taking refuge in restoration

Taking refuge in restoration was a repair workshop with the Craft Lab from California College of the Arts, at the Green Gulch Zen Centre in San Francisco. By "sacrificing" a part of one's own garment to help patch up the other participant's garments, a community exchange was instigated, exploring how exchange of care and mindful practice can infuse mended clothes with values of community, equity and mindful devotion.


Fashion is about creating something distinguished new, something seemingly different.
In contrast, restoration expounds that you don't need to see different things, but rather to see things differently.
Restoration and maintenance carries a multitude of spiritual implications, spanning from the mindfulness of practice to the commitment and time spent on service to the everyday. Indeed, repair and maintenance can be seen to support a certain spirituality and theology of itself. But how does this theology of repair look and what can it teach us regarding to the value systems of fashion?
When addressing repair and restoration, focus is usually drawn to functional or aesthetic qualities. We are taught to look for broken function, as in "form follows function", or seeking the aesthetics of beautifully aged goods, the authentic patina which is now rapidly falsified as a commodity in itself. This later perspective is especially obvious for artificially aged jeans or counterfeit antiques, but also in other designs. As noted by ethnographer Robert Willim in his studies of urban regeneration, repair, just like restoration, is an act of balance, or "patina management", where too much updating will ruin the poignant character of seniority (Willim 2008).

patches for restoration

To engage with repair beyond the surface and function, we could address it from a perspective of spirituality. Already St Benedict of Nursia (c.480–547) drew up a theology of "Ora et Labora", pray and work, giving the "Opus Manum", the works of the hand, and equal status to that or "Opus Dei", the work for God, liturgy, prayer and contemplation. This seemed radical at the time, and still is, as spirituality has since the Greeks been belonging to the sphere of the mind, and not body. Contemplation, the highest forms of mind-work and the absence of manual work, is seen as the task of prayer or meditation or any mindful endeavour in honour of the spirit. Thomas Aquinas, the influential medieval theologian, made a distinction between the "vita activa", the active life, versus that of "vita contemplative", the scholastic study through prayer and reflection on the bible to find the divine truth. Yet, as noted by Aquinas in Summa Theologiae, it is in the combination of the two that true religious life is experienced, in both knowing and cultivating the virtues, teaching as well as enacting mercy and justice.
However, in the works of theologian and carpenter Armand Larive we can see another perspective on the fruits of spiritual labour. To Larive, a theology of work cannot only include contemplative work, but needs to take into regard "why pipe fitting, as such, is theologically significant." (Larive 2004: 6)
Larive suggests a perspective accepting and embracing the co-creative nature of life; that we as humans are engaged in a labour or maintenance and co-creation of the work of God. We were created an image of God, which also means we are creators, and as we act in God's creation, thus we are also co-creators of our lived world. As Paul said: "We are fellow workers with God" (1 Corinthians 3:7-9). There exists a "divine partnership" in work (Larive 2004: 23). This is a relation that stretched beyond the acts of rejection, reconciliation or redemption where man instead steps up to be a co-creator.

