Are you a Mender or a Thrower?

posted in: Inspiration, knitting, Organisation | 35

Marianna recently did a short, and rather amusing, post about invisible mending, a dying craft.

My father used to wear what he called a “sports jacket” at weekends, and in the 1960s he had a few tailor-made jackets (from Alec Leadenham of Altrincham) something like the image below, and the jacket had been damaged by a cigarette or cigar, as I remember. And my parent’s discussed having it “invisibly mended” in Manchester. I was quite young and I wondered what invisible mending was. My father had shown me, on a previous occasion, that wire – once bent – could never be straightened again. So to say I skeptical was an understatement. I remember my amazement when I was shown the repair. It was literally invisible. It was like magic! The pattern in the jacket had been rewoven in such a marvellous way that it was impossible to see the repair. He also had a very good patch or two that was hard to see – but this was often at the bottom of a pair of trousers or somewhere unobtrusive. He would have leather elbow patches put on jackets if they started to show signs of wear. My father’s family were not poor, but they were Scottish Protestants, thrifty and opposed to waste and they believed in repairing things. My mother on the other hand was keener on getting nice, new things. She felt that darning and knitting your own woolies was  old fashioned and dull. My Dad’s three sisters would sit with their mother in the evening, listening to classical music and darning socks with a “mushroom”, or knitting. My Mum, on the other hand, enjoyed smoking, shopping and going out for a run in the car. If she got nail polish on a dress, or burnt a hole in her nighty she would quietly put them in the dustbin.

Mens jacket Jeager
Check jacket

My mother’s approach is the norm today, and ironically she told me the other day that she couldn’t find anyone to repair her toaster. These days it is usually easier to just replace the garment than pay £60 for a very careful and expert job of fixing the hole by reweaving in threads taken from the seam allowance or hem. For practical purposes most ordinary people in the past will have repaired their clothes, and their sheets (cutting them down the middle and “turning” them so that the worn parts were tucked under the mattress) perhaps. Even a less beautiful repair job is an interesting and attractive feature, in my opinion. Look at these agricultural trousers, hand sewn and repaired so there is almost more patching than pants.

Norfolk farmers trousers (1880s)

On reading Sew2Pro I immediately thought of Prince Charles. Despite being incredibly wealthy he likes old garments which have been repaired. He has shoes, coats and hats that are several decades old and it is nice that he wears his patches with such pride. He says it is good to preserve old quality items and not to throw out something just because it has a little wear and tear. In fact he values heritage, tradition and likes to present himself as beyond fashion. I for one love his obvious repairs, and the fact that he is unwilling to chuck out a comfy pair of shoes.

The other thing I thought of was the Visible Mending movement, where old clothes are prefered to new, mass production. Especially if they are broken or worn, and the owner cannot bear to part with them. Then the repair is made to enhance the object rather than attempt an invisible fix. At the Makers House in September I just missed Tom of Holland who promotes Visible Mending. I really wanted to know more. He has a blog and has agreed I can show some of his work. I think these garments are such fun. The way the wear on the sock shows the pressure points of the foot. The opportunities to use contrasting and visible yarns to create more pattern and texture. The painterly effects as the design develops. And in Tom’s case he uses different and creative darning stitch techniques too, to add to the interest and texture.

I enjoy mending and darning – techniques my mother taught me. Basically I weave across the hole or thin bit using a similarly coloured thread or sometimes cotton. We have had to contend with dozens of moth holes over the years and many of Nick’s jumpers have been darned. I have also used some iron-on patches that are shaped like moths. They really amused me as a kind of ironic response to the moth. As Nick and I like cashmere sweaters (and so do moths) we have had lots of run ins with them and we have used a wide range of solutions to reduce the population. I once had a  nasty attack of fur moths which was disgusting.

I strongly dislike the culture where if something breaks you just throw it away – no one can repair it, or the cost of repair is similar to the cost of replacement. I really like the idea of well loved garments being saved by judicious repairs. It is easier to do repairs if you don’t have too many clothes, or you really love the ones you have. I am very keen on older clothes that have a bit of history and some signs of wear. I am reluctant to throw away old shoes and have them repaired locally and well. But I had not seen the opportunity for creative embellishment as part of the mending process before. When my patchwork tutor Henrika Smith got a hole in her mauve jumper she repaired it with a colourful hexagonal patch. And finally a truly marvellous piece of mending created by artist Celia Pym. This makes me want to knit a Fair Isle jumper, let the moths have a share, then lovingly repair it.

