Saving the world, one stitch at a time with “slow fashion” advocate Katrina Rodabaugh

Katrina Rodabaugh, author of Mending Matters and “slow fashion” advocate. (Photos by Karen Pearson)

The practice of mending has traditionally been a frugal one, intended to make a modest budget stretch farther. And the objective has generally been to make the clothing repair as invisible as possible, hiding the evidence of the garment’s restoration. These days, however, there is a “slow fashion” movement afloat, with practitioners who unapologetically celebrate extending the useful life of the garments they own.

In Katrina Rodabaugh’s new book, Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More (Abrams Books, 2018), the act of mending is elevated from a mundane or necessary chore to an eco-friendly form of creativity. Subtitled “a slow fashion guide for a well-loved wardrobe,” the book offers nearly two dozen how-to projects that teach bold and edgy “visible mending” techniques easily adapted to any garment or fabric (although blue jeans and denim are prominently featured). Patches and simple running stitches are used as design elements, and the projects involve handwork only; no sewing machine is necessary. The tools required are few, the instructions assume no prior experience with stitching and the reader is encouraged to embrace imperfection, as skills are acquired gradually.

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Interspersed with the projects are thought-provoking essays by Rodabaugh and quotes from other slow-fashion advocates. The beauty of hand-stitching in mending and the acceptance of the imperfect is explored through the lens of mindfulness (or “mendfulness,” as the author has coined it). “Our worn clothing offers a creative opportunity for repair, but it also allows us a chance to connect with the basic idea that beautiful things break down and we can reimagine their usefulness through thoughtful repair,” she writes. And mending becomes nothing short of a political act when considered as an alternative to the casual purchase of “fast fashion” from overseas garment factories that take a toll on the environment and their workers.

Rodabaugh will mark the recent release of Mending Matters with a reading at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Friday, December 7 at 6 p.m. She will host a panel discussion with Karen Pearson (photographer of the book, who lives in Rhinebeck) and Cal Patch (Accord-based fiber artist/designer, who contributed a short essay to the book and has co-taught workshops with Rodabaugh). Admission is free, but an RSVP is requested at www.oblongbooks.com/event/katrina-rodabaugh-mending-matters.

Originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York, Rodabaugh spent two decades living in Brooklyn and Northern California before moving to the Hudson Valley a few years ago. She resides with her husband and two small boys in a 200-year-old farmhouse in Germantown, where she conducts textile workshops in her barn-turned-studio and grows dye plants in the garden. She learned how to sew in childhood, from her mother, an avid crafter who encouraged her daughter to make things.

Mending Matters grew out of an art-as-action project that Rodabaugh began in 2013. She began a “fashion fast” that August, pledging not to purchase any new clothing for a year, focusing instead on making simple garments, buying secondhand and mending what she already owned. Akin to the person who makes a resolution to improve their health by giving up fast food, her “Make, Thrift, Mend” project was intended, she says, to pause her consumption of clothing – to slow down, reconsider and realign her values.

The project was conceived after Rodabaugh learned about the collapse that April of an eight-story structure containing garment factories in Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 garment workers and injured many more. She heard a Fresh Air interview on NPR in which host Terry Gross discussed the tragedy with Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion; the two discussed how the globalization of the garment industry has led to cheap products in the US, but human rights violations and environmental damage elsewhere in the world. Then, after reading a blog post advocating “slow design,” written by Natalie Chanin, founder of the slow-fashion company Alabama Chanin, Rodabaugh decided that it was time to look at her own attitudes toward clothing.

Her yearlong fashion fast went quickly. She stuck to the plan, buying only secondhand clothing made from biodegradable fibers. And when the year ended, she found that a shift in her thinking had occurred. “I really had no intention at the start of embarking on what became a life-changing journey,” she says. “I thought I was just doing a one-year project. But it kept getting deeper and deeper; I started doing research on ethical fashion, realizing that I’d kind of left fashion out of my own quest for a sustainable lifestyle. I’d been thinking a lot about food and housing, but not so much about clothing.”

She recommitted to the project for another year, allowing herself the purchase of new garments if they were handmade or locally made, and then another year, in which she expanded the parameters to include buying new clothing by major fashion brands if the garments were ethically and ecologically made. “I thought at first it would feel overwhelming. I was a new mom, and had a lot going on. But I found as time went on that limiting the choices and being mindful was actually easier. And there are so many rich opportunities in what you have left after eliminating the rest.”

By this time, there was no looking back; the project had become a way of life. And along the way, Rodabaugh fell in love with mending. “When we spend time patching, stitching and darning, we deepen our understanding of quality and craftsmanship. And if we can consider repair work to our garments as their next cycle, or the next chapter of the garment, then we can start to think, ‘How would I repair this garment?’ before it’s even damaged, or, ‘How would I overdye this?’ And then that allows for this dialogue with our clothing: to be engaged with it as this living, breathing thing.”

Rodabaugh holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies, but switched gears after graduation, working for arts organizations for the next decade. Returning to school to earn a master’s degree in Creative Writing, focusing on book arts and poetry, it was a professor, she says, who encouraged her to integrate her background in fiber arts and textiles with her interest in paper arts and writing.

Rodabaugh began combining her interests, printing Gertrude Stein poems on dresses that she made and working with choreographers to have live performance as part of textile installations. She published her first book, The Paper Playhouse: Awesome Art Projects for Kids Using Paper, Boxes and Books, in 2015, and says that she thought she would continue straddling the paper arts and fiber worlds, focusing on fine art and exhibitions, until her “Make, Thrift, Mend” project changed the course of everything she was doing.

Her hope for Mending Matters, Rodabaugh says, is that the reader will be encouraged to “think about the disposable mindset we have toward fashion and consider the value of holding onto a garment. With every workshop, a couple of minds are changed, so that’s encouraging! I just want people to feel that it’s possible. I think it can start as simply as mending one pair of jeans, or just considering, before you purchase that next garment, what fiber content it has. Or where it was made, or who made it, how long you’re going to wear it or what you’ll do with it after you’re done wearing it.”

And, she adds, “If we can embrace the naturally aged garment and the imperfection of wonky stitches as part of the aesthetic, it gives permission for what the end result can look like. I always leave a little bit of breathing room in whatever I’m making, to feel like there’s more movement and more possibility there.”

Author talk/panel discussion with Katrina Rodabaugh, Friday, December 7, 6 p.m., Oblong Books, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com/event/katrina-rodabaugh-mending-matters.

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