repair in red

Larive takes on theologian Philip Hefner's concept of humanity as a "created co-creator", that is, a creation of God but also co-creators, free to participate in fulfilling God's work (Hefner 1993). As we feel a sense of "making a contribution" through work, that is our contribution to the maintenance of creation. As Larive points to, having a vocation in work, any work, is a calling to take part of the spiritual practice of repairing the world, and this is nothing less than the contemplative work or redemption or reconciliation (Larive 2004: 69ff). As Hefner puts it, our purpose as created co-creators is "to be agency, acting in freedom, to birth the future that is most wholesome for the nature that has birthed us - the nature that is not only our own genetic heritage, but also the entire human community and the evolutionary and ecological reality in which and to which we belong. Exercising this agency is said to be God's will for humans." (Hefner 1993: 31f) Perhaps the most radical implication of Hefner's idea is that human agency, craft, practice and work, are conditioning element of God's purpose with humanity, and they are just as important as belief, prayer or spiritual contemplation.
Taking on a Heideggerian perspective, Larive further examines how "dasein", "being-there", a central concept for Heidegger, means to "occupy a specific time and situation from which a personal narrative can be built like a personal fingerprint in history" (Larive 2004: 52). This mode of being is that of an acceptance of agency, of accepting experience as a co-creative work, maintaining an openness to the world. For Larive, that openness is an act of repair, seeing the "creator as divine companion" (71), emphasising a relation between creator and co-creator. Larive's perspective on "homo conservans", man the maintainer (Larive 2004: 89), resonates with design theorist Jan Michl's view on design as redesign (Michl 2002), where every creative process "has the character of step-by-step changes in, improvements on, and new combinations of solutions that already exist" (Michl 2002).
Some forms of spiritual work also shapes what theorist Arnold Pacey calls a "participatory knowledge" (Pacey 1999). This is an active form of knowledge, an engaged form of involvement, accumulating embodied memory, where the maker and user, the same person, is both reiterating, appropriating and co-producing meaning and action, not too unlike Larive's notion of divine co-creation. Pacey's examples range from the aboriginal song-lines of Australia, melodic map exchanged as songs between nomads to simple DIY techniques, each having their own rhythm and technical pattern as a form of ritual. For Pacey, the "participatory knowledges" are special technologies of creation in which the user is part of the technology in a conscious way, adapting and assembling a new lived environment as he works.
patched work
However, in its everyday appearance, fashion is a phenomenon far from participation and co-creation, even if the general narrative make us believe we are free to "express ourselves" through clothes. We can choose, but are not encouraged to intervene or take part. There is no feedback other than the consumer's ability to "vote with his dollars" - that is, spend them on what he considers worth. But this pacification comes so natural to us in consumer society we hardly recognise it as something constructed, something designed and amplified through the fashion system. With even cheaper fashion, and in faster cycles, the fashion manifested through the system come to seem like the only way, the only expression worth the money (or time). In front of fashion, we are supposed to feel empowered, being able to dress however we like, but we are simultaneously totally powerless.
Activist and theorist Michael Lerner addresses the issue of what he calls "surplus powerlessness" (1986). While real powerlessness is the result of oppression and inequities by a systems or other people, surplus powerlessness is an internalized submission and hopelessness, or an excess of powerlessness that stifles emancipation. Those who have felt powerless for an extended length of time tend to accept conditions in the world they would otherwise reject. This emotional capitulation reifies an apathy that shies away from struggle in the belief that nothing can ever change for the good. The activist may be having the just cause, or even a great opportunity and advantage in the struggle, but a mindset of powerlessness takes the edge off any possible agency.
This issue of embodied powerlessness can be found on many levels and among many groups in society. In a survey on people with disabilities, social psychologist Adrienne Asch found that; "[the disabled] have seen the problems as inherent in their medical conditions and have not been urged to join others to demand structural changes that would render the environment useful for them." (Asch 1986: 13) Thus the disabled in Asch's study accepted injustice and inequitable treatment as something part of their "human condition", something unquestionable, and not an issue for which to demand equity and social justice. One way of convincing people that change is impossible is to make them believe that they are atomised individuals, that they control the production of their identity, or that they can’t trust anyone else but themselves. In its worst sense, fashion produces an emotional environment where the very act of consumption becomes the fullest means of expression, thus effectively hiding the deeper powerlessness for real human agency and show of com-passion through the realm of dress.

