My favourite sweater (thick, soft grey cashmere) has a hole now. Small and on the sleeve, it’s there every time I glance down. Feelings of disappointment, that an adored item is no longer as it was when you first brought it home, are mixed with a strange pang of satisfaction; this is not a thing that was worn once and never again, to then languish in a drawer. I can’t help but find sentimentality in wear and tear - a badge of honour for clothes that have put up with me. This sweater in question has been a mainstay for a few years now – combating work air conditioning and winter winds, it’s softness means it’s frequently worn to bed and is usually the first thing I put on when I get home in the evening, seeking comfort. Moth holes however (they love cashmere and merino as much as I do) only get bigger, then they run; then you have a bigger problem to fix.
That particular jumper has now joined my mending pile, and I resist the constant urge to slip it on before bed. Like all personal items, clothes have their own narrative – they’ve experienced what we have, soaking up the same sights and smells. So rather than bin something because it starts to show its history, we should mend. Everything you own should be worth mending – due to quality value both monetary and sentimental – and will look better for it. Like laugh lines, scars and hands that have worked.
Cheap, disposable clothing is now the widespread norm - worldwide we purchase four times as many clothes than we did two decades ago. This is largely due to low prices driven by large-scale, offshore manufacturing that facilitates big box stores and online retailers – the popularity of which is understandable due to the ever-rising cost of living, housing and painfully stagnant wages. Consumer addiction to discount shopping, and retailer’s reliance on the discounting that increasingly erodes their margins, has also driven the inherent value of items to plummet further. Everything is replaceable and transient; even though some discarded clothing does go to charity shops (and we feel morally better doing so) only around 10% of this is ever actually sold – instead going on to landfill or to flood the markets of developing countries, undermining their own garment industries and cultural traditions. Clothing purchases are now rarely weighted with a financial burden, therefore can be made on more of a whim. If something tears or rips, why not replace it since it cost barely anything in a first place – particularly as, in most cases, it is more expensive to pay for something to be mended than simply replace it; I regretfully spent over twenty dollars to have a white t-shirt hemmed, something I could not do myself. Not even a generation ago, clothing (like most items) was more expensive, so people owned less and needed less. Quality was also higher, as being made to last was imperative. You bought something, you kept it and you fixed it. Mending was simply part of ownership.
The act of mending is a therapeutic one, like most repetitive tasks of the hand. Thoughtful yet mindless, it can be solely focused on - or undertaken whilst indulgently binging on Netflix, to absolve yourself of some guilt. I’ve got one sweater the colour of underdone toast (visible above) around thirty years old, and looking at each of its mended holes, I can tell who’s hands did the darning – my mother’s, my grandmother’s or my own. It’s soaked up the time and care taken by women dear to me – something I find increasingly moving, the older these women become. This sweater is a chain letter of matrilineal skill and love; skills they’ve made a priority to pass on to me, not wanting me to be alone in the world with holes in my socks, jeans and knitwear. It is these skills that I worry about.
When I worked in retail, on numerous occasions customers would bring in “broken” items of clothing with loose hems or lost buttons – incapable of or uninterested in the simple task of sewing them back on; they returned snagged knitwear as faulty, oblivious to the notion that branches, pets and children would catch and pull knitwear quite happily. The effects of life are not a fault – this we must remember, for we seem to have forgotten it.
With the cost of living continuing to increase (because how could it do otherwise) we will be forced to find value in practicality and repair. As our planet increasingly struggles under the burden of our society, and the tipping point looms ever closer, people are collectively becoming more aware of the environmental impact caused by our disposable consumerist culture; social responsibility means no longer can we sleep easy knowing that polyester sweater is sitting, intact and unchanged, in a landfill.
How will these precious skills to repair and mend be passed on if we do not practice them, share them and uphold their importance – the resilience and empowerment that comes from a decisive action to fix, and the larger impact those small choices have on our environment and economy. The simple act of stitching a button back on or darning a hole may seem insignificant, but the implications of the conscious choice are increasingly important; value things, and then fix them.
There’s a lot to be said (and enjoyed) about a spare, rigorously refined aesthetic; a Spartan approach to dressing goes hand in hand with the concept of a foundation wardrobe and the eschewing of frivolity. Whilst most important sartorial messages are communicated quietly – through cut, fabric and line – making a statement has a valid place too.
There’s something irresistibly indulgent and dramatic about an oversized sleeve – both of which are traits that are generally (if not frowned upon) discouraged, particularly if you’re a female who wishes to be taken “seriously”. Channelling the likes of the ever-inspiring Lord Byron and Diana Spencer, a deliciously grand sleeve amplifies even the subtlest of gestures, any decisive movement or point you wish to make is reinforced by the swathes of fabric around your arms and shoulders.
Although steeped in history and tradition, volume has been enjoying a gentle renaissance – with some of the more epic sleeves of note appearing in the recent Marni collection (pictured), which was a far cry from community Shakespeare and the fifth season of Seinfeld. With clothing moving relentlessly onwards, from wearable technology to the prevailing dominance of athletic wear and overt sex appeal (apparently not mutually exclusive anymore), there’s something appealingly naïve and romantic about an aesthetic that's so dated.
From a bishop’s sleeve to leg-of-mutton, proportionally they look best cinched in with a cuff, a decisive finish to what might otherwise be overly saccharine. With polyester too reminiscent of 60s game show hosts, crisp cottons and silks provide more class and body. At the heart of it, a big sleeve is FUN. I find the drama and impact of sweeping some outrageous sleeves around gives you instant confidence and presence. Relish the impracticality and avoid cooking and sharp objects.