Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Wandle Wardrobe - Robin lounge suit

Winter can be a difficult time of year for some of us. The short days, low light levels and cold or rainy weather can leave us feeling lethargic, or even depressed, and this winter is turning out to be more difficult than most. As the covid pandemic reaches its second peak, all the things that would usually bring us joy during the long hours of darkness have suddenly become dangerous, both to ourselves and our loved ones. No cosy afternoons drinking hot, sweet beverages in cafes, or evenings around a log fire in the pub. No visits to see friends or relatives, no opportunities to sprawl on their sofas eating leftover cake and mince pies. The glitter all but disappeared from the festive season, as parties were no longer in-person events, the sparkle of a sequin barely visible in the tiny rectangles of a zoom call.

For those of us who turned to the outside world to get us through the first lockdown, the winter presents a new set of challenges. Richard Adams sums it up well in his famous novel Watership Down: “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.” There are months still to go until we start to see the blossom and new leaves that delighted so many of us on our initial lockdown walks in spring last year. When we venture out of our houses in mid-January, bundled up against the cold, we’re likely to see bare branches against a grey sky, and mud. So much mud. With the last of the autumn’s crop of berries being devoured by hungry birds, a winter landscape can seem devoid of colour.

With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that Britain’s favourite bird is the robin. When you hear a burst of birdsong, and see a flash of the robin’s red breast, a dormant landscape is brought suddenly to life. Robins have graced festive greetings cards for over a century, and have inspired numerous Yuletide decorations. It’s a bird many of us can recognise, and most of us will get to see, even if we live in urban areas. Leaving my house before dawn on some of the shortest days of the year and hearing a robin singing in the darkness feels like a little spark of magic, putting a spring in my step and making me aware of my surroundings in a way that feels full of possibility. Nevermind that it’s the same old street, the same old seven minutes to the station. If I’ve heard such a beautiful song, what else might I hear? Or see?

With the robin as my quintessential Winter Bird, the piece of clothing I wanted to make was something quintessentially Winter 2020/21. Something that would add a splash of colour to long dreary locked-down days, something comfy and cosy that would also have an element of fun to it, that would make me want to get up and get dressed, even if what I was putting on was a fancier version of my pre-existing pyjamas.

The Robin lounge suit was made from two and a half metres of brushed cotton, dark red with a blue and green floral print, from my found fabrics stash. The wide leg trousers have an elasticated waist (perfect for solitary winter feasts) but are inspired by 1930s palazzo pants - designed for looking glamourous while relaxing of an afternoon. The matching top has a voluminous hood, inspired by binge-watching costume dramas (ideal for keeping really snug when snow is forecast), and sleeves that suggest a desire to maintain social distancing at all times. I liked the idea of the proportions of the outfit being slightly absurd; for all I’ve waxed lyrical about the beauty of the robin’s song, it’s either a threat or a dating profile if you’re another robin. I enjoy that sense of strangeness when I am interpreting the natural world into a man-made creation; the idea that something might have got lost in translation. For the Robin lounge suit, I’ve combined elements of elegant leisurewear and essential winter clothing from the past with clashing modern colours and an exaggerated silhouette to recreate that winter lockdown essential - the tracksuit - with a twist.

This winter might feel like a time where our plans, our hopes, our dreams, are once again lying as dormant as the natural world outside. But we can ignite a sense of hope through something as simple as wearing something that feels good and makes us smile.

Friday, 27 November 2020

The Wandle Wardrobe: Cormorant Jacket

 My current Wandle Wardrobe focus - making clothes from the fabrics I found dumped by the nature reserve - might seem like a slightly flimsy excuse for dressing up and taking outfit photos. And it is! But I also want these clothes to be a visual aid for the stories that need to be told about our local wildlife: stories of hope, of resilience, of the changes we can make that improve the environment for its human and non-human inhabitants. 

I currently own three guides to the Wandle; published in 1924, 1974 and 1997. The first two tell a depressing story about the river: in 1924 John Morrison Hobson writes: “The little river Wandle appeals to all who love the face of Nature” and lists twenty one species of fish as “denizens of the Wandle.” But by 1974, the Wandle Group are telling a horror story of sewage works and factories discharging their overflows into the river, and write sadly: “it is doubtful whether the Wandle could now support any of the larger species of fish which gave the river its reputation… that the Wandle provided as good angling as anywhere in the country”. A gleam of hope can be found in the 1997 guide, with surveys showing gradual improvements in fish populations, although they were still threatened by intermittent pollution. 

