SUSTAINABLE THOUGHTS: KERSTIN NEUMÜLLER

Kerstin Neumüller runs the denim store Second Sunrise in Stockholm with her partner Douglas. They sell hand-picked products and repair and modify old jeans. She published the book “Mend & Patch – a handbook to repairing clothes and textiles” where she teaches how to mend and patch clothes. I love the idea! It must be the most sustainable of all, to take good care of what you have! I wanted to meet her to understand how she thinks, what’s her drive, and also if this is for everyone or only for people with creative talent.

I walk into Second Sunrise before opening and it’s like stepping into another world. For me, it feels like Daikanyama in Tokyo or maybe in the outskirts of Brooklyn. It is dark wood, and shelves full of raw unwashed denim, mixed with sewing machines, a loom and a large worn work table. Kerstin intertwines beautiful bands in her long braided hair while Douglas offers black coffee.

5preview patch mend

Emeli: I understand that you come from a handcraft background, tell me more!

Kerstin: I grew up in the countryside a couple of hours south of Stockholm in a fairly closed environment. The people in my age looked at Top of the Pops and dreamed of luxurious swimming pools and expensive Ferrari’s whilst I read Lord of the Rings and sewed elf-outfits out of old curtains that I found in the closets ... As a teenager I was quite alone, checked pictures of people that went to synth pop clubs in Stockholm and dreamed away. I bought vinyl fabric at the local fabric shop and sewed outfits inspired by the pictures. But I never dared to go to the clubs. For me textile is that, the possibility to create new worlds, and to make dreams come true.

Emeli: ... you sewed to create something that you couldn’t get hold of?

Kerstin: Exactly! My grandparents were city kids who moved to the countryside in the 50s, an early green wave family. They learned everything about craft and animal agriculture and about making things by themselves. My mother was raised with the motto “You do things yourself”. And I may not be as good as her at doing things but I have the mindset and it became a lifestyle. I had a huge passion for textiles when I grew up and after high school I went to various textile schools before I ended up at the wonderful Sätergläntan (a handcraft college in Dalarna.) I LOVED everything about it but then I stopped and thought “Hey, if I continue on this track I will be a detached craftswoman!”. I certainly would not! So I went back to the city to study Textile Science at the University of Uppsala and then worked in the costume departments of a couple of theaters, including the Royal Opera. When I later started as a tailor trainee here in Stockholm I was a little disappointed. I had envisioned a way too romantic picture of the job. Of course I understood that it would be both hierarchical and tiring, but I had hoped for more of a  tongue-in-cheek environment. In reality the tailors life was too strict for me, and I felt like it was not where I was supposed to be.

Emeli: Was it a little snobbish maybe?

Kerstin: Well, one might say so! Meanwhile I passed this store and met Douglas who worked behind the counter, and he was wearing a hat and looked like a real cowboy and it was like stepping into another world. My plan was to start dyeing with indigo again and I was looking for company outside the group of craftspeople that I knew. I needed new input. With people from the traditional heritage craft scene it becomes like an echo, everyone likes the same things have the same ideas and has the same kind of knowledge.

Emeli: You searched for new contexts?

Kerstin: Yes and Douglas hooked right away! It ended up with us writing a book about indigo, became a couple, and then we bought the shop here together.

Emeli: And everything fell into place.

Kerstin: Yes. And now we hold indigo dyeing workshops about once a month here in the store.

Emeli: What kind of people attend to the workshops?

Kerstin: I love it! An unexpected mix of craftswomen (which otherwise would never have come here) and denim dudes which is great fun because some of them never got in touch with any craft context before. We also have other workshops now: leather craft workshops and the one where you learn to patch and mend. I try to share my creativity with others. Show that there is an OPTION to buying new and to the consumption culture. Almost every problem we meet today we can solve by buying things and services but there are other ways!

Emeli: You’re passionate about textiles, but what about clothes and fashion? After all, you have ended up here, in a very nice denim store! Was that interest born when you got here?

