Mending Clothes as an Act of Rebellion

I have often wondered when it was that Western society collectively decided that visibly mended clothes were a mark of reduced status. Of a life worth less. Where a patch or a darn was certainly not acceptable in polite company. Many cultures across the globe value and respect the energy that is used to create clothing, so much so that not only do they repair their clothes, but a visibly mended garment is considered of higher value, in every sense, than one which is not.

Somewhere down the warp and weft of our relationship with the fibres that clothe us, we have disconnected from the sheer human power that flows into the yarn that makes the cloth. The £3 t-shirt that is cheaper in monetary terms to replace than to mend, but which has cost the earth and her people an immeasurable, inconceivable price is a perfect example of the mindset that the fast fashion industry has brainwashed us with. Things are changing, though at a snails pace. There is a return to slow fashion, and deeper connections to the clothes that warm and protect us, but it will be a long journey, and I fear that we are running out of time.

There was a time when a wooden darning mushroom would be an essential household item, used for darning holes in socks and patching trouser knees and shirt elbows. A time when every home would have a sewing box, full of thread and spare buttons, with a needle case holding every size of needle you might ever need, and a homemade pin cushion with a heart of wire wool, to keep the pins sharp. I have a wooden darning mushroom that belonged to my grandmother, and probably her mother before her. It is handmade, the wood soft with age. In it’s worn edges, it carries the presence of all the women whose hands held it before me to darn socks and patch up their clothes.

Clothes were patched and mended in times past because they had to be – make do and mend was, for most, a way of life rather than a lifestyle choice. As a society, we have since then, allowed the “new is best, old is rubbish, chuck it away” ethos to permeate our collective conscious to the point that now a ripped knee or threadbare elbow (or at least, one that isn’t there because it was manufactured so), can be death-knell for a garment which might otherwise have a much longer life to live. “Away” is still a mythical place where all the stuff we don’t want congregates without impacting the planet. Yet in the textiles stories of so many cultures, mending and patching is a technique that not only provides longevity to a garment, but increases it’s aesthetic worth, and removes from the equation the need for space to put the things we no longer want, because they become the things that are valued, mended and therefore kept for longer.

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That’s why I have started to offer a hand mending service, as a way to encourage and support those who want to continue wearing clothes that have developed worn patches or holes. Already, I’ve had a really great response, and have fixed up everything from beautiful handknit jumpers and kids leggings to gloves and handknit socks. I find myself naturally drawn to visible mending, as when the stitches show, they carry a story with them. My youngest is thrilled to still be able to wear the favorite leggings that were ripped when she fell at Edinburgh Zoo this autumn. There’s a heart stitched over the hole now, but a space to remember the hurt knee, the tears, the cuddles, her big sister gathering water and a cloth to tend her bleeding knee, and our amazing bodies that can heal a sore knee.

We live in a time now where there is an overwhelming environmental necessity to produce less and to re-use what we already have. Mending clothes is absolutely an act of rebellion – and perhaps one which is most accessible to most people. Learning how to stitch and darn is far easier in these days of youtube. So my hope is that more and more of us will learn the skills to mend clothes, to keep them in circulation and reduce the impact that our recent obsession with fashion continues to have on the planet. As a society, we must step away from the notion that patched clothes communicate lack of monetary wealth, and rather embrace the ideology that as a species, we must make less stuff in order to survive. And that actually, loving for, caring for and creating longevity in the clothing we already own by patching and darning, we give a strength to the stories of our clothes so that perhaps one day we can return to a time when we value not just the garments in our closets, but the people who made and mended them too.

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My favorite legwarmers, knitted for me by Rachel Darby, and darned by me. Shawl in the background handwoven by Eloise Sentito.
Need something mended? Contact Kate at thephoenixgreenstore@gmail.com for a quote.
Read more from Kate in No Serial Number Magazine, available to buy here.
My blog and everything in it will always be free to inspire and support people to live with less plastic, live more sustainably, live with less, and work to reduce the impact of climate change. It does, however, incur running costs. If you are able to contribute to these costs you are welcome to leave a tip in my tip jar here. If not, please consider sharing this post on your social media platforms. Thanks and love, Kate.

