Through the threaded needle : A multi-sited ethnography on the sociomateriality of garment mending practices

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (article-based)
Degree programme
150 + app. 82
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 204/2019
Commonly associated with times of hardship and austerity, garment mending has come a long way from being a domesticated practice of need to an act of commodity activism. As a backlash to the ‘throw away’ culture of fast fashion, recent years have witnessed the emergence of various public garment mending events in Western countries. Although academic interest in mending has been growing among fashion researchers, their focus has remained limited to an exploration of perspectives on mending in domestic spaces. Through this dissertation a shift is made towards an examination of processes undertaken to mend by studying existing off-the-grid mending practices that run parallel to mainstream fast-fashion systems in self-organized communal repair events in four cities. How the practice of mending comes to matter is comprehensively investigated through this dissertation. This study primarily intends to understand, observe and illustrate an alternative conceptualization, by proposing to examine mending as a sociomaterial practice. Through identifying humans and non-human or social and material forces as intimately interlaced, this study anchors itself in a pragmatic philosophical paradigm. Building on this, scholarly works that forms part of the umbrella term ‘Practice Theories’ are used to develop a non-cognitive driven understanding of the practice of mending in a clothing use context. The work draws on three years of in-depth, multi-sited ethnographic field research in 18 communal garment mending events in: Helsinki (Finland), Auckland and Wellington (New Zealand) and Edinburgh (the United Kingdom), during 2016–2018. Data is gathered through non-participant and participant observations, 67 in-depth semi- and unstructured interviews of event organizers and participants, short surveys, web research, and pictures and short video clips are used as mnemonic support. First, I strived to understand the practice of mending by identifying the matters of mending (Article 1). Then I used three effects arising from the produced affectivity of sociomaterial practices to explore mending. These conceptual effects were: creativity, learning and taste. Each effect then provided a framework through which to approach, analyse and understand the performance, learning and sustenance of mending practices. In the first instance, I categorized users as vernacular menders and understood their practices as situated, embodied and routinized, yet dynamic. The analysis revealed how when performing practices, menders methodically organized their practices while simultaneously creatively extending design in use (Article 2). In the second instance, I understood the learning practices of the vernacular menders as being anchored within the sociomateriality of practices rather than resulting from a purely cognitive process. The learned outcomes were: material learning, communal learning and environmental learning. Through the process of mending, the vernacular menders seemed to learn how to identify variations in material qualities, create communal bonds and form understandings of how to better care for their garments. The findings indicated the potential of informal learning platforms for finding sustainable local solutions to global ecological problems concerning garment waste (Article 3). In the last instance, the focus was on the role of the body and the interplay between the sensing body and the materials, to show how menders construct taste for and form an attachment to their practice over time. Their mending practices resulted in increasing the physical life, reshaping the symbolic life and redefining the aesthetic life of garments. In this way, people are seen as disrupting existing social and material orders by defying mainstream fashion practices, levelling off the playing field through active engagement in appropriating garments, mobilizing variations in dress practices, attuning to the matters that make up their clothing, while also forming an attachment to their practice (Article 4). Overall, in taking a non-cognitive approach to the study of mending, this study reveals the practices of menders as not merely reproductive but as dynamic and reflexive. In trying to understand how mending practices are performed, learned and sustained, the study also highlights the broader implications of mending that need attention in the current sustainable fashion discourse. Thus, the study invites future research to explore the practices of vernacular menders and to actively challenge fast fashion dictates towards the practices of caring, inclusivity and stewardship.
Supervising professor
Niinimäki, Kirsi, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Design, Finland
Thesis advisor
Niinimäki, Kirsi, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Design, Finland
mending, sociomaterial, creativity, learning, taste, practice, informal design, attachment, performance
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Durrani, M. (2018). The Becoming of Repair: Understanding garment mending through a practice theory perspective. In Heuer, M. & Becker-Leifhold, C. (Eds.). Eco-friendly and Fair: Fast Fashion and Consumer Behaviour (pp. 101–111). Routledge.
  • [Publication 2]: Durrani, M. (2018). Designers by Any Other Name: Exploring the sociomaterial practices of vernacular garment menders. Design Research Society International Conference: Catalyst. DRS International Conference Series, Volume 4, 1731–1746.
    DOI: 10.21606/drs.2018.495 View at publisher
  • [Publication 3]: Durrani, M. (2018). “People Gather for Stranger Things, So Why Not This?” Learning Sustainable Sensibilities through Communal Garment-Mending Practices. Sustainability, 10(7), 2218.
    DOI: 10.3390/su10072218 View at publisher
  • [Publication 4]: Durrani, M. (2019). Sensed Attachments: Doing taste in and through garment mending practices. Under review.