Lily Fulop is the author of Wear, Repair, Repurpose: A Maker’s Guide to Mending and Upcycling Clothes, available now from The Countryman Press/W. W. Norton. Fulop also runs the Instagram account @mindful_mending, where she shares sustainable fashion inspiration.
If you’re one of the many of us practicing social distancing, you might be finding yourself oscillating between stress (panic, dread, anxiety, etc.) and extreme boredom. A global crisis is happening; our routines have been flipped upside down, and we’re being told to do nothing. By doing nothing and staying inside, we’re saving lives — but that doesn’t mean it feels great, especially if we already struggle with mental health (raised hand emoji). Personally, it’s important for me to practice mindfulness and keep my hands busy at times of unease. So, I mend.
Mending is a way of repairing clothes that have holes, stains, or other signs of wear to make them more useful and beautiful. It’s about using what you have, embracing imperfections, fixing what’s broken, and rejecting the idea that newer is better. Most mending involves sewing, which means keeping your hands occupied with repetitive, soothing stitches. You get to focus on the task in front of you, and harness your creativity to make your clothes one-of-a-kind. Think: a colourful patch on top of a rip in your jeans, or an embroidered design on top of a coffee stain. It’s meditative, slow work. It’s productive, and deeply satisfying. And an added bonus: It’s sustainable.
If you don’t know how to sew, but are interested in mending, let me just remind you that right now is the perfect time to learn a new skill — especially one that can have a positive impact on the world (that is, if you have time and energy left over after meeting your basic needs and caring for your family, which is, of course, a privilege). Staying creatively occupied can help with anxiety, but mending in particular can help with the modern phenomenon that is eco-anxiety because it’s a concrete way of taking action against the unsustainable practices of the fashion industry.
The rise of fast fashion (fuelled by the rise of consumerism) has given way to massive amounts of pollution and waste. Clothes are made quickly and cheaply to keep up with ever-changing trends and consumer demand, as well as to give people access to trends that they might not otherwise be able to afford. But the products aren’t made to last. This allows some people to be less intentional about their purchases, because the stakes seem low — queue someone buying a dress for a single night out and never wearing it again.
All these cheap clothes end up somewhere after they’ve been discarded, and that somewhere is most often a landfill. Considering the fact that most clothes are now composed of some amount of synthetic fibres (aka plastic), your outfit isn’t so different from the dreaded plastic straw. According to environmental organisation Fashion Revolution, decomposing clothing releases methane (a harmful greenhouse gas), and synthetic fabrics can take hundreds of years to fully decompose. But when you take care of your clothes and mend them, you can keep them out of the landfill for longer, and reduce the amount of clothes you go through over time.
Mending is an act of resistance; a rejection of the kind of capitalism that puts profit before the planet. Mending is activism (#craftivism). It sends a message that we care about reducing waste and minimising our environmental impact, that we don’t need to buy into trends or buy anything at all, really. We care enough to invest our time into fixing what we have, and to embed something deeply personal into it: our own handiwork.
The other aspect of mending is mindfulness. When you take the time to learn how to sew and repair your own clothes, you’re forced to slow down and are able to reflect on the task at hand, or perhaps on other aspects of your lives that need mending, like relationships or habits that don’t serve you. But a lot of people also have this jolting realisation while working with their clothes that someone actually made these. A person’s hands in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or any number of countries touched every single part of our clothes. They cut the pattern pieces and ran them under machines. Before that, other hands dyed the fabric and processed the fibres. These hands belong to people who often don’t make a living wage, and who work in dangerous conditions just so we can get our clothes cheap.
When you start to become aware of the life cycle of clothing, it changes the way you think about consuming. Suddenly, it’s not a cute new top from your favourite brand. It’s an object composed of labor, raw materials, and toxic chemicals that was shipped from the other side of the world to be worn a few times and ultimately be discarded. It’s not really worth it anymore. Being aware of the ugly side of manufacturing helps us differentiate between what we want and what we need. It helps us be intentional with the items that we buy and bring into our lives. It starts to feel really good when you curate your closet (and the rest of your life) to be composed of meaningful pieces that you feel good about wearing, and you care enough about to repair.
With so much normalcy being disrupted already, it may hardly seem like the time to transform the way you think about your wardrobe. But this global pause may be an opportunity to reorient our practices to be better for the planet, and our own mental health, because it brings with it a sense of clarity. Take for instance the fact that during the mandated lockdown in China, factory closures caused air pollution levels to drastically drop. When daily life screeches (inconveniently and tragically) to a halt, we’re able to clearly see the human impact we have on the world. And, without the usual distraction of daily life, and the added stress of these new circumstances, it can become really clear what’s important to us (a daily walk, conversations with loved ones, creative outlets…).
It makes sense if clothes aren’t really at the top of your mind. Right now we can’t go shopping IRL, and many of us have much tighter budgets due to a lack of job security. (Besides, a lot of us are self-isolating in the same pair of sweatpants everyday, right?) But what this means is that many of us have already started a slow-fashion habit, without realising it! So, when normal life resumes, maybe we can keep it up. Because when we buy fewer clothes, we’re reducing the amount of pollution caused by the textile industry. We’re freeing up space in our closets (and minds) to focus on what is important. When we mend, we’re taking action to heal a broken system.
There are a lot of things in the world that need fixing and a lot of them are beyond our immediate control, which can feel disheartening at best, and panic-inducing at worst. But starting where we are, with what we have and what we can do, helps us feel less powerless. Because we’re doing something, no matter how small. Remember, when you add up a lot of small changes, they add up to big change. So instead of online shopping, try mending a hole in your clothes, and see how good it feels.
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