The art of sewing is stepping out of the closet as we take a stand against mindless consumption of damaging fast fashion.
The need and desire to sew rests deep in my bones. I learned to love it, very young: I would play with buttons and fabrics while my grandmother, Mary, spent her mornings creating garments for herself, for children on the SANTA (tuberculosis) settlements in Fort Beaufort and East London (Eastern Cape, South Africa), and for me and my cousins.
I sewed my first skirt, with Mary’s gentle guidance, when I was 12. The skirt was for my little sister, who was just seven then. Of course, I also learned from my mother, Phyllis, and her mother, Faith, although Faith did knit a lot. I remember thinking that I was a very lucky someone – one granny cleverly sewed clothes for me and one knitted all kinds of wonderful things for me. What more could a little girl want?
And I sewed more and more. I made a lot of my own clothes for work and created the funkiest dungarees and dresses for my children. Nothing was perfect because I made up stuff and I was never a “proper” seamstress. But that did not matter.
My aunt, Rhoda, inspired me hugely. She is a retired medical doctor who just happens to sew like an angel. She created stunning wedding dresses for her three daughters, as well as bridesmaids’ dresses. Unlike my offerings, Rhoda’s were and are always perfect.
But honestly? Being a person who loves sewing always seemed a bit naff and not cool at all. So I never shouted it from the rooftops. It was a quiet and private thing.
And now I am delighted that sewing is becoming THE thing to do as consumers – you and I – become aware of the damage that the clothing industry, especially fast fashion, does to the environment, wildlife and people. Mending clothes, it is being said, is becoming a way to defy a culture that urges us to buy, buy, buy. Now you wear that patch, that darned square, as a mark of honour.
Blogger Kate puts it eloquently: “We live in a time now where there is an overwhelming environmental necessity to produce less and to re-use what we already have. Mending clothes is absolutely an act of rebellion – and perhaps one which is most accessible to most people.”
She continues: “As a society, we must step away from the notion that patched clothes communicate lack of monetary wealth, and rather embrace the ideology that as a species, we must make less stuff in order to survive.”
When I’m happy and when I’m sad
I’m proud to be a sewing person. I used to explain that I sew in between my “real” work as a freelance editor and writer. But that’s not true. I sew when I am happy. I sew when I am sad. I sew when I need to think. I always have. It’s part of me.
My love of sewing has even grown into a teeny enterprise. I design and make bags, which I have called Friday bags. I use mostly throwaway materials – think coffee sacks, rice bags, old ties, endcloth (used to clean fabric rollers), faded jeans, doilies, upholstery remnants – and locally produced fabric, like shweshwe.
And I might adorn the bags by digging into my stash of vintage braids and buttons, bequeathed to me by Mary and Rhoda and other women I have never met. These women have just wanted to know that their treasured items are finding a home where they will be loved and used with care. When I run my hands through these buttons and trims, I feel the stories they carry, the places they have been. It fills me up.
Recently, I’ve been working on a line of clothing – reinventing discarded clothing – which I plan to launch soon. I am calling it ReCreate Clothing. Denim features strongly. Extending the life of clothing is one way to challenge an industry where, some estimates say, it takes up to 20,000 litres of water to produce the cotton for just one T-shirt and pair of jeans.
There are other ways to take a stand. I talk about some of them in my post, Freeing ourselves from supporting harm. They include buying second-hand clothing, taking part in clothing exchanges, and reusing and repairing what we already own – and they are all interlinked with sewing in one way or another. In our Facebook group, We’re not buying new clothes for a year, it’s been gratifying to see both men and women share their experiences with sewing.
Easy to reach
Some big retailers don’t seem to have caught on to this trend just yet. My friend, Cathy, complains that she has searched in vain through several supermarkets in Cape Town for a simple card of sewing needles and an old-fashioned needle threader. A haberdashery and fabric shop is probably your best bet if you are looking for these items.
And it’s easy to get into sewing. Fiona A laments that she feels disadvantaged because she never learned to sew as a youngster – but she hand sews beautiful cushion covers from vintage embroidered linens. Cindy, meanwhile, learned to crochet by watching YouTube videos; her hands click away creating something amazing while she chats to you.
YouTube is my go-to place when I’ve not understood instructions on sewing patterns (they speak a strange language sometimes). And Kathryn, my fibre artist friend, has patiently coached me through perfectly inserting a zip, among other things.
The amount of guidance out there on social media and the generosity of spirit of fellow sewing people who will share their knowledge is truly astounding – all you have to do is reach out for it.