Kerstin: I have always been extremely uninterested in fashion and I have a moderate jeans interest. I am especially interested in fabric and color! My work here in the store is about providing GOOD clothes. One of the things that became very clear when I started to hang out here was that so many men came in and said “I hate shopping for clothes, it’s sooo boring!” And then they began to check out the shelves and racks and after a while they said “But I like this one, and this one is cool” and so on.. Some of them are big guys who have a hard time finding good looking clothes, and I love handing them a great piece of clothing that they feel handsome in. And then older women started to drop in and say “I have heard that you have real jeans here, unwashed and with high waist and without stretch”...

Emeli: You just released a book about repairing clothes. Which garments are worth repairing instead of throwing and buying new ones? Are you really repairing the shirt from Zara or only the one you paid a little more for?

Kerstin: Wait, take a step back there ... Your statement comes from a middle class background. But there are many people who cannot buy new clothes all the time. When I was a child a classmate of mine fell and started to cry, and she did not cry because she had got a bleeding wound on her leg, but she cried because her new stretch pants from the chainstore was broken, and it was her new trousers of the season... and now they were broken. I think it’s important to remember that even though I have the privilege of buying clothes for a lot of money and taking care of them, there are people who live in a different situation.

Emeli: A class question then. That I think sometimes the whole sustainability debate has become about ..

Kerstin: And it gets exclusive. Like saying, “But why don’t they just buy something with good quality?”

Emeli: You’re right, it’s not fair. How about good quality then... If you have to buy something yourself, with your middle class background and material knowledge, what will that be?

Kerstin: I want to buy things that are made to last. I expect so much from objects and I am happy to pay more for them if they do not break. When talking about quality, it’s like it’s just something you SHOULD know, you should have it in you. And the old generations say, “Yes, the youth of today knows nothing about quality!” And that’s true, but how could we know? Good quality for me is clothing that is made to last, not just for sale. Because there are so many clothes today that are only for selling, the only purpose of them is to leave the rack. But as I said, things that are made to last. I have an iron frying pan that I bought at a flea market. And I will NEVER have to buy a frying pan again in my life! And then I have a long butcher knife that I also bought at a flea market, made of steel that is not stainless but can be sharpened very well. And I thought, “This knife I will be able to have until I’m 50-60”.

Emeli: Yes there are so many different aspects of sustainability!

Kerstin: I’m pretty tired of statements like “We work a lot with sustainability”. I think, “What do they mean? What are they trying to say?” We at Second Sunrise sell clothes that are organic, but we have no clothes that are MARKETED as organic. Our clothes are sewn by people who receive reasonable wages. But when we talk about sustainability, we mean that you can expect the garment to last. You can wear these pants every day for a year, then maybe they start to break and then you can hand them in and have them repaired. We also tell our customers how to wash their clothes in order to keep them as good as possible. For me, THAT is sustainability. Even the relationship with the customers, I want to treat them as friends. Did the jeans shrink even though you followed my washing instructions? Come in with them and we we’ll take them back! I want a dialogue. As with my friend Björn, he had a lot of shirts that were too long in the sleeves and we realized together that he could hand them in to us and have them shortened. And then he can start using them again.

Emeli: It sounds a bit like the meeting, the encounter, here may be the key to conscious consumption. If you jump into H&M for some quick fixes, that’s another type of shopping.

Kerstin: And to share knowledge. If you feel that you do not have a passion for material then there is always someone else who has it. When I was writing the “Mend & Patch” book, the chapter about leather, I talked to my shoemaker friend about how to evaluate what is a good leather quality. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to know it! So ask someone who knows! Tell them your expectations on the product so they can help you find the right one. And you can’t do that at an HM store. And you cannot expect that from the staff there either, they are only employed to be able to work the register.

Emeli: Many people think that price and quality go hand in hand ... But you can find fantastic quality second hand for zero and nothing. And expensive fancy “designer clothes” can break immediately.

Kerstin: “I have paid so much for this and now it breaks?!” But what you paid for is the brand, and that is not a quality guarantee.