Although 2020 has been a tough year for us all, it doesn’t seem to have been too bad for the fish in the Wandle; they were leaping from the water to catch insects just a few feet from where these photos were taken. The dwindling daylight hours and falling temperatures don’t seem to deter the anglers, dotted along the banks of the Wandle like living statues as the rest of us walk or run or cycle along the trail. But this outfit draws inspiration from another species of fisherfolk: the cormorant. 

The Cormorant Jacket is made from just over one metre of black viscose crepe. I wanted to create something with a dramatic sleeve, to reference the way a cormorant stretches out its wings to dry them after diving. Practicality (I can’t wear long dangling sleeves at work) met necessity (there wasn’t enough fabric to make a longer sleeve), and resulted in this pleasing cape-like shape. I also wanted to evoke something of the cormorant’s sinuous neck in the shaping of the neckline and front fastening. 

I have seen cormorants on every part of the river, from Grove Park and Waddon Ponds to the mouth of the Wandle where it meets the Thames at Wandsworth. If they weren’t finding food, they wouldn’t be visiting, so an inland population of these coastal birds suggests that the fishing must be good for birds as well as humans. 

All beings in an environment rely on one another in complex ways, so when we improve the environment for one species, we encourage other visitors to make their homes there too: Hobson’s 1924 guide makes no mention of cormorants, or egrets (see previous post). The Wandle certainly appeals to nature-lovers again, and it’s never been more important than this year, when our daily walk was, for many of us, our only chance to get out and about for several months. I hope that as we’ve relied on our local green spaces during lockdown, we’ve also started noticing and appreciating our non-human neighbours, and caring about their welfare. We’re only going to be able to reverse the decline in wildlife populations if enough people notice the wildlife is there in the first place.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

The Wandle Wardrobe: Egret Dress

 I usually like to write a blog post around Halloween about the historical horrors of the fashion industry (it’s a great excuse to dress up) and then compare the terrible decisions of days gone by with the state of the industry today (the life cycle of a pair of jeans is scarier than most of the monstrous scenarios Hollywood can conjure up). But after everything that’s been happening this year I wanted to create and write something that has an element of hope to it; the idea that although we continue to make dangerous mistakes we also have the capacity to learn from them, correct them, and improve the world around us rather than adding to its degradation.

You may remember from my earlier post about textile waste along the Wandle that I found a huge pile of fabrics just outside Watermeads Nature Reserve, and carried it all home for washing and rehoming. So many of these vintage fabrics captured my imagination that I’m planning a whole capsule collection of clothes. Most will be very practical and wearable, a few will have more of an element of the theatrical to them, telling a story about the history of the river and its current users and inhabitants.

So let me introduce the first of these creations, the Egret Dress. Made from three metres of lightweight synthetic viscose with an abstract floral print in creams and browns, this dress is entirely zero-waste as all the fabric offcuts were used to make the matching jewellery. The train is detachable, so the dress functions as a wearable summer minidress as well as a strong fashion statement.

The Egret is a shy but frequent visitor to my home stretch of the Wandle, wading and fishing in the shallow water but quickly taking flight if it’s spotted. This suspicion of people is well founded; from the mid-19th Century to the 1910s the Egret was hunted mercilessly for its distinctive breeding plumage, which would adorn the hats of well-to-do ladies. It became locally extinct in northwest Europe, but after conservation measures were introduced in the 1950s, populations in southern Europe increased, and the Egret returned to England as a breeding species at the end of the 20th Century, and is now common around the River Thames. 

Like the murderous millinery trade, so much of fashion’s beauty and decadence has an ugly side, but this doesn’t need to be the case any more. We have enough understanding of the damage we’re doing and enough resources at our disposal to stop doing that damage right now. What we need is imagination, and the ability to think differently about what beauty might mean to us. To see the beauty and potential in something unwanted and discarded, and to see the beauty of the natural world as something that is available as inspiration, but isn’t there for us to take and exploit. 

The River Wandle was once an important part of Britain’s textile industry, ideal at first for calico bleaching as its water was so clean. The ebb and flow of industry meant that by the 1960s the Wandle was so polluted it was declared a “dead” river, but now, thanks to river-wide co-operation, it is an excellent wildlife habitat. We need to have the vision and the determination to clean up our act elsewhere. It’s possible to evoke the beauty and glamour of the most excessive of eras without replicating the exploitation and cruelty, and it’s possible (if you happen to walk past Watermeads at just the right time) to turn trash into wearable treasure.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

The Wandle Wardrobe - a tale of textile waste from my local river

It started over socially-distanced Saturday morning coffee on the communal field. One of my neighbours mentioned that the Residents Association had been given a small grant by the Wandle Forum (a community network for our local river) to put on an event to celebrate Wandle Fortnight. To abide by changing Covid restrictions we decided on an outdoor art trail that residents would be able to view in a safe way. Another neighbour started talking about the photos she had taken of enigmatic rubbish in our local area, and that got me thinking about a possible textile waste project.

