Mending: An Ancient Craft for Modern Times

By Ruth Terry
By Ruth Terry
woman's hand holding a piece of fabric and pulling a threaded needle

Mending was trending long before the Covid-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders changed the way we go about our days. A resurgence of so-called “domestic” handicrafts, reclaimed by feminists in the late 90s and elevated by visual artists from the early 2000s onward, happened concurrently with the sea-change in consumerism known as fast fashion — a global buying frenzy with disastrous human and environmental repercussions. But today, as a result of Covid-19 quarantines, retail clothing sales in the U.S. are down by more than 50 percent, while DIY basics like clothing repair have become covetable knowledge. With the fast-fashion machine on hiatus, could this be mending’s big moment?

In my house, it was always mending’s moment. Unlike many Millennials, I learned to sew and mend when I was just a kid. My mother, an accomplished home sewist, also taught me to buy the best clothing I could afford, a value instilled by her own mother, an economic migrant from Puerto Rico. Abuelita scrimped and saved throughout the year so she and her three children would have new clothes and leather shoes on holidays and the first day of school. Throughout my teen years, “Mending Night” — a messy, creative exercise during which we’d embellish existing garments, sew up torn seams, reattach buttons, and drink tea — was a regular occurrence in our home, often with “Pride and Prejudice” (the BBC’s version, of course) playing in the background.

multicolor darning sampler showing various patterns and family crests, circa 1797

Darning sampler, 1797. Dutch, silk embroidery on cotton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Throughout history and across cultures, people have been mending textiles to extend their beauty, wearability, and utility, for both practical and sentimental reasons. Enslaved Africans incorporated slaveholders’ cast-off fabrics and notions into their garments to display social status. Japanese peasants used boro, a kind of densely layered patchwork, to make garments warmer and last longer — sometimes for generations. Mending was also part of social life for Caribbean women, who participated in Dorcas Societies — charitable sewing circles that emerged in the time of another pandemic, cholera. These societies, outgrowths of Victorian-era philanthropy, eventually existed all over the world.

painting depicting small groups of Victorian-era women sewing together, one holding infant

“The early Dorcas Societies established in girls’ schools taught mending as part of the wider sewing curriculum,” says Rose Sinclair, design education lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. “[The] culture of sewing and… making crafts intrinsically meant that you learnt how to care for cloth, textiles, and clothes.” Image: Edwin Long‘s “A Dorcas Meeting in the 6th Century,” painted 1873–1877, public domain.

While mending skills are no longer passed down as routinely as they once were, today — with myriad books, YouTube videos, and virtual craft workshops available — almost anyone can learn to reattach a button or repair a hem. Yet over the last two decades, our relationship with clothing, especially in the U.S., has moved in the opposite direction. Whether we will actually mend the garments we buy directly correlates to how much we value them — and in the fast-fashion era, that typically isn’t a lot. An industrialized global supply chain, new technologies, and the popularity of performance fabrics also present challenges to making mending a widespread habit.

Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2015, far exceeding actual demand. Meanwhile, Americans wear just over 20 percent of the clothes we already have in our closets, and don each item a mere seven to 10 times before tossing it. In response, a new wave of fiber artists, along with “soil-to-soil” localist collectives like Fibershed, are challenging this dysfunctional relationship with the fashion industry —  an industry responsible for one-tenth of all greenhouse gas emissions. These fiber artists are also challenging consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for products of negligible and transient value, while at the same time inviting us to see mending in new ways.

knit navy blue sweater with visible repairs made of red yarn using darning techniques

Darning, a rather tricky technique for repairing knit and woven textiles by mimicking the fabric structure around a tear or hole, can be used in decorative, artful ways to give new life to well-loved knitwear. Photo courtesy of Tom of Holland/ Gansey Commission

“We can use cloth and making to ask questions, to query through art, craft, and activism,” explains Rose Sinclair, design education lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. “But… we also need to review what it means to value cloth. What it means to value it politically, to understand its place as a global product, how it can be used to raise debate, how it is used a political construct.”

