an exhibition at Shoalhaven regional gallery
When I entered the Sydney Living Museums’ Meroogal Women’s Art Prize in 2020, I wanted to come third, because the prize was having this show. For my entry I had made a book of fabric samples which were inspired by the designs chosen to furnish and decorate Meroogal, the historic house in Nowra owned by four generations of resourceful women. My sample book sat on a knackered old armchair with the ticking exposed to suggest an imagined moment of pleasure and domestic economy, where the Thorburn and Macgregor sisters would flip through my samples to choose a fabric, so they could get on with reupholstering their old chair. My original idea for this exhibition flowed on logically enough - I’d create a new ClothFabric collection based on the sample book. But once I had actually begun the work, I soon recognised that this whole approach felt out of tune with the times.
In a world increasingly traumatised by the climate emergency and with our lives full of stuff heading for landfill, it just didn’t feel right to make something new from scratch.
The question I had originally asked was was ‘what would the Meroogal women choose,’ but the better question in this context was ‘what would the Meroogal women do.’ And what these practical women used to do was make do and mend.
What they created in their steadfast and humble way was a wonderfully characterful home. Functional, comfortable and beautiful. Modest and fancy. The philosophy and skills that created Meroogal have largely been lost - and the world is poorer and more damaged for it.
My intention for this exhibition is to honour this frugal and joyful mindset, creating new work from all the unfinished projects around my studio. Renewing the old and worn to remake functional, practical pieces that blur the boundaries between art and what’s sometimes called modern craft.
The Meroogal women didn’t have the choices most of us grew up with. If their coats or curtains or cushions were out of fashion or snagged or damaged, they couldn’t afford to nip out and get new ones. These were expensive items.
Baby boomers and every generation since grew up in a world full of messages encouraging us to buy more things, newer things, the latest thing. That fetishisation of the new, bright shiny objects and cheap offshore manufacturing led to the consumer culture that is choking the planet today.
The Meroogal women didn’t have a choice, but we do. We can buy brand new things or we can respect and renew our old favourites.
We can chuck our stuff into landfill or we can mend it.
We can get the fast disappearing dopamine hit of retail therapy or we can slow-stitch our way to flow and a calm state of mind.
The work I’ve made here speaks to the difference between consumerism and materialism. (Economist Richard Denniss does a great TED Talk about this distinction.) Consumerism is the love of buying the new thing, materialism is the love of the thing and respect for the resources it took to make it. If we love our things, we need to take care of them. When something begins to wear out, that means repairing and renewing it, to extend its life.
For our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, who couldn’t afford to buy new, mending wasn’t a philosophical choice - it was a necessity. They favoured ‘invisible mending,’ the kinds of repairs where you could not even spot that there had been damage. In the 20th century culture that oohed and ahhed over novelty and display, there was a kind of shame in not being able to buy something new, but today increasingly shame lies in the throwing out.
Our culture is shifting to take pride in the mending. That’s why I like my mending to be as visible as possible - bold and deliberate and unapologetic. The repair is integral to the object.
It’s like the Japanese philosophy of kintsugi, where potters repair broken ceramics with a seam of gold. I’ve patched the worn-out sections of cushions and chairs, and stitched over the stained tidelines of water-damaged curtains. The damage is transformed into the most beautiful part. Like Leonard Cohen’s line about the crack where the light gets in.
You don’t need to throw out your favourite shirt just because it’s threadbare. You can mend it, or even cut up the not-so-worn bits and use them to mend and transform something else.
By engaging in this practice, our lampshades and bags and furnishings are always growing in significance. We respect the past and protect the future with every stitch.
The way I see it, that’s a political act.
Back in the day, sewing, mending, and making were dismissively called ‘women’s work.’ I’ve always thought this gendered labelling was diminishing and offensive, but I began to reconsider it in the run up to the federal election.
As the campaign and the vote played out, it became clearer and clearer that women’s work was winning hearts and minds and seats. (And so many of these candidates were women in teal, which surely is a tone or two away from the minty green tent canvas I was using to make so many of the pieces for this show!)
Women’s work isn’t small or petty. Women’s work is important work. Historically, it’s been women repairing, renewing and making environments comfortable. Whether it’s on a domestic scale or a political scale, women are leading the way to a more sustainable future.
As much as this show is inspired by the thriftiness of the Meroogal women, it also comes out of ideas I’ve consistently embraced in my business and art practice. Reducing waste, recycling silk screens, saving fabric scraps from landfill to use in making (and curating these into ScrapCloth bundles for people to use in their mending projects) - these are things I’ve done for many years.
My own home is full of cushions and curtains and chairs made from scraps and offcuts, but this show is the first time I’ve really showcased this sort of work. Nothing in this show is new. It’s all preloved and reloved.
ClothFabric is almost 30 years old now, and many of my early customers are now coming to me looking to reupholster their original pieces. I’m encouraging them to let me repair them instead, and lots of them are jumping at this alternative solution.
I’m very proud that my customers perceive value in repairing their old Cloth upholstery. They are not consumerists: they are careful materialists who live in a way that’s deliberately sustainable.
There’s something in the notion of repair that we are all crying out for. I don’t want to go to a new planet that Elon Musk can fly me to, I want us to repair the one I live on now. Of course it’s cheaper and faster for the individual to buy new than to spend hours repairing their things, but this is why our planet is in such terrible trouble.
Buying something new is easy: repairing something is harder. We can all make the choice to renew if we are prepared to recognise that it’s worth the time and effort that takes.
I know it’s tough trying to shake off that 20th century mindset. We were all born and raised in a culture that has done a lot of harm and the challenge we collectively face is to undo that harm. To make good changes we need to look to First Nations people and our resource saving ancestors. We need to look to the past and future. We need to mend, but we don’t need to make do so much because living this way isn’t a sacrifice. It’s actually a privilege to have the opportunity to live with a lighter footprint and a more modest sensibility.
My partner and I wrote a manifesto many years ago now, about how we wanted to live, and one of the lines of it that comes to mind now is, ‘we don’t mind if we’re not too flash.’
It’s a joy to be showing you my Modest Fancies, and it’s my hope that they inspire people to think differently about how to make their homes and lives both more sustainable and creative.
Acknowledgement of Country
I acknowledge the Dharug and the Gundungurra people, the Traditional Owners of the land where I created this work, and the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the Traditional Owners of the land where this exhibition is shown.
I recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community.
I pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.