Do you mend? Artistically, invisibly or grudgingly?


35 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    Stunning examples, Kate. I always mend things I like. The dress I wore today has several holes that I mended reasonably invisibly (in a knit segment). Being a knitter helps with the moth holes in jumpers that you describe. I recently had fun repairing a big hole in a pair of commercially-knitted mittens in a two-colour pattern for a beloved colleague/friend of mine. I loved that she wanted to repair the mittens, which could have been replaced for little money. Tom of Holland is also a personal blog crush of mine, but I wasn’t aware of Prince Charles’s mended items so thanks for sharing that. I think I share his philosophy – the more I wear things that I like, the more I want to be wearing them in twenty years. Makes me want to focus even more on making quality things meant to endure. Gianni has been gradually convincing me of the same, as the ethic in his family is to buy quality and wear the items for decades. My favourite of his outfits includes an old vest and corduroy jacket that he has had for at least thirty years.

  2. Elle

    I suspect that some people do not mend because today’s cheap garments are not worth mending. I’ve noticed too that it is difficult to find women’s shoes that can be resoled. They seem designed to be tossed.

  3. BMGM

    I mend visibly for myself and my daughter, and unobtrusively for my husband and friends (only close ones).

    Visible mending is my modern day practice of boro. See this Brooklyn gallery devoted to boro textiles. for gorgeous inspiration.

    If thrift born or necessity can become a collectors’ item today, then my mended clothes will become family heirlooms.

    I, too, like cashmere. But, since I found out what it is doing to the planet, I’ve quit buying new cashmere and am mending and remending my old cashmere.

    Thanks for showing Prince Charles’ visible mending. I admire his practical and frugal personal habits.

  4. Lynn

    Kate – I made a wool jacket about three years ago, and then just a year later discovered a hole in the upper back. Fortunately we have an ” invisible weaver” here in Southern California, and I was able to get it taken care of.

    The proprietor told me that his mother learned the technique from a Frenchwoman back in the 1930’s.

    I do value mending and repairing, and had not until now thought that I inherited this trait from my Scottish protestant ancestors. Thanks for pointing out that interesting tidbit.

  5. SewRuthie

    I do mend some things. Some others it just doesn’t seem worth it but I use the fabric for other things. I did buy a nice trouser suit in a charity shop which had the trouser hem partly down and a pulled thread on the lapel from a brooch. Both easily fixed giving me a nice suit for work.

  6. Sarah

    Very interesting. I hadn’t noticed Prince Charles’s patches before.

    Did you see in the news recently that Sweden was planning to introduce tax breaks to encourage people to repair rather than throw away? Aimed mainly at household appliances it seems, but clothes and shoes as well. The thinking is not just that it will reduce waste but also help to develop a repairs industry that might provide employment or business opportunities, particularly for new immigrants.

    • Stephanie

      This is very interesting for a couple of reasons. It reminds me of a coversation I had on my blog with an Italian woman who lives outside of Italy now. When she goes home she notices that the little shops specialized in repairing absolutely everything are disappearing. Unfortunately I think she is right. Gianni and I had a long conversation with a very elderly couple in such a shop a year or two ago. He spent his working life repairing leather goods like purses and belts. We had taken a very old purse of his mother’s to get a new strap and zip so his sister could use it. None of his children were interested in taking over the business. Fortunately though there still are younger shoe repair persons and there are new handmade shoemakers cropping up, so that is something.

        • SJ Kurtz

          There are fewer and fewer shops that do these repairs here in Seattle. The shoe repair closest to me owns their own building and is run by the third generation in their 20s who grew up in the shop same as their parents. Down the same street, a woman’s alterations shop closed when she passed away, her children not interested in the job (she sat in the window and mended and rewove and knew everyone in that neighborhood). We had discussed my learning the trade from her and taking over the business, which was a great idea until I really thought about how blind she had gone and my own repetitive stress injuries.

