Restoration revolution: how make do and mend turned into a fashion statement

As interest grows with TV shows, books and now a major a new exhibition in London, the idea of repairing beloved items is about more than cash

Early in 2020 Claire Catterall, senior curator at London’s Somerset House, began exploring the potential of an exhibition about mending. Inspired by the proliferation of social media hashtags #visiblemending and #mendingmatters, and pop-up repair cafes, she observed a new generation of thrifty fashionistas wanting to preserve clothing using traditional methods and contemporary creativity.

“There was growing interest in the craft of repair,” recalls Catterall. “Artists such as Celia Pym and Bridget Harvey spearheaded an artistic approach to the process, and mending felt relevant to all the conversations about sustainability.”

An evolution of that early vision, Eternally Yours: An Exhibition about Care, Repair and Healing, opened at Somerset House last week. “Like many people, I was furloughed during the pandemic, and it was a rather dislocating experience. Ideas of repair and healing coalesced, focusing on the duty of care we have to our community, to ourselves, to the planet and to our possessions,” says Catterall. That fed into the idea of visible mending: an approach to repair where trauma or damage becomes part of the story – in people or objects or clothing.”

A heavily mended jumper by Celia Pym on show at Somerset House
A heavily mended jumper by Celia Pym on show at Somerset House Photograph: Reinis Lismanis/Courtesy of Somerset House

It is a timely opening, coming as BBC TV’s Repair Shop attracts more than 7 million viewers per episode. The show marries specialist skills in restoring broken objects with the personal stories of their owners. It is comforting television in turbulent times, which Catterall believes resonates in a world emerging from a pandemic and traumatised by conflict. “It ties in to the idea of care,” she says. “I love the word ‘mend’: it talks of healing and the therapeutic mindfulness of fixing something.”

As part of the exhibition, fashion brand Toast is offering workshops in mending skills. The company’s repair specialist, Jessica Smulders-Cohen, says: “Mending is about the journey travelled, not reinstating the impossible perfection of the new.”

Toast began offering sessions in 2018, teaching customers Japanese stitching techniques such as boro, kantha and sashiko for repairing woven garments, then expanding to knitwear darning. The sessions continued online in lockdown. To date more than 7,000 people have participated, and the brand now offers a free mending service, for its own-label garments.

“We now have seven in-store renewal hubs in England and Scotland,” says Madeleine Michell, Toast’s social conscience officer. “Since April 2021, our specialists have mended over 1,800 garments, often using surplus materials from our production process. Last February, all our shop windows showcased repaired garments, inspiring customers to bring cherished pieces in for some TLC.”

Colour being painted on to a red Chanel bag
A well-used Chanel bag gets The Restory treatment. Photograph: Nicole Markhoff/The Restory

Where previous generations mended as unobtrusively as possible, perhaps embarrassed by enforced thrift, new-wave repairers use a more decorative style of “visible mending”. Flora Collingwood Norris, a knitwear designer based in the Scottish Borders, reports growing demand for her colourful visible mending service. It’s an idea she began as a teenager, sourcing cashmere sweaters in charity shops, then embellishing any damage with her needle and thread.

“I see a hole as an opportunity,” she says. “It forces me to be creative and think about the size, position and context on the garment, then I play with yarn textures, colours and a combination of traditional darning techniques, patches and embroidery to elevate it to a new design element. Everybody can do this: it’s affordable and accessible. Giving garments a unique quality and a new chapter brings immense satisfaction.”

Although Collingwood Norris will repair items for a fee, she has also published a book, delivers Zoom workshops and downloadable video tutorials, and sells materials for those keen to repair for themselves – and this is the area she’s recently seen booming. Bookshops are brimming with titles such as Joyful Mending, Mending Matters, The Art of Repair and Modern Mending, while YouTube offers a wealth of tutorials for those wishing to learn how to darn, patch and fix for themselves.

Given widespread supply chain issues and the cost of living crisis, many are being driven to “make do and mend” in a way not seen since the 1940s. There is, perhaps, a disconnect between mending as necessity and repair as a fashionable badge of honour – between someone struggling to keep a school jumper from falling apart and the fashionista using statement stitching to cover a moth hole in a designer item – but it may begin to reduce the stigma. It could also make people think about the disposability of fast fashion – and the 300,000 tonnes of clothing that goes to landfill annually in the UK.

Cynthia Davis of BBC’s The Repair Shop with a 60-year-old monkey in need of expert TLC.
Cynthia Davis of BBC’s The Repair Shop with a 60-year-old monkey in need of some expert TLC. Photograph: Ricochet Ltd/BBC

A growing army of businesses, including Mulberry, Barbour and Uniqlo, have in-house mending, and other brands partner with third-party repair specialists. The Restory offers quality repairs of designer garments, either direct to consumers or in partnership with brands such as Manolo Blahnik and retailers including Farfetch, Selfridges and Harrods.

“We want clients to fall in love with their favourite things again, whether that means restoring the colour on a faded bag or repairing tears, holes, scuffs and other damage,” says founder and CEO Vanessa Jacobs, a New Yorker now based in London, who had the idea for The Restory after receiving shoddy service when she took a pair of favourite shoes to a high street mending chain. “Aftercare is the biggest market you’ve never seen. It’s worth $100bn but it hadn’t been digitised and streamlined to meet modern needs. We launched in 2017 and, by last year, we had done 60,000 repairs. The tech and logistics infrastructure has advanced and growth is rapid. Britain and continental Europe are our biggest markets – although everything is done out of the UK at present – and we’re talking to major players in the US with a view to operating there, too.”

Mending may have the potential to earn big bucks for some, but it could also help heal the planet and its people. As artist Bridget Harvey says in her Manifesto for Making at Somerset House: “The contemporary repair maker demonstrates not only a care for the past but also an attitude firmly rooted in the future.”


Karen Kay

The GuardianTramp

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