Tuesday, 16 November 2021

The Wandle Wardrobe Magpie Top, and a deep dive into rubbish with Trash Free Trails!

 It might seem obvious why I’ve named a garment encrusted with shiny things the ‘Magpie Top’, but I need to start with some mythbusting - magpies won’t steal your valuables! Recent research has suggested that magpies are indifferent to or even alarmed by shiny objects, and as vanishingly few nests have been found containing jewellery or metallic objects, these few isolated incidents have created a myth about magpies that isn’t borne out by facts. Magpies are curious, intelligent creatures, so you might see them investigating a shiny object. But instead of working out its resale value on the corvid black market, magpies are assessing the risk of this object. Is it associated with food? Or could it be poisonous? Or a trap? Clever birds like magpies will avoid items they perceive as a threat, and other corvids will copy this behaviour. 




Unfortunately not all wildlife has the street smarts of a magpie when it comes to interacting with the man-made rubbish that ends up in their environments. It’s documented in famous photos like Justin Hoffman’s iconic picture Sewage Surfer, of a seahorse holding on to a cotton bud, but it’s not just happening at sea. Rubbish left in green spaces can affect all the animals that rely on that area for food and shelter. Finding a half-decomposed slug in a beer can left in the bushes is not just a uniquely disgusting experience, it’s also a problem for other animals. It might be hard to feel sorry for a slug, but that slug could have been a meal for a blackbird or thrush, or for a hedgehog. 





Finding rubbish along the banks of the Wandle has been a source of unexpected artistic inspiration and fabrics galore, but it’s also been a source of frustration and distress, particularly when I’ve seen fly-tipping sites building up over months. So when the good folk at Trash Free Trails announced they were planning a Halloween Trail Clean Tour, I invited them to come and have a go at cleaning up (at least a small part of) the Wandle Trail. Their trash-busting outings usually take them to rural hiking and biking locations, so I wondered what they’d make of the Wandle Trail, and what we’d find. No one wants the dubious accolade of having the most rubbish in their local area. 





We set up a base at Merton Abbey Mills, and our volunteer cohort set off along a small section of the trail to collect as much rubbish as we could. Returning with buckets full, we started the rather fascinating and occasionally revolting process of conducting a trash audit, categorising the rubbish and counting each piece. Our inventory seemed to consist overwhelmingly of beer cans, which I’d half-expected based on previous litter-picking in the area, but a chat about what wasn’t there felt quite revealing and positive. Comparing the Wandle to other trails on the tour, Dom from Trash Free Trails said he’d expected to find a lot more disposable coffee cups and fast food containers (there are a number of coffee shops and takeaways nearby), and more sandwich wrappers or food packaging (there is also a very large supermarket close by).





Litter-picking can feel like a lonely and thankless task, and it’s easy to get in your head about how selfish and careless everyone else must be. But given the amount of people using the Wandle Trail on a daily basis, this unfair assumption simply isn’t borne out by what we found. A lot of the cans we found were off the trail itself, piled up in what were obviously favourite drinking spots. I’m not going to criticise anyone for drinking in the bushes - pubs were closed for the best part of a year, and the thought of enjoying a bevvy in a secluded spot on the banks of the river sounds delightful. Enjoying a bevvy in a secluded spot surrounded by dozens of old cans, some of which contain the malodorous remains of decomposing slugs, however, sounds intensely unpleasant, and it’s preyed on my mind that this is a leisure activity in my community. 





As someone prone to creating stories out of other people’s rubbish, it says something to me about the downside of city living: the overcrowded, overpriced housing that leaves people without a space to relax in after work, badly-paid jobs with long hours that leave little time or money for socialising. In other spots along the Wandle that have become ad-hoc community hubs, plenty of riverside drinking might take place, but there’s little evidence of it in the bushes the next day. Our rubbish says a lot about the state of our society, and not just through the fact that it exists at all.





