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Why ‘sewcials’ are the new

Garment-mending workshops are opening up across the country, promoting a more responsible attitude to fashion and a space to unwind. Fleur Britten and her holey sweater drop in

Photography ALICE WHITBY

A GROUP OF US are sitting around a wooden table in a 15th-century former mill in Totnes, Devon, surrounded by all the tools required for resurrecting damaged clothing – baskets of coloured threads, needles, scissors, buttons, fabric offcuts. Everyone has brought in their own love-worn pieces – trousers in need of a new zip, a ripped dressing gown whose owner refuses to replace it, a moth-eaten jumper whose owner (me) doesn’t know how to fix it. Our host, Cat Heraty, is showing Paul, 56, a retired financial consultant, how to use a sewing machine, so that he can repair the holes in his daughter’s jeans for her birthday. Meanwhile, Sylviane, 34, a solutions architect, takes an orange from a bowl and drops it into her holey sock. ‘If you don’t have a darning mushroom, you can just use an orange,’ Cat explains to the others. ‘Just don’t forget to remove it at the end,’ Paul quips, and a gentle chuckle ripples around the table.

The mill is the home of Mend Assembly and I’ve popped by for a drop-in mending session that offers sewing guidance, tools, haberdashery and company, affectionately known as a ‘sewcial’. A sense of possibility fills the air, as everyone – from complete beginners to accomplished amateurs – tackles their mending, variously sharing tips, chat and encouragement along the way.

Mend Assembly opened last June as a ‘makerspace’ dedicated to keeping clothes out of landfill. As well as the sewcials, it also offers mending and alteration services, swap shops and workshops on, for example, upcycling, pattern-cutting and visible mending. It’s not alone. From Meddle & Mend at Paisley’s ReMode shop and Mendy Mondays at Stitched Up in Chorlton, Manchester, to Fast Fashion Therapy in London’s Brixton and Bethnal Green, the country is evidently in the midst of a clothing repair revolution. Online, there are mending influencers – among them @celiapym, @mindful_mending, @visiblemend and @tomofholland – and hashtags to boot. Search #repairwhatyouwear, #stitchitdontditchit, #lovedclotheslast and #mendingmonday on Instagram and you’ll find endless mending inspiration.

The repair revolution couldn’t come soon enough, says Orsola de Castro, co-founder of the fashion activism platform Fashion Revolution. ‘Considering that the average lifespan of a modern-day piece of clothing is only 3.3 years, learning how to mend is a brilliant investment,’ she writes in her recent book, Loved Clothes Last. If we double the active use of our clothes from one to two years, she explains, we could reduce their carbon footprint

by 24 per cent. Orsola urges us to become ‘clothes-keepers’, by maintaining and mending our clothes: ‘Positive action can take several forms, and becoming a clothes-keeper is by far one of the easiest and most rewarding.’

Sitting across from me at the mending circle is Chelsea, 29, a NHS psychologist, who has brought in her threadbare wool coat, which, she says, needs to see her through the winter. After Cat shows her how to darn and stabilise the fabric with an embroidery loop, Chelsea is off, methodically sewing up the holes. ‘This is so effective,’ she exclaims. ‘I used to pay someone to mend for me, but, you know, teach a man to fish…’ Chelsea admits to procrastinating when it comes to mending, but, she adds, ‘Coming here makes you actually commit to doing it.’ I can relate: I’ve brought in a Junya Watanabe loose-knit sweater shot with moth holes – it’s been in my mending mountain for years, waiting for the know-how and the right-coloured wool to miraculously appear. Finally, at Mend Assembly, both materialised, with co-founder Padouk Fielding finding a perfect raspberry-pink yarn.

As my mind settles on getting the needle to the right spot, I feel my shoulders drop. ‘I find it really soothing,’ says Sylviane. ‘You’re focused, but you can also let the mind wander.’ During lockdown, I realised that if I darned while homeschooling my six-yearold son, no amount of academic resistance could rattle me. Darning was my Valium. Add in a few friendly faces and some relaxed chat, and the effect is pretty gratifying.

