The Politics of Re-skilling

Learning to back-stitch

In the notebook I carry around (in my JEM bag), I’m keeping a growing list of experimental treatments we are trying out at the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative.  So far the list includes:

  • mending
  • altering
  • transforming
  • re-skilling
  • describing
  • storytelling
  • building community

This list also serves as a sketch for future blog topics; it’s worth exploring in-depth and out loud how and why we at the Initiative see these treatments as a way to support the vivacity and the tensile strength of human-textile rapports.

One of the items on the list that’s been on my mind a lot lately is re-skilling. As part of Deep Wearing and the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative, I’m undertaking my own informal re-skilling.  My academic education is not in fashion or design; it’s in critical theory and American Studies.  Although I spent a year when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation learning how to machine and pattern sew, my previous experience with needle and thread consisted of some classes I urged my mom to let me take at the YMCA in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1980s.  (I recall making a floral print elastic skirt and half of a pillow shaped like a heart.)  In the last couple of years I’ve been learning how to hand sew from Natalie Chanin, Diane Hall, and Olivia Sherif at Alabama Chanin.  I first met these incredible women when I brought a group of my NYU students to Alabama Chanin’s studio in Florence, Alabama, in conjunction with a yearlong course I was teaching on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  Since then, Natalie has supported Deep Wearing and the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative in all sorts of ways, including allowing me to attend the inspiring sewing workshops she offers.

At the last workshop, I spent a lot of time with Faythe Levine, driving around western Alabama, staying up all night talking, and sewing.  In one of our conversations (I was working on my back-stitch, and Faythe on reverse appliqueing a poncho), Faythe asked me if I’d learned to sew from my mother.

My mother does know how to sew, at least a little.  I remember her tender support of my endless adventures in dress-up, helping me create things out of the bright, spangled fabrics I favored. My sister and I joke about the time she somewhat distractedly repaired my sister’s favorite stuffed animal by re-sewing its ear onto its tail. But–as my mother and I have often spoken of since I began this project–it was a badge of pride in her family that she didn’t have to sew.

My great-grandmother, my mother’s maternal grandmother, Dora Olitsky (Dora Rosenberg before she was married), arrived on a boat from Russia in 1911. Like many young women participating in the massive wave of migration from Eastern Europe to the US during that time, she found work in one of the sweatshops in Greenwich Village.  After she married my great-grandfather Isaac, they moved to Ozone Park, Queens where they eventually bought a laundry.  A lot of the stories my mother’s mother told were about the washing and mending jobs she did as a child and teenager as part of the family business.  Or about the child care she provided to her younger brother while her parents worked in the laundry.

As is true for many immigrant families, the goal was to get the next generation out of the laundry and into the university.  My grandmother graduated from Brooklyn College and became a teacher, but it was really my mom who fulfilled the family’s educational dreams. One measure of the success of those dreams, at least for my family, was that no woman in the family should ever have to pick up a sewing needle again.

All of this has gotten me thinking about the politics of re-skilling.  One of the ways we narrate the Iron Age of Materiality, as I’ve come to think of the “disenchantment tale” we tell ourselves about our relationships to materiality today, is by decrying our loss of basic sewing skills.  We can’t patch a pair of jeans, we say, or hem a pair of pants, or mend a hole, or sew a button.  Our lack of skills adds one more heavy stitch to the leaden, ill-fitting coat of shame most of us wear when it comes to our relationship to materiality.

Part of the work of the Human-Textile Wellness Center is to teach people these skills, or let people exercise them, if this is part of how they feel they can best practice vibrant materiality in their human-textile relationships.  But I think it’s worth remembering that for many of us it doesn’t take too many back stitches before we find ourselves sewing through complex family histories of race, class, gender, ethnicity, migration, and work.  In other words, de-skilling isn’t just some vague story of decline, it’s often connected to important familial and political histories.