While the rubbish we found might have told a rather sad tale of isolation in the big city, the litter pick told a very different story. Local business owners got involved (and donated some much-needed refreshments!), passers-by stopped to find out what was going on, to chat to the organisers and find out if this was something they could get involved with in the future. And I hope it will be! There are plenty of people who care deeply about the Wandle and its non-human inhabitants; I hope people might be inspired to pick up a picker themselves (one guy I chatted to was walking with his son, and bought his own litter picker online then and there!), contact their local council about recycling, or contact the brands who are making and selling the packaging that ends up as litter.





Unsurprisingly, I took on the task of assessing the discarded clothes and textiles we found (rotten Ralph Lauren hoodie, anyone?) and a Trash Free Trails mini-quilt might be in the works, so watch this space!



Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Wandle Wardrobe: Goldfinch two-piece playsuit

 Scrubby open spaces near the Wandle are full of Goldfinches this year, balancing on seed-heads with the acrobatic prowess and grace of Cirque du Soleil performers. They are handsome-looking birds - crimson faces, a flash of gold on their wings. So delightful, in fact, that the collective noun for goldfinches is a “charm”. But behind the goldfinch’s smart exterior lies a dirty secret - their nests. Most small birds carefully dispose of their chicks’ fecal sacs to avoid alerting predators to the location of the nest, but goldfinches take a more laissez-faire approach, giving their nests a ‘portaloo on the third day of a festival’ appearance. 



Why am I talking about bird poo on a sustainable fashion/art project blog? During the last eighteen months, we’ve probably all had times where we’ve needed to resemble a goldfinch, while various aspects of our lives might have more closely resembled a goldfinch nest. Online, surrounded by retouched, carefully selected images of perfection, it’s easy to forget that everyone else’s fecal sacs are just out of shot*, or are being dealt with by other people. 


*not literally, I hope. That would be gross.



Even though I’m not social media’s target market for apps where you can edit your own face, I’ve still felt the pressure of perfectionism, even creeping into things like hobbies. Should my walks be achieving a more impressive step count? Should I be attempting a Serious Walking Challenge? Should I share photos of that embroidery/knitting project that isn’t quite up to my exacting professional standards? When I was furloughed in March 2020, a couple of hobbies became my coping mechanisms, and they helped enormously with my sometimes overwhelming emotions, mostly because I was doing them in small, imperfect ways. 



Walking couldn’t be about covering great distances, or visiting magnificent landscapes, so it became about which nearby trees were unfurling their new leaves, which wildflowers were growing by the path, whether I would see mallard ducklings or moorhen chicks. 


Sewing while I was furloughed from my job as a costume maker helped to remind me just what a brilliant and varied skill it is, and how effective it can be when you use the simplest techniques. I was able to reupholster furniture, make PPE for NHS workers, upcycle clothes and protest, all from my living room or garden. My embroidery practice helped me process my emotions about the pandemic in contrasting ways; although I spent time gently embroidering birds or flowers to calm my roiling thoughts, I also angrily embroidered sarcastic things about Dominic Cummings, the government’s lack of support for the theatre industry, and the relaxation of covid restrictions solely for people who wanted to go hunting. And it felt very satisfying, although these pieces won’t be winning any Royal College of Needlework awards. 



After a year back at work, with pandemic exhaustion making my pre-pandemic busyness impossible, I’m embracing the quick, scrappy project again. 


The Goldfinch two-piece playsuit was made from one and a half metres of crinkle viscose, from my Wandle Wardrobe fabric haul. I made the whole outfit in two hours, using a pre-existing pattern for the shorts and a simple rectangle shape for the top. It’s far from perfect; the hems on both garments are just overlocked, the gathering on the waistband isn’t very even, the topstitching isn’t very precise. But I’ll just be wearing it to chill out on a nice day, no famous fashion designers are going to leap out from behind a tree and give it a mark out of ten. 



