Sewing: mending matters review

Mending Matters, by Katrina Rodabaugh, is an excellent book. For both experienced sewists and beginners, it might be a library book rather than purchase-and-display book, because it’s the sort of book that you can read once or twice for the essays, and the general advice on patching using standard stitches (the straight stitch, the running stitch, and the ladder stitch), and then leave it at that.  The techniques, some derived from Sashiko (Japanese for “stab-stitch”, and pronounced more like SASH-ko, according to this book) and Boro (from the Japanese word for “rags”), involve creating multi-layered garments where the repair is part of the process of creating beauty, in that Wabi-Sabi way that we’re often urged to adopt: repairing and reusing rather than throwing out.

Reading through the book in a single sitting, I found myself thinking about the number of people I see around town wearing utterly destroyed jeans — massive tears in the knees and thighs, sometimes on the backs of the legs below the buttocks, or shredded sections on the upper back and sides of women’s blouses. This can be attractive in some ways, but it also shows something of the cheapness of the clothes — the garment is only interesting when ruined, because so many of the garments can be produced at once by cheap labor on the other side of the world from the wearer — often with truly catastrophic consequences for the soil that grows that much cotton, the laborer who works in sweat-shop conditions, and the transport network that burns fossil fuels by the train-load to supply this constant demand for new clothes.

Contrast this with the Boro style from northern Japan, where new cloth was so rare that wearable garments were created out of scraps and rags using Sashiko stitches: layers and layers of pieces of garments sewn together into kimono and yukata and hapi coats, for a combination of warmth and economy —

For me, one of the big take-aways is the idea of the “Slow Fashion” movement.  Throughout the book, we’re introduced to fabric artists who produce their own clothes, dye purchased fabric with plants from their own gardens, and repair and patch these garments when seams fail or fabric gives way in an embarrassing place or way.  They own fewer clothes than most of us — but their clothes, through both the patch jobs and the originalities of dye and hand-made qualities, have a uniqueness all their own, which cannot be matched by clothes from a store.

A lot of modern ‘fast fashion’ depends on t-shirts with funny slogans on thin cotton knits — a few washings and the garment shrinks, or develops uneven wear. These things are difficult to repair, especially since most repair techniques were developed for woven fabrics that have standardized warp and weft with little stretch. Many of these fabrics and textiles are loaded with artificial fibers like rayon, nylon, spandex and polyester.

Contrast that with the clothes of our ancestors, who dressed in linen, cotton, wool, and silk, and often made these clothes by hand, and patched or repaired them by hand.  Mending Matters points in an unusual direction to find a way to be unique — by treating your clothes as worthy of repair and renewal, by treating the patching and the mending as if it were a sacred act.

I was reminded of a guy I knew in college, who had denim jeans that had distinctive, random holes all over them. Turns out he’d bought these brand-new Levi’s, and had taken to a guy who’d taken a shotgun to them (not while he was wearing them, of course), and passed a couple of rounds through the jeans.  He’d paid $70 (in 1989!) for the privilege of having his jeans decorated in this way — a way of making himself distinct and unique among all the other jeans-clad students on campus: the guy in the buckshot jeans.

Paying $70 for a unique mending job, to make your tattered jeans unique in a different way, with Japanese-style stab stitches and layers of denim over an old hole — a patched and repaired way, seems to be a trend we might look for in the future.

One thing that stood out for me, as I leafed through the photographs of these artists in their self-made, repaired clothes, is how timeless they looked.  Sure — there was a lot of white cotton, and blue and black denim, and a lot of dyed linen in their wardrobes, and fewer clothes than most of us have in those closets. And some of those fabrics are not timeless — they’re the product of the 19th century or the 20th.  These artists didn’t look Viking or Sumerian, or like Japanese peasants, or French sans culottes of the 18th Century — that’s not what I mean.  They DID look secure, comfortable, well-dressed if casually dressed, smart, modern, and… above all… professional.

Sure. That’s what the book is supposed to get you to think.  Katrina Radabaugh is trying to get you to think about your wardrobe, your clothes, in a different way — as belonging to your ecosystem, your personal environment, rather than a throwaway thing that you never have to think about.

But it’s easy, as the book discusses, to buy into the idea that we should know what we’re eating. Barbara Kingsolver did this brilliantly in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Other writers, notably Christopher Alexander, have tried to get us to think about architecture — shelter — in a deeply localized way.  But this book is the first one that has asked me to think seriously about my clothes in this way.  I found, I really like thinking about clothes in this way.

And I think I’m going to have to start patching some of my clothes rather than tossing them, when they become lightly worn or torn.  Not because I relish the idea of hours of mending work, necessarily, but because I recognize that mending involves a change in consciousness about my relationship to what I wear.

And in that, Katrina Radabaugh has accomplished a powerful magic.

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  1. Good news: this book is available through the Toronto Public Library!
    Bad news: there are 118 holds on the 25 physical copies, and 35 holds on the 6 e-copies!

    • Yikes. That is crazy. 118 holds for 25 copies? Nearly five holds per copy?? That being the case, I think you can put this book on the back burner, unless you have a burning need to repair a dozen or more garments in the next three weeks.

    • Make that 119 holds.
      So…at 3 weeks per loan, I might see the book in late June. Maybe.

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