Mending: An Ancient Craft for Modern Times
October 6, 2023
Written by RUTH TERRY
Traditional DIY basics like clothing repair have become covetable knowledge again. With the fast-fashion machine on notice for its abysmal climate footprint, could this be mending’s big moment?
Unlike many Millennials, I learned to value clothing at a very early age. My mother, an accomplished home sewist with a couturier’s eye, taught me to sew and mend garments when I was just a kid. She also taught me to buy the best clothing I could afford and to recognize the hallmarks of quality—natural fibers, linings, meticulously turned hems—that meant a garment could be resized, repaired, and worn for years to come.
Over the last few decades, our collective relationship with clothing, especially in the U.S., has changed dramatically. 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 buying frenzy with disastrous human and environmental repercussions. 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.
As we face a global climate crisis, every aspect of the fast-fashion machine from labor practice to clothing donation is increasingly under scrutiny. Could this be mending’s big moment? “In a society where we throw away things so quickly, making by hand or repairing is a radical act,” says Betsy Greer, whose 2014 book “Craftivism” helped reframe crafting as a tool of dissent.
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 villagers 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 often participated in Dorcas Societies, charitable sewing circles that emerged in the time of a previous pandemic: cholera. These societies, outgrowths of Victorian-era philanthropy, eventually existed all over the world. In my own home, “Mending Night”—a messy, creative exercise during which we’d embellish existing garments, sew up torn seams, reattach buttons, and drink tea—was a weekly occurrence.
Today, a new wave of fiber artists, along with “soil-to-soil” localist collectives like Fibershed, are challenging our dysfunctional relationship with the fashion industry—an industry responsible for one-tenth of all greenhouse gas emissions—as well as consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for products of negligible and transient value. At the same time, their work invites us to see mending in new ways.
The U.S. alone generates nearly 17 million tons of municipal textile waste annually, nearly 10 times what it was in 1960.
“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 as a political construct.”
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.’”
Collectively, the idea of valuing and repairing our clothes rather than tossing them out seems to be picking up speed. Martha Stewart, The Spruce Crafts, and Interweave 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. Books like “Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts” and “The Art of Repair” provide reflections on the importance of mending, while social media hashtags like #visiblemending and #lovedclotheslast, which have more than 60 million TikTok views combined, showcase mending techniques and expand the conversation. (A few more favorites are listed at the end of this article).
This unprecedented time of global upheaval demands that we all reflect on our consumption and spending habits. Mending will not fix everything that is wrong with the fashion industry, but it is still a meaningful act of quiet resistance. “Mending is a small way to think about what we consume and why we consume, and what’s important and precious,” says Betsy Greer.
This is essentially the same ethos that my mother handed down to me: using mending as a way to cherish treasured garments and steward resources. Within this context, my mending and making skills are serving me well, knitting the values of my past to a more sustainable future.
A Few Mending Resources
While mending skills are no longer passed down as routinely as they once were, with myriad books, YouTube tutorials, and craft workshops available, almost anyone can learn to reattach a button or repair a hem. Here are a few resources to start with:
- Fibershed, a program partner of The Craftsmanship Initiative, offers many classes, events, and workshops in mending and other sustainable skills, both in person and online. Check the website and growing artists’ directory for details.
- “The Art of Repair” (Short Books, 2021), written Molly Martin.
- “Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts,” (Sasquatch Press, 2020), written and illustrated by sisters Nina and Sonya Montenegro.
- “Darning: Repair, Make, Mend” (Hawthorn Press, 2020), by knitwear designer Hikaru Noguchi, walks readers through 12 darning techniques and covers the mending of sweaters, shirts, denim, and more.
- “Mending Matters” (Abrams Books, 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.
- “Craftivism” (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014), edited by Betsy Greer, helped to reframe crafting as a tool of social activism and dissent. (This book is now out-of-print, but can still be found at secondhand sellers such as Thriftbooks.)