dissection Room and offer to mend pieces of clothing that students and staff brought in, as well as to listen to student reactions to their first steps in a space of acute mortality. King’s College London Head of Anatomy Dr Richard Wingate points to the idea behind Pym’s residency: ‘What we wanted to look at was whether an intervention, placing someone within a very sensitive area, the Dissecting Room, could awaken people to different aspects of what they were doing that they wouldn’t normally recognise. […] Bodies end up with a history which you can’t ignore and maybe your clothing ends up with a history that you can’t ignore and you’re just examining it a different way.’ (Cultural Institute at King’s)

Darning Clothes, Weaving Conversation

‘Darning Clothes, Weaving Conversation’, by Angharad McLaren

Pym alludes to a drive to preserve through time that which (and those whom) we build our lives upon and around: ‘What people usually want repaired is their favourite thing. It’s not their best going-out thing, it’s the thing that they count on. The sweater they feel most comfortable in, the socks that are warmest, the jacket that just holds them together.’ (Women’s Hour). Medical doctors are menders of human tissue (from the Latin texus). This description also applies to Pym as a mender, and to me as an examiner and contextualiser of stories. Understanding the parallels between these activities allows each of us to feel the weight of our work.


About Sarah

I’m working on a PhD looking at representations of refugee and asylum seeker experience in the UK. I hold a BA (HONS) in English and Spanish, an MA in Comparative Literature (both from the University of Auckland) and am ever the student of literatures of displacement and resistance.

Article edited by Harriet MacMillan and Emanuela Militello.

Works cited

Cultural Institute at King’s. ‘Parallel Practices – Anatomy of Value.’ Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 22 February 2017. Web. 3 December 2017.

‘Text.’ OxfordDictionaries.com. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 3 December 2017.

Victoria and Albert Museum. ‘Celia Pym – Woman’s Hour Craft Prize finalist.’ Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 6 October 2017. Web. 3 December 2017.

Women’s Hour. ‘Celia Pym, Woman’s Hour Craft Prize finalist.’ Online radio clip. BBC Radio 4. BBC, 16 August 2017. Web. 3 December 2017.

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