Experiencing the material


Make smthing week seemed like a good time to engage with  Annie Albers call:

...we must come down to earth from the clouds where we live in vagueness and experience the most real thing there is: material (1937)”

Alison invited Sarah to her studio to help her with a Welsh blanket project. Sarah had some vintage  blanket squares from Jen Jones museum/ shop in  Llanybydder, Ceredigion


Image result for Jen Jones museum/ shop

Jen finds, cleans and  repairs  vintage Welsh blankets and quilts, giving a new lease of life to these wonderful items and at the same time bringing much pleasure to the new owners as well as preserving these important Welsh historical items.  Quilts, and blankets which cannot be rescued whole are re-purposed into cushions and squares for and patchwork.


The first task was to cut the pieces up further so that the different styles could be mixed together,  integrated to create pleasing whole. Alison’s experience as textile artist is very helpful when it comes to doing this!


Next , piing then sewing together , keeping the rough edges exposed to add texture and also show the different colours used to create the patterns as well as to prevent bulky seams.

The next tasks will be to finish the sewing and then enlarge the patchwork into a knee rug by blanket stitching around the patchwork and crocheting into the  patchwork. Welsh wool spun in North wales and purchased in Cardiff market as well as Cambrian wool from West Wales. mountains will be used.

The next creative project involved needlefelting at a workshop at the Holbourne museum in Bath – an opportunity to make a Christmas decoration

as well as a chance to find out if the raw Cornish fleece we obtained for the Repairacts seminar could be used for needle felting. It can!

The final creative activity of the week was Alison’s Christmas wreath-making workshop held at Alice park as part of Alison’s involvement in the community garden there. There was much making activity as well excellent soup and hot drinks to enjoy. Soaked sticks were shaped into wreaths and decorated with the community garden greenery. Many of those attending were having far to much fun to leave once their wreath was completed and stated making stars and even 2D Christmas tree and a star chandelier!


Experiencing the material is another way to ‘think’, to explore and to find ways to care for the world we share as well as being great fun!






National Trust – a suggestion for reducing single-use items in their catering

Image result for single use plastic collins dictionary

Single-use’ was the Collins Dictionary word of 2018 reflecting the concern over single-use items and the impact these are having on the environment. So today we wrote to the National Trust with a suggestion.

Whilst the National Trust have greatly reduced single-use plastic cups from their catering outlets they still use a wide variety of single-use items such as cardboard, ‘biodegradable’ cups and wooden cutlery. These items appear to be recyclable there are two key problems

*are the ‘biodegradable‘  items actually separated and sent to the speciast facilities needed for  recycled these items or do they enter the landfill waste stream? There are limited facilities still in the UK for recycling such items and on visits to various properties staff were not clear as to the destination of these items.

*wood, cardboard etc. are valuable and beautiful and their single-use is both a waste and a perpetuation of an attitude of exploitation of the wider natural world, including ourselves.


Our Suggestion

Whilst an obvious solution is to use washable dishes and cutlery we recognise there are some sites where this is not possible due to limited kitchen facilities, or as is the case for example at Chedworth Roman villa, limited water supplies.

We note that in many places the National Trust promote the use of travel cups. We have suggested that they  extend this to encourage the use of travel cutlery, plates etc. Since many people look at the Trust’s website before setting off the Trust could add into the description of catering facilities at the site the fact that disposable cups, plates, cutlery etc. are used in the cafe and thereby give people the notice and encouragement they need to bring their own.

Image result for cutlery and enamel plates


This doesn’t have to be expensive for individuals. Knifes forks etc. can be bought very inexpensively from many charity shops and transported easily in a toothbrush case. Enamel plates are readily available. Bringing your own items could be promoted as ethical response to the single-use crisis. A small discount could also perhaps be offered, funded from savings made. Historically people did travel with such equipment (think for example of the 18th and 19th century Grand Tour) and this could be part of the story the National Trust  shares.

We hope we get a positive response! We’ll let you know the outcome.

