Patchwork: The Circular Craft

16 February 2022
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A patchwork is like a family tree or even a human life cycle: It begins as something small and helpless and over time different notions are added in various colours, shapes, sizes, and textures. Everything grows simultaneously, as a branching interconnected network. When things are stitched together, we accept them and move on—on to the next layer, outline, tier. A series of decisions and acceptance of outcomes, a map of what has happened and possibilities of what’s to come. The patchwork shouldn’t be considered an obsolete craft; there is a lot to learn from the stitched grid, it can serve as a mirror to our consumer habits.

Patchworking for me is always cyclical. I sew together leftover scraps of fabric to create a new textile. I then cut open this new patchworked textile to make an object, creating scraps yet again, which are then sewn into another new textile. I have yet to reach the end of this cycle; it feels infinite in the way the universe is described to be: endless in such a way that the end of it is unimaginable, even as we know it must be there.

Related: Artist Sandra Clarke’s essay on becoming a zero-waste artist.

image description: a sketchbook

A mini patchwork is embedded into a patchwork shirt (which in turn is made of old t-shirts from my partner’s angsty teenage years).

I obtain material accidentally, or rather, the material comes to me. I never buy it. Word has spread that I will accept any fabric for my creations, without discrimination, no matter how “ugly,” untrendy, tattered, or small. My current collection has been gifted by friends, grandmothers, colleagues of friends, and relatives of my partner. A stain, a hole, a pattern reminiscent of a bygone era…these things give the fabric character. It’s hard to tell a story if the fabrics meld perfectly into a clinical, streamlined textile. When I sew a patchwork, I’m not only repurposing waste but also hosting a conversation, a meet-up, a metaphysical dinner party between all these people from different places. By doing this, the fabrics that might have ended up in a landfill—pieces from different puzzles—are now fused together to create something new.
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Discarded scraps come together organically…

When I sew a patchwork that combines fabrics gifted by my grandmother and my mother, I think of their relationship and how it has affected me. I think of how my grandmother sewed trousers from old chair covers for my mother to wear to her eighth grade dance, since that was the only textile they could get their hands on in the Soviet Union. I think of how my great-grandfather was sent to Soviet prison for working as a freelance tailor. When I sew a patchwork gifted by my Nova Scotian mother-in-law, I think about my place in this huge land, and when I combine those patches with my grandmother’s patches, a whole new door opens up. A fabric-scape that stitched together across space and time.

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I found these small patches in my grandmother-in-law’s stash, possibly a patchwork left unfinished…

image description: the wrong side of a small fabric patchwork, composed of small rough squares of brightly coloured fabrics

… and completed the job.

The network of a patchwork brings to the forefront the bigger picture of a piece of textile. In a consumerist society the relationship between product and consumer is merely a small moment in the lifecycle of textile; it is easy to ignore the steps before and after we interact with a garment or textile. When I sew a patchwork, I spend a lot of time with it, which leads me to build a relationship with the material. While holding it in my hands, I think about its past and its future. It is hard to discard something you care about, just as it’s hard to care about something that you don’t respect.

Does a patchwork start when we sew the pieces together? Does it start with the cutting—when a fabric becomes a scrap which becomes a patch? Does it start with the fabric itself—with the garment that we cut up? Or does it start in the moment that garment is discarded—when an imperfection that renders the garment no longer wanted, becomes the first step in its journey to becoming material for a patchwork.

Or does it start when the garment is first made, knowing that eventually the garment will be discarded and might potentially become a patchwork?

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Making piles, organizing, categorizing, is a massive part of my process—and also my favourite part.

image description: the wrong side of a small fabric patchwork, composed of small rough squares of brightly coloured fabrics

Even the smallest scraps don’t get left behind.

A textile should be designed with the end of its lifecycle in mind; its death should be considered before it is even born. If crafting was born from necessity, as a way to make do with whatever is at hand, then the mass-production of crafting materials is contradictory to its original motive. The role of the textile industry in worsening the climate crisis means that now, more than ever, it is important to curb mass-production and promote slow fashion. We can start with circular crafting and learning to respect our materials. It’s time to bring these mindful methods of craft back into fashion.

All images by Marite Kuus.

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The articles, tutorials and patterns we publish about Canadian fibre and textile arts, crafts and industry are made possible by our members.

Copyright © Marite Kuus except as indicated.

About Marite Kuus

Marite Kuus is a textile artist, craftsperson and writer, originally from Estonia. From one faraway place to another, they attempt to capture and forge links between the past, the present and the near future, by exploring the sustainability of traditional crafts, waste and the mundane. Their main interests include moss, bogs, quilts and the similarities between them.

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