The Wandle is a river with a textile-rich heritage: it is fast-flowing and drops surprisingly steeply on its course from Croydon to the Thames. This made it unsuitable for river transport but ideal for mills, and the Wandle turned hundreds of water wheels and created power for dozens of textile mills during the Industrial Revolution. Both William Morris and Liberty used the print shops that are now part of Merton Abbey Mills, and fields all along the banks of the river were used for calico bleaching and drying.

The river has been nursed back to health from its designation as a “dead” river in the 1960s by a community-wide effort, including borough councils, local businesses and volunteer groups. It’s a popular spot for birdwatching, angling, walking and cycling. During lockdown, the parks along the Wandle have been vital resources - a green space where people could exercise and socialise safely. Unfortunately this also means that a lot of litter gets dumped in and around the Wandle, and although regular clean-ups have been organised in pre-Covid times, the Wandle Trail footpath can end up looking really messy.

I decided to walk the length of the Wandle over several days, cataloguing and collecting all the textile waste I found. As well as being inspired by my neighbour Janine’s photography project, I also took inspiration from one of my favourite art installations - Tate Thames Dig by Mark Dion. Before the opening of the Tate Modern in 1999, a team of volunteers conducted a dig along the Thames foreshore in front of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain sites. Volunteers were encouraged to pick up anything that caught their eye, and the finds were displayed in a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Everything from the dig has been included, from historically important archaeological finds, to things most of us would consider rubbish, like bottle tops and plastic scraps.

By showing photos of textile waste in situ alongside well-cleaned finds displayed as though they were treasures, I wanted to make people reconsider any ideas they might have about clothes or textiles being disposable, and I wanted to start a dialogue about how we coexist with nature, and how we can balance our desire to be out in it and interact with it, with our apparent inability to control the mess we make, on a personal and industrial scale.

The first leg of my walk took in an offshoot of the Wandle, from Carshalton Ponds to Culvers Island, taking in the Wilderness Island nature reserve. I found accessories and fabric scraps, even pulling a piece of brightly printed silk from the river in a spot where I was able to scramble down the bank. A rubber flip-flop, turning over and over in an eddy of water seemed a beguiling prize, but I ignored the siren song of a surprisingly deep section of the river as I wasn’t even wearing waterproof shoes, let alone appropriate gear like fishing waders. 

My second walk took me through Beddington Park and all the way down to the source of the river in Wandle Park, Croydon. There are long sections where the river is quite accessible from one or both banks, and I found a large number of socks and a couple of children’s shoes, as well as being able to fish sunglasses and a cat collar out of the river. The Wandle is wide and shallow where it flows through Beddington Park, and is a favourite spot for paddling for children of all ages, especially during hot weather. I was delighted to see kingfishers darting up and down the river as I followed the Wandle Trail through a suburban area - the telltale flash of azure suggests the river is in good health and contains enough fish to sustain a variety of bird species.

I had decided to walk from Watercress Park to Colliers Wood for the third section, but my plan was derailed by the sheer amount of rubbish I found near Watermeads Nature Reserve. The reserve itself was fairly litter-free, but the path that runs along its edge next to Mitcham Football Club was an absolute mess. I picked up mouldy old clothing and textile scraps, and was pretty horrified to see what appeared to be an entire building fly-tipped in the car park of the football ground.

There is a road bridge dividing Watermeads from Ravensbury Park, but it has been closed to traffic while maintenance work is carried out. In a conveniently created corner between fences, someone had dumped a huge pile of textiles. I approached with caution and poked at the pile with my litter picker, and to my surprise I discovered the pile mainly consisted of lengths of fabric, so clean and dry that they could only have been dumped an hour or so before I found them. I bagged up as much as I could and carried it home, then returned with more bags for the rest! I found clothes in the pile, and bagged those up too, and deposited some ripped plastic bags in the nearest bin. My walk home was quite a workout as it now involved four large bags of textiles, but it felt worth it when I sorted through everything at home and realised that the clothes would make decent charity shop donations (I gave them a good wash, just to be safe), and that the fabric consisted of good quality wools, corduroys, cottons and viscoses. I immediately earmarked some of them for future sewing projects.

My final walk was a long one - from Watercress Park all the way to the point where the Wandle meets the Thames in Wandsworth. Thankfully there was no new textile rubbish in and around Watermeads, and the section through Morden Hall Park was fairly clean as they have their own team of volunteers who litter pick in the park. I was still finding socks, as well as some unwelcome surprises, such as a mouldy bra in a secluded spot in Wandle Meadow Nature Park!

