The art of repairing clothes was being lost, but with half a million taking up sewing in the last year, a whole new generation is picking up the thread
When Make Do & Mend (“we make things and mend things,” says Pippa Bray, the shop's owner) opened its doors in 2002, they had expected to be reasonably busy. That turned out to be an understatement. They weren’t just busy, they were inundated, getting busier all the time. And then the economic crisis arrived – and business went through the roof.
“When the recession hit, people became more conscious of cost and started valuing their clothes more. We do a lot of replacing zips, taking up hems, altering old clothes to fit,” says Bray. The shop, in St Day in Cornwall, now employs 12 people, and turns out a constant supply of fixed pockets, patched jeans, relined jackets, and taken up hems. While the small jobs are the bread and butter of the business, they have also on request expanded into upholstery, marine-ware (such as boat covers and cushions), and even academic gowns for university graduates.
According to Pippa, it’s a huge growth industry but there are not enough skilled people. “I’m always being asked to show people how to put in a zip or patch jeans. It’s just not taught anywhere any more. Good clothes are like old friends and it’s nice to see when people don’t have to throw away a jacket or something they’ve had for 20 years.”
Making or altering clothes may seem like a humble pursuit. But research by the Craft & Hobby Trade Association (CHA-UK) shows that the entire crafting industry (which also includes knitting, cake decorating, painting and other handycrafts) is worth a whopping £3.1bn to the UK economy. It is also, as if from nowhere, wildly popular. About 3.5 million people in the UK are involved in making their own clothes with a sewing machine according to CHA-UK, and of that number 433,000 only started sewing in the last 12 months.
“The last few years have been epic for the industry,” says Fiona Pullen, founder of the Sewing Directory and described by some as the godmother of the sewing world. She thinks the economic crisis has driven people towards a more Make Do & Mend mentality, and growing environmental awareness is making people more conscious of where their clothes come from. “People are trying to be less disposable. They would rather buy something quality and keep repairing it. The Great British Sewing Bee helped a lot [John Lewis has seen a 22% increase in sewing machine sales since the show ran last year] but shows like that simply piggy back on existing trends. It was already happening.”
Tom van Deijnen runs the Visible Mending programme in Brighton and has a mission to show that repairs to clothes can in themselves be beautiful. “Wear your darn like a badge of honour,” he says. When he takes on a commission he asks, “Why would you like me to repair this? What makes you want to keep it?”
“I started repairing because I realised there is a lot of work and skill involved in making clothes. It takes a long time. I began to appreciate the skill and effort all these anonymous people put in to making clothes for the high street. If you want to make people understand why £4 for a T-shirt is not the right price, get them to make an item of clothing. We should respect them for making these clothes for us, especially at the prices we pay.”
Although the mending movement is still small, Tom says it is growing and people are coming round to the idea that you can’t just throw things out any more, you need to fix them. He points out that Repair Cafés, where you can turn up with anything from a wonky chair to a smashed smart phone and find out how to fix it, are becoming increasingly common. “People are starting to see the importance of repairing again,” he says.
“They don’t teach sewing in most schools nowadays, or mothers don’t get a chance to teach them, or they’re frightened, they think the machine is going to run away with them,” says Mary Ann Robbins, who runs workshops around Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire under the name Sewing Seams Easy, teaching people how to use a sewing machine and to refashion old clothes. Over the last couple of years her business has grown dramatically.
Dressmaking and refashioning has also seen a huge upsurge in interest, partly, according to sewing blogger Rachel Pinheiro, thanks to the internet. “The techniques of sewing are the same now as they were 100 years ago. There is nothing new when it comes to making things. But over the last few years people have begun to find each other and share ideas as they have never been able to before. There are fresh ideas in terms of design and colour, and a change of aesthetic. It’s brought a whole new audience to the hobby.” Sewing and mending communities are springing up and forming networks via twitter or Pinterest, through innovations like as #makedoandmendhour, where every Thursday evening Jen Gale of the Makedoandmendyear blog, hosts a hashtag-based hubbub of ideas, jokes, and requests for mending advice.
“It really is a wonderful community to be a part of,” says Pinheiro. “That’s one of the great attractions of sewing, it’s the people. We joke there is a special sewing gene that makes that person immediately friendly.”
For Fiona that community has been the bedrock of her new career. The Sewing Directory was meant to be a minor pastime that fit around her young son, but the sudden explosion in popularity means it has taken over. “I work 60 hours a week,” she says. “I could take on people and work seven days a week but there is still more work.” Her success has also opened other opportunities: she now trains other craft businesses in the dark arts of SEO and marketing, she writes regularly for sewing magazines, and has just finished her first book, a guide to running a creative business. “It’s not just me,” she says. “Lots of my customers are so busy.”
“Sewing is empowering,” says Rachel. “Not just in terms of creativity, but it also allows you to share knowledge with others, to make friends around the world and experience their culture. The internet is like a chemical agent for speeding everything up. Whatever is going on in the world, the sewing community responds somehow.”
On 14 April, for example, the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, people wore their clothes inside out to show the labels, to show they weren’t supporting the companies implicated in the disaster. Rachel says “people who sew their own clothes have their own labels. We can say ‘this is made by me’, the exact opposite of the mass manufactured industry.”
That is a kind of satisfaction that can’t be beaten, according to the nouveau-stitchers. “People want the satisfaction of being creative,” Rachel says. “But life is also busy and this is a way people can find each other, they can find their club.”
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