Closing The Loop: How mending our clothes can be a political act

As seen on Fashion Roundtable

As a slow-fashion activist, one of the things I could never have imagined was the fashion industry as we know it coming to a complete standstill. Brands and consumers are now in a unique position to stop, slow-down and for the first time in a long time, navigate some of the fundamental issues that have been plaguing our industry for years.

A circular economy has for some time been heralded as a solution to close the loop on the broken linear fashion system. Businesses have lost a sense of responsibility and ownership for the garments that they produce – not only from an environmental and social standpoint but also in not providing better care, repair and recycling practices after the product has been sold. A circular economy sees the value in these garments and looks to maintaining that value and utility for as long as possible. It is estimated that carbon, waste and water footprints could be reduced by up to 20-30% each, just by extending a garments life by an extra 9 months. The Ellen McArthur Foundation points out that $500 billion is lost every year due to under-utilised clothes . Companies like Nudie Jeans Co have capitalised on this, offering free repairs for the life of their products – but they are certainly the minority.

I think innately we know that sharing our skills and knowledge with each other creates a sense of community and it’s interesting to see a rise in crafting and making during lockdown, with companies like John Lewisnoticing a steep incline in haberdashery sales. There’s a sense that we need to careful in maintaining and caring for knowledge in the mending and making of clothing. We still see this very much in the food scene, with recipes passed down from great grandparents, but not so much in sewing.

Mending has historically been shrouded in shame – from lower-class farmers using a technique called boro in 18th century Japan to ‘women’s work’ in wartime Britain – both out of sheer necessity. Once fast-fashion hit the scene, clothing could be consumed at a fraction of the cost and replaced cheaply and quickly, which left mending for many obsolete. Mending still feels at the very outer extreme of the fashion industry and although it makes a lot of sense, particularly as we face a global economic crisis, it’s something that still carries some psychological barriers. Often the reasons cited for the demise of mending are around time and cost whereas cotton and thread are actually very cheap to come by, even at your local charity shop.

Mending can certainly be seen as a political action against the increasing pressure of our consumerist society and for those that are trying to reduce their own consumption through pledges like the six item challenge or last year’s Second-hand September campaign by Oxfam, mending is explored out of necessity. If you’d told me a couple of years ago that I would become a mender I’d have laughed at you – but I can advocate that once you start, it’s very hard to stop.

Mending can be anything from simple fixes to beautiful and inspirational, from textile artists like Celia Pym and Tom of Holland. Tom of Holland cites his in-depth knowledge to studying older publications and leaflets produced during WWII. YouTube and sites like IFIXIT offer a wealth of knowledge for those wanting to get started and visible mending books showing the Japanese technique sashiko such as Mending Matters by Katrina Rodabaugh are amongst my favourites.

Policy makers have a responsibility to ensure that these practical skills are kept alive and as Professor Dilys Williams at the Centre of Sustainable Fashion recognises, should be mandated as part of the National Curriculum at Key Stage Levels 1, 2 & 3. Opportunities for training and apprenticeships in the fashion and textile industry are also highly recommended and would allow for us to build our manufacturing up in the UK again, particularly post Brexit.

From my experience in running an up-cycled children’s studio and also regular mending workshops, I’ve seen micro-communities forming where people will meet up afterwards to work on projects together or pass on caring and mending tips. Mending has at its very core a set of values that anticipate the need to preserve and covet our belongings and knowledge – something that we have lost touch with. I think now is the time to salvage these skills – closing the loop in our own way. Caring for things in this way, not only makes each piece uniquely yours but also keeps a sense of community, collaboration and information alive. And at this time, to keep something like this for future generations will be invaluable.