Fast fashion (or not caring for your clothes)


A  woman photographs French artist Christian Boltanski’s ‘No Man’s Land’, composed of 30 tons of discarded clothing, on display at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. The site-specific art installation fills the hall with 45 rectangular plots of clothes and a 25 foot high pile of garments. (Photo by STAN HONDAAFP/ Getty Images)

Following on from our workshop at the RepairActs seminar we submitted this week the following written evidence to  the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into Sustainability of the Fashion Industry


As the scourge of contemporary ‘disposability’ has infiltrated seemingly every aspect of modern life – (Collins dictionary has described ‘single-use’ as its word of 2018), it becomes ever more necessary to arrest, contradict and question the ethics of the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon. This can be seen in the context of a critique of modern day capitalism: a global capitalism, led by Western economies, with few checks and balances even when inland lakes are caused to disappear due to the demands of growing cotton and rivers in developing economies are polluted by chemicals from factories producing the cloth used to feed our fast fashion habit (BBC 2018).

Somewhat surprisingly, Britain has the highest level of consumption of clothing per household in the European Union, a practice which also implies ‘fast’ disposal, a concept which we all know does not at present exist, with more than 300,000 tons of ‘waste’ textiles sent to landfill every year in Britain alone, or in monetary term 140 million pounds worth.

Cultural (news and glamour press, advertising industries) and commercial (the Brits especially seem to love a bargain) pressures all play a part in adding to this situation where ‘cheapness’ is seen as the main driver of acquiring new goods, this being seen as a virtue rather than an indicator that something (the environment, eg water supplies) or some-one (underpaid and exploited workers in unhealthy or often dangerous factories) has suffered in the production of these goods, whose main selling point is their availability and low price point.

As Oxfam (2016) has recently described, the average British consumer only wears 44% of their wardrobe, having at any one time 57 items of items unworn in their possession. So why do people prefer a bulging wardrobe of cheap unworn clothes compared to a collection of fewer, longer lasting items? Novelty would seem to be a contributing factor as to how and why we acquire clothing that is hardly ever worn, if at all. Unfortunately our acquisitive culture has resulted in the average consumer feeling ’rich’ in their acquisition of cheap goods. This illusory state can easily be challenged and altered if consumers are made more aware of the impact and repercussions that their choice of clothing has on the wider world, on people and planet.

Suggestions for change

Every garment is the sum of its parts – from the fibre from which it was made – natural (grown), or synthetic (manufactured) to the dyes, the threads, the buttons, the zips, the processes and the distribution journeys it makes. Until these goods are seen as an inherent ‘whole’, i.e. their provenance, their manufacturing processes and impacts are revealed and acknowledged, how can this concept be challenged?

In the same way their ‘disposal’ also needs to be addressed. Can the garment be recycled? Probably not. Is the garment of sufficient quality to be passed on and sold second-hand? Possibly, but even this practice feeds current ‘waste’ streams of our second-hand goods and can flood developing countries with unwanted textiles that can harm their own textile production businesses. There is no easy disposal.

A complete life cycle analysis, already undertaken on some goods, could be produced for garments, resulting in a new labeling system and links (easily accessible through digital means) to means of production undertaken by the company. This life cycle analysis would involve assessing the impact of the material from which fabrics are made, e.g. how/where grown or manufactured, pesticide/fertilizer use, energy use, water use etc., the durability/quality of the cloth produced  – some fabrics, if taken care of, can last a lifetime and longer, also where the garments were made and by whom, and ultimately a route for their disposal – this would be influenced by whether they are made from natural or man-made fibres, suitable for reuse, or recycling. This greater transparency into industrial processes would provide an insight  into how our world, and the flow of materials within it, really works and  the impact we all have on a daily basis by buying and wearing the garments we choose. It is essential to question and demand a better set of ethics, both for workers, the environment, and ultimately for us, of the manufacturing industries that currently control the fashion world. We need to realise a sense of connectedness to these industrial processes and implications of the making of these garments that become intimate parts of ourselves, that we wear next to our skin, possibly even absorbing some of these chemicals in the process.

The fashion industry will resist and suggest that their supply chains are too complex for this to happen but raising an awareness of the possibility of this being the future will make the fashion industry more transparent for the (hopefully) more demanding  consumer of the 21st century where current ecological crises make this approach inevitable. The recently disturbing information regarding microfibers, tiny pieces of plastic polymers which are washed into our water courses from synthetic fibres is another major cause for concern and should be an added impetus that the industry has to put its house in order.

With excellent work being done by charities such as Labour Behind the Label and TRAID, the excesses inherent in fast fashion are revealed and addressed. Caring for and hence connecting with, valuing, mending, repairing, sharing and swapping, as well as reducing and re-using, are words that need to be reinserted into the lexicon of the fashion industry so that its reputation can be salvaged, and before more water sources dry up and more rivers are poisoned.

