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Musings on Mending @ Mendrs

So, Flowering Elbow attended the first Mend*rs symposium 29th June-2nd July. Organised by three inspired menders and scholars: Jonnet Middleton, Guiseppe Salva and Beck Collins with the aim of:

‘bring[ing] together an emergent community of research around issues of repair. By research we include practice-based research, arts-based research, activist research as well as traditional academic inquiry. We want to establish a network of researchers and practitioners who are exploring aspects of mending’.

And, somewhat more ambitious, to ‘bring about the age of mending‘!

When we saw the call for contributions for this it sounded really exciting and like we’d have a lot in common with participants, but we hadn’t really conceived of Flowering Elbow as a ‘mending practice’, but more focused around making, upcycling and inventing. When we got thinking about how things we’ve made, often from discarded materials, came about, we started to see a very close connection – that is, we couldn’t really suss out a clear distinction.

Making vs Mending

Our illustrated presentation was about exploring this tension, between making and mending – where does one begin and the other take off. How different is a make from a mend that requires us to think inventively about the object in question?

Lets take the pragmatist Richard Sennet’s [1] idea of the ‘dynamic repair’ to help us along with this question. For Sennet an object can be ‘statically repaired’, that is, put back the way it was by having a replacement part seamlessly swapped in, or… We can get a dynamic repair going on! One where we engage with the object, think about why it broke, how it was used vs its ‘intended’ function, how we want to use it in the future.

We like Sennet’s dynamic repair because it strikes to the heart of our relationship with broken objects, and can also be applied to waste, or discarded things (which in societal terms are pretty darn broken). It seems to us that a dynamic mend will involve all the same things as a make: you need to get involved with the design, considering and sourcing materials, and deploying suitable tools and techniques, most likely in ways that you haven’t done before.


For us, all of this dynamic mending presupposes one pervasive question: what can an object be? With this question ingrained in our thoughts and actions towards objects, we are always breaking things! Ok, conceptually at least. A plastic bottle, for example, need not be forever doomed to exist as either a storage container for expensive water, or troublesome waste, it can also be the prime component in a bird feeder, a plastic bottle green house, a custom made floating raft, a serving scoop, a funnel, a diy rocket, a hydroponics system, and many other things. The point is that by breaking our stock concept of a used plastic bottle as ‘a used plastic bottle’, we create space for a load of exciting new jazz to happen.

In his keynote speech James Wallbank (of access space), articulated the challenge neatly, arguing that there was no such thing as ‘rubbish’. Substitute the word for ‘a lack of human creativity’ and you were closer to understanding our notion of ‘rubbish’. Indeed, the problem is that some objects are harder to be creative with than others. The key to all this up-cycling lark is in breaking out of culture-driven perceptual blindness and envisaging new object-possibilities by re-contextualising and joining them up with other objects. So in other words, putting stuff together in new ways.

There is a real and awesome buzz involved in discovering these new and wonderful meanings for an object(s). We’re talking about that feeling when you use a tool slightly differently, or modify a technique so you can put two objects together in a new way to form something different. A feeling of wonder that comes of being with stuff in a whole new way, a feeling that can enrich and re-enchant our relationship with everyday stuff ’n junk.

That was pretty much our presentation’s take-away message, but we made it by talking through illustrated examples of the Super Drill hack/mod, the Dust Sniper design build, and the Oak doors. On reflection we needed more of a fail in there, to balance things out – those three example make/mends worked quite well (in the end), but when you’re experimenting and being creative sometimes things just don’t work, it’s all part of the process.


One obvious dynamic repair was the way the organisers had approached the whole event, quite different to how most conventional stuffy academic conferences roll.

Not your usual fayre: kendal mint cake, darning needle and candle with mending tips on the back:)

The symposium programme and venue was inclusive in so many ways – inviting contributions from a wide range of disciplines and professions both inside and outside of academia; having camping places and volunteer places so that the event was financially accessible; participation and co-operation was at the core of the set-up and running of the event – it was great having the kitchen in the same space as the presentations for instance, so cooks could at least listen in and we could appreciate the work going into the food preparation (and enjoy the smells!).

Participants head to the kitchen for yummy snacks between presentations (photo Kate Lynch)

The venue was a farm in Cumbria, which our host, Bill Lloyd,who was wholly supportive of the theme of the conference and entertained us on several evenings with music and ‘guess the object’ games and generously let us take over most of his home! Several participants were knitting, darning or mending in some way whilst taking in the presentations (a tribute to their multi-tasking skills rather than dis-interest in the speakers!) and most presentations were imbued with a genuine sense of passion for their subject matter.

The resulting range of people, projects and research was amazing  and inspiring: darners, knit-hackers, geographers, sociologists, artists, textile recycles and clothing re-makers, fashion designers, industrial designers, research about nano-technology, repairing mobile phones, and bikes and the practice of mending in florists, accessible used computers, How-to’s for repairs, mending our environment: some of us went on a litter picking walk to explore one participants practice of beach cleaning.

Trouping through the countryside on the way to the rubbishy road side (photo Kate Lynch)

Throughout the weekend Kate Lynch was collecting items for her Mend*rs Toolkit which sampled and recorded the techniques, practices and tools the mendrs were using.

Photo, Kate Lynch

Some of the common themes that cropped up were the desire to be visibly mending – mainly in terms of clothes (eg making a patch stand out and look cool), exploring our emotional engagement with objects and materiality (and encouraging re-engagement) and thinking about what it means for an object to be ‘broken’, ‘mended’ or ‘made’.

We didn’t just take away new ideas and seeds of friendships and collaborations though, but also some new skills and projects…

With all the expertise around we’ve finally learnt some darning techniques (Thanks Tom of Holland and Sue Bamford!). Plus Sam has ventured into the realms of programming by starting a laptop ‘Shrimp’ with Cefn Hoile- a mix of salvaging and pimping up an old laptop by firstly wiping it clean and installing Open Source Lubuntu, then working with some cheap arduino componants to try and program a set of LEDs to do something funky.

Geeky shrimping area in the yurt (photo Kate Lynch)

Cefn had made a very spangly music display, Sam was going for something simple that tells her when to get up and have a stretch (so some time sequencing programming needed). Sam hadn’t done any soldering since school, so that was quite fun. She still needs to finish that off – good activity for rainy days! Hopefully we can get Cefn involved in some shrimping workshops at the FE lab when it’s ready…

So yeah, now we’re back home, the whole event left us feeling positive and make-mend-tastic. We had our little plastering party No. 2 over the weekend, doing the 2nd clay coat on the Flowering Elbow workshop – (check out our facebook page for the latest photos).

  1. [1]The Craftsman, Allen Lane (2008), ISBN 978-0-7139-9873-3.

Responses to Musings on Mending @ Mendrs

  1. Karl Drinkwater

    Sounds like an interesting and fun time, as well as being uber-green! Well done on collecting litter too. Have you played with polymorphic plastic? Pete sent me some beads. Heat them in hot water, shape them, then they set rock hard. Can make ornaments, design things/prototype, or more practical stuff e.g. make a new handle for a screwdriver. The stuff can be melted down again in hot water and made into new things at any point, but is rock hard at room temperature. Apparently it is biodegradable too.

  2. Sam

    Hi Karl,

    Yeah, it was a really great gathering, very inspiring. No, we haven’t had a go with polymorphic beads as yet, ‘sugru’ is a bit similar which we have made a few fixes with, but sounds interesting/useful!


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