Stories within Stitches: Conversations with Anne Schwalbe and Ayumi Paul
What can a single garment tell us about its maker and the materials that comprise it? How does its story change as time passes? Anne Schwalbe and Ayumi Paul are two Berlin-based multidisciplinary artists whose hand-sewn textiles reflect their respective interest in the transformation of fabrics, of experiences. With distinct points of view, both women use their unique garments as methods of exploring seemingly duelling ideas: creation and mending, tangibility and ephemerality, timelessness and ageing.
Words by Stephanie Gill, photos by Anna Rosa Krau and Anne Schwalbe
In her photography, Anne Schwalbe captures vague snapshots, foggy moments in time from unknown places. Her hand-sewn sweater, which she sells in her online shop along with her photographs and photo books, is also a snapshot of the artist’s style. Inspired by a design she conceived 20 years ago, it’s something like an “every sweater.” It represents functionality, durability, and an almost rebellious resistance to fickle trends.
Meanwhile, violinist Ayumi Paul’s Boro dress is personal in a different way, comprised of fabric scraps and stories from many women in her life. Inspired by Boro, the traditional Japanese patchworking technique, Paul’s hand sewed her dress to be worn during her 2018 performance of “WE ARE WE” at the National Gallery in Singapore. The dress holds so many personal stories, that it, too, has become universal, a record of collective memory.
While these garments may represent moments in time, they are far from static. The women represented in Paul’s dress are ageing along with the dress itself so that the pieces exist in a constant state of transformation despite their apparent stillness within the garment. And although Schwalbe appreciates garments that she can wear for years, she still appreciates the slow and inevitable process of deterioration, welcoming it even as it signals the need for new pieces to be made.
There’s intentionality in working with one’s hands, a deliberate slowness and attention that can both honour and elevate the everydayness of objects. Within the threads of these seemingly simple articles of clothing are personal narratives and histories that are lovingly crafted together, connecting us to the lives of others and serving as invitations for empathy.
The Dress, Ayumi Paul
What made you decide to create your Boro dress for “We Are We”?
Since it was a commission of my own work, I was very free to do what I wished to do and once I was in Singapore, I was just following my intuition – this is how I often work. And one day I stumbled across the story of the group of Chinese women, a rather large group of women who came to Singapore in the 30s and worked as construction workers and formed sisterhoods. And I actually found two of them, who are almost 100 years old.
They do a lot of patchworking – they come together with other women, and they patchwork blankets and coats together. And so this is where the patchwork idea came from. I have a partly Japanese background, and I remember the history of Boro from Japan. It was actually my last day in Singapore when I realised that I wanted to create clothing made of the many, many stories of the many women in my life.
It was a bit magical, because I had a layover over in Paris flying back from Singapore, and I stepped into an antique store, and I found this original kimono. You rarely find them, because it's nothing that the Japanese people consider worth it to preserve. And when I saw it, that was really a sign for me to go in that direction. The Boro that I found in Paris was really beautiful; it had stains from people who had it before, and small holes. Using something that is the memory of a collective story already, and to kind of repair and reshape it with new stories that I would bring to it, was a big part of my inspiration.
Did your family collect any pieces of Boro? Was there a personal connection there before you started working with textiles?
Before going to Singapore and meeting all these women and seeing the patchwork, Boro was not really within my awareness. I knew of it, and I might have seen an image of it online, but I hadn’t even seen a real piece of Boro. It was really from the moment that I suddenly felt the desire to create a piece of clothing from the scraps of other women that I started to thoroughly research Boro. And now, the more I know, the more I see of Boro, the more I am totally in love with this concept, of patchwork and working with textile this way. It’s something very archaic; maybe it’s something that that was always part of our culture, even before the concept of culture existed. And I relate to it in a feminine way, but not in the sense that it’s women’s work – feminine in the sense of giving birth, preserving, being very close to the natural process of birth and decay.
How have these themes of ephemerality and transformation inspired your work?
Maybe because music itself is an ephemeral material if you want to call it a material – that has always been part of me. But I’ve also never been interested in things that don’t change. I’m interested in relationships, and relationships are ephemeral. I feel that actually life is about transformation, and if my work is about anything, then it’s about life. I never had any desire to be inspired by anything else. I’m fascinated by the awareness of decay and death, and the life-death cycle together with the concept of time is one of the biggest wonders of life. It feels very natural that this would be the centre of my work. I have a very good friend who once said that nothing is forever, and everything is always changing. And now, whenever a work of mine is ready, I realise that this could have been the title: “Nothing is Forever, Everything is Always Changing.”
