The lining of my black-and-white plaid peacoat is ripped. Again.
I’ve only had it for two years, but since I live just south of Boston, my coats and jackets see continual wear from October to May. The constant pulling on and off takes its toll on buttons, cuffs, seams and, yes, linings. Every week or two, I sit down with a small pile of garments (usually both mine and my husband’s, but he is especially hard on buttons) to do some mending.
No one taught me how to mend, at least not that I can recall. I suppose the skill came after I learned to sew. That I do remember: I was six, sitting on the blue couch in my grandparents’ dim living room, curtains drawn against the heat and humidity of an Ohio summer. My aunt sat next to me, showing me how to thread a needle and line up the edges of two squares of fabric. She demonstrated a straight, even seam, pricking the double layer of cloth with a line of tiny running stitches.
After that lesson, I spent hours rummaging through the bags of scrap fabric in my mom’s old bedroom upstairs, cutting rectangles and sewing them into larger rectangles, dreaming of making a full-size quilt one day. That dream never came to fruition, but I haven’t quite ruled out the possibility: half a dozen of those half-finished quilt tops have traveled with me from house to house for years.
Eventually, I lost interest in sewing, abandoning those fabric scraps for volleyball practice, flute lessons, and hours spent scribbling in my journal. When I needed a hole fixed or a button sewn back on, I relied on my mother’s superior skill with a needle. But as a college student living several hours away from home (and Mom), necessity sent me to the craft store, where I bought a few spools of sturdy thread, a cheap seam ripper, and an assortment of needles in a flat blue plastic package. Armed with my new tools, I sewed buttons onto shirts — my own, my roommate’s, my boyfriend’s — and even affixed brand-new officer bars to the uniform of a friend who had joined the military. By trial and error, I learned how to fix small holes, and where to tack on a clear plastic snap to close the gap between buttons in a shirt placket.
My sister also learned to sew that same long-ago summer, but she has neither the patience nor the inclination for it. Instead of mending her own clothes as a college student, she would call me (I lived only a few blocks away) before a date or a big presentation: “Will you sew this button back on if I bring it over?” I didn’t mind, though I always teased her about learning how to do it herself. Like most little sisters, she paid me no attention. Now she irons her husband’s shirts, but I don’t know who sews his buttons back on when they fall off.
Mending is neither glamorous nor easy, but I’ve discovered it can be a calming antidote to the frantic pace of my everyday life. It requires me to stop in the middle of commitments — a day job and a marriage and freelance assignments — and commutes to focus on one small, tangible thing. There is satisfaction in threading a needle with just the right color of thread and making tiny, precise stitches to close a hole or hold a seam together. I’m always amazed by the strength of those stitches and the sense of accomplishment I feel afterward.
Mending is also my small stand against our disposable fashion culture, where style bloggers and magazines freely, even proudly, admit that some clothes are only made to last a season. Like the processed foods that line our grocery store shelves, many of our garments now contain unpronounceable ingredients, and a disturbing number of them wear out even before we get tired of them. Still, our secondhand shops — Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the rest — are inundated with perfectly good clothes, discarded as we pursue the next fleeting trend and still moan that we have “nothing to wear.” I’m as guilty of this behavior as the next shopper: I find it difficult to resist a sale, even when I know the garment is poorly made or the color isn’t quite right.
I haven’t yet ventured far into the world of vintage shopping or making my own clothes: I lack both a sewing machine and the skill to create garments from scratch. And although I aspire to buy quality clothing, my clothing budget simply won’t stretch to high-end designer pieces.
But these days, I am scrutinizing the tags more carefully before I buy clothes. I am considering: will I wear this top or skirt four times and then get sick of it, or do I love it enough to work it into my wardrobe and keep wearing it for years? What is this garment made of, and where was it made? And when a button eventually falls off or a small rip appears under an armhole or along a seam, I pull out a spool of thread and get to work.
I’m under no illusion that mending my clothes will make them last forever, and I know there are some holes I just can’t fix. For some of those, I need a tailor (who will often charge more than I want to pay). And sometimes a garment simply can’t be repaired and needs to be cut up for rags or else consigned to the trash.
But if I ignore the small holes and the missing buttons, if I don’t take the time to fix them (or think this humble skill is beneath me), I am telegraphing a lack of care for my possessions, my body, and in a broader sense, my life. When I sit down with my needle and thread, I am making a quiet but deliberate choice: the choice to tend my wardrobe, to treat it with care and respect, instead of tossing it aside and starting over.
This choice, if I let it, can extend beyond my clothes: it can be a beginning, a gentle reminder to pay attention to and take care of the rest of my life. We all know how it feels when our days grow frayed around the edges, when we don’t feel like we have the time and energy to take care of ourselves or those we love. But taking care doesn’t have to start, or end, with a grand gesture: it can come in the form of small, simple acts, like sitting down to tack on a missing button or salvage a torn shirt.
Mending is, by all accounts, a small thing: it may not save the world, or even save a favorite sweater from ruin. But we are told not to despise the day of small things: so much of our daily happiness depends on them. And although I can’t fix all the problems — with my clothes or with my life — there is satisfaction, and sometimes real success, in the trying.
Katie Noah Gibson is a writer, editor, knitter, and compulsive tea-drinker based in Boston. Born in Texas, she’s a lifelong Anglophile but loves to travel just about anywhere. She blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams and tweets regularly.