In a Breaking World, Mending Takes on More Meaning
In the fast fashion era, mending worn garments is a quietly revolutionary act.
There is an old Jens Lekman song, “Your Arms Around Me,” in which he describes nicking off the tip of his finger while slicing avocados. His lover, who had inadvertently caused the accident, tells him: “What’s broken can always be fixed/What’s fixed will always be broken.” And then the music swells and soars.
I was reminded of the lyric while reading the recently released Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts (Sasquatch, 2020), as much for the slim volume’s content as for the whimsical melancholy of its aesthetic. Written and illustrated by sisters Nina and Sonya Montenegro, Mending Life is equal parts illustrated textile repair primer and gentle prescription for fixing our fraught relationships with the planet and each other. Both are particularly salient in the time of COVID-19.
Coronavirus has exposed all the things we knew were broken down and somehow could never find the time, money, or political will to fix. Now, there is a cascade of collective breaking—our cities, our bodies, our minds, our hearts. More optimistically, the global pandemic is revealing all the unprecedented opportunities we will have for fixing. Though, of course, whatever we fix will always, by definition, mark prior brokenness.
On a practical level, millions of homebound people have turned to indoor pastimes, like the sort of small home repairs the Montenegros describe as opportunities “to hone our problem-solving faculties.” Mending has the added bonus of being handheld; it’s easily portable and you can do it from your couch.
In the fast fashion era, mending worn garments is a quietly revolutionary act, “a profound act of restoring integrity to an object and our relationship to it.” It used to be that one or two fashion trends defined an entire decade. These days, a fashion trend may last only a single season. And fast fashion brands may have 52 “micro-seasons” per year, as Shannon Whitehead Lohr, founder of sustainable fashion brand accelerator Factory45, wrote in a 2014 article for HuffPost.
The speed and volume of fashion industry production and consumption have massive and well-documented human and environmental impacts, like the estimated 1.4 million injuries among garment workers every year, and nearly 17 million tons of textile waste generated annually by the United States alone.
Mending our clothes is not going to bring the wheels of the fashion industry to a grinding halt—though COVID-19 might—but Mending Life suggests that it can help us reimagine what clothes are and what they mean to us. “Our clothes take care of us. They are our protective shell, our second skin, our closest embrace. They encircle us gently and keep us dry, warm, and cozy.” Through mending, we acknowledge the service of our clothes.
In Mending Life, garments are made up of stories and take on a living quality. Honoring them is a theme throughout the book—one informed by Buddhist and Shinto traditions. The hand-lettered mantra, “To honor the gift of your wool/I will mend this hat/over and/over and/over again,” appears above a picture of two fluffy white sheep.
To accomplish this, the book recommends darning, the most Insta-worthy of repairs and probably the most effective for worn knits. Darning involves weaving or knitting fabric swatches seamlessly into surrounding fabrics to cover a hole or bald patch. Eighteenth-century darning samplers at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum and the Met Museum show how adept young women once were at working complex weaving structures like birds-eye and herringbone twills into existing plain weave fabrics. Today, contemporary artists like Celia Pym use darning to apply more abstract patterns onto newspaper, textiles, and garments, conceptual art that critiques fast fashion culture. Tom of Holland, another artist and educator, uses darning as a way to draw attention to the beauty of hand-loomed British textiles.
Through mending, we acknowledge the service of our clothes.
Though I can sew, weave, and knit, I have yet to attempt darning, mainly because the level of skill required to effectively darn fine-gauge, machine-knit clothing—the garments I wear the most—is daunting. When the Montenegros write, “even the cheapest of clothes are deserving of our attention when they break,” I beg to differ. The quality of fast fashion pieces is often so low that my worn items go straight to my fabric scrap stash.
I suspect that the clothes in the author’s closets tend to be of higher quality, something not everyone has access to or money for. Here, Mending Life, like minimalism, zero waste, and environmentalism before it, would benefit from a bit more intersectionality. There’s no hat tip to people who have been mending clothes for millennia out of necessity rather than for reasons of aesthetics or activism. They praise an organic farmer who sports a visibly mended jacket and “is not the least concerned with wearing the latest fashion” as virtuous without acknowledging that eschewing fashion norms is a bigger ask for people whose skin color or larger body associates them with poverty or sloppiness. “Nowadays, sporting a patch suggests that you are mindful of the environment,” just felt to me like an open invite for virtue signaling.
Still, despite a few snags, Mending Life won me over. The explanation of sashiko stitching, a technique used in Japan and India, is accessible for newbie sewists, as are instructions for reattaching buttons, repairing seams, and patching denim. The Montenegro sisters also score points for explaining how to mend leggings and down puffer jackets (use a very sharp needle!), and their tutorial for how to fix a nylon coil zipper was solid gold.
In the end, it was the ethos of the book that resonated with me, especially now that I’m in de facto lockdown and can’t take my torn clothes to a tailor. I have to sit with my excuses for not taking the time to repair my own clothes: It’ll take too long. There are too many holes. This garment will never be as good as new. It will always be broken.
After reading Mending Life, I realized that these are the same excuses we all individually and collectively use to avoid doing the work of healing relationships with ourselves, other people, and the planet. Mending or repairing anything is the antithesis of the frenetic busy-ness, constant inessential travel, and rampant overconsumption that COVID-19 is forcing us to reckon with.
Mending Life presents the micro-action of mending as both meditation and practice, the solution for a torn sleeve and the pattern for a larger cultural shift. “Small acts matter in the slow process of culture change,” write the Montenegros. Mending is a metaphor for living with gratitude, intention, and anti-wastefulness, and embraces the optimism of their adopted maxim: “There’s nothing broken that can’t be fixed.”