Mending Clothes as an Act of Rebellion

I have often wondered when it was that Western society collectively decided that visibly mended clothes were a mark of reduced status. Of a life worth less. Where a patch or a darn was certainly not acceptable in polite company. Many cultures across the globe value and respect the energy that is used to create clothing, so much so that not only do they repair their clothes, but a visibly mended garment is considered of higher value, in every sense, than one which is not.

Somewhere down the warp and weft of our relationship with the fibres that clothe us, we have disconnected from the sheer human power that flows into the yarn that makes the cloth. The £3 t-shirt that is cheaper in monetary terms to replace than to mend, but which has cost the earth and her people an immeasurable, inconceivable price is a perfect example of the mindset that the fast fashion industry has brainwashed us with. Things are changing, though at a snails pace. There is a return to slow fashion, and deeper connections to the clothes that warm and protect us, but it will be a long journey, and I fear that we are running out of time.

There was a time when a wooden darning mushroom would be an essential household item, used for darning holes in socks and patching trouser knees and shirt elbows. A time when every home would have a sewing box, full of thread and spare buttons, with a needle case holding every size of needle you might ever need, and a homemade pin cushion with a heart of wire wool, to keep the pins sharp. I have a wooden darning mushroom that belonged to my grandmother, and probably her mother before her. It is handmade, the wood soft with age. In it’s worn edges, it carries the presence of all the women whose hands held it before me to darn socks and patch up their clothes.

Clothes were patched and mended in times past because they had to be – make do and mend was, for most, a way of life rather than a lifestyle choice. As a society, we have since then, allowed the “new is best, old is rubbish, chuck it away” ethos to permeate our collective conscious to the point that now a ripped knee or threadbare elbow (or at least, one that isn’t there because it was manufactured so), can be death-knell for a garment which might otherwise have a much longer life to live. “Away” is still a mythical place where all the stuff we don’t want congregates without impacting the planet. Yet in the textiles stories of so many cultures, mending and patching is a technique that not only provides longevity to a garment, but increases it’s aesthetic worth, and removes from the equation the need for space to put the things we no longer want, because they become the things that are valued, mended and therefore kept for longer.

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That’s why I have started to offer a hand mending service, as a way to encourage and support those who want to continue wearing clothes that have developed worn patches or holes. Already, I’ve had a really great response, and have fixed up everything from beautiful handknit jumpers and kids leggings to gloves and handknit socks. I find myself naturally drawn to visible mending, as when the stitches show, they carry a story with them. My youngest is thrilled to still be able to wear the favorite leggings that were ripped when she fell at Edinburgh Zoo this autumn. There’s a heart stitched over the hole now, but a space to remember the hurt knee, the tears, the cuddles, her big sister gathering water and a cloth to tend to her bleeding knee, and our amazing bodies that can heal all our sore places.

We live in a time now where there is an overwhelming environmental necessity to produce less and to re-use what we already have. Mending clothes is absolutely an act of rebellion – and perhaps one which is most accessible to most people. Learning how to stitch and darn is far easier in these days of YouTube. mending materials are the stuff of yard sales, estate sales, and charity shop finds. So much of my own mending  equipment, if not handed down to me, has been gifted by friends or discovered, like shiny treasure, in charity shops or ebay listings.

So my hope is that more and more of us will learn the skills to mend clothes, to keep them in circulation and reduce the impact that our recent obsession with fashion continues to have on the planet. As a society, we must step away from the notion that patched clothes communicate lack of monetary wealth, and rather embrace the ideology that as a species, we must make less stuff in order to survive. And that actually, loving for, caring for and creating longevity in the clothing we already own by patching and darning, we give a strength to the stories of our clothes so that perhaps one day we can return to a time when we value not just the garments in our closets, but the people who made and mended them too.

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My favorite legwarmers, knitted for me by Rachel Darby, and darned by me. Shawl in the background handwoven by Eloise Sentito.
Need something mended? Contact Kate in the UK at thephoenixgreenstore@gmail.com for a quote.
Read more from Kate in No Serial Number Magazine, available to buy here.
My blog and everything in it will always be free to inspire and support people to live with less plastic, live more sustainably, live with less, and work to reduce the impact of climate change. It does, however, incur running costs. If you are able to contribute to these costs you are welcome to leave a tip in my tip jar here. If you are able to support me monthly, and would like some beautiful handmade creations in exchange, check out my new Patreon site. If, however, in these financially challenging times, you’re not able to do either of these things, please know that sharing the link to this post on your social media platforms is more than enough. Stay well. Thanks and love, Kate. 

