Lucy Ralph Uses Visible Repairs to Promote the Longevity of Clothing

10.26.23 | By
Lucy Ralph Uses Visible Repairs to Promote the Longevity of Clothing

Repair specialist Lucy Ralph describes herself as “a future-focused designer who loves to experiment and play.” A recent graduate, she studied surface pattern and textiles at Swansea College of Art, and is now continuing her practice within fashion, exploring concepts of visible repair and reworking garments.

Tell me about your childhood, education, and background and how you first became interested in repair.

I think my mum should get the credit – she is a farmer, so is out working in all weathers and regularly catching her clothes on fences and things – she is quite a frugal lady, so will just patch them back up using scrap materials – either from other damaged clothing, or our old school t-shirts and pillow cases. So seeing that as I grew up forged my attitudes – I really never viewed anything as waste, always finding a second life for things, and instead of buying new, making things out of what I already had. This translated into my interest in fashion, and I began upcycling and reworking my existing clothing, which developed into my creative practice today as I learned about the impact the fashion industry has on the environment, driven by the quick turnaround of clothing, and how much is just sitting in landfill having barely been worn. Repair became my specific focus when I discovered the concept of visible repair, following an internship with Hiut Denim in West Wales, where I experimented with Sashiko embroidery. Even the phrase “visible repair” I find really lovely – I love that when you wear a visible repair, you’re not only extending the life of the garment, but you are promoting an alternative fashion future. It becomes a conversation-starter that can influence and inspire others.

What appeals to you about repairing existing objects versus creating something new?

You are putting your imprint on the item and, with clothing especially, there is a big disconnect emotionally as we no longer see the value in it and how it’s made, so we heartlessly dispose of it or lose interest in it so quickly. When you repair clothing to add to its story, and it becomes a richer item you are more emotionally connected to.

There are many words for repair with slight nuances in their meaning – mending, fixing, hacking, restoring, repurposing… which do you prefer in relation to your work and why?

I say “repurposing” because nowadays many people dispose of their clothing before it’s even worn enough to become damaged so, through repurposing the item, you are (hopefully) repairing the relationship between the clothing and the wearer. I think it also depends on who your audience is, because there are some items of clothing that are really loved for how they first existed, so an invisible “fix” would be required, likewise with workwear.

How would you describe this project or body of work?

Playful, experimental, and hopeful.

What is the inspiration behind it – where did the idea come from?

It came from me recognizing my responsibility as a designer to, not only lower the impact of the pieces I was creating, but to also educate and facilitate change through connecting with consumers, so they are able to lower the impact, with the idea of visible repair being a conversation starter, as well as something to be taught in workshops. At the Green Grads hub in Heals during the London Design Festival recently, I collaborated with fellow Green Grad Lucianne Canavan, to host a repair and patchwork workshop, with an outcome of “The Green Jean” which was a second-hand pair of jeans adorned in patches made from scrap materials, by participants in the workshop.

Which repair techniques are you using and why?

Sashiko, because it’s simple but beautiful, and also because the history behind it connected to the ideas of visible repair, and seeing the value in our clothing. And patchwork because it is a good way of highlighting that even the smallest of scrap fabrics can be utilized, and not thrown away. I also love to create collages, so I view patchwork as a sort of textile collage, and therefore a way to put art on your clothing – or make the clothing into art.

How did you learn the techniques you use in your work?

Practice and experimentation, but also from books, online, and in workshops – Restoration London do some great ones.

How do your repairs change the function or story of the object?

You can transform your clothing however you like with repairs, you can make it more jazzy, or keep it smart. One of my lecturers informed me of the word “palimpsest” – something that has been reused or altered but still bears visible traces of its earlier form – when repaired clothing becomes a palimpsest, it adds layers of richness and value and it becomes a conversation-starter.

How visible or invisible is the repair and why is that important?

I like to work with visible repairs, mainly because I recognize that people lose interest in their clothing before it has even become damaged, and are always seeking newness – through visible repairs, you can create novelty, and communicate the idea that clothing is non-disposable, and we should be utilizing what we’ve already got.

How have people reacted to this project or body of work?

Really positively! I’ve been told by a few people that it’s good to see a more contemporary “designed” approach to repair and patchwork and that it’s not just tartan squares, opening people’s eyes to what it is and can be.

How do you feel opinions towards mending and repair are changing?

I start thinking that they are really changing in a positive direction, but then I realize that I’m mainly surrounded by people with similar mindsets to my own, and outside of my bubble it is business as usual. I think it is going to take a lot more noise, but also for bigger businesses and designers to start exploring concepts of repair and repurposing, and collaborating with consumers to facilitate it.

What do you think the future holds for repair?

I think we will get there eventually – sustainability is already the buzzword of the moment, with circularity starting to gain traction as well, but it’s going to require big businesses to really adapt and make honest changes. As people begin to explore circularity more, it is really going to breed innovation and great design, which is really exciting – starting to see “haute repair” on the runway would be sick!

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Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.