The Mending Project

The Mending Project took place during the 1994-95 academic year while I was a sister-fellow at the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe (now called the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study).  Women from a full range of disciplines and geographic locations were given workspace to pursue their own projects.  Every week one of us would present a colloquium.  The visual artists among us also created an exhibition.  I conceived The Mending Project to explore the experiences of mending, both literal and metaphoric, across three generations represented in this community of women.

To each of the forty-two participants I distributed two 18”x18” squares of cloth and a description of the project.  I used a variety of plain cotton and linen in different shades of white, brown, and tan.  First, the participants were directed to destroy both squares of cloth in some way and then return both to me.  I took one of each pair and redistributed them anonymously among the group, so that each participant received a square of cloth that had been “destroyed” by someone else.  Second, the participants were instructed to mend the damaged cloth they had received. Interpretation of the words “destroy” and “mend” were left to the individuals.  In the end, all original pairs were exhibited – the destroyed and the mended, along with commentary from the participants.

The methods of “destruction” included a variety of tearing and cutting methods, laying the cloth on the Green Line subway track to be run over, and placing and burning the cloth on an electric stove to create the pattern of the coils.  The mending rarely fixed all the damage and employed a variety of words and materials including tape, lace, and other cloth, words written on the cloth, Band-aids, colorful stitching, and paint.  The range of expression was impressive.

For the youngest among us, mending was not something they ever thought about – if clothing ripped, you got rid of it.  For the middle generation there was both the memory of mothers who darned socks or mended sleeves as well as the struggle to free ourselves from the tyranny of female-assigned domestic duties, while still recognizing the thrift of mending and in some cases still using our needle skills because it made ecological and economic sense. The eldest generation among us had mended in all ways and seemed to have been pushed less to question the practice, not having loaded up the modest activity with so much cultural meaning.  There were those who felt women were always called upon to mend relationships and emotional wounds and were weary of the responsibility.

The Mending Project inspired conversation, poetry, and a song.  Many of the women lived professional lives as academics, and using their hands to work with cloth and other materials tapped an expressive place within themselves that did not often find a medium.  The Mending Project also made clear that, whether one is talking about a pair of pants or a pair of personalities, women are, more often than not, the menders.  We do not always welcome the role, but we have been trained to excel, or at least be the one to try.