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 .

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The Corvid Dress: Grief and the anniversary of a pandemic

 This time last year, I took my first local morning walk instead of my regular commute by train into central London. The sun was shining, although there was still a chill in the air, and the path was lined with flowers - violets, celandines, dandelions. I took photos of the blackthorn blossom and pussy willow. It was a rare moment that week when I didn’t feel distracted by uncertainty, worry, or the need to constantly check my phone for news. A week later, a total lockdown of the UK would be announced, and I would be furloughed for six months. A year later, here we are again, still in lockdown, tentatively looking for signs of spring, but with that loaded reminder of what it signalled in 2020, and all that we have lost over the last twelve months. 

Like many people, I have found solace in nature during the pandemic, and I’ve discovered a remarkable variety of wildlife in my small corner of London. I’ve counted over fifty different bird species, letting their songs and calls soundtrack my walks in order to immerse myself more fully in their world. I have contemplated the positive things their presence says about the quality of water in our local river, the amount of available food in patches of no-man’s land. I wish I was writing a positive post today. 

Experiencing bereavement in a year where over 130000 people have died in the UK as a result of the pandemic isn’t unusual or, sadly, unexpected. But experiencing two bereavements in as many days, during a lockdown where I am not allowed to hug, or indeed physically see friends who are suffering this grief more acutely than I am, feels unbearable. We are forced to grieve everything privately, touch-starved, confined to our Zoom window. 

As I was writing this post and making this dress, I’ve witnessed public displays of grief being violently suppressed in London. I’ve struggled to manage my private sadness for personal losses alongside the public outpouring of rage and anguish over the murder of a young woman, and the systemic violence that led to her death. How do we mourn, when a public act of mourning is now a crime?

As someone who studies the history of fashion, and as a former teenage goth, I have always been fascinated by Victorian mourning customs. While unsurprisingly I’m not wild about the compulsory or restrictive aspects of mourning dress (and grief is physically painful enough as it is without having to wear uncomfortable, scratchy fabrics), being able to show the world you are grieving through your clothing (if that would be helpful to you) feels like a powerful thing. Our online presence is often edited to show only the positive, photogenic parts of our lives (which I honestly don’t mind - no one is required to share the sad or difficult things they’d rather keep private), but a visual shorthand for “I am feeling many terrible emotions which I am struggling to put into words” might be helpful, even necessary, as people come to terms with the terrible toll that the last year has taken on our mental health, and our need to grieve as a nation. Keeping a stiff upper lip and pretending the whole thing wasn’t that bad really is a terrible way to deal with our emotions. 

Corvids, and crows especially, are associated with death in many different folklore traditions. But in recent years they have captured our imaginations again as scientists reveal the extent of their intelligence. Corvids can recognise individual humans, and assess whether these humans are treating them fairly. They are able to hold grudges against humans that treat them badly, and even pass this information to other birds. If a corvid dies, others will gather around to assess any potential threat so they can avoid it in the future. 

I understand the desire, even the desperation, to go “back to normal” as soon as restrictions are lifted and put the horrible memories of the pandemic behind us. But trying to ignore or suppress this collective grief will be terrible for our mental health in the long run. We need time to grieve in whatever way feels appropriate to us, and we also need to remember. Not only those who died, but the reason why. The mismanagement of the pandemic that led to so many deaths, the dire warnings from scientists that were ignored time and time again, the corruption that wasted billions of pounds and left frontline workers at risk. Holding grudges may not be productive, but we need to hold the people in power to account. I agree with and abide by current Covid restrictions, but I am furious at the government’s inability to learn from its mistakes, and the way it regards certain sections of the population as acceptable collateral damage.

The Corvid Dress was made from two and a half metres of pre-pleated black viscose, from my haul of vintage fabrics found near Watermeads Nature Reserve, and part of my ongoing Wandle Wardrobe project. The simple shape of the dress (a zero-waste rectangle gathered with drawstrings and elastic) is similar to several of my favourite 80s dresses; they are very easy and comfortable to wear. Rather than meeting in formal settings to pay our respects to those we’ve lost, memorial meet-ups are likely to be informal events in parks for the next few months at least. Clothes for these events will need to have an element of practicality. I’ll be wearing this dress as soon as I can meet up with a certain group of friends - a reunion that will sadly be a time to mourn those who won’t be joining us. My thoughts are with everyone else who will also be experiencing these bittersweet meetings in the weeks and months to come. I hope you find a way to remember your loved ones and celebrate their lives, and to feel and express your grief with the support of your community. 

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.