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  • Claire Kalikman

Katrina Rodabaugh - Giving New Life to Your Old Clothes

Photos by Karen Pearson for Mending Matters by Katrina Rodabaugh, published by Abrams Books


WARDROBE CRISIS: It’s soon to be a book (congrats!) but tell us about the origins of Make Thrift Mend. KATRINA RODABAUGH: “I wanted to create a project that would help me identify more environmentally-friendly and ethical solutions in my personal wardrobe. For one year, I didn’t buy any new clothing but focused on making simple garments, shopping secondhand, and mending what I owned. Seven years later, I’m still working on this same project, though each year the parameters and priorities shift. “My last book, Mending Matters, was an extension of the mending workshops I’ve offered since 2013. The new one, Make Thrift Mend, is a written summary of what I’ve learned through the ongoing project.”

Make, Thrift, Mend is out April 2021. More info here.

WARDROBE CRISIS: When did sustainability really kick in for you? KATRINA: “I was an Environmental Studies major in college and then went to work for arts organizations. Sustainability was important to me personally and academically, but it didn’t really intersect with my career path until I started Make Thrift Mend. In graduate school, I was a writing and book arts major and I’d use recycled paper for art projects and source recycled fabrics for art installations, but I wasn’t thinking systemically about sustainability as it related to my career or my larger community.

“In 2015, we moved from a small apartment in Oakland, CA to an 1820s farmhouse in a small town in the Hudson Valley of New York. This created an opportunity to create more circular systems in our home like large kitchen composts, multiple gardens, tending chickens and bees, and connecting my studio work with the natural dye plants I grow in my backyard. “I think sustainability is a journey. I think it’s personal. I think it should look differently for each individual or household based on income, geography, climate, culture, aesthetics, lifestyle, professions, etc. But I also think sustainability has to go beyond materials and consider how it sustains or supports a community of people. It needs to take an intersectional approach and also push for systemic reform that can be translated into policy. So, I think it’s a moving, living, breathing philosophy that needs to stay dynamic. Sustainability needs to be able to focus on the micro and the macro—the opportunities for individual impact and the need for systemic shifts.”

Photos by Karen Pearson for Mending Matters by Katrina Rodabaugh, published by Abrams Books

WARDROBE CRISIS: That’s beautiful. How do you tackle it, practically? What about the materials you use? KATRINA: “I think sustainable practices need to be defined by the individual, and we also need to be fluid in our definitions. I live in a small town of 2,000 people more than 100 miles from any major urban center. So, what’s available locally for me is very different from what’s available to someone with access to various shops in Manhattan. I have access to regional fiber farms, but not local fiber shops - which is very different from an urban setting. I try to prioritize biodegradable materials whenever possible. I also try to support small businesses, family farms, and BIPOC, LGBTQ, or women-owned independent businesses whenever possible.

“I want my tools and materials to be beautiful, lasting, practical, and also environmentally-friendly—so that might mean handwoven fabrics transported across the country from a women-owned shop but they’re biodegradable materials with incredible craftsmanship. Or it might mean sourcing local fiber from local sheep farms. Or it might mean growing my own dye plants instead of purchasing extracts. It’s complicated. But I think it’s about acknowledging there is no perfect answer and then making choices that are as aligned with my values as possible.

“I also donate a proceed of my seasonal shop earnings to social justice and environmental organizations. I collaborate with artists and makers. I offer goods and services at a variety of price points. Because I think all of this is part of a sustainable practice too. It’s more than using organic cotton and biodegradable packaging—although it’s certainly that too.”

Photos by Karen Pearson for Mending Matters by Katrina Rodabaugh, published by Abrams Books

WARDROBE CRISIS: In your work, how do you combine art and making with writing? KATRINA: “At this point, writing, art, and crafts are all intertwined in my work. I used to say the art and crafting allowed my hands to lead while the writing allowed my brain to lead but I think that’s like saying my feet go one way and my arms another—instead, they each contribute to the whole. “I’ve taken an interdisciplinary approach to education and creativity for as long as I can remember. So, it’s also instinctual for me—visual work, community work, and writing work all express the same ideas with various nuances. I think it’s through those variations that I feel more confident or more competent. Sometimes the forms don’t intersect in one project, like, say, making limited edition mending kits for my shop. But other times art, styling, design, making, and writing all converge in one singular focus like a craft book.”

WARDROBE CRISIS: Where do you want to be in five years? KATRINA: “Before the pandemic I would’ve had a succinct answer. I’m a very goal-oriented and structured person—I thrive in a long-term plan with thoughtful objectives. But since the pandemic it’s been so hard just keeping my small business afloat while tending my young children and trying to stay on deadline for big projects. It’s felt impossible sometimes. So now I just have to take it one small journey at a time. I have no idea what I’ll be doing in five years. But I know it will be motivated by a desire to foster connection through art, fashion, nature, sustainability, relationships, and awareness. That might be teaching, publishing, making art, hosting workshops, or it might be something I can’t conceive of right now. But I trust it will come.”

Image via @katrinarodabaugh Instagram

WARDROBE CRISIS: Let’s talk about the power of mending, and other projects we can do while staying home… KATRINA: “Mending requires few tools, only basic stitches, and it provides a creative outlet and a practical repair—no sewing machine needed. It’s also a great time to read books, watch films, test recipes, and plot out gardens for warmer weather. Even when I lived in huge cities with only a window box or front step for gardening—I loved imagining what plants I could grow at home.”

WARDROBE CRISIS: What do you think is the value of a slow fashion company in an increasingly fast fashion world? KATRINA: “I think the value is in the ability to experiment, innovate, and redesign. Many slow fashion companies are quite small and nimble and with this comes the ability to pivot much quicker than a larger company. Independent businesses also have the ability to align their actions with their values and collaborate with local organizations, make quarterly donations, and amplify the voices of folks that are not being celebrated in the mainstream. “I live on a limited budget but I try to support indie designers because I know their contributions have the potential to solve massive challenges for larger industries. And, as a small business, I know that every consumer dollar is a vote of confidence to keep going. If a small fashion brand can use local fiber, recycle returned clothing, and support their local community through donations, collaborations, or job development—these efforts can be mirrored on a larger scale. Imagine the impact! These solutions can be revolutionary to an industry.

“It’s often the community-led thinking that influences policy makers to advocate for systemic reform. Of course, policy can make an impact on a gigantic scale and it can overturn institutional bias. But the grassroots activists and independent thinkers often supply that visionary thinking. So, I think the small slow fashion businesses are the visionaries we need to influence the larger industry. And, of course, it will take a community of activists to influence policy to make larger shifts. But the visionaries are so crucial, especially now. Art, design, literature, music, dance, and crafts are so important in this crisis. They give us hope. And hope is always instrumental in affecting change.”

Check out more of Katrina’s work on her website and Instagram. Interview with Claire Kalikman. Want more interviews with amazing fashion talent? Subscribe to our newsletter.

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