As part of the intake forms and ethnographies I’m collecting for Deep Wearing through the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative, I’ve started to ask people about their sewing histories.  This is one of the ways I’m trying to get a more finely detailed, densely woven picture of what’s going on with our relationships to materiality, and how the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative might become most meaningful to the people who visit us.  Here’s my mom, writing about her sewing history in her own words:

The talent for sewing skipped a couple of generations. My mother really didn’t want to sew though she embroidered nicely and knit some things.Those were the crafts she taught me just a bit though, since she was left-handed, to this day I apparently knit oddly for a right-handed person. Truly I don’t know how to sew beyond replacing a button. In Junior High School (Shallow JHS, aptly named) I had to take a home economics class in which I was required to sew one skirt which I attempted to do with a rather garish fabric. In the midst of its first wearing, the skirt split down the seam–which was entirely emblematic of not having my grandmother’s talent for sewing. I think there was a way in which my mother, most particularly, having heard the horror stories from my grandmother about the sweat shops, eschewed learning how to sew and didn’t encourage me in that regard either. She said as much. You are really the next person in that family line who learned how to sew…

The warmest memories I have of my grandmother Dora are connected with the exquisite doll clothes she made for me when I was a young girl. In particular I remember a robin blue, satin, lace-trimmed coat with silk lining that she made for my favorite doll Elyse (to whom I gave a very long last name in French that I don’t know how to spell). The doll was sent to me from a family my father befriended in Lyons, France during his army days.

Do you have a family sewing history you are willing to share?  Please leave a comment below.

Human-Textile Love

R., as a child, in a dress that hugged her

At a Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic at JEM, R. requested that we help her transform a slip she’d never worn.  Drawn to the slip by its “a pink apple print,” as she described it on her intake form, R. purchased it from a large department store in Berlin without trying it on.  In fact, she says she knew she’d “never wear it in its current shape.” Pressed to analyze what drew her to the garment, and what compelled her to purchase something she knew that would never wear, she remembered clothes with similar prints from her childhood.  One red.  One blue.  But it turned out the print is screen memory.  What she really loved about those childhood dresses was their smocking.  “Smocking feels like being hugged,” she said.  “I love being hugged.” Hanna Astrom helped her recreate this feeling, turning the slip into a skirt, with a wide piece of elastic that will hug R. around the waist.  The elastic, itself printed with birds and flowers, was fabricated during the same era of R.’s childhood, and salvaged by Michelle and David of JEM from a collection of dead stock.Hanna Astrom and R. transforming R.’s pink cherry print slip into a skirt, with elastic that will hug R.

The relationship between R. and her garments closely resemble the kind of generative intimacy between human-thing assemblages thought to have disappeared, at least in the west, in the 17th century.  At the same time, their relationship begins to accomplish in reality the aspirational hopes for a future materiality as imagined by philosophers including Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour, and Graham Harmon.   A world in which people and things will avow and honor their mutual relationships of attachment, entanglement, dependence, and care.  A world in which, as Harmon puts it, there is “sufficient room for individual beings such as wood, silk, or apples.”

R., lovely, in her hugging skirt

Thanks, Minh-Ha @Threadbared

Love and thanks to Minh-Ha T. Pham @Threadbared for this beautiful, full-length (long-sleeved) shout-out about “Deep Wearing” and the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative. I love that, and how, Minh-Ha pleathered her way into renewed intimacy with her long-stored dress. And how can you not love an emotional haptics that eschews the sheer for the “heavier materials”?


This month, I’ve been loving my friend Jessamyn Hatcher’s research, called “Deep Wearing: Affect, Materiality, and the Politics of Fashion.” Her exploration of the post-consumption life of clothing with regard to the environment, human emotion, and to the materiality of the garment itself is not only creative, her approach is smart and utterly elegant.  A case in point is the Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic she’s organized in Florence, Italy and in New York City. The Pop-Up Clinic is “an action research lab that documents people’s relationships to their clothing.” Put another way, it’s a space in which “the human-thing relationship” is reemphasized, reactivated, and restored through two significant, if undervalued, modes of fashion production: garment (re)construction and sartorial talk-story.

People are invited to visit the Pop-Up Clinic to repair, alter, or transform a garment (or some other textile). Along with this garment, she asks that you bring a “worn story” (a term Jessamyn…

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Deep Storage

From my immersion in the literature of waste management, I have learned that the technical term for clothing storage is “latent waste.”  The assumption behind the term is that stored clothing has lost both its utility and meaning for its wearers.  Storage is one step away from the termination of a person-clothing relationship, not a chapter in their ongoing, vibrant intimacy. How long a garment can be stored without being worn before it slips into the category of “latent waste” isn’t clear to me. I’m fairly certain, however, that many of the garments that people brought to the Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic on Sunday might count as L.W.  D.’s never worn but long stored thrift store score. K.’s late 1960s-era black long-sleeve blouse with the large ruffle under the neck, and a ripped seam under the armpit, rendered unwearable since 2006. C.’s work clothes with the hems she kicked out, and interred in her closet for the last six months. (Note to C. and to self: if you have a beautiful cerulean dress with three quarters sleeves that has complicated darts at the waist and closes up into a lovely, hidden keyhole at the back of the neck, put your shoes on after you put on your dress.)Sarah Scaturro and C., mending her dress. All photographs by Robert Hatcher

