(Re)Learn to Thread a Needle

Repairing anything takes patience and a bit of skill. When it comes to our clothing and textiles, mending can often be a better option than donating. Because we can add incremental value through the act of repair — to the items in our possession, to the places we call home, and to our communities near and far. 

I asked a textile scientist at the University of Alberta, Rachel McQueen, about her research in secondhand clothing economies.

“Clothing is so cheap, and so accessible today, we can often buy it and afford it,” she says. “But we don’t often value it, not in the way we should. And maybe that’s the root of the problem.” 

McQueen recognizes the value of donating clothing, selling locally, and buying secondhand, but she also points to the realities of thrift shops’ business models and inventory overload: “It’s horrifying to see just how much gets donated that can’t even go out on the sales floor — maybe there is staining under the arms, rips, tears, broken zippers, even just a missing button. Stores don’t want to put bad quality clothing out there, because it starts to reflect on what they’re trying to do.” 

One very workable solution has long stood in front of us, McQueen says. And the value it brings is more than monetary. “In the past, clothing was highly, highly valued — and so was looking after it. Making and patching and darning were really important skills to have, skills that kept your clothing lasting longer. Before the retail mass market we have today, it was often cheaper to make your own clothes than it was to buy them. But now, buying fabric can be actually quite expensive. And of course the making is time consuming, as is repair.”

 The solution is learning how to mend. Or remembering. After all, from the earliest moments of Protestantism, defining  dispositions of what Max Webber called the Protestant work ethic were frugality and thrift. When it comes to clothes, the act of mending, according to McQueen, demands investments of time and effort, care and love. But mending allows your clothing to last longer, and it increases both its value to you and the quality of the item itself. It’s simple, McQueen says, “If you can keep an item of clothing in your possession for longer, that has the greatest savings, both financially and environmentally.”

She continues: “When it comes to what we wear, we’ve taken things from the earth in various ways, and a lot of it goes back to the earth. But some of it doesn’t decompose in the earth, being plastic or polyesters. The take-make-waste model, that has arisen from just an effort to maximize profit at all costs, doesn’t fit into the Christian ethos. If you do believe that God has given us these resources, then you also believe that God wants us to value and take care of these resources.” 

Again McQueen sees a workable solution, not just to out-of-style clothes but to the older call to care for the earth given to us. She says, “We need to come back to some of those values of frugality and making what we have last.” The incremental value, it adds up. 

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