Patchwork Days

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I first learnt to cut and stitch patchwork sitting on the living room floor of family friend Barbara Thompson. Walking into her house, there was always the aroma of cooking spices, books, wool. The walls were covered in bookshelves, almost as though her house was built with stories, not bricks, and the books that didn’t fit on shelves sat in towering piles around her chair. Barbara’s chair was a high backed, old fashioned wing armchair, stuffed with cushions, and surrounded by crafting projects, yarn, bags of fibre, pots of knitting needles, crochet hooks and a pair of scissors for every job imaginable.. The sofa was covered

My first patchwork quilt began in her sitting room, from hand cut hexagons that she showed me how to piece together, one, then another, until I had a lap full of flower shapes, ready to stitch to each other. A myriad of colours, like a blanket made of rainbows. There was something about sewing scraps of fabric together to make a whole piece of cloth that sparked a light in me that has never yet blown out. I painstakingly hand stitched those multi coloured hexagons into a long enough length of patchwork to make a full length skirt for my best friend’s 18th birthday. It was a fancy dress party, and I went as Cinders in rags.

My first patchwork quilt, 1991.

When the party was over, the skirt, in the absence of a proper case, wrapped my steel strung acoustic guitar to protect it as I traveled to and from University. Eventually, it became a quilt – hand quilted, hand embroidered, batted with old sheets. It’s been 28 years since I finished it, and it has since wrapped both my babies and adorned the back of every sofa I’ve ever owned. Of course, it has now been joined by many more quilts, that layer up our beds in the cold winter evenings, and sit in piles next to the sofa, ready to be snuggled under when the draft from the back bay window becomes too chilly. My direction in quilting nods to my ancestors, who so often made their quilts from old clothes, creating new, colourful tops to lay over old, worn quilts. I have a wholecloth quilt that is especially warm, and which was stitched by some long ago ancestor on my mother’s side – the stitches tiny and neat, perhaps telling a story of the character of the woman who sewed them. It has the weight of a quilt that has other quilts inside it, but I have never yet felt able to unpick her stitches, and undo her work to find out. Some things are better left to quiet honour.

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Quilting has become a huge part of our livelihood this last year, and I am constantly amazed that something I feel so deeply for has become our bread and butter. Sometimes, as I’m crawling on the floor over layers of fabric, pinning and smoothing and hearing my knees groan, it’s not so much fun, but as a process of creating from waste, it could not be more perfect, and I love seeing a whole new piece of patched cloth appearing before me as I stitch. I have spent many hours these last years, cutting and piecing and stitching quilts to cover strangers and friends alike. I am grateful with every stitch I sew, and every patch I cut.

Memory quilt commissions have become increasingly popular, with families turning over to me their precious baby clothes and the clothes of loved ones gone, to be cut up and stitched back together as quilts full of stories.

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There’s always an internal struggle with this work – cutting up clothes that are more often than not in beautiful condition really feels challenging, but then they are stitched back up again into a usable, practical blanket, instead of a carrier bag full of too-small-to-fit-anymore clothes scurried away in a dark cupboard or loft. They bring such joy in their new form – being used again, full of stories and memories – that I always find myself able to let go of the difficult feelings, and embrace the beauty of the process. You can read about the first memory quilt I made here, and who I made it for.

It feels so satisfying to be writing about my quilting journey – and I’ve been doing that a lot lately. Last month, I entered a writing competition for the first time in my life. I sat at 3am, while my children slept, and wrote for The Green Parent Magazine about patchwork quilts, and the planet, and my babies, and how huge it would be if we could all make a return to bedding that isn’t made of plastic. It was an off-the-cuff, unplanned and un-spell-checked article that felt so good to write. I sent it off and promptly forgot all about it, but was delighted this week to find out that I won runner up, and had my article published on their website. You can read it here.

We are waking up to the idea that natural fibres in our clothes are generally a good idea – recycled/second hand clothes even better, and that man made, plastic fibres are really not okay. There’s a definite shift to consider the cloth we lay beside our skin in the clothes we choose. We are coming to terms with the human and planetary energy and resources that go into making our clothes. We are slowly, slowly rejecting fast fashion. We are considering repairing and mending clothes and turning our backs on the idea that clothes which are mended have negative social connotations. Yet the place we spend half our lives (if we’re lucky enough to get that much sleep!) gets little thought at all. Polyester, hollow-fibre quilts and pillows and acrylic fleece blankets are standard on our beds today, never mind the contents of our memory foam mattresses.

I’d like to see a return to the older ways of keeping warm at night. Quilts and blankets that can be layered up when it’s cold, or stored away when it’s warm. I’d like to see as much attention given in activism towards bedding as is given to fast fashion. I want to help join the dots in our connection with the energy and resources used to produce the blankets and sheets and duvets we sleep under, with all their health implications, and look for better, sustainable, affordable ways to bring positive change. I’d like to think that the quilts I’m making now will still be in use when I’m gone, and that the skills that Barbara Thompson passed to me will be passed on to my children, and maybe a whole host of other people too. And that together, we can all work together to stitch the stories of our days into blankets that will keep future generations warm at night, without a scrap of plastic in sight.

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Join the conversation by using #plasticfreesleep and #thephoenixgreen on your social media platforms.