As the Wandle flows north from Colliers Wood it becomes increasingly inaccessible - the river is contained by steep concrete banks, and although the river is visible from the path it wouldn’t be sensible to scramble up and down the banks. I caught frustrating glimpses of rubbish - a suitcase had been thrown from the opposite bank and had flown open before folding itself over a low-hanging branch, scattering its contents over neighbouring branches as though it was a load of washing hung out to dry. There were also piles of rubbish that were impossible for me to access - I wasn’t keen to scale an 8-foot tall spiky fence to retrieve a partially unravelled jumper with a load of meat dumped on top of it - or items that would have been impossible for me to shift without a team of people and a van to take the rubbish straight to the tip.

The footpath doesn’t always follow the banks of the river as the Wandle makes its way through Wandsworth town centre, and I kept having to find my way back to it, navigating round numerous building sites. I was rewarded by the sight of nature continuing to thrive on the river - a heron stalking fish only a few metres from the point where the Wandle is channelled beneath the Southside Shopping Centre, and when I finally reached the mouth of the Wandle where it flows out into the Thames, I saw cormorants drying their wings in the sunshine.

I washed all my finds thoroughly in disinfectant, and although I had to throw a couple of things away because I didn’t have the facilities to clean them enough to make them presentable or suitable for storage (I was washing everything in buckets in my tiny conservatory!) most of the textile waste looked perfectly acceptable once it was clean. I mounted all the pieces on recycled parachute panels, and they started to form a sort of decorative quilt, as well as a record of everything I’d found on my walk.

I displayed the Wandle Wardrobe panels alongside a fabric recreation of the Wandle, stretched out over the communal field. I attached photos of all the textiles I had found in their original locations, so the viewer could take a walk down the Wandle Trail in miniature, making the same discoveries I did.

Walking the length of the river gave me plenty of time to think about what I was finding and why: children’s socks weren’t much of a mystery, as babies seem to delight in kicking or pulling off shoes and socks and throwing them out of their pushchairs. The socks along the popular paddling stretch of the river seemed easy to explain too - forgotten amongst the excitement of a day at the park, or used to dry damp feet and then dropped in the long grass. I’d also read a couple of funny news stories about cats and foxes stealing socks and shoes, and I saw plenty of feline and vulpine visitors near the river, going about some secret business, so who knows who (or what) some of the textile waste culprits might be? The brightly coloured children’s accessories I found also suggested that the parks along the Wandle had become destinations for proper days out during lockdown - they were locations for dressing up to socialise as well as places to play in the water.

I love that parks and footpaths have served the local community so well during a difficult time when getting outside for fresh air, exercise and sunshine was so vital. But it seems that we’ve become so accustomed to someone else always clearing up after us that we’ve forgotten how to treat our shared areas with respect. A park isn’t like a pub or a bar; no one is coming along to sweep up the bottles and cans and sort out lost property when we’ve all gone home. Ignoring the rubbish that is building up around us shows not just a lack of respect for our neighbourhood and everyone else who lives in it, but also a lack of respect for ourselves: do we really want to live like this?

I thought I was rounding off the project neatly by taking the pile of decent clothes I found to the charity shop, but on my way back from Carshalton, walking along the bank of the river, I spotted more socks… my Wandle Wardrobe installation is probably far from finished.


Thursday, 23 July 2020

How to dress during a pandemic

As day-to-day life changed dramatically for most of us towards the end of March 2020, in addition to having to adapt to new ways of working, shopping, exercising and interacting (or not interacting) with other people, we’ve also had to address another dilemma - what do you wear during a global pandemic? There have been lots of interesting articles and discussions about “zoom dressing”, and whether the switch to working from home will have a lasting impact on office dress codes if and when people start to go back to their traditional offices. But what if you’ve been furloughed, and you are alone, navigating endless and unwanted time off, trying to find a new purpose in life, worried for the future of your industry and wondering if you’ll ever work again? What do you wear for that? I’ve written you a not-so-serious guide, featuring some top looks from my wardrobe (all clothes are swapped or thrifted).

The Day Pyjamas

You decide, in the first week of lockdown, that you have to maintain the pretence that the days have structure and meaning. The best way to do this is by changing out of your pyjamas at a nonsensically early Getting Up Time, and changing into other clothes with elasticated waistbands, a good deal of stretch, and the minimum of restrictive underwear. In other words, Day Pyjamas. You convince yourself that this is radically different from wearing actual pyjamas by wearing something a bit fancy, even though you’re just sprawled on your sofa scrolling through endless horrible news about infection rates and daily death tolls.

