Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald is a California girl who’s been living in Melbourne, Australia, for 16 years now and loving it. Erin runs an environmental social enterprise, is a communication consultant and has a number of creative pursuits, including visibly mending textiles.
How did your creative journey start and what led you to work with textiles?
When I was nine I begged my mom to teach me how to use a sewing machine and started sewing my own clothes. I stopped sewing for a long time after high school, mostly because of the time involved. I learned how to knit and embroider about 10 years ago, and soon after learned how to darn (via the internet) from a tutorial where the writer used fluorescent orange yarn. It was visible mending before the term had been coined, and it was a light-bulb moment for me: I could mend something in a contrasting colour and it could look great!
We love your visible mending. The apple and worm and the swimmer are just fabulous! Where do you get the initial inspiration for your designs? How do you bring ideas to life?
Thank you! Two of my strongest skills are coming up with ideas – sometimes in the middle of the night – and editing (I’ve worked as a newspaper and magazine editor). I find it so much easier to spruce up what’s in front of me or work to a theme than create something completely from scratch.
I like to let the textiles or the orientation of holes guide me in my visible mending. If there’s just one hole I might go for a cross, which reminds me of a first-aid symbol, because it’s a good standalone shape. If there are lots of holes I might make polka dots, because one or two dots tend to look out of place on their own. If the item I’m mending already has a strong theme or motif, I tend to use that as my guide.
The apple tea towel was a birthday gift for a friend, but it had a small hole in the fabric. I promised my friend when I gave it to her that we’d fix it together – she drew the worm and I embroidered it. Maybe I’m super-imaginative, but I’d like to think anyone would have looked at that tea towel and hole and thought of a worm. It just made sense to me. It was the same with the swimmer, although it took me a bit longer to figure it out.
Initially I was going to patch the hole with a simple shape – maybe a square of Liberty fabric, ooh la la – but then I found the swimmer image in a Japanese craft book called Wappen (“patch”). I realised the face washer was blue and could resemble water. The swimming-lane ropes were an obvious addition in my mind – and I happened to have a few sample lengths of piping cord in my stash that had no use – but a few people tried to talk me out of adding them. So although I’d like to think everyone would have imagined a swimmer and ropes, I know that’s not the case.
With some of my recent commissions, I’ve come up with two different approaches and asked the owner which they’d prefer. It’s super-fun to be let loose and do whatever I want when mending someone else’s stuff, but it’s also fun to collaborate. I’ve got a jacket I’m mending that I’m going to embroider in gold thread with some words chosen by its owner.
What’s your favourite part of the process?
I love the a-ha moment when I figure out how I’m going to mend something. There are plenty of different approaches I could take, but I love it when I figure out a really clever or beautiful one. If there are multiple holes, I try to pick a motif that looks good repeated, and potentially one that the owner can recreate if more holes appear later on. Sometimes it takes me a few weeks of thinking about something before I figure it out. Other times it’s instant.
Are there any new techniques you’d like to develop and try in the future?
I’m always experimenting with new techniques! Usually they’re craft techniques that haven’t been applied to mending, or maybe not in a contemporary way.
I would love to get my hands on a fancy computerised embroidery machine and start designing and making my own iron-on patches. Well, by “making” I mean “making the machine make them”, ha ha. I’ve hand-embroidered patches (like the swimmer) and the result is beautiful but it’s hours of work. I’d love to be able to mass-produce and sell some so other people can have cute embroidered patches, too.
I just found out about this e-course and would love to be able to make more detailed images with my needle-felting. I’d also like to learn how to draw properly so I could draw my own embroidery and applique designs.
What is your workspace like?
I am privileged to have a lovely craft room, but I often hand-stitch and needle-felt in the kitchen because it has the brightest light in the house. Ironing happens in the living room, and I’ve been lining up commissions in a bookshelf in the dining room, so I guess the whole house is my workspace now! Sometimes I stitch by hand while riding public transport.
What tools do you use in the process of re-making and what vital piece of kit could you not live without?
I loooove fusible web. I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly option, but it helps me cut perfect, precise patches and it’s durable, so it prolongs the life of what I’m mending. It saves heaps of time, too, which can be a big factor in whether something gets mended or not, or how much I’d need to charge a customer.
I use safety pins to mark all the holes on commissioned items, so I can see more clearly what needs to be done and work out a plan. Also in my essential toolkit: needles and thread (orange top-stitching thread is a favourite), fabric scraps, a good steam iron and small, sharp scissors. For knits I love my needle-felting kit: wool roving in bright, fun colours and felting needles.
What re-make are you most proud of and why?
I love the dotty tea towel (above), which is an actual working tea towel in my house so I get to admire it often. Since I photographed it last year three new holes have appeared. It’s been fun adding new patches and stitches to the design as time passes. I’ll keep patching it until it disintegrates!
I’m also quite fond of the oven mitts, one of my first commissions and still going strong years later. They were burnt and missing chunks of stuffing when I got them. I restuffed them and covered the structural mend by “dipping” them in denim and a bit of bias binding. It was a lot of work but I think they’re beautiful and worth the effort. Their owner adores them, too, and they have pride of place in her kitchen.
What’s one sustainability trend that really excites you?
I love that repair has become cool – visible mending in particular. I think it’s great that techniques like kintsugi, boro and sashiko are becoming trendy and inspiring people.
Who inspires you now and who has influenced your thinking?
I love Karen Barbé’s use of colour and her small woven patches. Luke Deverell, aka Darn and Dusted, has a unique way with denim, all hand-stitched. Tom Van Deijnen, aka Tom of Holland, coined the term “visible mending” and is the master of proper, old-school technique. I love searching for #visiblemending on Instagram, but I also get ideas from embroiderers and textile artists, or an interesting shape or colour combination that someone might have posted.
What’s next for you and your brand?
I’m working out some basic pricing tiers to give visible-mending customers a better indication of costs up front. I’ve been timing all my mends recently, so I know how much time it really takes for each technique, which I can factor in to my prices.
In future I’d love to set up online courses so I can teach visible-mending workshops to people who don’t live in Australia.
What is the one book that you recommend people read?
The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More is fabulous and hilarious, which you wouldn’t expect from the cover. It combines fun and sustainability, two of my favourite things.
What is the one piece of advice you would give someone starting a sustainable brand?
Your product should be as beautiful and durable as your competitors’, if not more so. Sustainability is awesome and will be at the core of what you do, but most people will choose the cheapest or most beautiful item if faced with a choice. Also: don’t be afraid to have fun with colour. A lot of the sustainable clothing brands I see offer basics in white, grey and black. I like to have fun with my wardrobe and would rather buy a colourful dress I know I’ll wear forever from a commercial brand without green credentials than a sustainably made dress that doesn’t excite me.
Why should people buy from / commission you?
Not everyone has time to mend their clothes. Or you might not know how to approach a particular mend, afraid you might ruin your beloved garment in the process. If you hand it over to me, I’ll wave my creative magic wand and there’s a good chance you’ll love it more than you did before. “Better than new” is my aim. I want you to love your mended item so much that you’ll proudly show it off to everyone and get them thinking about repairs, too, because that’s the important bit. Visible mending can be beautiful and subversive, provoking bigger conversations about sustainability and fast fashion that we need to be having.