Boston Globe

Radical menders vs. disposable everything

"Kate Sekules remembers the shirt well. It was made of lush Shantung silk, in kingfisher blue. The shirt was gorgeous, beloved, and, eventually, worn out. Shantung splits as it ages, creating long vertical slits in a garment, so there was no way to repair the shirt subtly. No thread would match the hue. Any sewing would be obvious.

But instead of putting the beautiful thing in the trash can, Sekules decided to embrace the obviousness of her repairs.

“I mended the splits in lots of different-colored blanket-stitch lines,” she says. That work created an exuberant scrawl in the shirt. When the silk split along those lines, she pulled out her needle again. “It was terrible,” she says with a laugh. “But I liked the look anyway. And that was when I decided,” she continues, “I should do this all the time.”

Sekules, who studies the history of textiles at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan, has since become a leader in a grassroots movement called visible mending — a mild term for something that to many people seems quite radical. Rather than throwing away clothes that have holes, rips, or worn elbows, visible menders repair them without trying to hide the damage. Fifty moth holes become a constellation of colored dots across a sweater; sleeves that have unraveled are reknitted in a contrasting color. It almost looks like kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with seams of brilliant gold.

As the cost of living escalates and fashion’s environmental footprint becomes disturbingly clear, more and more people are taking a second look at their wardrobes, including what they might have thrown out, and discovering that they want no part of such waste. In the process, they’re reclaiming something that might have been embarrassing — mending that everyone can see — and recasting it as a sign of integrity.

The habit of tossing damaged clothes is a recent anomaly in human history, writes Sekules in her book “Mend!” For millennia, clothes were so valuable, so difficult to produce, and so essential to life that mending was a regular part of nearly everyone’s lifestyle. Think of the things we still perform maintenance on, says Bridget Harvey, an artist and academic who has studied the practice of repair. You don’t throw your car out every six months or buy a new house when the old one gets dirty, and clothes belonged to that category for probably as long as they have existed. In the tomb of Tutankhamen, sealed 3,000 years ago, writes Sekules, is a blue kerchief mended with a pattern of pale stitches..."

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