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Small is beautiful

'Make do and mend' has become a bit of a mantra for our current austere times. The term itself is borrowed - as seems entirely fitting - from a previous era of austerity. Now with AHRC funding, two cultural geographers based at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus and a local photographer have documented how repairing is much more than just mending. Often it is highly creative; an art in its own right.

Inspired by a number of repair and renewal shops in the South West of England, Dr Caitlin DeSilvey, a Senior Lecturer at Exeter's Environment and Sustainability Institute, and Dr James Ryan, Associate Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography, were joined by designer and photographer Steven Bond to create a body of work examining mending as an art form.

As well as exhibiting the work that came out of the project they also published a book, Visible Mending: Everyday repairs in the South West, in collaboration with publisher Colin Sackett of Uniformbooks. The project was called Small is beautiful?, paying homage to the early 1970s book written by economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher. But this is no rose-tinted look back at a time when people repaired and valued items more. This work has always gone on, in good times and bad.

"What came out of our research that we didn't expect was that it's not all about nostalgia or loss. A lot of these repairs shops are thriving," explains Caitlin. "We began looking at this when the recession first hit in 2008. Many shops were seeing their business increase as people recognised they couldn't afford to buy new so began instead seeking out repairers of toasters, shoes, sewing machines, all sorts. Now it's become quite trendy to mend and repair things."

The inevitable harking back to simpler times is, paradoxically, nothing new, points out James. "William Morris, for example, with his arts and crafts movement showed there is this eternal obsession with turning back from 'the new'. The current emphasis on 'make do and mend' is part of that. The cultural pendulum swings towards the new then back from it. However the shops we documented were outside that. There was something more sustained and steady about the services they provide. Much of it was about taking care of a community's needs, our shopkeepers felt a strong ownership of that. That's why it's of huge interest to us as cultural geographers, how people relate to where they live."

"It's also important to say that people’s attachment to objects is not just sentimental," adds Caitlin. "Lots of psychic energy has to be invested in replacing goods. It’s tiring and stressful. It's actually easier to repair if you can find someone to do it! Often you can't get the necessary parts but a skilled repairer can sometimes make them. This kind of material literacy pushes back against the induced obsolescence that’s often built into things made today.

"Our shopkeepers loved the challenge of problem solving, each job requiring them to work out how to fix something. Frequently they saw their repair as improving the object, not just fixing it. And they talked in quite intimate ways about how rewarding and satisfying it was to bring beaten-up and broken things back to life."

One of the shopkeepers featured, Simon Oliver who owns The Menders in Crewkerne Somerset, does just that. A trained cobbler and leather goods repairer, his skills enabled him to make shoes entirely from scratch. And to improvise mending boots most chain-store repairers would say were beyond repair.

"I have a customer with handmade riding boots made 40 years ago. He can't get them on anymore so I'm opening up the back and putting zips in for him. It takes a long time. There's a lot of adjustment involved. If I did it in a straight run it would cost him £100. Instead I'm doing it as and when I get a moment so I don't notice the time spent. That way I can afford to do it for half the price and we're both happy.

"I've also relined lovely old leather bags for customers who've been coming to me for years. Some people come to us from all over the country as we've been here a long time and many can't get that kind of work where they are. This job is not a cash cow. Some of our work isn't economic but we take them on anyway and do them alongside jobs that pay the bills.

"When I began in 1984, as an apprentice to a local cobbler, we only did shoe repairs. Now we've diversified into multi-service repair. The internet hasn't done our trade much good as it sells cheap shoes, but at the same time it's given us a way to diversify because people who buy ill-fitting shoes online bring them to us to fix! We're constantly reexamining and reinventing ourselves."

James says objects can be powerful carriers of emotional meaning, which is why someone might keep a handmade pair of boots for 40 years. "It's been fascinating to see how deeply attached people get to ordinary things. This is why we worked with Steven. His beautiful photographs are a way into these powerful emotions, family history and sense of belonging. The whole thing has been very memorable for us and we hope our work has transcribed that for others to appreciate."

Steven became involved with the project because at the time his family's ironmonger business in Somerset was closing after 210 years and four generations. "I was photographing it from a personal point of view to record it and a mutual friend introduced me to Caitlin and James. Without them I wouldn't have known the scope that could be achieved from a project like this.

"When we exhibited the photos there was a tangible level of emotional involvement from people looking at them. That's because it was all about investment in people and places; investment from the heart not the wallet. My favourite aspect of the project was being able to document what these craftspeople stand for - what my dad and family stood for. They are community workers, embedded into where they live and work.

"My dad used to spend an hour mending someone's pram then charge them 20p for the bolt! My sister, who ran the ironmongers with him for many years, realised this was financially untenable. But socially, it's to be treasured. There's a personal investment in repair work right down to your boots."

Polly Gifford, director of Bridport Arts Centre, Somerset, ran one of the exhibitions of the project. "I could see these photographs had been done to a very high standard. It was important we displayed them in the foyer and cafe where people could get close to them and really connect. We have a lot of independent traders in this area so our visitors could really relate to it. We also held an event where people discussed the work.

"Partnerships like this between arts centres and universities are incredibly fruitful and that was the motivation for me. We've stayed in touch and Caitlin has continued to contribute."

Valuing repair work is one way to cope with these environmentally-sensitive times. But there's another payoff says James: "If you buy into the desire to have the latest, newest, most shiny item then you're never satisfied. It's a merry-go-round you can't get off. Some people have never got on this carousel. They find life far less stressful as a result."

Article by Laura Marcus

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