31 thoughts on “Mending Clothes as an Act of Rebellion

  1. I don’t have that skill, but shirts go from new, to old, to garden use, to pajamas. Things we discard aren’t much use any more. Most shoes can’t be resoled or revamped. I have sent good tweeds to menders and reweavers but the latter is prohibitively expensive/
    Yay for you, mending your textiles!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My mother mended our clothes (this was back in the 1940’s). We had more than enough money to buy new things instead, but it just wasn’t done by people who respected themselves and the craftsmanship that went into making our clothing. Needless waste of anything was and is frivolous, and now, also, it’s hazardous to our planet’s health.

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  3. A friend just recently shared this article in her Facebook group, and it immediately resonated with me as it brought me back to a time when my fellow college mates would have me mend their jeans. Everybody loved the leather patches I would sew over the rips in their jeans.

    Right now I am experimenting with a mending process that that combines patching patching material behind the holes and embroidering the fabric pattern around the hole so that it shows up on the facing side of the fabric.

    It’s very slow work as I do everything by hand. Hand sewing is much more satisfying than machine sewing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I had a knitted shawl made by a dear friend and I when I unpacked it to wear last spring it was full of moth holes in the thin yarn. I was so sad and embarrassed that I let this happen to my precious shawl that my friend went through all the trouble of knitting. Not much of a a knitter/seamstress I decided to needlefelt hearts and circles over all the tiny holes! It worked! I can wear my shawl again.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I once darned a knit mitten for a stranger in a bar in Tokyo – he “paid” me with a beer.

    A co-worker recently asked for help with a large hole in a baby blanket her husband’s grandmother had made before passing for her great-grandson. As I examined it, I realized there were multiple holes…I feared a moth holes, but it was several (like over 30) dropped stitches. I think it would have been faster to re-knit the blanket…and might do that sometime since I wrote up the pattern. I asked for lunch with her and had a great time.

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    1. Back in the 90s, I owned a clothing consignment store. One afternoon, a young man came in and asked for help finding a pair of jeans. He explained that he was traveling across the country, and had torn his only pair, which he was wearing. I didn’t have any jeans his size, but I sent him to the dressing room with a pair of sweatpants, and then had him tell me the tales of his travels while I mended his torn pants. His name was John, and he was from Glasgow, Scotland. When he left, he gave me his address and phone number. I still have it in a box on a shelf.

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  6. I mend everything I can, unless it’s holes between the thighs of leggings/pants. I’m socially awkward & I’ll never forget meeting a new friend years ago; when asked what I’d done that day, i thoughtlessly said I spent it “mending underpants.” He loved it, but I had no idea it was an odd thing to say. Story of my life.

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  7. A friend posted this on her FB page.

    At 65, I still remember being so poor and learning all those mending skills as a teen, I still mend my clothes. I am so happy to have you writing about this!!

    One thing, though, I was brought up that the mending should not show, so I get very embarassed when I can’t make my mending unobtrusive. I will have to think on this and maybe change my opinion.

    In my teens I learned to weave, dye fabric with natural dyes, and spin wool, in that order. Knowing the amount of work that goes into producing fabric, I have always been impressed whenever I see any old, pre-industrial era garmennt, tapestry, fabric scrap. It’s one of the reasons I am reasonable about my own fabric use.

    And finally, I cannot stand the deliberately ripped knee and pants look! It is such a first world, utterly privileged style that has no connection with the worth of a garment as body covering and protection, or with the value of the fiber and those who made the fabric and garment.

    Keep writing!

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  8. As a child I remember having lots of “Surprised by joy” moments whenever Mum had made /mended something while I was asleep or at school. (I didn’t often see her mending or recreating) .
    My wonder, admiration and love for her grew each time I discovered a mended item. Even a simple thing like hoping into a bed with clean sheets with a seam down the middle because she had cut down the middle, more warn center of the sheet , hemmed them as sides and joined the strong unworn sides to become the middle..
    She was a quiet person though I discovered by her works… “always making something unique & practical we needed out of bits n pieces…including food..
    Dad did too. Their “waste not want not “ attitude has turned me into a horder which is a bit bit of a burden..But their practical creative moments fed my heart and live on in me.

