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.
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 to her bleeding knee, and our amazing bodies that can heal all our sore places.
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. mending materials are the stuff of yard sales, estate sales, and charity shop finds. So much of my own mending equipment, if not handed down to me, has been gifted by friends or discovered, like shiny treasure, in charity shops or ebay listings.
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.