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.
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.
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.
"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."
"In our consumerist society, it's pretty amazing if you fix something," says author and "craftivist" Betsy Greer, whose book Craftivism 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.'"
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. Still, there are large knowledge gaps to be filled in.
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.
Craftsmanship Quarterly is published by The Craftsmanship Initiative, which highlights artisans and innovators who are working to create a world built to last. Subscriptions and updates via email are free to anyone who signs up for the magazine's newsletters.