Yet, what we learned from visitors to the Wellness Center on Sunday–and what I routinely observe in my research for “Deep Wearing:  Affect, Materiality, and the Politics of Fashion”–tells a different storage story.  People don’t experience their archived clothing as “latent waste.” Rather, storage is a highly meaningful part of the relationship between a person and his or her vestments, and often in people’s lives–and life cycles–more generally.   When people store clothing, they are creating a vital and vibrant collection of archived capabilities, sensibilities, intimacies, histories, memories, sensations, and desires.  By keeping precious immanence close at hand, people allow for the possibility that they might activate or reactivate it at any moment.  For instance, when D. was asked to characterize her relationship to the “old 70s dress” that she bought knowing that it would not fit, and had been storing unworn for three years, she wrote:  “It’s a symbol of the way I see myself at my most free–sexy, loud, unapologetic.”  Storing the dress for D., in other words, is a form of self-storage.  Of “deep storage,” we might say.

One of the arguments of “Deep Wearing” is that clothing has uses beyond wear.  Our storage practices are one way we use clothing beyond donning it.  Storage can be a form of self-care.  Storage can be a way of curating present, past, alternative, parallel, future, or virtual time, selves, or others.  Storage, to put it a little differently, is creation–it’s something people MAKE.

What the term “latent waste” does accurately capture, however, is the ways stored clothing constitutes a vulnerable population.  The exigencies of storage space can put pressure on even the most lovingly curated collections. (Storage space is subject to the same dimensions of access, distribution, income, resources, dwelling typology, and region as any other sort of space.)  Aggressive, unpredictable incursions of moralized bouts of housekeeping and utilitarianism into the storage cabinet, drawer, and closet can lead to manifest waste. Likewise, a garment’s galvanic potentialities can atrophy if it lays dormant for too long.  In these instances, an archived garment that once shimmered with possibility may shade into melancholy or another unsustainable affect.  As D. wrote of her 70s dress, the “symbol” of a favorite free, sexual, unabashed self:  “It’s been waiting too long to be worn.”

The goals of the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative are both to study human-clothing relationships, and to administer experimental treatments to revive human-textile rapports.  It’s a special joy, then, to be able to share these pictures of D. and her 70s dress, revived.  She and designer Hanna Astrom removed the zipper from the back of the dress, and replaced it with a lace-up corset back, for maximum flexibility and, to my eye, deliciousness. Creating the loops for the corset was painstaking work.  I love the pride and accomplishment on D.’s face in this photograph:

And let’s talk about “free, sexy, and unapologetic”!

Do you have a storage story to share?  Please leave a comment!

“Mending Turned Transformational”

Thanks to everyone who came out on a lovely Sunday afternoon to participate in the Human-Textile Pop-Up Clinic.  And a HUGE thanks to the “healers”:  Hanna Astrom, Sarah Scaturro, Emily Spivack, and Michelle Zahabian and the staff of JEM. More documentation coming soon.  In the meantime, here’s the intake form of a late 60’s era black long-sleeved blouse with a large ruffle under the neck bought at the Salvation Army on 8th Street and brought back to life yesterday.




Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic, May 20, 2012: Introducing the “healers”

On Tuesday night, I gave a talk about the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative at the Standard Hotel East in NYC.  The talk was part of the MAKESHIFT–a week long conversation about fashion, design, craft, DIY, and community curated by Alabama Chanin.  (I was in the beautiful company of Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin, Rosanne Cash, Maria Cornejo of Zero + Maria Cornejo, Cathy Bailey of Heath Ceramics, with Andrew Wagner of KRRB on the mike.)  After the talk, some of the people I met were giving suggestions about what to call the amazing team assembled for Sunday’s Pop-Up at JEM Fabric Warehouse.  “Doctors”?  “Wellness practitioners”?  “Healers”?   Hanna Astrom, Sarah Scatturo, Emily Spivack, and Michelle Zahabian can tell us Sunday which moniker they like, or invent their own.  In the meantime, I want to share a little bit about each person who will be on hand Sunday to help visitors to the Center  repair, alter, or utterly transform a piece of clothing, and document your “worn stories.”

