The Fashion Revolution Week suggests four Rs to adopt and promote sustainable fashion: Renewal, Revival, Responsibility, and Revolution.
Think of the fabled Danish butter cookie tins found in every household that the internet made memes about for never containing cookies, only sewing supplies. Where are they now?
If you still have yours and dip into it occasionally to darn a hole in your socks or fix a loose button, you are on the right track, says Fashion Revolution.
The not-for-profit global movement, founded after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, that took the lives of 1,134 garment workers, recently wrapped up its global Fashion Revolution Week, held annually in the week surrounding 24 April, the anniversary of the cataclysmic event.
As part of the theme this year, ‘Money, Fashion, Power,’ skilled practitioners in different parts of the world conducted mending sessions to socialize the message that mending is an act of reclamation and revolution.
When one thinks of wresting power away from the moneyed bigwigs of the fashion world, the initial thought is not of a group of sewists working away at fixing garment tears. However, when a person sews a loose button, they invariably increase the number of wears of the garment and forge an emotional connection to it, given the effort spent on mending.
As a result, when they wear more and buy less, they refuse to fall into the overconsumption trap cast by retail companies and, in the long run, limit the number of their clothes that end up in landfills. There is power in that.
As part of the Indian edition of Fashion Revolution Week, Sonika Khar and Ashish Dhaka conducted a workshop with fashion students and enthusiasts to showcase different mending techniques. They suggest fixing a hole, for instance, by stitching a circle around it before filling it in with web-like concentric buttonhole stitches.
The act of mending is essentially born of necessity – a tear, a frayed hem, a loose button – to increase the material longevity of the garment. “Except,” Dhaka rightly tells me, “we simply don’t wear our garments to the point that they need mending anymore.” A surfeit of choices creates a large chunk of lightly-used clothes in many middle and upper-middle class wardrobes. A 2018 survey of 1800 households in 20 countries found that Belgians owned the highest percentage of clothes they had not worn in the last year – a staggering 88 percent.
Avid menders like Khar and Dhaka believe that tying mending only to repair is a somewhat limited understanding. It is also an aesthetic choice: We buy more because we get bored quickly, but ‘visible mending’ can extend the appeal of a garment. Pulling out a white shirt embroidered with running stitches in ikat-like circular patterns, they explained how mending could refresh a discoloured solid garment. The two have been incubating a brand centered around providing mending services and exclusively upcycled garments for the last two years, and plan on hosting pop-ups soon.
Visible mending has always been part of Indian craft culture – from the Kantha tradition of Bengal, in which worn-out garments are layered with patches of old cloth and secured with running stitches, to the Kheta of Bihar, another quilting technique with distinct geometrical motifs. A quick Google search of the phrase ‘visible mending’ points one to the ancient Japanese traditions of Sashiko and Boro, which are experiencing a resurgence amongst mending enthusiasts globally.
On the other hand, the first-ever exhibition of Kheta embroideries made by the Shershabad, a migrant Bengali Muslim community, is underway at New Delhi’s National Crafts Museum. Crowdfunding for the exhibition has currently managed to raise only around 30 percent of the goal on Milaap.
Rafoogarithe art of darning garments using threads drawn from the garment itself and replicating the weave, is the antithesis of ‘visible mending,’ and has been a fixture in South Asian communities for centuries.
The late textile designer and researcher Priya Ravish Mehra wrote about spending her childhood in Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, a hub for the Pashmina or Kani shawl trade. Come winter, she wrote, and rafoogars went from door to door darning worn-out Kani shawls and robes.
While the thriving shawl industry gradually declined by the end of the 19th century, according to Mehra, “The special darning skills has (sic) been responsible in keeping these exquisite pieces alive, and rescuing a substantial number of these priceless shawls from destruction. Darning has kept them in circulation and continuous use till date in different circumstances in (sic) an interesting simultaneous transformation of the product and the market. ”
“Skilled rafoogars today are dwindling, ”Dhaka bemoans. “A friend of mine desperately wanted to mend his pashmina shawl but couldn’t find anyone to do it,” he adds. COVID-19 worsened the already dwindling craftspeople population. The mass exodus of artisans from Indian cities to villages in 2020 caused 22 percent of the sector to lose 75 percent of their annual income.
The thought of personally mending or having someone else do it comes instinctively when the object in question is valuable – say, a Benarasi sari passed down through generations. But what happens when you have an ordinary t-shirt bought on sale and mending it costs more than buying a replacement. Is it worth the effort?
“It’s this idea of care for all things that we bring into your lives,” says Paris-based Jocelyn Whipple, a founding member of Fashion Revolution, who has been instrumental in driving the organization’s global mending awareness initiatives. “When we choose to wear clothes, we become accountable for them. If you have a £ 3 (₹ 300) t-shirt from H&M and wear it three days a week, it’s worth mending, ”she adds.
To mend, then, is to vest a sense of permanence into garments, and subvert the dizzying flux of trends today. The stitches, so to speak, tangibly preserve the conditions that occasioned them: Be it a wine spill during a night of dancing or a leisurely summer of indulging in old hobbies.
Whipple is the founder of Mend Assembly, a UK-based space with affiliates in France that centers on local clothing care practices as the primary business model, as opposed to retail. As part of her efforts to sensitise people about ingraining the habit of repair, she also develops training programs for brands to increase accountability towards the entire lifecycle of their garments. She believes brands must be mindful of reparability right from the outset.
For instance, they must think whether a zip that is hard to repair is necessary. She adds, “In the long run, we want brands to produce better and less, and stop talking about circularity which does not exist yet. In the meantime, we need clothing that we can care for, and which will have a long and useful life, not only for the first customer but also for the second and third. Whether they like it or not, clothes are going to secondary and tertiary markets, and they have to be accountable for that. ”
Certain brands have been incorporating repair into their business models, perhaps the best example being Swedish-based Nudie Jeans, which offers a lifetime free repair service along with their jeans. When the brand’s repair shops are not accessible, customers can order a free repair kit from its website. In India, Péro frequently offers mending workshops, and includes upcycled garments in its collections.
Khar and Dhaka echo Whipple’s call for mainstream brands to integrate repair alongside their retail services, not just luxury and bespoke designers. “Brands can offer repair kiosks or digital consultancies to help customers increase the longevity of their garments through repair services or tips,” says Dhaka. “Another way brands can be mindful of customers discarding clothes is by implementing creative practices about how garments can ascend and descend with body size. Perhaps, keep a few bolts of fabric handy for when customers need to adjust the measurements of garments that don’t fit anymore, ”he adds.
Another terrifying statistic on garment over-production states that by 2030, around the world, we are expected to be discarding more than 134 million tonnes of textiles a year. In this context, mending becomes a revolutionary act, as posited by Orsola de Castro, Fashion Revolution co-founder, in her book Loved Clothes Last. On why we mend, she affectively notes, “to counteract disposable consumerism, the only way is to keep. Everything around us tells us to throw, so we should rise to the challenge and keep. ”
All photos by Ashish Dhaka and Sonika Khar
Swareena Gurung is a freelance fashion and culture writer.
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