Dr Alison Harper and Dr Sarah Chave

Alison Harper (artist) and Sarah Chave (educational researcher) are currently collaborating on Deep materialism and care-taking: a study of material relationships for the 21st Century – a project supported by the University of Exeter’s Environmental and Sustainability Institute’s Creative Exchange Programme. Their project promotes a more thoughtful and caring way to be in the world, where our relationships with material really does matter.

Repair Acts Seminar 18-19th October, 2018


...we must come down to earth from the clouds where we live in vagueness and experience the most real thing there is: material (1937)”.

This quote from the artist and weaver Anni Albers seems to underline the thinking behind the elements of the workshop activity we led along with  Professor Clare Saunders and Anjia Barbieri as part of the RepairActs Seminar in Penryn 17-18th October 2019. This seminar was an opportunity for academics and  artists to meet together to explore ideas, provide peer support, collaborate and challenge  and explore language/lexicons, theories and practices around this issue of repair

In our part of workshop we wanted to focus on the dislocation of material relationships felt in modern times and on our response  when hearing a documentary about small children mending broken threads under the first weaving machines in industrial settings at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This was a  time which seemed to represent a breaking away of connecting with matter, with the material, as the industrialisation of production – of things sometimes previously made in the home, took hold. We also wanted to explore the possibilities of repairing those relationships.

We started our workshop by introducing our project

and sharing an example of Alison’s work  which helps us to see unwanted and unnoticed materials in new ways,

We then invited participants to take and handle some raw Cornish wool fleece and tease and twist it into a a plied yarn, reconnecting with a process which is at the basis of all textile production. We encouraged them to feel, smell, experience  the fleece as they created a thread.  We invited participants to carry on with this as we talked. Interesting conversations transpired about how we relate to materials, a subject that we are not encouraged to discuss or explore.

Next, we shared how the starting  point of our thinking about repair was the tying of  knots to join broken threads underneath the ‘spinning mule’ machinery at the start of the European Industrial Revolution. As noted above, this era was the start of industrial processes which increasingly separate us from materials and their journey of transformation into finished products. We read an extract from A Chance Child by Jill Paton Walsh, a book that vividly brings to life and describes the working conditions of child workers during the Industrial Revolution.

But we also wanted to explore how broken threads can be repaired, how relationships with them can be reimagined. Alison introduced Untitled by the Greek artist Janis Kounellis. This work seemed to exemplify to Alison how elemental materials are; in this case sheep’s wool, with soft blue dye, seemed to represent and be a part of the sky, the wind, the rain, and the landscape that produced it, emphasising the connection between us, the material and the wider biosphere.

We looked at different traditions which use thread, often red thread, to connect and communicate love and devotion. Raksha Bandhan is the Hindu Festival that celebrates brotherhood and love. A sister gives a bracelet to her brother or a male friend to symbolise devotion and connection, the threads of the rakhi are considered sacred and to have protective qualities.


Red threads are used by the Chinese artist Beili Liu, drawing on the ancient Chinese legend of the Red Thread which suggests that when children are born, invisible red threads connect them to their soul mates, who they will eventually meet.

We also learned to make Celtic knots from a synthetic red cord sourced from  a Scrapstore, this turned out to be bouncy and slippery and it was difficult to keep the knot knotted, showing one of the differences between natural and man-made fibres.

Interwoven into our elements of the workshop was a presentation by Clare and Anjia who shared the work they have been doing as part of their research project Sensibility for Sustainable Fashion (S4S) This included an opportunity to unravel woolen jumpers to make new yarn , a cost effective and environmental way to create yarn for knitting. It was wonderful to see the synergy between our two projects and to have the opportunity to meet and work with Clare and Anjia, who have been formally invited to submit evidence from the S4S project to the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into Sustainable Fashion. We have also made a representation to the inquiry, positing our ideas around materials and deep materialism.

At the end of the workshop we took the photo at the start of this post – red threads, plied fleece, unravelled wool and Celtic knots intertwined and knotted and connecting workshop participants.

As part of the seminar we also visited  National Trust properties at Godolphin House  andMullion Cove  . These are both places where repair is explored on a larger scale. The National Trust must make decisions  on what to repair enough to prevent further decay (an approach adopted at Godolphin) and what to allow to decay. It must curate decay as well as preservation. The issue of ‘curated decay’ (Desilva 2017) has a particular resonance at Mullion Cove where the strenght of storms (most likely  linked to climate change) create the dilemma of managed retreat or repair and maintenance.