Emeli: I often talk about 5PREVIEW’s clothes and the quality which I HOPE is good, but it’s also difficult to know from garment to garment. I can use a good factory and a good fabric, but there is always the human factor.

Kerstin: But you can say “Based on what I can judge ... this garment is good. I have looked at the seams, and they look nice ... there is no carelessness, no threads that are tangled... I have seen the garment after use and it keeps the color and the shape .. The garments age in a nice way... “

Emeli: Talk around it ...

Kerstin: Yes you can talk about things you know by experience without using the Q-word, but go deeper.

Emeli: I’m thinking of broken garments, clothes with holes... I don’t even know when I had something that broke last. My 6-year-old son’s clothes are broken all the time because he plays around so much, but mine ... I mostly sit and work with my computer.

Kerstin: But maybe you also have a very high rotation in your wardrobe. You do not use the garments for so long that they can actually break.

Emeli: True, and I miss that. I would like to use my clothes more, to actually LIVE in them. So every now and then I empty my wardrobe, I sell things to keep it simple and focused.

Kerstin: But how do the clothes end up in your wardrobe in the first place?

Emeli: How do they get there? (laughter) They come by mail! No, but it’s always an ongoing research in my life for new collections. Although I personally live a little outside trends, my customers do not. And I travel, buy things second hand, walk around in the clothes... I need to test them!

Kerstin: I went to a lot of flea markets before and bought EVERYTHING that was from the 19th century. Didn’t matter what it was. I loved it. But then I stopped because I had so much stuff. Now I never buy anything because I know I don’t need it. I now know that I will not use it and I definitely do not have space for it.

Emeli: Have you become a more conscious consumer?

Kerstin: Yes but I also move around a lot. So I stopped collecting things that may come to use some day. I don’t need them.

Emeli: I usually clean out a lot when I move.. to give space for new stuff ... but after this project, for real, I will clean it and then keep it like that. To the next question... do you sew clothes yourself, more than elf and synthpop outfits? Kerstin: I’ve done that a lot. I sewed all my own clothes when I was a teenage goth. I sewed every day for many years, yes.

Emeli: Did you use patterns then?

Kerstin: I drew all the patterns myself. Until a couple of years ago, when I had some sort of overload. Craftsmanship was everything. I couldn’t talk about anything else. Then when I moved back to the city, I really struggled to quit ... Let go of it.

Emeli: Craft detox?

Kerstin: My crafting friends around me could say like: “It doesn’t matter how and where you wake up in the morning if you carry your craft bag close to you ...” and that means that you can pick up your craft-projects wherever you are...

Emeli: Like on the subway?

Kerstin: Yes or if you have a sleepover, and you don’t have to face life, you only craft and concentrate on the creation. Which is very confirmatory. It’s like a drug. In the last few years, I have perhaps sewn two pairs of jeans. I’m more about spinning now, my own yarn, and weaving it. Handmade homemade fabric.

Emeli: This is going to be a small book, where I have DIY tutorials of garments from the new SS20 collection, full transparency, if you do not want to buy the garments for various reasons, you can make them yourself from an old sheet or tablecloth ...

Kerstin: And who is supposed to do that?

Emeli: Anyone with a clothing or fashion interest! At 5PREVIEW we talk a lot about sustainability but still I have to sell in a new collection every season. It’s a contradiction so I would like to offer an alternative to consumption. The book will also come with a small sewing kit with needle and thread and scissors and ...

Kerstin: Nice.

Emeli: With your background, or mine, where it’s natural to just do things yourself, it’s not a big deal creating a little capsule collection at home. But I wonder how it is for someone that is brought up differently – will they actually sit down and sew?

Kerstin: That’s your challenge! Regular people can not even put a thread in a needle, and you’re going to give them this little sewing-kit...Are they supposed to sew the clothes by hand?

Emeli: No! The sewing kit is just a little gadget, like a D-I-Y symbol.

