There was a time, within living memory, when a wooden darning mushroom would be as much an essential household item as a dustpan and brush and reusing old clothes to make new tops for patchwork quilts was just what everyone did. Perhaps you remember a button jar – my Gran’s was a pressed glass biscuit jar with a metal screw top lid – or you may recall a great aunt’s wooden cantilever sewing box filled with press studs and scraps of elastic, pincushions and needle cases. There was a time, not so long ago, when a hole in the knee of a pair of trousers was mended, a dance of moths across a pure wool jumper was darned, a lost button replaced, careful stitches slowly telling a little more of a garment’s history – and when the clothing that kept us warm and dry was honoured, respected, mended. I grew up in a house where clothes were made and mended. When you make your own clothes, or someone you love has, you understand and value the energy that’s needed to make them. At some point in our recent history, somewhere, down the warp and weft of our relationship with the fibres that clothe us, vital connections to the sheer human power that flows into the yarn that makes the cloth have been broken. Broken with intent. The fast fashion industry, the media, the forces that turn the cogs in our consumerist society brainwashed us with super cheap, throw it away and buy another marketing mind games. They taught us a new lesson of how it was so much easier, quicker, cheaper to buy a new jumper, dress, hat than to mend the one we already had. Soon we began to believe that the time it would take to mend a garment carried more value than the time it took someone, far away and not paid nearly enough to live, to make it.
In the three years since I wrote “Mending Clothes as an Act of Rebellion”, the tide has well and truly turned, and we are collectively awakening to the power we hold, against the fashion industry, the media, the forces that turned the cogs that are beginning to slow, that soon will stop – but there is much still in need of mending.
I always thought that my own journey with textiles began in my teenage years – from textiles class at school and coming home to watch my mum make clothes for us (and mend them too) to the day when a family friend taught me to make patchwork from scraps of brightly coloured cotton. But as I get older, I discover more and more of my ancestors were connected to cloth – making, mending, creating – and wonder perhaps is my love of textiles something inherent that has been gifted to me along with my blue eyes and my strong Stuart nose. That notion of making a bed sized pieces of cloth from tiny bits of waste fabric, like a colourful mosaic, ignited a fascination in me that has never been dampened yet. I was 17 when I made my first quilt – an adventurous rainbow hexagonal quilt that started its life as a Cinderella costume for a friend’s 18th birthday party, became a makeshift guitar case, snuggled my babies, and has, for the last 30 odd years adorned the back of every sofa I’ve ever owned. I’ve made a lot of quilts, for a lot of people since then and every single one was made with old, unloved, unwanted clothing. The old-as-time concept of using up old clothes to make new things was always there for me in the things I was creating – it cost less, and it always felt like an environmentally sound choice – so that it became rare for me to buy new fabric. But it was when my late mum began to sort through three generations of clothes stored in her attic, and found she couldn’t throw any of them away because of the memories they invoked of the people who wore them – my brother’s shirt with the cowboy print, my dad’s golfing shirt, with the tiny golfers all over it, my gran’s flowery pinny with the hand sewn pockets – that the idea to make a quilt containing all these precious fabric memories was born. Hers was the first memory quilt I made, and held pieces of her going away outfit, all her children’s old pyjamas, her grandmother’s housecoat, my father’s favourite tie. I’ve been making memory quilts and what I call “scrappy” rainbow quilts ever since, and it brings me so much joy to know that fabric which at one time might have been thrown away, is being repurposed into practical, usable, cosy quilts, and the memories and value it carries remain, connecting us with stories of the past.
For me, it’s that connection, between the intrinsic emotion value of an item of clothing, and the time and energy and resources that were used in the making of it, that feels most important. In every quilt I make I see that connection finding its way into a newly remembered consciousness, helping us to join the dots between producing less waste and re-using what we already have, to reconsider the things we think we need.
In a similar way, mending our clothes has become a statement that we understand that connection, and wearing clothing that is mended, particularly in a visible way, communicates this to others. A quiet whisper to join the gang. Silent recognition that our world needs us to consider the impact of the things we own, and the things we throw away. A pause, a space, to breath new life into old stuff.
Visible mending, that is, mending where it is obvious that a garment has been mended, and where the stitches that hold together what was once broken are there for all to see, is more acceptable now than ever before. The textile stories of so many cultures around the world have, for a great many lifetimes, honoured visible mending in a way that we are only beginning to understand and acknowledge. When we mend a garment, we stitch the story of what it was that broke, what small disaster happened, into the fibres of the cloth. We tell the tale of the hurt knee, the elbows on the kitchen table, the lost button, the much-used pocket, the family of moths. And in the stories and the stitches, there is space for us to consider more than that – all the mended clothes of our ancestors, who stitched seams back together because there was no other option. Space for us to honour the hands that made the cloth. Space to honour the land that grew the fibre that made the thread that became the cloth. And perhaps most importantly, space to reimagine the power we hold to make a difference in a world that does not belong to those who hold the strings of commerce, but to you. And to me. The needle and thread in our sewing boxes are as much tools for rebellion as they ever have been. Let’s use them.
Vive la revolution!
This article was first published in Up! Magazine, September 2022.
I have begun creating patterns for the things I love to make – you can find them here.
And in celebration of spring, I am running a sale in my Etsy store – help me clear space in my workroom for the new creations that are bubbling and brewing in my heart.
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