The Walking Outfit

You are allowed an hour of exercise outside your house every day, and you have decided to really make it count. You put on your Walking Outfit - ideally it has deep pockets for your phone and house keys (there’s no point in taking anything else with you, no shops are open and there is no way you’re getting on public transport). Your legs are fully covered in case you need to jump into a ditch or bramble patch when you see another pedestrian or cyclist on a narrow bit of path. The Walking Outfit must be removed as soon as you re-enter the house (but after washing your hands) to avoid contamination, as though you had been liberally sprayed by alien spores in a sci-fi film. You pair your Walking Outfit with…

The Exercise Shoe

You bought these shoes years ago for the longish walk you take every month or so, or for the exercise regime you were going to take up once the weather got a bit nicer. Your smart sneakers, boots and shoes sit in the hallway as the Exercise Shoe suddenly becomes the only shoe you wear. They turn out to be surprisingly comfortable, but you become resentful of their continuous presence in your life as they are neither ethically or sustainably made, nor aesthetically pleasing. You wish you could buy morally superior walking trainers in fashion colours. After a couple of days of rain and muddy paths, you make your peace with your adequate Exercise Shoe again.

The Incongruous Bag

As the weather warms up, if you wear female-coded clothing you might notice decent-sized pockets disappearing from your wardrobe. Unless you are a fitness fanatic with zippy pockets in all your leggings, out comes The Incongruous Bag. You still only need to carry your phone and keys, so wearing a rucksack seems ridiculous, so you hunt through your cupboards for a small bag. It’s unlikely to be what you would normally choose to compliment your Walking Outfit, but it will do for now.


Too-Hot-Inside-The-House Clothes

On top of everything else there’s a heatwave, and unless you’re lucky enough to have outside space you’re stuck inside your house. You are now wearing a micro version of the Daytime Pyjamas. As loose as possible, as little fabric as possible. You promise yourself that you will change if you need to pop outside, but it’s too hot to bother. All your neighbours have now seen you in these clothes.

The Saturday Night Zoom Glad Rags

It’s Saturday Night! It’s someone’s birthday! It’s quiz time! In an attempt to once again differentiate times of day or different activities through dress, as though you were a Victorian aristocrat, you put on something fancy. You’re not really sure why; your friends all know you live in Day Pyjamas and you wouldn’t put in as much effort if you were just going to the pub, but you feel like it’s important.

The Park Life Posing Outfit

You can spend longer in parks and possibly meet a friend at a respectable distance, so you don your best summer holiday clothes and sashay to the park, almost overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of seeing another human. Strutting your stuff down tree-lined paths, you could almost imagine you were promenading during the heyday of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, rather than walking through your local park and ignoring the crows fighting over the remains of an abandoned picnic.


The Outdoors Bag

Now that you’re allowed out for longer (as long as you can go without needing a wee, at least), your outdoor requirements are now more similar to the kitlist for a festival than a stroll in your local neighbourhood. Picnic blanket, water bottle (not too much water!), snacks, hand sanitizer, tissues, sunscreen, sunglasses, pac-a-mac… Summer 2020 is all the frustrating elements of a festival without the fun bits like seeing all your friends and watching loads of live music. 

Masks Masks Masks

At the beginning of lockdown, you might have acquired a couple of masks in case you had to make a trip to a shop in an emergency. As the country slowly begins to open up and masks are made compulsory in shops and on public transport, you realise they are like underwear - you need to put on a clean mask every time! You begin acquiring more masks, trying out different styles, organising cloth bags to store and wash them in. You silently judge people who are wearing their mask incorrectly.


The Great Wardrobe Reckoning

You realise that there are clothes in your wardrobe that just aren’t going to get worn this year. Special occasion-wear and ordinary work-wear suddenly feel strangely irrelevant to your life. You also realise that you are needing to repurpose or re-categorise clothes - you probably never thought to shop for a situation where you’d have to take a 10km hike to socialise with friends. You start to wonder about the identities imposed on clothes, either by ourselves, or by society in general. What makes you “overdressed” or “not smart enough” except the perceptions of others? You realise there isn’t really anyone around to judge you, and suddenly you’re free, in a small but important way. You’re not free from the uncertainty of your situation, your concern for your friends and family or your anxiety about a pandemic-stricken world. But you are free to be creative with your clothing in whatever way you choose, whether that’s staying comfy in your Daytime Pyjamas or taking your daily walk in your finest attire. You don’t need to buy a new Pandemic Wardrobe, just wear what you love.