So while I don’t think we should adopt the Goldfinch’s bathroom etiquette, I think we can admit that a picture-perfect life during a pandemic is a bit unrealistic. I’m going to embrace imperfection, put my feet up and watch the birds for a bit. I bet I’ll feel better for it. 


Monday, 4 October 2021

Wandle Trail: walking and stitching

 To mark the one year anniversary of the start of my Wandle Wardrobe project, I spent a weekend trying out a mini-project; I walked the Wandle Trail from the Thames at Wandsworth back to the source in Carshalton on Saturday, and then from Wilderness Island (where the river divides) to the source in Croydon on Sunday, stitching a map of the river.



I pre-stitched the river itself to give me a guideline, packed up a box of embroidery threads, needles and scissors, and arrived at The Spit, where the Wandle flows into the Thames, at 10am on a beautiful sunny morning. I didn’t have a definite plan for what the finished work should look like, but I was aware that whatever I was stitching in each location needed to be quick and basic. I wouldn’t have time to make a detailed study of the beautiful old tree I was sitting under, but I could acknowledge its existence with a French knot in a deep forest green. The fancy new-build apartments with their Thames view were condensed down to a few straight stitches in several different threads, echoing the architect’s colour scheme.




Wandsworth is very much a manmade landscape - industrial sites (grey), the Ram Quarter (sandstone brick), the Southside Shopping Centre (concrete) and King George’s Park (sports fields, neatly manicured). Sitting down on a bench in the park to stitch, I felt like I was getting into a rhythm of how I wanted to represent certain structures, almost like creating a key for a map. 


Through Earlsfield, the walking route detours from the Wandle itself, down several streets of neat Victorian terraced houses and past a High Street of cafes and shops before returning to the river along an exuberantly overgrown bank, with tantalising glimpses of the allotments on the other side. I picked a terracotta and a putty-coloured thread to suggest the red-brick houses with their ornate plaster detailing. I used the pattern of stitches to illustrate the different types of plant growth I could see - neat squares for the allotments, an uneven, overlapping straight stitch for the creepers creating a blanket of green over the bank. 





Heading towards the more wild stretches of the Wandle, I started to concentrate more on the colours of the foliage I was passing, taking time at my next sewing stop to select a bluish-grey for Willow, a deep green for a tangle of ivy, yellow ochre for the dry grasses and seed heads that covered Wandle Meadow Nature Park. After walking the Wandle so many times focussing on spotting small things; either lost clothes or textile waste along the path, or specific birds or insects, it was a very different experience to focus on what the area looked like as a whole, getting a general impression of colour and texture, and then trying to express this impression through a few stitches. 





Stopping for lunch at Merton Abbey Mills, and in the Rose Garden at Morden Hall Park gave me the opportunity to stitch at two of my favourite locations along the trail (Merton Abbey Mills is the last physical reminder of the Wandle’s importance as a site of textile production, and who doesn’t love a pub lunch overlooking the river?) before I was on to the part of the trail I know best, through Ravensbury Park, Watermeads Nature Reserve and past Poulter Park. Recording my surroundings here was all about noticing the combinations of the natural and the man-made along the river - the houses secluded behind centuries-old plane trees, the industrial units shrouded from view by weeping willows. 





My penultimate stop was in the Hackbridge community garden, lovingly curated by Claudio Funari who collects fly-tipped furniture and bric-a-brac and transforms it into whimsical sculptures and seating for his colourfully-planted garden. It felt like an appropriate place to stitch my local area, a patchwork of new-build houses, older estates, deliberate green spaces and scraps of no-man’s land that have turned into wonderful wildlife habitats.


I couldn’t linger long as I was conscious of dusk fast approaching, so I walked the final familiar stretch of this branch of the Wandle to Carshalton, and sat near Carshalton Ponds, looking across to Honeywood Museum, where the river flows from a spring in the garden under the building itself - a very fitting location for my first Wandle Wardrobe exhibition and the perfect place to finish a long day of walking and stitching.





