In her new book, Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto, author and fashion historian Kate Sekules makes the case that fixing our clothes is a radical act—one that has the potential to save the planet.
The fashion industry has transformed garments from practical, long-lasting objects to disposable goods. Companies produce 100 billion garments a year, a pace of consumption that is accelerating climate change, spewing microplastics into the environment, and polluting our waterways with toxic chemicals.
How exactly can mending help reverse this trend? Sekules argues that learning how to repair garments forces us to reassess our relationship with clothes. Instead of seeing a tear or a rip as a sign that an item is ready for the trash, we might instead try to prolong its life. This approach might encourage us to think more carefully about what we buy in the first place, prompting us to invest in durable, classic pieces, rather than cheap fast fashion.
Given the scale of fashion pollution, it might seem like individual mending may not make a big impact, but Sekules believes that collectively, we might be able to push back against the industry. This is not such a wild idea, given that for most of human history mending was the norm. “It wasn’t just the poor who mended their clothes,” Sekules says. “The cost of fabric was so expensive that wealthy people also had their clothes mended. Imagine if we brought this culture back today.”
The pandemic might be a good opportunity to get started. Sekules says that basic mending doesn’t require much skill—just the ability to thread a needle. Here are five items to try fixing at home.
Patch Your Trousers
The knees and seats of our trousers are often the first places to wear out. But these are easily fixed with a patch. You can pick any fabric whose color, texture, or pattern you like. Sekules recommends cutting it out of another outfit you’re not wearing anymore, or from something you pick up at a thrift store. You can even sew in such a way that the stitches create a pattern, like swirls or radiating stars or rows. Sekules is inspired by sashiko, a mending technique used in Japan, in which you create designs with stitches in a contrasting color. This mending technique works with many fabrics, from jeans to the soft terry of your loungewear. So if your well-worn quarantine sweats are developing holes, this could be a fun way to breathe new life into them. “This is a method that can be done by people who aren’t experienced at sewing,” she says. “You can create something pretty.”
Refashion Your T-Shirt
T-shirts tend to get a lot of wear and tear. Instead of trying to hide all the holes and splotches, or wash out stains, you could simply create a new design on the shirt. You could cut out a different fabric in the shape of the hole or discoloration, then perhaps even add other pieces of fabric to create a pattern, such as stripes, or polka dots, or even letters. Sekules suggests playing around with various patterns before you start sewing. “I want people to be creative and have fun with it,” Sekules says. “Think of it as an embellishment, rather than a mend.”
Master the Elbow Patch
We tend to get holes in the elbows of our jackets, cardigans, and blazers. Enter the elbow patch. It’s relatively easy to create this look. First find a fabric to use: It should be a material that is hard-wearing and durable, such as denim or corduroy, and in a complementary color. You then cut out two ovals that are ample enough to cover the elbow. Since it’s in an awkward spot to place a patch, you will want to iron the patch and the garment, so they are flat against one another. Then use a needle and thread to tack it, so the two pieces fit together. Then you can start to sew.
Darn Your Socks
Socks are another item that tends to get a lot of holes thanks to the fact that they rub inside our shoes when we walk. Since socks are made from knit fabric, they require a technique called darning. This is slightly more complicated than doing a simple stitch over a patch, so you should do this when you’re interested in taking your mending skills to the next level. “It takes practice, but you should just try it,” says Sekules. “There’s a lot of mystique around it, but once you figure it out, it’s straightforward.”
You begin by tidying up the hole in question, cutting off loose threads, then find a yarn of a similar weight. Then you start in one corner sewing up and down over the hole, then turn the work 90 degrees, so you’re sewing in the opposite direction. At this point you have what looks like a tiny loom. All you have to do is weave the yarn through it by going over, under, over, under. (The YouTube video below should help you visualize it.) Now your sock should last a long time.