Screw the Stores: Unleash the Retro Power of Mending

About six months ago, I started an experiment to see if I could go completely without buying any new clothes for myself, or for my little girl. This was triggered partly by concerns about the dubious ethics of fast fashion, but if I’m honest, mostly by a couple of heart-stopping bank statements.

Whatever the reason, the challenge was simple. One year, no new clothes,

I did give myself one get-out-of-jail card, that I was allowed to buy a new bra if the underwire started poking out of an old one. So far, this hasn’t been necessary. I have plenty of bras, and they are all holding up well.

I would never have called myself a spendthrift before, but I would buy three or four items a month, usually a t-shirt, cute headscarf or something else small and “essential”, and maybe twice a year have a big blow-out, and make my credit card bleed at Free People. That makes me, statistically, a very standard consumer, as the average shopper buys one new item of clothing a week. So how has it been, as an average consumer, to give up shopping completely?  Well, it’s been easy. A total doddle. Not really much of a challenge at all, to be honest, more of a liberation. My bank statements are a lot more friendly too.

Thing is, when the new collections came out in the past, which in stores like Zara and HandM, is roughly once every five milliseconds, I would be in an anguish of lust and self-denial. “Ohh, I want it… so pretty… musn’t…too broke”. And then whether I bought the thing or not, I would be depressed, either at my own weakness, or through unsatisfied consumer urges. Now I walk breezily on. “No, I  don’t need it. It’s probably rubbish anyway.”

Saving money is one good motivation to stop buying clothes, but for a deep assessment of how thoroughly  shitty the fashion and textile industry is, read Overdressed by Elizabeth L Kline. It’s like visiting the sausage factory of fashion.

My tips range from some easy hacks, to the more advanced levels of sewing and knitting your own clothes (coming in a second article). I’m quite a fan of the post-apocalyptic chic of zombie-hunting babes with sleeveless jackets and ripped fishnets, but I’m aware that it’s not everyone’s thing. Taking the time to properly maintain the clothes you already have will keep them in action much longer.

Start by air drying clothes to maintain the quality of the fabric, rather than blasting them in the dryer. Spend a few telly-watching hours each week mending a few seams and sewing buttons back on. I keep a basket of supplies next to the sofa, so I don’t have to get up and hunt down a needle when Game of Thrones has already started. It may sound obvious, but chooses a thread the same colour as the clothes, and work in good light, and even a gorilla with spanners for thumbs should be able to make an invisible mend. If you are working with a very fine fabric that frays easily, paint the finished mend with clear nail varnish to make it more durable.

The whole idea of mending, and having a mending basket, sounds absolutely Victorian, but you wouldn’t chuck your car out because you had a flat tyre. For really big jobs, like repairing the lining in a coat or for shoes, you could find a professional, a lot of laundry services will also do mending, but get in the habit of actually fixing those clothes, and getting them back in action, rather than taking up space on the bottom of the closet.

The easiest way, hands down, of getting old clothes back into circulation, is dying them. Cheap clothes in pale colours don’t last very long before they go a depressing dirty grey. Giving them a dye job doesn’t only solve that problem, but it also hides a lot of wear and tear, such as pilling in the fabric. The days where you had to stand over the stove stirring a pot of dye are long gone. Now you just throw the dye and a pound of salt directly into the washing machine and put it through a normal cycle. Some of the modern dyes have even done away with the need for salt. This works well when your knickers have gone that weird grey-blue, when they used to be a sparkling bridal white.

A pair of mid-blue jeans that are too past it to fix are handy to have around for making patches. I know rips in jeans are cool right now, but not if they’ve formed at the crotch. Don’t choose fabric in a darker colour than your original jeans to mend holes at the crotch, or as a friend pointed out to me, it might look like you’ve wet yourself. These are your organ-donor jeans, that have sacrificed themselves so that others might live on. This nice lady will show you how. Watch this video on how to darn socks for some pretty advanced granny skills (although, I think most of us have the problem that our socks don’t stick around long enough to get holes in them)

Shoe polish seems so hopelessly retro these days, even the tins are about as twee as the Queen knitting a scone, but regular use will keep the leather in your shoes looking new and waterproof for years longer than normal. Good shoes aren’t getting any cheaper, and a few minutes with an old rag and one of those little tins can save you a lot of money.

Accidentally felted sweaters can often be turned into cute little mittens and things, and check out Pinterest for about a million ideas on how to upcycle your old clothes. I must admit though, I’m a bit sceptical about a lot of these. A hack might be cunning, but when you turn a perfectly good men’s shirt into a hideous poofy peasant blouse, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort, unless the goal is to really piss your husband off. Other “hacks” use glue to fix fabrics, and this isn’t going to work. Trust me, if it were that simple, all Primark clothes would be glued. Some of the best upcycled projects I did were for my little girl, for example, I sewed the legs of a pair of leggings onto the arms of a t-shirt to make a long sleeved sweater for the winter, and I spray-painted a pair of revolting Princess Elsa shoes red. For proper grown-ups, up-cycled clothes can make you look a bit like a 90’s kids TV presenter, (for evidence, see the jeans in this Buzzfeed article )

I’d love to hear any other tips and tricks out there for fixing clothes. Or is it just not worth the effort, as clothes are so ridiculously cheap these days anyway?

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