What have you learned through the process of mending, either about yourself or the life-death cycle?
I think I discovered many new stories about what shapes a life by asking women to give me something. It was very touching because all of the women gave me something that was very personal to them, and it seemed like there was a natural wish for each of them to bring something of their own story consciously into a bigger narrative – and they didn’t even know what the other women were going to be. I was very fascinated how easily this work grew and how strong each contribution was, and with how much trust each of them gave something without knowing if maybe they would be the only ones opening up with a very personal story.
It was beautiful to see, to experience it so intensely through the process of creating the dress, that we really are all part of a system. None of us is alone; we are always influenced by everything that is around us, and we are continuously with this web shaping the life within us and the life around us. What really fascinates me about this dress is that all the women who gave something are, as we all are, in the process of ageing, maturing. So even though the dress might look superficially the same way it looked a year ago, it’s changing with every second because all the women in this dress are changing. And some of the women who are in the dress are actually not alive anymore, because the fabric was given by sisters, by daughters, by women who wished to connect those women to a bigger story. So, I think I didn’t learn anything new. But I was so encouraged and confirmed in my belief in the interconnectedness of all stories.
I love this dress so deeply because even though it has already been created, it never loses that potential of continuous transformation. I sometimes think that I might do a series of dresses throughout my life, and my work with material and textiles and patchwork will definitely continue.
How do you think traditional forms of mending and repurposing might fit in when we consider the popularisation of creative reuse and up-cycling?
I think that mending and up-cycling is hopefully going to be a big part of not our future, but of the now, because after the enormous speed that industrialisation took, we all got used to being consumers. For most parts of the Western world, it has become so normal to order online and to disconnect and trust in the ability to consume endlessly, and up-cycling is such a beautiful way to be more in charge of the of the material, of our everyday life.
I am recently very fascinated with Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, which I find to be so true today when I look at the world around me. And collectively, we are so alienated to the organic process of life and death, and it doesn’t feel healthy to me. And it is also not sustainable; endless consuming is a one-way street. Finding new purposes for things and up-cycling is something that is I think is going to be very important. It is already important for our everyday life. It’s nothing that has to do with art, it’s going back and valuing the resources we have around us.
I think when we consider ourselves as part of the cycle, then the process of recycling and reusing becomes normal. It might be something more feminine, to never lose that connectedness to our outside and inside worlds, to just acknowledge that everything is a cycle and to produce art, for example, as part of the cycle, and not as a new creation of the world. Being part of the cycle unlocks the very powerful creativity I think in all of us. And this is something true that interests me: What’s the deepest point of creativity? Not as part of my ego, trying to create something to show off to the world. But rather being very rooted and enjoying the process of creativity.
See more of Ayumi’s work: www.instagram.com/ayumipaul, http://ayumipaul.com/.
All images by Anna Rosa Krau are part of Ayumi Paul’s new project “Eternal Love” which will be released at the end of January 2019.
The Sweater, Anne Schwalbe
What inspired your original sweater design?
I always liked to sew. I had already started sewing clothes for myself when I was 14, and in 1999, I made a sketch of a sweater I wanted to have. Sometime later, I stumbled into a big fashion store and found almost exactly the same cut of a woollen sweater. I bought it and have worn this sweater for years. I made patches for the elbows and really liked how the fringes/seams started decaying. I wore this sweater to all my exhibition openings for years. I still have it, but at some point, I stopped wearing it.
Meanwhile, I began sewing felted wool sweaters on my own. First for myself, then for friends. I just had a look at my most favourite clothes and drew a cut after them. I sew by hand because I like this more than sewing with a machine. It’s not so loud, and nothing can happen with the yarn tension. I just like the process more, and I think it looks better.
The funny thing is, I thought about becoming a fashion designer in my youth. But my self-confidence was low, and I was much too shy and thought I wasn’t talented enough to be a fashion designer. So now I am more than happy about this development.
In the first sweater I sewed, the fringes and seams are starting to fall apart now. And I like this, too, because in general, I wear almost all of my clothes until they fall apart. And when they fall apart, I am sad. Because I only buy clothes I really like and want to wear.
What in particular made you want to work with felted wool, initially?