I resumed the walk on Sunday morning from Wilderness Island, and my first stitching stop was Beddington Park, where I was easily distracted by a number of good dogs playing in the river, and lovely people coming to chat to me about sewing. Walking on through a series of small parks and residential streets, I became quite particular about the thread colours I was using to denote each type of housing - victorian and edwardian terraces, a 1930s cul-de-sac, several different estates of modern housing with distinct building materials and textures. 




Stopping to stitch in Waddon Ponds I was almost overwhelmed with nature after my walk along suburban streets - Canada geese patrolled the footpath while seagulls stole food from one another and rats scurried in and out of the reeds. The blue-grey of the willows matched the rapidly greying sky, and I started to feel moisture in the air, so I hurried on to Wandle Park in Croydon.





The start of the Wandle in Croydon - a grated concrete drain covered in graffiti - seems like an inauspicious start to a river that has become such a haven for wildlife, but the water flows out into a flourishing reed bed, and the horse-chestnut trees were just starting to turn autumnal shades, sending squirrels scurrying to look for conkers. As I finished my final stitch, I felt the first drop of rain, and I packed up and scurried to the nearest tram stop before the weather really took a turn for the worse.





I made the stitched map into a top (with the back made from a different piece of Wandle fabric), and I’m pleased that I can look at it and identify individual areas - it might not work as a conventional map but it makes sense to me! I’m keen to try more walking and stitching, perhaps changing my focus to a different aspect of the Wandle Trail, or going on a different walk entirely. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of this way of stitching something immediate and unplanned, and I’d like to take it further, make it more expressive and emotional.








Thursday, 30 September 2021

The Wandle Wardrobe: One Year On

 When I started the Wandle Wardrobe project in September 2020, it was only meant to take a week. Three days to walk the Wandle Trail, three days to create my original two Wandle quilts, and then a day displaying them on the communal field as part of a local art exhibition. I didn’t expect to find enough vintage fabric to make a whole new wardrobe of outfits, or to spend five of the next seven months in lockdown, with my only permitted leisure activity once again being the local walk. 



Continuing with the Wandle Wardrobe gave those walks a purpose, and gave me a reason to go outside as often as possible during the winter months when I might otherwise have stayed indoors. The items I found changed with the seasons - a decrease in the number of lost gloves as sure a sign of the approach of spring as the new leaves on the trees. Although I didn’t have a specific end date in mind, the project drew to a natural conclusion in April when restrictions started to lift and I was able to travel further afield and meet up with friends again. The Wandle Wardrobe clothing project will carry on until I run out of fabric, which won’t be for the next year or so! 




Lockdown restrictions meant that I didn’t walk further north than Colliers Wood, so the project became slightly more localised, but I still recorded all my finds in the same way - photographing them in situ, before taking them home to be cleaned. The near-constant rain during the winter meant that most of the larger items of clothing I found were beyond saving; heavily mildewed, if not entirely waterlogged. I did find a prom dress and corset that were clean and dry; they eventually found their way to a clothes swap. I’ll always wonder what dating disaster led to these pricey pieces of clothing being hurled into some bushes. 




The categories I’d divided my finds into for the first quilt - gloves and socks, and accessories and scraps - divided neatly again into four categories for my second series of quilts, but I realised that I wanted a more permanent (and portable) record of where and what was found than the original twenty-metre fabric representation of the Wandle with its attached Polaroids. I made a double-length quilt with an appliqu├ęd Wandle and its surrounding green spaces from Colliers Wood to Carshalton and Croydon (using fabric I’d found at Watermeads nature reserve), along with a list of found items and the locations of some of the most surprising or plentiful finds.





I also wanted to provide some context since the project had now become something I could exhibit without being present. For the project to have meaning for a wider audience, I included a very brief biography of the Wandle, and description of the project, along with the questions I wanted viewers to consider. I hope that the Wandle Wardrobe will encourage conversations about how we treat our clothes and our green spaces in an entertaining and accessible way. 