the Sangha of restoration

In this way, fashion can be seen as a perfect example of surplus powerlessness. It is an atomising system in which elitism seems so "natural" to us that we do not even consider there to be any injustice being played out by it. We think we have equal opportunities, a fair distribution of goods and possibilities and even that a "democratisation" is taking place through fast fashion. We are made to believe we have access to fashion while we are bluntly locked out of any decision making, as the goods are already in the hanger awaiting us. We are steeped into a system of pacification and total control of what is deemed worthy and what is "right". All affects concerning the sensibilities of dress are funnelled through the fashion economy, and to have a "passion for fashion" comes to mean that one lives life at its fullest in the act of consumption and wasteful sacrifice of aesthetics goods.
As an opposite of this, carefully repaired clothes can present another form of agency than fashion-as-consumption. In the act of repair, there are manifested proof of continuous attention and lasting affection, of careful handling and sincerity, of inclusive co-creation and maintenance. The com-passion comes from a community alignement of careful acts of passion, where each contribution can add to a whole (and not undermine a consumed social position). They are proof of another distribution of the "sensible", which according to philosopher Jacques Ranciere, can in itself be a political act of aesthetics (Ranciere 2004). For Ranciere, a radical purpose of art is to render the sensible anew to the "uncounted", or powerless; the ones without a recognised sensibility. Likewise, taking on cultivating the sensibility of restoration can be the first step in reclaiming the master narratives of fashion and take action against the surplus powerlessness where skills and agency seems far removed. Certainly, the act of repair exposes another form of shared attention in a time of austerity, it exposes a specific care and nursing of co-creation, a gentle bow of recognition, a frugality shared as a spiritual and common agency.
Taking inspiration from the buddhist practice of mindfully sewing the Buddha's robes, the workshop approached the agency in sewing and repair through the mindset of devotional co-creation. Here, co-creation was approached through various means; spiritual companionship, acknowledgement of previous owners, experienced materiality witnessed by wear and tear, sharing of skills and the communal "sacrifice" of garment fabric to each other as a way to express gratitude and recognition to the virtuous community of co-practitioners. In zen-practice, the student is sewing one's own "rakusu", the miniature or symbolic robe that hangs around the neck by straps, as a preparation before the taking the precepts. The rakusu made of 16 or more strips of cloth, sewn together into a geometric rice field pattern (Selkirk 2005). In historic times, the pieces were scavenged from the robes of deceased monks, as a material memento mori, but also as a proof of lineage. The student is not alone, but wears the tradition and community as a second skin.

Meiya describes the zen of stitching

Restoration and spiritual work is a common cultivation of virtues and shared skills. It is not a process of isolation and only inner contemplation, but a community work. As noted by Larive, "only a very vain person gives himself credit for a skill, because a skill seems so much like a gift - something one feels pleased and fortunate to have. Hence, on the level of ordinary work, skill may be called fruits of the Spirit." (Larive 2004: 110f) To Larive, the communality of collaborative work is the "common spirit of work", where fellow workers feel they are endowed by the Spirit of shared practice in resonance or harmony. It is similar to that of the Sangha, the spiritual community which shares one's path in Buddhism.
Sewing and restoration can be seen as the realisation of ultimate reality, as in zen master Dogen's focus on the mindful practice of daily life as enlightenment in itself. Repeating the phrase "Namu kie butsu", I take refuge in Buddha, for every stitch, turns the act of sewing into a mantra and mindful practice in itself. A concentration in every step and stitch, returning to the true life of the self, the self which is one with the universe (Selkirk 2005: 18). Even though almost every stitch is the same, it is also in those stitches that "the whole earth seems to burst in flames" (Selkirk 2005: 18). Through each stitch we express "faith, devotion and love through the medium of sewing" (Hartman 2005: vii)
In every stitch of restoration another sensibility is made manifest. In every stitch; true co-creation.
Distinctions are immeasurable, I vow consistency
Nothing is separable, I vow discernment


Big thanks to co-creators and participants Daniel Battle, Caroline Charuk, Sadie Harmon, Nicole Markoff, Megan McGaffigan, Sara Mink, Alyssa Pitman, Meghan Urback, Avital Weinberg,
Special thanks to Sasha Duerr (of Permacouture) and Californa College of the Arts (CCA) as well as the warmest regards to Meiya Wender and Green Gulch Farm Zen Center (GGF)
Asch, Adrienne (1986) "Will populism empower the disabled?" Social Policy. 16(3), 12-18.
Hartman, Zenkei Blanche (2005) Buddha's Robe is Sewn, Berkeley: Mountain Moon
Hefner, Philip (1993) The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press
Larive, Armand (2004) After sunday: A theology of work, New York: Continuum
Michl, Jan (2002) "Design as Redesign" Scandinavian Journal of Design History, No 12
Lerner, Michael (1986). Surplus powerlessness: the psychodynamics of everyday life and the psychology of individual and social transformation, Oakland, CA: Institute for Labor and Mental Health
Pacey, Arnold (1999) Meaning in technology, Cambridge: MIT Press
Ranciere, Jacques (2004) The politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible, London: Continuum
Selkirk, Jean (2005) Buddha's robe is sewn: the tradition of sewing practice in the Shunryu Suzuki-roshi American lineage, Berkley: Mountain Moon
Willim, Robert (2008) Industrial cool, Lund: Lund University