‘I live alone in a caravan, so it’s really nice mending with other people,’ says 38-year-old Hayley, a charity worker, as she sews a hook and eye on to a skirt. Chelsea agrees: ‘Some of my friends learn mending techniques on YouTube, but it’s better in person.’

It’s understandable, given the high levels of isolation recently. But then the introspection did get many of us reflecting on our wardrobes. A 2020 McKinsey report found that 71 per cent of respondents planned to keep their fashion items for longer, while 57 per cent said they were willing to repair items to prolong usage. As Make Town founder Brooke Dennis observes, ‘The pandemic has shifted the focus on to repairs, and staying indoors gave people the time to do it.’

Covid also created the opportunity for Mend Assembly, with the building’s previous tenant, a café, closing in lockdown. Its three founders are childhood friends who found themselves ‘discussing the need for a massive shift in how people value clothing’, says Padouk. All have a fashion background: as a commercial clothing designer, Cat grew ‘exhausted by having to be OK with seeing small children in factories in India’. Padouk, meanwhile, worked in designer fashion e-commerce, but after becoming disillusioned by its ‘cut-throat nature’, started her

own organic infant-clothing label. The third, Joss Whipple, was a founding member of Fashion Revolution. All agreed that what was needed was, says Padouk, ‘a permanent, local space where people can share skills around clothing circularity’.

Most of what people bring in to mend, says Padouk, is less the precious heirlooms and more ‘useful stuff that people actually wear: jeans, jackets’ – loved clothing that people want to be able to love for even longer. Sylviane’s socks were a gift from her sister in Canada. ‘I’m sentimental about clothes,’ she explains. ‘I can’t let these socks go – they’re my connection to her.’

Sewcials are a place to meet kindred spirits, with most hosts reporting that conscious fashion always features in the conversations. ‘People share ideas on the local area, their favourite charity shops and fashion’s lack of sustainability,’ says Sarah Richards, cofounder of Fast Fashion Therapy.

With visible mending exploding on Instagram, many menders are wearing their repairs as badges of honour – intricate flowers embroidered over moth holes, jeans fixed up with decorative Japanese sashiko stitches, and darning in boldly contrasting threads (as with Sylviane’s socks). Visible mending serves as a polite protest against disposable fashion. As Orsola observes, ‘Throughout history, clothes have regularly been resewn, rejuvenated, repurposed, and remade.’ Time, surely, to give old skills the spotlight again. ‘It feels important to learn about mending clothes so that these skills don’t die out,’ says Hayley. ‘It brings back memories of my gran with her sewing machine.’

The Mend Assembly template is designed to be replicated ‘wherever it’s needed in the world’, says Joss. It will share its business model and offer training and support to people keen and ready to start their own affiliated enterprise, and will also give guidance on funding and location. The first Mend Assembly affiliate, Stitch Department, has just opened in the Isle of Wight, with the second, Thread Republic, underway in Yorkshire. The ‘ultimate dream’, adds Cat, ‘is for every community to have a destination for tackling some of those issues around consumption.’

While we wait for sewcials to go global, there are, in the meantime, some online options. Fast Fashion Therapy runs a free monthly Zoom ‘mend-along’, the clothing brand Toast offers free online (and offline) clothes-mending workshops, while the independent mender-maker Shelley Zetuni, aka Sewingsmith, hosts three visible-mending classes a month (£30).

During the two-hour session, I’ve managed to fix two pieces – the loose-knit sweater, and a silk sweatshirt ripped at the hem. Returning favourite pieces into circulation brings a huge buzz – forget retail therapy, this is repair therapy. ‘It’s empowering to do it yourself,’ Hayley says. ‘And I wear those clothes more because I feel better in them.’ As it comes to an end, I notice Paul motoring away on the machine, sewing a patch on to Chelsea’s coat. It’s as Sarah Richards says: ‘People arrive with no sewing skills, but leave with their clothes fixed, and always happy. It’s addictive.’

‘It’s empowering to do it yourself – and I wear those clothes more because I feel

better in them’

In My Own Words




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