At Mullion we were able to see this crack opening up in the south harbour wall, a result of the storms in October 2017. This crack is forming along the line of a previous repair in the 1980s, despite extensive repairs carried out to the harbour wall using concrete after the storms of 2014.

The Trust’s stated plan for Mullion is to repair as long as this is feasible (i.e. funded by the insurers) but if an event occurs which makes repair not financially or logistically  viable, then it is committed to a policy  of  ‘curated decay’. This is a controversial local issue and can be explored in more detail in chapter x of DeSilva’s recently published book Curated Decay.

Repair as a Micro-political Act of Resistance

As part of the Repair Acts workshop in Penryn,18-19th October 2019 Professor Stephano Pascicci, Director of Research for Sustainable Futures  gave a public lecture, exploring the links between Repair and Circular Economy.

There were two stand-out  messages for us in this.

The first was the importance of repairing and maintaining relationships as well as repairing and maintaining physical things. This was the first topic he covered and puts relationships central to exploring the circular economy and to thinking about repair.

The second was repair as an act of resistance. When we were growing up repair was a financial necessity – darning tights and socks, repairing clothes and household equipment. Repairing clothing  wasn’t a look we always liked!(In fact I sometimes hated it – an aside from Sarah!). For many the financial necessity of repair continues. However, in a time of increased consumption, environmental degradation and climate crisis,repair is also as a micro-political act of resistance. In such resistance  necessity hasn’t gone out of the picture. Repair responds to the environmental necessity to reduce waste, pollution and the unnecessary exhaustion of materials.  Sharing and developing the skill to do repairs is crucial, for example through the support of the Repair Cafe movement, sharing ideas at social get togethers and workplace and school activities.

The Falmouth Repair cafe were also at the Repair Acts public event and here is an excellent repair to a coat which was in great condition except for a ripped pocket. The owner was very happy that her coat was once again both smart, warm and ready for many more years of use.

So, go on, darn those socks, fix that printer, mend those sun glasses, rather than throw them away – I’m sure you can add to this list! Make it into a social event if you want to fit it, in a fun way, into a busy life. Spend time as well thinking about repairing relationships with the  human and other-than-human world around us. What could repair mean mean for these?

Raw fleece !

The raw fleece  for our workshop at the RepairActs two-day October Seminar has arrived!

Its amazing! Thank you so much to Newmoor Barn Farm  on the Devon/Cornwall border near Launceston for supplying it

We will be  co-leading the workshop later this month with Professor Clare Saunders and  Anjia Barbieri to explore re-imagining and repairing our relationships with materials, particularly those used in the clothing industry.

Clare and Anjia are part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)  funded project – Designing a Sensibility for Sustainable Clothing. This project has teamed up with community spaces, NGOs, local clothing brands, film-makers and members of the public to explore how we can contribute to finding solutions by encourage everyone to THINK, FEEL and ACT more sustainably in relation to the clothes we wear.


Forest of the imagination

Forest of the Imagination 2018

It’s been a busy few  weeks, especially for Alison, preparing for the annual Bath children’s arts and creativity festival, Forest of the Imagination

Making art installations and running workshops by reworking the materials used in packaging helps us to see  these unnoticed and unloved materials in new ways.


                                                       Crocheting with crisp packets 


                                 Making flowers from crisp packets with school groups 


                                                             Decorating the willow tree


Alison made this installation, Shimmer,  for the tree in Kingsmead Square, Bath, from catering size coffee packets. Click on the link to see shimmer in motion and to hear the voices of children enjoying creativity in the forest!


Hello world!

             Deep materialism and care-Taking: a study of material relationships for the 21st century

A collaboration supported by the Creative Exchange Programme of the  Environment and Sustainability Institute,  University of Exeter.

Welcome to our blog!

Dr Alison Harper  and Dr Sarah Chave

Through this blog we hope to record and share with you our collaboration exploring current human use and abuse of the material world. We propose that if we develop our relationships with matter, with materials, so that they become closer to us, become us and are seen as a part of us, then we will care for, and feel responsible for, their journey in and through the biosphere.

Our shared investigation seeks ways to encourage the development of such close and caring relationships with the material world through the sensory, the experiential and consideration of the implications of such relationships for the ways we act in the world. An example of such a process is paper making by deconstructing a disposable coffee cup, revealing a wealth of material unnoticed and uncared for.

Twine and lace: Two cups, one deconstructed