          I don’t know that I regret that or not.

  7. eimear

    I am a mender, and cant help it. I think when you make things, mending is honouring the skill that went before, I would love to have invisible mending skills, I don’t so making a feature of a repair is often more interesting (and adore sashiko) I used be of the habit in the 80s and 90s of taking out store bought skirts and trousers at the hips or in at the waist for me and my sis (both of us have smaller waist to hip) bringing the seam allowance to the nth….. but seam allowances were 1.5 on store bought then which meant you could get 4cm extra at least….. not possible with current clothes and tiny seams.

  8. Jane

    I love to see creative mending. I don’t think we can be very hard on our clothes here as I rarely have the need to mend but fixing the odd rip in a favourite shirt is so satisfying. I also have the occasional need to mend something during the making process as a result of careless scissor use! The fur moths sound very unpleasant!

  9. Mem

    I knew I liked prince Charles ! I do mend within reason . My mother us a mender extraordinaire . She made a complete new lining for a coat recently . I would have chucked the coat as it was a bit too far gone for me . I hav a client who wears jeans which really are more patch than not . They are 20’years old and husband pride and joy . I think they have become a bit of a hobby

  10. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    I used to love patching my jeans, but as I haven’t had a pair that fits me nicely for ages, it wouldn’t be worth it [and would make me look even more of a bag lady I’m afraid]. Although I’m all for small repairs, I’m not feeling the love for those excessively darned woolies, they’re a mess to my eye I’m afraid. Each to her own!
    I did make my latest Victorian drawers from an extremely worn old sheet, and had to put two small patches in place. Do I get a Get Out Of Jail Free card?

  11. Lynn Mally

    I mend, although I’m not sure what I would do with moth holes since I don’t wear wool. For some reason here in Southern California many appliance repairmen are from the former Soviet Union. When you present them with an ailing dishwasher or refrigerator and ask if it can be repaired, they look at you like you are crazy. Of course, they say. It wouldn’t occur to them to throw anything away.

  12. Vivienne

    Great topic! Another Scottish Presbyterian here remembering the glow of satisfaction in making a good job of repairing something. In the mid 70’s we were so hard up (15% interest rates!) so turning a collar on my husband’s shirts, making a skirt for myself out of a pair of gent’s trousers or edge-to-middle nice old bed sheets were all ways of extending the life of something. I once boiled up outgrown colourful woollens to make a patchwork coat for my daughter and it was much admired. Relining a coat was indeed a bit of a chore but so satisfying. I’ve slipped in my worthy ways a bit over the years though I am forever mending my grandson’s torn trousers and my Russell & Bromley loafers get soled and heeled regularly. Not sure I would wear the colourful sweaters you show though – perhaps better suited to the young and trendy. On me it would look like I’d lost the plot.

  13. Cecily Graham

    I’m definitely a mender, and am even more inclined to squeeze the last bit of wear out of something when I’ve made it myself. Once something is beyond use in its current incarnation, I usually put it to one side to turn it into something else. All this means I’m quite happy to spend more on high quality fabric/yarn in the first place, which of course wears better anyway.

  14. sew2pro

    Ooh, I don’t know about letting the moths have their share but they are really lovely, unique, biographical jumpers. I always feel more relaxed around new furniture when it’s had the odd trace of family life/wear and tear so similarly with clothes, which are mostly made by me. I can find another use for past their best garments.

    My husband fixes everything electric or mechanical; it’s probably one of the reasons I married him as this appeals to my green credentials as well as a tendency towards miserliness.

  15. Giorgia

    I suspect most sewist and knitters would mend. Mostly because they can. My brother was about to throw away his favourite jumper because of two minuscule holes and his face completely lit up when I told him I could fix it… and rom what I can see most women don’t know how to attach a button so I won’t be surprised if sometimes they felt they had no choice. Of course the aberrantly low price of clothes and the steady cost of living made handmade mending a luxury, and people learn not to get too attached to flimsy quality garments.