woman sitting at sewing machine in a classroom setting, with piles of clothes around her

Beyond mending’s practicality, many fiber artists and makers have adopted its time-honored techniques to quietly critique consumer culture, create conversations about over-consumption, and prescribe ways to curtail it. Photo by Paige Green Photography for Fibershed

“In our consumerist society, it’s pretty amazing if you fix something,” says author and “craftivist” Betsy Greer, whose book Craftivism (2014) helped reframe crafting as a tool of dissent. “We’ve cheapened clothes over time.”

The U.S. alone generates nearly 17 million tons of municipal textile waste annually, nearly 10 times what it was in 1960. “I don’t know if we’re at the apex or not,” says Greer, of fast-fashion production. “It always feels like we’re at the apex and then it gets worse.”

Even within the fast-fashion ecosystem, Greer believes we can still make conscious choices. “I also buy clothes at Target… but I made a bargain with myself, too, like, do I want to wear this for years? I feel like, ‘Okay, I’m taking you into my closet, so I’m going to take care of you.’”

woman wearing sunglasses and colorful handmade clothes, standing outdoors and stitching a piece of fabric

Fiber artist Ashley Eva Brock demonstrates visible mending techniques using local textiles and climate-beneficial wool yarn. Photo by Paige Green Photography for Fibershed

Collectively, the idea of valuing and repairing our clothes rather than tossing them out seems to be picking up speed. Popular outlets like Martha Stewart, Spruce Crafts, and Interweave, a craft media company, have all helped to mainstream the art and craft of mending — even the rather fiddly technique of darning, a technique for repairing knit and woven textiles by mimicking the fabric structure around a tear or hole. Just in the past year, a few new books showcasing visible mending techniques have  dropped, expanding the conversation along with the available resources (a few favorites are listed at the end of this article). Still, there are large knowledge gaps to be filled in.

close-up of blue denim fabric with visible mending in bright yellow thread

Denim, a ubiquitous modern fabric with an abysmal carbon footprint, can be mended and remade almost indefinitely. Photo courtesy of Celia Pym 

man wearing glasses and handmade clothes standing in front of a wall of fabric samples

Fiber artist Tom van Deijnen, aka Tom of Holland, teaches mending through the Visible Mending Programme, and repairs vintage garments and British heritage textiles for limited-edition collaborations with U.K. stores like The New Craftsman. “I’d like to go back to an older mindset, where clothes were expensive, and you looked after and repaired them until they were completely threadbare,” he says. Photo courtesy of Tom of Holland

Mending will not fix everything that is wrong with the fashion industry, but it can still pack a punch.

“In a society where we throw away things so quickly, making by hand or repairing is a radical act,” Greer says. “Mending is a small way to think about what we consume and why we consume, and what’s important and precious.”

This, essentially, is the ethos that my mother handed down to me, not as a form of protest, but as a way to cherish treasured garments and steward resources. This unprecedented time of global upheaval demands that we all reflect on our consumption and spending habits. Within this context, my mending and making skills are serving me well, knitting the values of my past to a more sustainable future.

Ruth Terry is an American freelancer and avid crafter who writes about race and identity, craft culture, and travel. She lives in Istanbul.

Cover photo by Paige Green Photography for Fibershed

A Few Mending Resources:

  • Fibershed, a program partner of The Craftsmanship Initiative, offers many classes, events and workshops, with some now being made available online. Check the website and growing artists’ directory for details.
  • Craftivism (2014) by Betsy Greer helped to reframe crafting as a tool of social activism and dissent.
  • Katrina Rodabaugh’s book, Mending Matters (2018), teaches basic visible mending on denim (a textile with a massive carbon footprint), borrowing techniques and aesthetics from Japanese boro patchwork and sashiko sewing traditions.
  • Darning: Repair, Make, Mend (2020), a new book by knitwear designer Hikaru Noguchi.

 

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