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  9. This blog really resonates with me. Like you, I remember my mom mending and darning to keep her 6 children attired in hole-less clothing! She used a light bulb for darning socks and kept worn-out denim jeans to use for patching other jeans that were wearing out. My dad had a working relationship with a local gentleman who specialized in shoe repairs. When you owned a good pair of leather shoes or boots, it was worth the money for an occasional re-sole or leather lacing fix-up. As children, we sometimes joked about our parent’s frugality, but now I applaud their creative genius when it came to saving money. At 88 years of age, my mom is still a master! She and I both shake our heads at the fashion industry that promotes high-end, high-priced jeans with rips and tears. We joke about how we wouldn’t have been seen dead in such shabby clothes when we were in high school! I admit that I have become a mindless consumer of goods at times and really need to be more aware of my carbon imprint and do my part in saving our precious environment in my consumer habits. Thanks for this great post.

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    1. Gay, I also keep old parts of jeans for patches and other uses. My mom, who wove, used to take the worn out trousers of my 6 brothers, cut them into strips, and use them to weave rag rugs! One of those rugs is one of my most-prized possessions.

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  10. I am also a knitter, a darner, a “repairer” of things in general.
    Your writing is absolutely beautiful, and it resonated with me as well. Given that you have such talent, and that I can see your work being published on a larger scale, I feel compelled to tell you that you frequently mis-use the word “it’s”… 😬I’m so sorry to put this here, but for me, the presence of errors such as these in an essay makes me doubt its (the proper form of this word for the possessive) validity or importance, since they tell me that the writer does not have an editor. Your work is too good for people to dismiss it. Please take this comment with the encouragement with which I intended.
    -Elizabeth

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  11. Hi, Kate! What a delight to meet you ❤
    I've been very disappointed, lately, to not be able to find "mendable clothes" at my local resale shops! Clothes all seem to be in such good shape that I have a hard time cutting it up, for patches or pockets, or fabric for "something else" – so where do they go?

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  12. Lovely essay. Having lived through the Berkeley hippie era I can say that torn jeans are not new. Prized patches to fix those jeans were always handmade…. and not by some poor craftsperson in a third world country. I wonder how the industry takes the knees out of those jeans….

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  13. I only have one question:
    ….are men going to participate in this “mending clothes” rebellion? Or is the rebellion going to be left, as most boring drudge work always is, to women?

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    1. In part, I think that is up to us women. Are we going to let men NOT do it? Will we require them to do it? We have far more power than we think and than we used to, so even if it isn’t fair that we have to make it happen, we can make men take the responsibility for their mending. The best way–make it sexy and cool.

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  14. Found this post on my facebook page, and I really loved it, and will be sharing it… I am a man who mends. This started when I had some very expensive socks, (Good mens socks can be close to $20 a pair) that had worn heals and I darned them much to the amazement of my roommates. Since word spread from that, I usually spend my TV time sewing buttons, re-hemming pants and darning for a reasonable fee. I am grateful that my grandmother taught me these things since she didn’t believe in “helpless children.”

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  15. So great to find you! I was born in a non-western country called USSR, and mending was also not well seen by my parents. My grandparents did mend things, but the bext genaration was more like “throw away and buy new”. As for me I am trying to mend things for years and theses last years more and more.

    I loved to discover the book (I discovered it on Bernadette Banner youtube channel) where they say “Never wait a hole”, ’Manual of Needlework and Cutting Out’ 1909 by Agnes Walker. It was so wonderful because I was never tought the mending and I discovered on my own self that it is easier to mend befor there is a whole !

    I also loved the post made by The School of historical dress where they show the examples of wonderful and very beautiful mending !

    Thank you so much!

    Like

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