    I like the idea of playful mending but I am also very attracted by invisible techniques. In Italy we say “learn any skill, you never know when it comes handy” and I feel this is so very often true. Never miss a chance to learn a new trick!

  16. Paola

    A mender here too. Definitely get a kick out of bringing some item of clothing back from the brink. I have my shoes mended as much as possible, mainly because I take a Size 12 (Size 10UK) and finding shoes I like in my size takes some doing. It’s easier to have shoes mended than find a new pair that fills the bill more often than not. Having said that, our local shoe repairer is a bit of a free spirit, and is liable not to go to work whenever the surf is good, so it can take some weeks waiting for your shoes to be mended. His shop is jam packed with repair jobs anyway, I guess he figures we have nowhere else to go.

  17. Annieloveslinen

    Well, I’m totally surprised that Prince Charles could do any activity that would damage his clothes since he even has his toothpaste squeezed for him.

    I would repair woollens with matching yarn but my woollies are not worth mending. I well remember wooden ‘mushrooms’ a useful built of kit that I’d buy second hand if I should come across one. I’m not sure about the visible mending it jars a little although, I do like the concept of repair and will check out Tom’s website he sounds interesting.

  18. Sam

    When you mentioned Prince Charles I thought you were going to talk about the outdoor jacket he wore on Countryfile once. I think it was a Barbour or similar and was so patched and mended it looked as though there was more “new” fabric than original jacket left!

  19. Kim Hood

    Another mender. Having been brought up in a fairly poor family (dad was a shipbuilder, but not many ships being built) ‘waste not want not’ was a regular chant from my mother. I rebelled for a while but I’m probably more frugal in many ways than her now. Sadly the world seems to be moving away from this mentality – though maybe it is starting to change now?

  20. Summerflies

    Mender….fixer, not waste. I’m glad it’s coming into fashion of sorts… people sometimes think of you as a tight wad (which I am of course) but it’s more like not wasting. I don’t want to throw away my coffee machine because the little black plastic thing has a crack… so I glued it up…today. I’ll see if it works after giving it a few days to harden. I try to fix everything and don’t throw it away before I have really tried to fix it. Often it’s nothing too big. Great post.

  21. Urbanite

    Loved this post so much. The Prince Charles repair photos are priceless.

    BTW, the rtw comment about your ensemble is a compliment. Love how the pieces effortlessly work together. Excellent.

    Knitting a Fair Isle jumper right now – I’m up to the neck steek – so the re-knitting photo was inspirational. Much better than the original with the same level of cool as vintage Levi’s.

  22. Amanda

    I love the photo of Prince Charles in his mended jacket! I personally MUCH prefer to mend things (especially my favourite things). If it’s a clothing item and it’s something I don’t much care for I may donate it rather than chuck it. If it’s a household item I duct tape it!! LOL! Not pretty but it works – and as an artist who generally values the aesthetic value in things, I think it’s comical that my home is strewn with unseemly patches of duct tape everywhere – kitchen appliances, fixtures, couch, you name it LOL. Eventually of course, these things get replaced, but why not extend the life of something as long as possible? ^_^

    • fabrickated

      Duct tape! I am amused by this. Is that thick, greyish tape that is used by sound engineers? Or is there a more attractive version? I have been told on a camping holiday there is nothing like it for fixing everything.

  23. Trish

    I love mends in really solid garments but the lightweight ready to wear stuff doesn’t display the same fortitude to aging as a solid old jumper. Like you, I would repair cashmere as you come to love them over the years, but cheaper cashmere isn’t so durable.

  24. talliswoman

    There was something I read in the Melbourne Age newspaper this morning that seems very relevant here. Ross Gittins (one of the economics reporters) quotes a definition of: “consumerism as the love of buying things, whereas materialism is just the love of things. Meaning the latter is a cure for the former. The more we love and care for the stuff we’ve already got, repairing it when it breaks, the less we’re tempted to buy things we don’t need.”
    I thought this was quite lovely from a sewing perspective and very relevant to your post. I too am struggling with mending moth holes though, and that was a skill that my mother didn’t teach. And I can’t quite reconcile myself to the look of visible mending, much as I like the idea. Perhaps I just need to practice more!

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