The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Caretaker report

26 June 2017

Esther McManus

No more cheap cotton for you

Imagine a world where fibres are scarce and clothes are no longer disposable:

Dawn breaks over The Clearing, and the mist begins to clear on the lake. The sun rises over Old Town Meadow. You take a stroll to ease into a morning of chopping wood and tending the veg garden. In the afternoon, you perch by the river to stitch, stitch, stitch.

During my week at The Clearing I spent time each afternoon mending and darning - giving socks, clothes and blankets some TLC to make sure they last a little longer in good shape. I'm hardly an expert darner, but mending socks and jumpers has become a hobby in recent months, with my huge backlog of holey elbows, toes and heels in need of repair. I brought some of these along with me, and invited others to give me items for mending. This provided a pleasing glimpse into a post-financial economy, where sock-darning could be used in exchange for food and toothbrushes (both much appreciated by day 3). Not only ripe with exchange value, darning is an enjoyable skill to learn and share, and a therapeutic and satisfying way to spend an odd hour in the outdoors.

On the first day I uncovered an unexpected split in the responses to my darning afternoons, between those I'll call ‘wartime babies’ (visitors who told me they were born in the 1940s and earlier) and others – ‘prosperity babies’ (those who I guessed were born since the 1960s).

Among the ‘wartime babies’, a standard response to my darning was 1) incredulity that I wasn’t using a darning mushroom (the fact that I also didn’t have electricity or mains water seemed to be much less troubling), closely followed by 2) horror at the idea that the future might involve a return to darning and/or clothes that don’t contain nylon (an invention that is evidently held in the highest esteem). There was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a gender split between the ‘wartime babies’: women were the most appalled by a defence of darning, describing it as “the most uncreative chore”, something accompanied by a mix of tedium and shame. Men generally seemed less familiar with the practice of darning, but acknowledged that they have fewer holes in their socks since the introduction of nylon.

In contrast, the ‘prosperity babies’ were overwhelmingly ready and willing to learn darning and mending skills. Contemporary tendencies towards convenience seem to provoke disconnection and frustration - people are not proud of their ignorance and lack of self-sufficiency. Equally, sinisterly-low prices and extreme quantities of goods have bred discomfort, alongside the lack of conversation about who is really paying for our consumerist society. ‘Prosperity babies’, who had grown up in years of plenty, seem to appreciate that changes will have to be made in their lifetime, and were interested and serious about what this future might look like.

There were many elements of the pared-back life at The Clearing that ‘wartime babies’ were familiar with, but none elicited the same brand of disgust as darning. Lighting fires every day has a certain charm to it. Growing vegetables is a much-loved activity, and visitors joyfully talked to me about their allotments. Living with few possessions in a small space appealed to many, young and old. But the contempt for darning, and what it unleashed in the ‘wartime babies’ was striking. They made it very clear: they’re not going back to a time before nylon, and the world can burn to a cinder before they darn another sock or elbow.