Hanna Astrom is from Lulea, North Sweden.  She studied design at Apelryddskolan and Tillskararakademin.  After completing her design training, she worked at the Swedish label Whyred.  She moved to NYC in 2007 and started Don the Verb (2007-2010) with a partner.  The line was sold at OAK and Eva and featured on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily, in the New York Times, and on Hanna is currently freelancing and doing custom orders for private and editorial clients.

Sarah Scaturro is the textile conservator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and an independent fashion curator.

Emily Spivack’s work spans social innovation, culture, and fashion. Prior to her current position as the editor-in-chief of PopTech, a network of world-changing people, projects, and ideas, Emily was the director of Dowser a media organization focused on social change. She is the editor of Sentimental Value, an online collection of anecdotes people tell about clothing in eBay posts, and Worn Stories, a collection of stories about clothing and memory. Emily also founded Shop Well with You, a body-image resource for women with cancer.

Michelle Zahabian is a native New Yorker who loves working with watercolor, paper, textiles, water, and liquid paints to show the world the different energy that we live in. After graduating from Pratt in 2007, with a BFA is Art ED and Painting, a world of creating continued in both LA and NY with very dedicated clients and kids supporting along the way. She worked with partnerships with schools all over the city as a teaching artist. In 2010 Michelle and her brother Dave decided to open JEM, a fabric warehouse full of artists, that produces clothing, furniture and DIY workshops and classes. The arts and creating keeps us alive and forever changing, and JEM is the home Michelle and Dave made to support that thought. She loves the ocean, textiles and very much believes in a revolution…the youth is starting to change…

And I’m Jessamyn Hatcher.   I teach about clothing and the other humanities in the Global Liberal Studies program at NYU.  I’m working on a book called “Deep Wearing: Materiality, Affect, and the Politics of Fashion” about the least examined parts of the life cycle of clothing–wear, storage, discard practices, and informal clothing economies.  I’m also working on a biography of Hortense Mitchell Acton based solely on Acton’s Callot Soeurs dresses and the ongoing chemical reactions taking place inside of them.  I am the co-editor, with Cathy N. Davidson, of No More Separate Spheres!:  A Next Wave American Studies Reader (Duke University Press). The Human-Textile Wellness Initiative grew out of my work with my NYU students.

“Worn Stories” collected from the audience of MAKESHIFT @the Standard/Work with Emily Spivack Sunday to craft your own

Among the most meaningful things I’ve ever found in a thrift store was a pair of dresses I unearthed at the Goodwill in Durham, North Carolina. One was a white summer dress with a fitted bodice and a full skirt dotted with embroidered flowers.  The other was a pink sequined number straight out of an old Italian movie.  What made the dresses so arresting wasn’t their cut or color, or even all the flowers and sequins. It was the fact that inside, attached to the labels, their former wearer had pinned stories:  “Picnic. 1957.  Hillsboro, North Carolina.” “Eastern Star Dance. May 8, 1958. Danced with M.K.”

I’ve since learned from the blog Emily Spivack created and curates to call these stories  “Worn Stories.”

On Tuesday night, as part of MAKESHIFT, we invited members of the audience to write their own.  Using the special cards and antique silver pins the incomparable Erin Stephenson had carefully placed in each gift bag, members of the audience fixed their stories to the back wall of the room where we were gathered at the Standard.  Together, the stories by audience members formed a kind of paper “quilt”; a record of the deep meaning clothing can play in our lives; and of the lovely evening.

Below are a few examples stories collected Tuesday evening.

Visitors to the Human Textile Pop-up Wellness Center on Sunday will have a chance to work with Emily Spivack to craft or further craft their stories.

You are invited to attend a Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic

   You are invited to attend a


Sunday, May 20, drop-in from 11am-3pm

@ JEM Fabric Warehouse

 355 Broadway, between Franklin and Leonard


No sewing experience necessary!

Jessamyn Hatcher, Global Liberal Studies, NYU

Hanna Astrom, Designer

Sarah Scaturro, Textile Conservator, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Emily Spivack, Creator and Editor, Worn Stories ( and Sentimental Value (

Michelle Zahabian, Artist and Co-owner of JEM

 RSVP jessamyn.hatcher at

The Human-Textile Wellness Center is a research lab that documents people’s relationships to their clothing, and a place where you can come to repair, alter, and transform your garments, and share stories about textiles that are meaningful to you.

Meridith McNeal, “Palm Portraits” (used with kind permission of the artist)