by Keavy Martin
To mend, to amend, to make amends. This project occurs at the intersection of these three concepts: all of which, in English, have a common origin in the Old French amender and thus in the Latin ēmendāre. As the OED explains, the prefix ē— is short for ex—, or “out” (“out of,” “from”), here added to the root “mendum,” meaning a fault. Ēmendāre: to ‘out’ a fault, in the sense of removing it. This is a word of potential but also of some danger.
To “mend” is to fix, to heal. Bones mend; tears in fabric can be mended. With reference to clothing, mending can have thrifty, practical, and even sustainable connotations: something is fixed rather than being discarded or replaced. Despite the usefulness of mending, it is humble work, and often private, scarcely discussed. One might also think of the care-taking, even the love, that goes into such an activity: love for the object, which is to be preserved for further use, and love for the person who wore the hole in the stocking heel, who has borne and now will be relieved of this discomfort. That the word is gendered, strongly evoking the maternal, should also be kept in mind.[i]
To “amend,” however, is to correct. We might think of a contract or constitution—a text presumed inanimate, which will not be shamed in having to be amended. Yet the history of this term includes a now-obsolete use in which the object being amended is a person: Charles Richardson’s 1839 English dictionary defines this verb as follows: “To free from deficiency, fault, or blemish; to repair, to correct, to improve, to reform, to recover; to correct, to chasten, or chastise” (22). The OED’s entry for “amend” notes that the 1535 Coverdale Bible makes use of this term in Matthew 3:2, when John the Baptist preached in the ‘wilderness’ of Judea: “Amende youre selues the kyngdome of heuen is at honde.” “Amend yourselves”—later versions render this simply, “repent!” In this usage, a human becomes the flawed object, their ‘fault’ being less a sign of wear but rather a defect, a deviance, something inherent. The amender, then, acts benevolently, taking pity on the flawed, ridding others of their faults—and proposing to save them in the process.
Knitted fabrics—like those used for socks—have two sides (see photos above), conventionally labeled the Right Side (which faces the world) and the Wrong Side (which is often less beautiful and tends to stay facing inward). I think of the English word “mending”—and the action that goes along with it—of likewise having a hidden pattern on its underside, less visible but nonetheless interlaced with and essential to the other. Mending—this humble, loving action; this expression of care—conceals on its wrong side a pattern of saintliness, of presumptuous benevolence, of paternalism. It assumes that a hole is a flaw; it relishes the opportunity to fix it, whether the object wants that fixing or not.
Mending, darning: these were everyday activities at Indian Residential Schools—for girls, in particular. Until the advent of cheap, mass-produced machine-knit socks, darning would have been a common activity of most women, even the wealthy ones. But in institutional settings, this work had a pedagogical purpose beyond utility: K. Tsianina Lomawaima writes about the ubiquity of manual labour in U.S. Federal Indian schools, wherein girls were required to spend half of their school day “sewing hundreds of shirts, darning thousands of socks, polishing miles of corridor” not only to keep the schools and their uniforms operational but also to learn obedience to those in power, a key component of the ‘transformation’ that these schools aimed to bring about in Indigenous children (230). To put it bluntly, Indian residential schools—like Federal Indian schools—aimed to amend Indigenous children, presuming them deficient, desiring them to be flawed. In requiring girls to mend, officials fantasized that they were likewise supervising a process of spiritual repair: a metanoia, a change of mind, a conversion.[i]
Our Creative Conciliations research project started out in 2013 with a mandate to “think beyond reconciliation” toward other models of addressing the colonial past and present and of making better relations in these lands. In that spirit, this is an amends making project: it aims to think about mending, amending, and making amends through the work of darning—a task, as my both my grandmothers have pointed out, that nobody does anymore (our machine-knit socks wear long, when they do finally wear out, they are swiftly replaced).[ii] Central to this project is the hypothesis that mending, as an embodied action, can shed light on both the problems and possibilities of making amends in ways that reading and writing alone cannot. “Amends,” as a plural noun, is something that colloquially must be made—it is a continual and, most importantly, a material process of paying for, or giving something, “to make reparation for any injury or offence” (OED). It is necessary but also carries risk, for what ought to render the amends-maker penitent, contrite, and humble could potentially cast them as innocent, or benevolent, selflessly bestowing improvement upon deficient things.[iii] Can amends be made (can mends be made) without this kind of piracy—this wresting of moral capital from the things themselves?
As I begin this work (my first actual creative research project in a career built on critiquing the creative projects of others), I am currently in the process of locating socks—and of sock-wearers willing to entrust me with their mending. The first pair came from our son’s grandmother, who one day, while watching me knit, began to talk about having had to darn the heels of socks as a young girl in residential school. Having never darned (having never been required to darn), I listened to her describe the process of weaving in a new fabric to fill the hole… and I try this work now with her in mind, with the difference in our circumstances in mind, in hopes of offering her something, even something small, and in hopes of learning something about mending, if only to more closely examine the affects and intentions and possibilities of amends-making.
Asking people for their holey socks is a very strange thing and can only happen in the context of particular relationships: a certain intimacy or trust is required. As this practice unfolds, the guiding questions will be: how to care for these socks (whether hand- or machine-knit, whether wool or synthetic), how to respect their worn spots and even to celebrate them for the history that they keep, how to listen attentively—both to the wearers and to the socks themselves—as to how (and whether) the mending should take place. And, most importantly, how to make these mends without amending, without necessarily understanding the hole to be a flaw, and, most importantly, without joining the ranks of benevolent white women knitters performing acts of charity for the sake of their own souls?
I welcome any feedback on this project and can be reached at keavy [at] ualberta [ dot] ca
Thank you to Rosa Wah-Shee for talking to me about darning socks at Breynat Hall residential school in Fort Smith, NWT. Her story inspired this research.
My gratitude goes out to those, like my Grandma Margaret, who have entertained my inquiries about holey socks and who are willing to discuss darning mushrooms and other such things.
Thanks also to my colleague Prof. John Considine for helping me to navigate the OED—and for alerting me to the work of lexicographer Charles Richardson.
[i] Metanoia, “after thought” or change of mind, is the Greek concept of conversion that was rendered into English as “amend yourselves” (or later, “repent”). Lomawaima also documents the many ways in which children resisted this process and other impositions . It is highly possible that for a residential school survivor today, to simply toss a worn sock into the garbage might be an important act of resistance.
[ii] In fact, a mending revival is underway, thanks to 21st century interests in sustainability and extending the life of clothes. For a start, see the work of Tom of Holland and of Jonnet Middleton (futuremenders).
[i] For brilliant discussions of mending, see Jonnet Middleton’s “Mending” or Anna König’s “A Stitch in Time: Changing Cultural Constructions of Craft and Mending”.