I’ve loved talking to people about the project and hearing their interpretations of my work - I had some excellent chats while I was stitching two of the quilts in the gardens of Honeywood Museum as part of the Carshalton Artists summer fair. Lots of older people talked about how different their experiences of owning and caring for clothes have been, compared to today’s throwaway culture. One question came up a lot - “what if someone sees one of your quilts and says “that’s mine!”?” I would honestly love it if that happened - I’d happily cut off their item and give it back to them! Although I might want to stitch round it first so it leaves some sort of ghostly impression. I really enjoy how these conversations open up new thoughts and possibilities for me too, creating a dialogue through our lost clothes.




In between washing and cleaning my finds, deciding on the design of each quilt, stitching down several hundred pieces of lost textile, cataloguing where I found what, and working out exhibition logistics, I haven’t had much opportunity to reflect on a year-long project. So last weekend I walked the Wandle again, in the opposite direction (from the Thames to the sources) to create a small piece of textile art as I walked, and to spend some time with my thoughts and enjoy the beauty of my local green spaces. I’ll be writing about this in a separate post, but it reminded me that you can look at an area in broad strokes or minute detail. The more you notice, the more you notice what’s wrong (the litter) as well as what’s right (the variety of bird and insect species). Focusing solely on what’s wrong is emotionally draining, so it’s important to allocate time to appreciate the good things around too, and sometimes it’s nice to reset your perception of your local area by just walking with a very different purpose and seeing what you notice instead. 



Saturday, 12 June 2021

London National Park City Rangers - making London greener, healthier and wilder



At the start of the year, when the only thing getting me out of the house on cold and rainy weekend days was my Wandle Wardrobe lost clothes project (“think of the muddy socks and old gloves you can pick up if you go out for a walk during this 6-hour window of daylight!”), I saw a tweet about London National Park City, and found out that they were recruiting for new Rangers. Being out in nature was pretty much the only thing enabling me to cope with the stress of an ongoing global pandemic, and I wanted everyone to have access to that source of beauty, wonder and resilience.




London National Park City’s mission is to make London greener, healthier and wilder. Having a network of Rangers across all London boroughs means that LNPC can share knowledge and resources, champion local projects and get people of all ages participating in activities like growing food, guerrilla gardening and learning about nature. London has large, impressive green spaces that everyone knows about, like Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath, but smaller, local spaces like community gardens, allotments and patches of no-man’s land are also vital resources, both as habitats for wildlife and as places where people can get closer to the natural world.




LNPC has recruited 110 Rangers over the past two years (including me!) with an impressive and diverse range of skills. Wildlife experts, foragers, community organisers, teachers, educators, gardeners, artists, storytellers… all ready to share their love and enthusiasm for London’s green spaces.



The link between fashion and being “greener, healthier and wilder” might not be immediately obvious, but fashion has a huge environmental impact, and is also a powerful resource for visual storytelling. Our current overconsumption of clothes, and some people’s habit of discarding them after only a few wears, means that clothing is now a source of rubbish, just like single-use plastic. Indeed, over 50% of clothing is made from polyester, which means it IS plastic, and will shed microfibres into any water source it ends up in. It will also take hundreds of years to decompose. It is vital that we start taking better care of our clothes to minimise the amount that end up in landfill.



Presenting my Wandle Wardrobe finds on “quilts” as though they were precious heirlooms rather than scraps of discarded clothing will hopefully help some people to rethink their attitudes about the clothes they own. My “Rainbow Remnants” quilt will be on display at Honeywood Museum as part of the Carshalton Artists Open Streets Exhibition from 17th June to 25th July.



I am by no means an expert on London’s extensive flora and fauna, so I’ve set myself a challenge to improve my ability to identify wild flowers and plants this year. I am taking part in wildflower surveys for Verging On The Wild Side, a Sutton-based group gathering evidence in the hope of persuading local authorities to allow roadside verges to be left as wildflower habitats rather than sad strips of scorched grass. I spent rainy weekends in May researching London’s plant life, and creating my own florilegium in fabric form, consisting only of roadside “weeds” to emphasise what beautiful and interesting plants they are! This is currently an ongoing project, but expect a blog post about it soon.




