Mending Matters by Katrina Rodabaugh

For Katrina Rodabaugh, “slow fashion is a revolution.” We need to rethink the way we buy, wear, and discard our clothing.

If we agree that the triad of human survival is “food, shelter, clothing,” then we also must recognize that the first two needs are well on their way toward sustainability. We have a prevalence of weekly farmers markets, community food co-ops, urban gardens, backyard homesteads, chicken-keepers, beekeepers, organic aisles in the grocery store, and websites, books, and magazines dedicated to growing, harvesting, and supporting healthy food. We also have multiple energy-efficient appliances, and reclaimed building materials […] But clothing is not yet positioned at the mainstream like food and housing.

Katrina Rodabaugh, Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More (Abrams Books 2018)

Enter the world of mendfulness.

Going Greener

I grow my own vegetables in my urban garden. I buy my honey from our neighbor who keeps bees on his roof and my fruit from the farmers market I walk to every Saturday. My husband has installed solar panels and double-glazed windows. We do our best to recycle all we can.

When I got too fat for my favorite clothes, I gave some away to my svelte bestie and sold a few at a secondhand clothing store. For every day items, I thought I was doing the right thing by donating my textiles to Goodwill. Rodabaugh tells me this is not the case, at least not in the US and probably not anywhere in the world.

Most of the clothing we donate to Goodwill actually gets baled and shipped overseas; stacked in a warehouse somewhere hoping to be remade into recycled fibers at best; or ultimately heaped into the landfill. It’s simple supply and demand: There isn’t the demand for all the cast-off clothing we supply.

But I’ll be honest. I still live in the “twilight knowing” that Jenny Offill described so well in Weather. Intellectually. I know that the climate crisis is upon us but I don’t feel it in my bones. I didn’t come to Rodabaugh to become a climate warrior. All I wanted to learn how to mend some pillowcases I inherited from my mother-in-law.

The Sewing Cafe

I’m late for my appointment at the sewing cafe of De Steek. It’s an airy studio with a dozen or so sewing stations. You can take group classes or hang out for an hour or two to work on your project using their equipment. On a hot Wednesday afternoon in July, a little kid learning to dye her own clothes and I are the only customers.

De Steek and I have already exchanged several emails and some photos of my project. My basket overflows with white cotton pillowcases with holes, tears, or weakened spots. My teacher, Aida, knows exactly what to do.

Aida brings me a copy of Mending Matters. She gives me a long needle and some Sashiko thread. Aida is an embroiderer so for her, this is a piece of cake. Cut a patch, she says, and attach it to the underside of your pillowcase with a running stitch.

With a what?

This is a collection of straight stitches, but instead of making one individual stitch each time you insert the needle, you can make three or five stitches. You load the barrel, or weave your needle up and down through the fabric three to five times before you remove the needle completely to make the next stitch.

The words sound complicated but the action is simple, meditative even. As I stitch away, I listen to Aida and the dye teacher talk about a co-worker who’s getting married. Everyone at De Steek is pitching in to make her wedding dress.

Fashion Fast

De Steek is part of a worldwide community of organic dyers and home seamstresses and visible menders. Rodabaugh is a member, too, and many of her fellow activists make cameo appearances in Mending Matters. They’re all quite earnest, each one an expert in their own field. It can be a bit much and, I have to say, Rodabaugh can get a little woo-woo.

Her term mendfulness comes from “the marriage of mindfulness and mending.” She prints her own poems to use as pocket linings. When I read the chapter title “My Fashion Fast,” I think Rodabaugh is playing with the phrase fast fashion. Instead, what she means is quite literal. Don’t buy any new clothes.

These homilies are few and far between. All are easily forgiven when you encounter the enthusiasm Rodabaugh shows for her craft.

I want you to use what you have and do what you can and begin to deepen your relationship to fashion by simply caring for your garments. Actually, I don’t just want you to care for your garments. Ultimately, I want you to love them.

The Stitch Kit

The techniques Rodabaugh teaches come from Japanese Sashiko stitching, the Bengali patchwork of Kantha quilting, American quilting, and European darning. If you can tie your shoes, Rodabaugh says, I can teach you to mend.

For my first pillowcase, I start with white thread on white cotton in the hopes that this will hide my mistakes. I use my teeth to pull my needle through the rough patches. While at De Steek, I finish my first pillowcase. The rest I finish at home by working my way through the 20-odd projects Rodabaugh outlines in her book.

I experiment with colors, patterns, and stitches. Stars and fish and oddly geometric shapes explode on my pillowcases. So far, I’ve mended 8 out of 13 and honestly they look great. Of course, it helps that Rodabaugh is such a forgiving teacher.

It’s ok if stitches aren’t perfect. Like handwriting or illustration, each stitch has the signature and imprint of its maker. Confidence comes with time and leads to consistency, but perfection isn’t always the goal or even what holds the most interest. After all, we want to embrace the handmade elements in the finished repairs and recognize that our stitches were made by a human and not by a machine. These personal touches add intimacy, beauty, and even grace to a naturally aged garment.

30 July 2022 | Karen Kao