Kerstin: But show them how to do it properly instead! It hurts me to think that you use a little crappy sewing kit as a symbol of craftsmanship! What if someone sits down and uses it and everything just turn out bad. You do nothing for them. I’ll tell you a story. One of the nicest things that happened here in the store was when Tompa came in here with a shirt that was broken on the elbows and he asked “Can you fix this for me?” And I said no but I showed him how to do it himself. “Well, do you really think I can do it myself?” he asked. And a few days later he came in and said “That was so big for me!” It meant a lot to him. He came from an environment where you do not even try to do it if you dont know its going to turn out perfect. And just that he dared to do this in the shop where there were other people around and he felt secure with that, and the shirt was fixed. Then he started to do other things, his own fishing lures, things he had always bought before. A new world opened up for Tompa! You don’t want Tompa to have a go at sewing and failing miserably, ending up with a bad experience making him discouraged from mending things so that he goes and buys new clothes instead. It only becomes counterproductive. Instead, remember: what can people with very limited craft knowledge do? A sewing machine is helpful, a good pair of scissors and an iron. The conditions and tools must be good, otherwise it will not be fun!

Emeli: I totally agree. Sometimes you get carried away with ideas and concepts. Do you have any concrete tips on how to “upcycle clothes”? Change your wardrobe with simple means ...

Kerstin: Actually not, I’m not interested in that. One concrete example is all these textile teachers out in the country who sew bags of old jeans. It’s a bad idea! Fix the jeans instead, do not cut a pair of good jeans with holes in the crotch but instead fix them and use them!

Emeli: Have you ever seen anyone in the streets use such a bag? Kerstin: Very rarely! I think “Stop! Wait a minute!” when people generally say they want to renew their wardrobe and that they have a need to express themselves with clothes. I’d rather express myself by weaving a ribbon or going out and picking nettles and making a fabric of them. Certainly one can cut off the sleeves of a shirt and make it short sleeved if has holes in it, it is reasonable advice, but I say “Do we not have something more important to do?” Shop, style and brand ourselves ...  Do something relevant instead, I say! A painting course, or learn how to cook!

5preview patch mend

Emeli: Mend and patch clothes- your book is about that, and gives very concrete instructions on how to do it. I think it is good with such a manual, so that new generations can also get that knowledge, so that it is not forgotten.

Kerstin: You start to value what you have when you fix it. If it’s a good thing/item, a functioning object, why should it be thrown away? It’s not about money. The younger generation is, after all, grown up with a “wear-and-tear” attitude but are also very sensitive to trends, and sustainability at the moment seems important to them. Many young people want to save the world and this is a very concrete way. No one will of course save the world by sewing a button but on the other hand you can soothe some of your anxiety! And it’s not to despise, it’s a pretty good method.

Emeli: And trends come and go...

Kerstin: ... there is always a backlash to everything. Everything now comes from factories and the counter reaction is that people want to do things themselves. Bush craft is an example of that! It’s about surviving in nature, you know, prepping ...

Emeli: Learning to survive the zombie apocalypse?

Kerstin: Right! These movements have a lot in common with handicraft. For example like weaving baskets. I’m very interested in archeological textiles and I watch bushcraft videos on Youtube with people who make rope of linden bark because it is a good survival gear if you need to make fishing lines. And I sit and compare it with finds from burned down houses from the 9th century...

Emeli: Bake your own bread, grow your balcony garden, cook from scratch- it gives a satisfaction to do things yourself.

Kerstin: It’s so much about the individual. As with your son, if he feels that he can solve problems himself, then he feels more competent, calmer and safer. Everyone does not have to know everything, everyone does not have to love crafts. But nobody feels good about feeling incompetent. “Yes the only thing I know about is programming and the only thing I care about is to make money so that I can pay someone who solves my everyday problems ...”

Emeli: Yes, programming will not be the best skill to have when electricity is gone...

Kerstin: We will probably not experience an apocalypse that looks like that, but anyway, in any situation it’s important to feel competent!