Now that pandemic restrictions have eased a bit and the weather is perfect for spending long weekend days outdoors, I’m really enjoying volunteering again; helping out at the Carshalton Lavender farm and going on local litter picks. I’m looking forward to meeting my fellow Rangers outside in our natural habitat, and dreaming up projects to get plenty more people feeling as enthusiastic about London’s green spaces as we do!



The pictures that illustrate this blog post are close-ups of the scarf I embroidered as part of my LNPC Ranger application. I love the idea of London becoming as well-known for its green spaces and wildlife diversity as it is for its historic buildings and monuments. Everywhere the two can coexist makes London a healthier and more pleasant place to live and work.





Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Wandle Wardrobe: Greenfinch Dress

 Seeing a greenfinch in a patch of no-man’s land near my flat in March 2020 marked a turning point in the way I thought about London wildlife. The last year has dramatically changed my relationship with London, and alongside forming strong relationships with my neighbours, I’ve also become better acquainted with many of the non-human residents of my neighbourhood. 



Growing up in a small town in West Sussex, weekends were often spent on country walks with family and friends, learning the names of trees, flowers, birds and insects. Certain walks became favourites, and they marked the passing of the seasons. Snowdrops, wild daffodils and bluebells in the woods during spring. An evening walk on the common to listen to nightjars and look for glow worms at midsummer. Kicking through drifts of golden leaves collecting sweet chestnuts and conkers in autumn. A blustery walk on a beach with geese flying overhead and a flask of hot soup in the car in winter. When I moved to London at eighteen, I still wanted to make these nostalgic pilgrimages back to Sussex every year, creating small family rituals around these much-loved pockets of natural beauty.






I had sought out green space in London, of course, but for years none of the places I walked or picnicked took on the same significance - when you and your friends are renting and always moving, nowhere stays local for very long. During the last decade I’ve only moved twice, and I began to develop a fondness for the Wandle - I found solace walking its scrubby banks when my mind was in turmoil from anxiety and depression, and it began to reward me with glimpses of its riches. I would often text my parents with bird sightings and news. But I still returned to Sussex, treasuring our beloved walks as a balm for my soul, and all-important time with my family. 





When the nationwide lockdown was announced last year and I realised that I wouldn’t be marking spring with my usual excursions, my local hour-long walks became more intentional. I took my binoculars, I photographed wild flowers, I made a list of the birds I saw. I was well aware that London wildlife was far more varied than the stereotypical feral pigeons and urban foxes, but I had never thought of a greenfinch as a “London bird”. And yet here they were, in numbers, a fifteen minute walk from my flat. 





The Greenfinch Dress is made from three metres of a woollen mix fabric I found dumped near the Wandle back in September. Necessity being the mother of invention, I made the dress I wanted to wear during months of lockdown winter walks. I don’t find trousers warm enough for winter, I prefer to walk in cosy layers - leggings, long socks, leg warmers, a wool skirt. In her book Wild Dress, Kate Fletcher devotes a chapter to walking in skirts. She emphasises the importance of knowing your ideal hem circumference -  “a stride and a bit”. Wading through suddenly-flooded parks this winter, leaping over newly-formed streams that threatened to overtop my boots, I took her advice. A stretchy knitted skirt gave me freedom of movement, but was sadly lacking in pockets, and didn’t provide quite enough insulation when I sat down. The loose A-line shape of the dress allows for plenty of movement, as well as the wearing of several layers underneath. The double layer of fabric provides warmth, and a canvas for some mindful embroidery during the darker months. 






I’ve marked a year of changing seasons through local walks in London now, and been delighted by the wild beauty I’ve found. Although I’m looking forward to walking further afield, I’ve found so much to interest me close to home, and I’ll continue to appreciate that .