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Mending - why bother?

We hear a lot about mending these days, it seems to be a moral imperative – “Mend that hole, save the world!” But how many of us really do mend our clothes? There is often still a left-over feeling of shame or a cloud of poverty hovering around mending.

From my personal European upbringing, this may be a leftover from the truly difficult years in the 40’s and 50’s during and after the war, a desire to distance ourselves from the extreme thrift and scarcity that marked our parents’ or grandparents’ lives.

This impacts many of us in bringing mending to our students, but they may not suffer from that difficult emotional overlay. Mending and darning are still somewhat counter-cultural, yet their inherent value is becoming more apparent.

Mending, darning, acknowledging and treasuring the time and care invested in our clothing and fabrics is not shameful, but honorable. It is a very different way of approaching life, affecting the way we act, connect with the past, and imagine our futures.

Here in the US, it seems easier and cheaper to buy new things than to fix and mend –even faster in time investment when few households have sewing needles and thread available! The fashion cycle is speeding up, seldom are clothes rotated around the seasons, and new fashion trends appear more and more rapidly - a prime example of the built-in obsolescence of our contemporary consumerist throw-away culture. Clothing is discarded to an extraordinary degree and mostly sent to landfills in other countries where it then interferes with the local economy. Globally, used clothes are worth $4 billion, with the U.S. as the leading exporter - and synthetics, which come primarily from petrochemicals, are not renewable or biodegradable.

I consider myself lucky – with two young grandsons with lots of holes in their favorite pants. I usually have a pile of mending, and I love the way they treasure their ‘granny patches’ and urge their parents to put them quickly through the laundry so they can wear them again.

In fact, long ago, clothing and fabric were not disposable commodities with built-in obsolescence. Fabrics and clothing held memories and meaning. In Medieval Europe, clothes were even bequeathed to future generations. Cloth was hand-woven with patterns that held meaning, and probably dyed with local and seasonal materials. Clothing cycled with the seasons and signaled belonging to particular geographical communities. We made memories with our belongings instead of replacing them with mass-produced goods. Now, the personal or individual relationship is almost gone.

Clothing, which used to hold meaning and memories of special occasions or special people, is often now a symbol of abandonment and lack of care; of planned obsolescence and casual waste. The act of throwing away damaged personal clothing can be perceived as a threat to cultural identity, heritage, and memory of those we have lost.

Repairing clothing and treasured fabrics can counter this detrimental feeling of neglect and rejection. Research by Francisco Martínez, ethnographer at the University of Helsinki, suggests that repair helps people overcome the negative sense that accompanies the abandonment of things and people. Repairing clothing can bring balance, maintain resilience, and establish continuity, endurance, and material sensitivity.

The practice of treasuring the old, the well-used, the damaged and lovingly repaired can still be found in some traditional cultures, and with our new awareness of the global impact of our local actions, is slowly finding a revival here in the US.

For example, in Medieval India the rafoogar artisans of Kashmir were masters of the high art of invisible mending, and they mended more than fabric. They ‘healed’ the cloth for both emotional and historical reasons. Good rafoogari is truly invisible which means their work was and is largely unacknowledged. The precision, patience, and skill involved in rafoogari – likened to that of a surgeon – does not just extend the life of a textile, but makes it unique and truly remarkable. In the 20th century, consumer behavior typical of the modern global lifestyle almost pushed these artisans into oblivion, but some rafoogari masters are still practicing.

In Japan, there is a traditional philosophy of mottainai – valuing and cherishing the things we already have. There is a belief that a life-force exists in everything created.

Perhaps the best-known example of the Japanese aesthetics of restoration is kintsugi, in which broken pottery is mended with lacquer and gold or silver, and the imperfections are seen as things of beauty; flaws are not to be hidden, as in the West. Kintsugi emphasizes flaws in order to create newfound beauty. One well-renowned artisan reflects that “I’m restoring a piece of pottery, but I’m also restoring myself ... as I work on a piece, something changes. The object itself is transformed” – there is a reciprocal exchange of healing and restorative energy.

You may be more familiar with the Japanese stitching arts of boro and sashiko, which are not simply about patching holes and using whatever comes to hand. They also have a wonderful metaphorical meaning: in this simple, low-cost way to beautify and strengthen a worn fabric, each layer strengthens the others, as they are held together by a common thread. They are a way to build something strong and serviceable by pulling together individual imperfect pieces into “community” with each other.

Why is this so important now?

During the pandemic, the philosophy and practice of kintsugi and of repairing and mending in general can be a source of comfort. It has been used as a metaphor for rebuilding after tragic events such as dealing with loss, sickness, trauma, and the disruption of daily life. The American Psychological Association released an article entitled Life After COVID-19: Making space for growth mentioning “Post-traumatic growth is like kintsugi for the mind,” while the BMJ (British Medical Journal) described kintsugi philosophy as a powerful tool for healing after the grief of losing loved ones to COVID-19.

So, pick up your needle and thread! Embrace imperfection, what you are mending is already worn and torn. Let go of the illusion of perfection. Rough stitching and clumsy patching is perfectly acceptable and can be fun, and if you don’t like it, it’s no worse than it was. Mending is a great way to learn and play without the fear of failure. It is a creative process of problem solving and a mindful exercise of acceptance. Mend and heal!

The practice of mending itself, the contemplative and immersive experience of stitching, is valuable and healing for the environment and for ourselves, as well as for those whose clothes we are mending (think of my little grandsons’ knees!)

"Threads create new encounters and connect our hearts to others. From this new thread, another work is born. Threads generate our creative and artistic life."

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Thank you so much for this piece today <3 I spent the day cleaning out my grandmother's house with my cousins. She very recently passed on. She was 99 and in great spirits but she fell and broke her arm. She was an incredible seamstress. She had boxes of buttons and thread all over her house. She had items in her closet that she sewed herself which my cousins took home to mend and wear. I took home her knitted/crocheted items. We all divided her beautiful kitchenware among us. And right before we left I saw a vintage purse in her sewing room which was worn and tattered but will be beautiful I'm sure after I take it to be…

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