it’s a puzzle. why spent hours darning a pair of socks if you can easily get a (cheap) replacement in a store or online? this might have never been more true for clothes these days as they are so cheaply available. with a mind attuned to rational capitalist logic (think time equals money), one might not be able to understand why mending is something we would even want to do. in this post, i’m trying to get to grips with the practice of mending and try to highlight its potential, in a personal as well as political way.
historically, the practise of mending is nothing new and peaked in (post-)war time in the 1940s to 50s. when post-war families in the mid-century had lost their income and had to built a new life, they had to make do with what was at hand: “make do and mend” was the incentive title of a pamphlet issued by the british ministry of information during ww2. back then, people would often aim for an invisible finish of their mending, so others would not know the garment had been repaired. the most logical reason for that would be to conceal (or reduce) signs of poverty. the integrity of the general look – and therefore the clothes – played a substantial part in that.
needlework has been mostly (but not only!) women’s work. and in contrast to today, mending and darning was a household chore, rather than a pastime. as i was in the middle of writing this post Tom of @tomofholland was posting a picture of an early 20th handkerchief. i’m quoting part of the caption here: “nowadays, it is often assumed things are repaired out of love. however, motivations for repair are manifold: before WW2, textiles used to be very expensive and it was normal for everybody, whatever status in society, to repair clothes (or have them repaired).” on his instagram account you will find a lot of mending projects, of his own or commission work. he is known for the Visible Mending Programme which you can find out about on his blog and in this interview. not being able to achieve an invisible finish at first is what led him to ‘visible mending’, he says. I’m sure with his skill set he’d now be able to do that easily but the appeal of visible mending is unabated. (Go check #visiblemending to see that it’s in no way inferior to it’s invisible ancestor.) also do check out Roberta @roberta.cummings while you’re hyperlinking. her sock darns are an art in itself and have me browsing ebay for a simliar tool to her speedweve. anybody knows where to find such a Stopfapparat or other tool that compares to this?
so, there’s love of textiles/particular garments. and there’s the money-saving aspect which seems to take a backseat these days (for a student mother not so much, though). are there other reasons to mend?
since the idea of mending itself is nothing new and has been with people forever, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that things have not been wasted in ancient times. that would be romantic, wouldn’t it. wasting is nothing new neither, but for expensive stuff like tailored garmens it’s something you must have been able to afford. luxury has always meant excess and with that, waste (think Louis-quatorze style). but it seems that the object of waste is shifting. i have a hunch that clothing only recently (say that development started in the last 30-50 years in western societies) has become an “disposable” item.* the mass production leading to a lessening of the(emotional) value of an item. evidence is out there, just take a look at landfills.
it has to do with the reality of what you can afford: most ready to wear clothes are cheaper than ever, less money can buy more clothes today. and it has to do with a certain “spirit” of capitalism that makes consumers want to accumulate more and more. (Cf. Max Weber: The Spirit Of Capitalism) by the way, it would be interesting research to compare buying habits of former GDR and Western Germany citizens. the generation of my mother was born into a fenced territory where you had to be on the waiting list for years to get a car, and it’s an understatement to say that the clothes you could buy where not the latest fashion. now they can have it, money can buy it, it’s often seen as a sign of freedom. is it? many wonder, why would you go (back) into restriction? is it restrictive to stop buying countless items per year?
to speak for society situated in Germany – and back to Weber, i think we lost the spirit to a ‘mind-setting per default’ some time ago (it’s not a belief in a religious calling that makes people go to work every day) and for me, once questions regarding why to work for other peoples questionable or even destructive profits or careers came up – a lot fell apart for me. the perversion of capitalism lies exactly there: everybody has to make profits. the consequences are absurd, if you think about it – if even care instituitions have to make profits, who would have me believe that a system like that benefits from healthy people? i don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist and i know i am not fond of making general assumptions about things. critique is not always the way to go and change things for the better. but it can be helpful to realize why certain things stay the way they are.
look at the concept of sustainability, it’s now all over the place: did capitalism eat it’s critique (again)?we all know about planned obsolescence yet we feel powerless before it. mending and repairing can give back some ageny to the buyers who are typically on the passive, receiving end. companies are green-washing their businesses to make customers buy into it (a clean consumers’ conscience will buy again) are the best example of how sustainability can go blabla. shopping sprees do seem fine when you it’s all fair, almost like charity. i’m also in two minds about H&M’s textile recycling campaign. on the one hand it’s mostly catered to customers that will clean out closets to make space for more new stuff, and feel less like drowning in stuff when they get home. on the other hand it’s great to provide an option for recycling (even textile disposal is helpful) and big companies can afford to do so and support research for new technologies of textile recycling. what do you think, maybe you’ve taken stuff to the recycling bin and have more insights?
what is truly fair, ecological and biological? what does sustainable really mean? it’s all woolly somehow, but not in a good way. how to see clearly, who is really to be trusted with your money? i tend to feel paralyzed when having to (online) shop. there’s responsibility in what to buy and if i need new socks i don’t always want to carry the world on my shoulders. it is intended to be empowering if someone tells you that your purchase makes a difference. but who is that person that can always make informed decisions? a person with privileges. privileges that mean they have access to knowledge, or make time for research, or the finances, an able body, the list goes on. i’m insanely privileged but swamped!
and before i drift off.. what’s the point and how does that relate to the act of mending?
i do believe in the effectiveness of making. not in a religious way, it can be the plain quantity of how many items have i made in a certain time span, what new techniques have i learned and mastered? plain and simple, you help create an object which is not as inert as it might appear. it has an impact or force itself. just think of the conversations it sparks: did you make that? sewing and knitting really opened a gate for me. not just for conversations with other makers, friends and family. the pace, the tactility, the memory of my body to perform certain moves. the tangibility, the textiles.
in a setting like today here in germany, most of the production and actual sewing happens in parts of the world we are not able to access or are simply out of our view (like, in a factory in a foreign trade zone). we are detached from the production of objects that sourround us. or we are involved in the production of objects we cannot afford and that can be depressing, too. i think Marx was right in observing this. however we maybe need to realize we have agency (and privilege) in that we can make time to shift from throwaway culture to one of mending and repairing. besides, the appeal of visible mending shows there is social acceptance (or even admiration and acknowledgement) as we are further moving away from a mass produced aesthetic.
clothes are always handmade. with the plethora of fashion being cheap and available all the time, it’s easy to forget that. mending is a way of caring for your clothes while appreciating the work that has already been put into it. wages differ vastly throughout the garment industry and let’s face it: most of the garment sewing is done by woman paid below living wage, which is crucial to keep up our western lifestyle.
mending is re-connecting with (formerly neglected) items, making them wearable again. through alterations or repairs a garments live span is increased and that might save the earth some trouble, that is: waste. instead of having a fast waning rush of buying something new, the satisfaction of mending does last: it makes for a one of a kind garment. fashion is not an disposable good – it’s an opportunity to practise and learn new skills, be it awareness or inserting a zip. let’s do it together!
thanks for staying with me, and please feel free to comment or share!
curious? for upcoming workshops in berlin check out
* consumer good intended to be thrown away or consumed (like, eaten), instead of re-used over and over again (examples for goods that fit into the latter category would be a washing machine, a table, books) – where do clothes fit in nowadays?