I don’t wear clothes with synthetic fibres, and I like wool as a material for clothes in general. Wool has so many good qualities: it’s breathable, it’s self-cleaning – you only need to air woollen clothes, there is no need to wash them often. I like the surface of it, how it warms you. And there are so many nice, natural colours.
I really don’t plan something like many different clothes each season. I don’t need new clothes every season. I am happy when the clothes I buy lasts very long. I am still impressed by a jacket my grandfather was wearing for years and years and it still looks very good. I also received very enthusiastic emails from people who bought one of my sweaters and are wearing it very often.
Also, I don’t like shopping so much. And I can wear the same every day. No problem – then I don’t have to think about what to wear. Usually, I have some same combinations I wear often. Very easy.
Have you found ways to reuse or repurpose your old clothing (such as the blouses you wear underneath the wool sweaters) to create new pieces? Are there more stories to be told in these garments?
There is a word in German I really like: fadenscheinig, which means threadbare. The fabric becomes so thin that you can see the single threads or yarns. This just happened to some blouses I have worn in heavy rotation under my woollen sweaters. Now I plan to sew an everyday blouse I can wear under my woollen sweaters.
Because the whole fabric is thin I cannot repair it. It would be another layer of fabric under or over the old blouse. Maybe I will try this? A whole blouse repaired maybe with Sashiko technique? But I think it makes more sense to sew a new blouse. I keep these broken/decayed blouses though. I have several old broken/decayed blouses I cannot wear anymore in my closet – all made of natural beige cotton. I can’t throw them away. I also like to have these cuts I have worn so often as patterns for a new blouse I want to sew.
Does the potential of future decay affect how you create/sew your sweaters, or do you see it as something inevitable?
I don’t think of the decay when I sew something. But it’s ok when the seam starts to fray, for instance. When I ship my sweaters, I add a piece of the yarn – so the customer can repair it very easily if some stitching should be broken one day.
Your nature photographs are minimalistic, and they seem to be very introspective and meditative. How would you say your photography relates to your sewing? Has the process of sewing inspired your photography in any way?
I think in general I am a slow person. I like to take time doing things. I am very good in a creative way of dawdling – often I have good ideas while doing things slowly.
I think I almost always do everything very attentive, long before it became fashionable. I appreciate small good things. For instance, I enjoy working in my kitchen with enamel. A very simple thing as filling water into an enamel bowl is pure joy. I surround myself with material or things I enjoy. Enamel, wood, wool, ceramics, stoneware. Meanwhile, I have a little collection of old stoneware. I use this mostly for flowers or in the kitchen. And I really enjoy using it or just looking at it slows me down. These old simple forms, the material, the natural colours.
I am slow and in-depth (gründlich). Many things I do take more time but then the result is fine, I hope. When I worked in a flower shop in my twenties I was the slowest in the shop. But I think I did nice bouquets.
In photography I work analogue. I take photos with my analogue camera (medium format, 6x6cm). The films are developed (and scanned) by a lab. I do contact sheets of the films and enlarge selected photos. When I see these prints it’s easier for me to decide whether the photos are good or not so interesting. I like to enlarge my photos by myself in the colour lab. I have a deeper connection to these prints.
I also self-published several books with my photographs. I really enjoy working with my hands. In photography or sewing or also while making ceramic things. It is very fulfilling and uplifting to create something, to do something.
But I also enjoy some faster things as for instance some social media – and I think it’s great how you can connect with like-minded people all over the world.
You seem to be interested in the “timelessness” of clothing, clothing that will last for many years. How do you see your sweater designs changing or evolving in the future? Are there additional designs or methods you would like to incorporate into your sewing practice?
Last year, I made some summer shirts and a dress – very simple, made of good fabric. Some years ago, I also did a winter dress in the style of my sweaters. If I find the time to sew more, my collection of clothes would consist of: The Sweater, The Shirt, The Dress. For me, there is no need to change these cuts every season. Maybe I will when I have another idea, but I don’t think it’s necessary to change something just so I can say that it’s new. I’m bored by all the advertising that promises new things all the time because I don’t need new things so often. I would rather have good things I can wear or use or have for years.
And I think about sewing a new coat for myself. A bit like my sweaters and a bit different. I already have a sketch/cut in my mind. And I ordered some fabric from a small felt fabric company in the south of Germany. And I am in touch with some likeminded people who work with wool too. Maybe we can work together on supporting local wool companies or work on developing the fabrics we want to work with.