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Radical menders vs. disposable everything

A grassroots movement is challenging our throwaway culture by fixing clothes with repairs that make fashion statements of their own.

Bridget Harvey, an artist in the UK, bought this sweater secondhand and turned it into a statement.Bridget Harvey

Kate Sekules remembers the shirt well. It was made of lush Shantung silk, in kingfisher blue. The shirt was gorgeous, beloved, and, eventually, worn out. Shantung splits as it ages, creating long vertical slits in a garment, so there was no way to repair the shirt subtly. No thread would match the hue. Any sewing would be obvious.

But instead of putting the beautiful thing in the trash can, Sekules decided to embrace the obviousness of her repairs.

“I mended the splits in lots of different-colored blanket-stitch lines,” she says. That work created an exuberant scrawl in the shirt. When the silk split along those lines, she pulled out her needle again. “It was terrible,” she says with a laugh. “But I liked the look anyway. And that was when I decided,” she continues, “I should do this all the time.”

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Visible mending gives ripped pants new energy.Kate Sekules

Sekules, who studies the history of textiles at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan, has since become a leader in a grassroots movement called visible mending — a mild term for something that to many people seems quite radical. Rather than throwing away clothes that have holes, rips, or worn elbows, visible menders repair them without trying to hide the damage. Fifty moth holes become a constellation of colored dots across a sweater; sleeves that have unraveled are reknitted in a contrasting color. It almost looks like kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with seams of brilliant gold.

As the cost of living escalates and fashion’s environmental footprint becomes disturbingly clear, more and more people are taking a second look at their wardrobes, including what they might have thrown out, and discovering that they want no part of such waste. In the process, they’re reclaiming something that might have been embarrassing — mending that everyone can see — and recasting it as a sign of integrity.

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Kate Sekules mended this blouse to give it a new design.Kate Sekules

The habit of tossing damaged clothes is a recent anomaly in human history, writes Sekules in her book “Mend!” For millennia, clothes were so valuable, so difficult to produce, and so essential to life that mending was a regular part of nearly everyone’s lifestyle. Think of the things we still perform maintenance on, says Bridget Harvey, an artist and academic who has studied the practice of repair. You don’t throw your car out every six months or buy a new house when the old one gets dirty, and clothes belonged to that category for probably as long as they have existed. In the tomb of Tutankhamen, sealed 3,000 years ago, writes Sekules, is a blue kerchief mended with a pattern of pale stitches.

It’s been possible to treat clothes as disposable because of the prodigious flow of new garments pumped out by manufacturers, who fan the fires of clothing trends while, in some cases, producing products so shoddy that they may not make it through their first wash. The number of garments bought per person per year has skyrocketed in recent decades, and garments may be worn only a few times before finding their way to the landfill. As a result, the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet.

At the same time, Harvey believes, mended clothing has a social stigma attached to it: It is more natural to explain why your leg is in a cast than why you have a patch on your pants, she says.

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We may have gotten used to thinking of clothes as transient, but most of us have garments that matter to us: a top that always looks and feels good no matter what you pair it with, that soft sweater you could wear all winter, a shirt you inherited from your dad. When these things show their age, we feel the loss. That feeling, says Harvey, opens the doorway to mending them.

“You can really build a relationship with your clothing when you mend it,” she says.

Mending is a skill, and doing it invisibly is very tricky with some materials, even for professionals. Flora Collingwood-Norris, a knitwear designer in Scotland whose mends feature tiny embroidered flowers and breathtakingly intricate darning, says that she started making her mending visible because not even she had the ability to hide her repairs well. “Making things invisible is really difficult unless you have an exact color match,” she says. “I could get something really close, [but] it might look like a stain or something. I find that really frustrating because it attracts my eye. I would rather turn that into a feature.”

Sekules describes her mending strategy as “more is more.” She creates big swirls of stitches and colorful darns and leads the Mend March hashtag campaign each year to encourage people who may or may not have ever handled a needle to think about fixing those beloved socks or that moth-eaten jacket.

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There is no need for mending to be solitary, either. Many visible menders do repairs for friends or in groups. In a recent workshop hosted by Collingwood-Norris on Zoom, a collection of people from around the world sat peaceably together, working to learn the technique of Swiss darning, which replaces the missing stitches in a knitted garment with new ones. Heads down, needles flickering with colored wool, people discussed the sweaters they were hoping to mend. Birdsong drifted in through someone’s window, but whether the bird was in Boston or Europe was hard to say.

Mending that everyone can see is recast as a sign of integrity.Kate Sekules

For 15 years, mending in public was part of artist Michael Swaine’s life — he manned the Free Mending Library, a hot dog cart equipped with a sewing machine, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. Once a week, he would wheel his machine out to the sidewalk and mend whatever passersby loved enough to want to fix. “That simple act of mending someone’s pants or hemming pants or putting a button on was somehow more complicated and beautiful and nuanced than I initially thought,” he says.

“San Francisco is one of the wealthiest cities in the world,” he continues, “but there are these pockets, larger and larger ones, that show the inequality. You do see the need for fixing things and keeping things going, even if we live in this culture of waste.”

Small acts of resurrection

Not everyone has sufficient privilege to wear clothing with visible repairs. Like-new clothing is a kind of armor, especially if you come from a marginalized group. As long as mending is thought of as something to hide rather than celebrate, there will be barriers to showing that you’ve done it. This is a tension that visible menders are trying to address. And for some people in the movement, clothes are just the start. Harvey believes that more of the objects we use every day, including electronics, should be designed so that they can be repaired. “We’ve been disempowered by some of the objects we own, the way they’ve been designed,” she says. “There are incentives to buy a new one rather than mend your old one. There are also objects that are quite hard to fix yourself.”

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A visible mend made by the author on a friend's sweater.Veronique Greenwood

Even though clothing is easier to fix than an iPhone, picking up something damaged and trying to make it work again can be difficult. A hole in a sweater is ragged, a little messy, hard to control. Collingwood-Norris says she sometimes has to put down a mending project out of frustration and come back to it later. But the thing about a mend, especially a big, unruly, visible one, is that all that stitching often makes a fabric stronger, says Sekules. And wearing something you fixed gives you the feeling of bringing something back to life. Last spring I used thick slate-colored wool to fill in the worn cuffs of a long coat I have worn across three continents and three decades, and when I saw that the fabric was whole again, I felt I had pushed back against the forces of decay and heard them retreat.

In the daily crush of things you can’t control and events you can’t believe are happening, a small act of resurrection feels significant all out of proportion to its size.

What have you got to lose?

“You can’t ruin it — it’s already ruined,” Sekules says. “Therefore, have fun.”

Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @vero_greenwood.