Dawn Giles, Artist, Mender and Textiles Maker 

Meet local repairer Dawn Giles. Dawn studied Fine Art and Painting at the University of Bath and then went on to take an MA in Photography at the University of Derby. She started off as an artist and taught photography in arts school. She has since run a media arts agency in Bath called ‘Statement Media Arts,’ been the Media Arts Officer at the Arts Council in the east of England for 7 years and run an organisation in Bedford for creative arts. For the past four years, Dawn has been living in Bristol.

How would you describe yourself? 

Quite simply as: an artist, a maker and a mender.

Artistically, my creative practice was much more photography and media based, but now I’m working in a much more analogue way; I work more with drawing, print textiles and rewilding and repair. 

“Mender” is a great word. For me, its something mainly textiles and objects based. It’s fixing, it’s the thing I want to do while talking to you, it’s when your clothes have a hole in them and you need to repair it. 

What role does the repair of objects, living systems, materials play in your life?

Repair is not just something practical and useful; the more involved I’ve become in the concept the more it’s spread into my arts practise. It’s a skill; it’s something I’m constantly developing and learning; and learning from others. It’s a thing I do for myself and for other people; it’s given me a whole new relationship to materials that I didn’t have before. And it’s a political and ethical choice for me; though of course I understand that’s a privilege as well – I have the time to repair things, not everyone does. 

Can you describe your repair process?

The repair process is a practical and aesthetic process. 

So you look at an item of clothing and ask: where does this need repairing? Does the fabric need strengthening? How much work does that item do? 

Often where the repair is needed is where you work them most – the elbows, the knees, the bottom! You have to get to know the clothing, think about what it needs – only then you can start to think about how you’re going to repair it. 

Then the aesthetic decisions, the fun part! Does it need to be a visible repair or an invisible repair? With vintage clothing, or garments that have value – most likely you want the repair to be invisible, you’d use an underpatch, something subtle. 

But other times; the repair can transform the clothing into a totally new object because you are altering it and modifying it so much. That’s the fun bit, when you think, not only how am I going to repair this and make it stronger, but how can I make it look nicer! What colours can I use, what thread, what great bits of fabrics do I have!   

Again, I’m mindful of privilege here, I know mending in many cultures has a shame attached to it because it’s associated with poverty. So the fact that we can appreciate it as an aesthetic needs to be understood in context.  

Every culture has its own means of repair. The technique that inspires me is the Japanese technique ‘sashiko’ which is a visible form of mending – it makes the repair part of the aesthetic of the garment. 

Can you tell us about an object that you repaired, why you repaired it and what it meant for you?

My partner’s jeans! They were jeans, and then they became shorts and they they became very hole-y. And on these legs are a whole history of what’s happened to them over time. 

So I put an inside patch, which runs over the whole seam and then I did some decorative stitching over the top to strengthen the denim underneath. The pockets get alot of wear, so I sewed lots of patches across there as well. In the crotch, I put an underpatch with a blue stitching – a subtle repair so as not to draw too much attention to the area! 

They’ve got paint stains on them, from painting and decorating – and that’s become part of the fabric, it’s the patina of it, it tells the story of how long this has been worn and loved. 

Why do you think the repair, care and maintenance of objects is important?

Mending is a practical way to show love. You’re putting time into the object as well as the person who’s clothing that is. It’s a practical thing you can do – just sewing on a button can show some care. 

There’s a saying in environmental movements to be more mindful of the waste we produce: “there is no such place as A-WAY.” In nature, waste decomposes and becomes part of the soil. But we use so many plastics, and materials that don’t decompose – we’ve ended up creating this quite unsustainable system. Mending is important, so as not to add to that growing mountain of waste. 

The most sustainable objects are things we already own; so it’s best to keep using the things we have. 

With repairs like sewing or knitting as well, once you master it, it becomes such a pleasurable, absorbing process. It’s like deadheading in gardening; it’s practical, repetitive but you know once you’re done, you’ll have more flowers. It’s the same with clothes, if you repair your clothes, you’ll have more!

Mending clothes also requires that they be made to a certain standard. At the moment, we have closed seams and the hems are small because extra fabric reduces profit margins. It’s a fast fashion problem. 

Synthetic materials are harder to mend; like stretch denim which has got all that plastic in it. Whereas the original Levi’s for example have lasted to this day!  

Hopefully as we become more sustainable as a culture; we will build that longevity into our clothing. We’ll go back to making things durable and easier to repair.  

What motivates you to keep repairing?

I wasn’t always into repairs, it’s something that developed gradually. I guess the pivot point was 10-15 years ago: I stopped buying new clothes and started buying second hand clothes. It was an ethical and political choice; I’ve become more aware of the impact of fast fashion on the environmental and ecological crisis. 

Through Coronovirus and lockdown, having a worldwide community of members of makers was a really nice thing to share. 

If you could sum up your repair philosophy in a few words, what would it be?

Repair is a revolutionary act of kindness and care, to yourself, to others, to your belongings and to the planet. 

Repair is so much more than a practical thing you can do with an end result; the wider repair culture has so much metaphor. 

Learn more about Dawn’s art work and Vintage Shop.

Follow Dawn on Twitter and Instagram.