Buy a handmade patchwork quilt that’s as unique as you, here.

My blog and everything in it will always be free to inspire and support people to live with less plastic, live more sustainably, live with less, and work to reduce the impact of climate change. It does, however, incur running costs. If you are able to contribute to these costs you are welcome to leave a tip in my tip jar here. If you are able to support me monthly, and would like some beautiful handmade creations in exchange, check out my new Patreon site. If, however, in these financially challenging times, you’re not able to do either of these things, please know that sharing the link to this post on your social media platforms is more than enough. Stay well. Thanks and love, Kate. 

Unpackaging Life

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog these last few weeks. I’ve been struggling to write about the tiny, small efforts we are making at home, because I haven’t felt particularly inspired by them, in the great whirl of Extinction Rebellion protests, and the darkening knowledge of what is happening across the planet. The realization that really, only declaring ecocide an international illegality, and holding to account those that perpetrate it, will turn the tables on our current planetary trajectory. Bamboo toothbrushes, turning off the lights when we leave rooms, composting our food scraps – it all feels like too little, too late. And yet I won’t stop doing all that and more, as if on autopilot. It just jars, angrily, grief stricken, with the knowledge that the greatest changes, the ones that could really make the difference, are still being fought for.

Two years ago, I was determined to open up a zero waste shop in Newcastle, visualizing the absolute transformation to our consumer power having such a shop could create. Despite my huge doubts, the most gargantuan ones being whether quiet, introverted me could bear to be customer facing again for all the hours of every day, and how playing shop keeper would impact on my health, my children’s home education, and my need to sew and paint and read and be quiet and alone regularly. Could I be tidy enough to keep the health and safety folk at bay, and not have multiple trip/fall hazards daily?  Could I be mathematically organised enough to balance the books and turn enough of a profit to keep everything afloat? As it turned out, the universe had different plans. The end of a thirteen year relationship with the father of my children, and the beginning of an adventure in single parenting, home education of two very different children with very different needs, making ends meet began. I have spent the last year rediscovering the me I had been before, and the me I have grown into. With no time or money for the zero waste shop of my dreams, I realized very quickly that it was never about one shop. That actually, there should be a package free shop in walking distance of everyone’s home – like the corner shops we used to rely on for so much years ago. So I began to promote and support the brave shopkeepers, earth keepers, pioneers, who were stepping up and making package free shopping a reality in their local areas. If I wasn’t able to do it myself, I could definitely support those who could.

This week, I took the girls to visit a zero waste shop for the first time. Despite a good number of plastic free shops springing up in the North East, we’d not been into any before. A distinct lack of disposable income has meant that travelling to any of the zero waste shops, let alone actually buying stuff there, hasn’t felt feasible. However, there is now a wonderful package free shop open directly in our path to a weekly home ed nature meet we attend, and so this week, we went in. The girls loved it, and really got, instantly, why it was such an important place, and the impact it would have.  My 12 year old was very keen to weigh and measure mango and banana chips – just enough for a snack each, and totally affordable because we were buying just what we needed and no more  – and both girls enjoyed a package free chocolate biscuit. I might have devoured a delicious package free ginger biscuit on the way to the bus stop too…

The children’s enthusiasm and excitement really did something to reverse the downward spiral my save-the-planet mindset has been on. And the shop itself, along with owner Lauren, really did cheer me. Good things are happening, despite the constant overwhelming feeling that we’re plunging into darker times. So many people are working hard to make a difference in their local community, and added altogether, that creates such a huge wave of change. I’m going to spend this week trying to ride the wave, and not let it carry me out to sea.

Something Good Newcastle can be found at 265 Jesmond Road, and is full of all the things you could imagine wanting plastic free. From breakfast cereal and pasta, to refillable shampoo and washing up liquid,  you can bring your own containers and only pay for what you need, instead of industry standard volumes. As a space, it has all the clean lines and good organisation that makes it easy to shop, and the huge front window brings in the light, and shines like a welcoming beacon into the dark of these early winter days. Go visit them if you live close, and if you don’t find your local zero waste shop – they’re popping up all over. Support them. Buy what you can with them. One day, they will be the norm again, and the huge supermarkets, with their vast volumes of waste, will have to step on the plastic-free train or be gone for good.

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“Our mission: we want it to be simple and affordable for anyone to make small, sustainable changes towards a low impact, low waste lifestyle. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to live and shop ethically.”

Lauren Wedderburn, Founder of Something Good

 

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My blog and everything in it will always be free to inspire and support people to live with less plastic, live more sustainably, live with less, and work to reduce the impact of climate change. It does, however, incur running costs. If you are able to contribute to these costs you are welcome to leave a tip in my tip jar here. If you are able to support me monthly, and would like some beautiful handmade creations in exchange, check out my new Patreon site. If, however, in these financially challenging times, you’re not able to do either of these things, please know that sharing the link to this post on your social media platforms is more than enough. Stay well. Thanks and love, Kate.