Q and A With Creative Genius Katrina Rodabaugh
This fiber artist and author is committed to giving garments a second life thanks to centuries-old stitching.
A scroll through fiber artist Katrina Rodabaugh’s Instagram feed takes you into a world of perfectly saturated fabrics created with natural dyes, carefully constructed clothing, thoughtful stitches mending well-loved garments and photos encouraging followers to slow down for just a few minutes and appreciate their surroundings.
Committed to sustainable, eco-friendly style, Katrina’s focus on the art of mending clothing and promoting slow fashion is receiving even more attention with her latest book, "Mending Matters," a primer that offers how-to guides on caring for damaged garments and essays on the benefits and importance of mindfulness that mending can result in.
Learn more about what makes Katrina a Creative Genius.
Tell us a little bit about you, your work and your background.
My fiber arts training started as child at the side of my mother’s sewing machine. I left home, went off to college to focus on environmental studies, graduated and went to work for urban arts organizations — theaters, galleries, community art centers — before going to graduate school for poetry and book arts.
It was my book arts professor who encouraged me to take my fiber arts work more seriously. So, I started making huge fiber installations and working with choreographers to use fiber as sets, costumes and interactive exhibits. But then the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April 2013, and soon after, my creative focus turned towards sustainable fashion. All my interests came together with sustainability, fiber, arts and ethical fashion. That was five years ago, and I haven’t looked back.
For someone who isn’t familiar with the slow-fashion movement, what’s it all about?
It varies from person to person. I see it as a general shift toward a more ethical and environmentally friendly wardrobe. This might mean secondhand, homemade, a temporary fast on buying new clothing, or supporting ethical designers, but it also might just mean mending what you already own. It’s mostly about mindfulness — realizing that the clothing you purchase has a history before your closet and trying to keep it in your closet for as long as possible before it heads to the landfill.
Why is it important to know more about where our garments come from?
Our garments have a complicated history that we should better understand. Where garments are made, how garment workers are treated, what fibers are used to make our garments, what are the values of the companies we’re supporting — these are all considerations. While we consider our garment’s origins, we also need to consider their entire lifecycle, from farm to closet to biodegrading back on the land, in order to see how we can work toward better practices for people and the planet.
What was your biggest takeaway from your Make Thrift Mend project? Make Thrift Mend started in August 2013, just months after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed. At first, I just intended it to be a one-year art project known as “social practice” or “art as action.” I didn’t buy new clothing for one year while I focused on making simple garments, buying secondhand and mending. But that was five years ago, and this project is still very much alive.
I’ve shifted the parameters each year, like adding new clothing if it’s organic cotton, ethically made or locally made; turning to my sewing materials for sustainability and longevity; pushing myself to make more complicated garments or experiment with mending, dyeing or new fiber techniques. I think my biggest takeaway is that sustainable fashion, like sustainable living, is a journey that looks differently for everyone. It’s most important to just begin.
What can readers look forward to in your upcoming book, Mending Matters?
"Mending Matters" contains 17 how-to mending projects on denim, cotton, linen and silk. It also shares five how-to projects that redesign secondhand garments into hand-stitched accessories, like turning a linen shirt into a shawl. It has six essays about slow fashion and my fashion fast, 12 inspirational quotes from sustainable fiber folks, extensive resource lists, 200 color photographs and a foreword by one of my slow fashion heroes, Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin.
If you’ve never mended a garment, what kind of supplies do you need to get started? Are there certain garment types that are harder to mend than others?
You really just need thread, a needle and scissors. That’s what I love about it. It’s so simple, and the tools are so basic. With time, you might find you also appreciate a thimble, various types of thread for various garments, safety pins, fabric pencils and rulers. But you can really begin with very basic tools.
Sashiko is featured regularly in your Instagram posts of your mending work. What draws you to this type of stitching?
I’ve looked at mending and darning across continents. Sashiko and Boro from Japan, Kantha from India, darning throughout Europe and even American patchwork quilting can be considered creative repair. But Sashiko and Boro really stole my heart. I think vintage Boro is some of the most beautiful repair work I’ve ever seen. There’s such a depth and history to the garments, and it evokes an emotional response. It’s gorgeous. And it made me consider the grace and wisdom a garment acquires through wear and repair.
But, technically, most of these international mending traditions utilize the same basic running stitch, and that was very appealing to me too. It’s a simple stitch, and through repetition, it creates gorgeous repairs. I’m most interested in the utility of repair and see the aesthetics as secondary. Firstly, I want the garment to be wearable again, and secondly, I consider design elements like line, color, scale, shape, etc. Sashiko is a huge influence on my work but so are the heirloom quilts made by my grandmothers.
I think my background in fiber arts and fine arts allows me to experiment with my mending and push the boundaries of what might be considered basic repair. Mending was a necessary skill that people used around the world to fix their clothes. We just need to hold on to these skills and realize they are still relevant in modern society. And, of course, they can be so beautiful, too.
How do you like to incorporate natural dye materials into your work?
I work frequently with high-quality secondhand fibers like linen, silk, denim, et cetera, and these fibers can all be dyed with plants. So, I dye secondhand garments. I dye fabric scraps for patches, and I recently started knitting again, so I’m experimenting with dyeing skeins of yarn. I use mostly whole plants as dyes so these materials are foraged in nearby fields, grown in my garden or saved from my kitchen compost. Natural dyeing is a great way to connect with the local landscape and deepen my relationship to plants.
What would you tell the person who might think they couldn’t create and maintain a handmade wardrobe?
Well, I don’t have an entirely handmade wardrobe either, so you definitely don’t have to! But I do have several handmade pieces, and they really bring great joy, satisfaction, and self-reliance to my wardrobe. Just starting with one homemade, mended or naturally-dyed accessory is a great place to begin. Try a scarf, a shawl or a tote bag. It’s like slow fashion. Just think about that very next garment you purchase and slow down. See if you can purchase it sustainably, secondhand, make it, or if you even need it at all. Just start with the very next garment.
What’s coming up for you and your work?
I’m so excited about my upcoming book, "Mending Matters." It was published on October 16, 2018, with Abrams Books, and I’m lining up an exciting tour of sustainable fashion panels, book parties, and workshops. I teach mending workshops around the country, but not everyone can attend my classes in person. So, this book is a great solution to share my mending techniques with people around the world but in their own homes. If you can’t come to my workshop, now my workshop can come to you. It’s thrilling. You can see the book tour on my website.