I always take it as a good sign when wear begins to show on my clothes, because it means they’ve outlasted fickle trends and taste. When that’s the case, chances are I love the item enough to repair it. Proper care and repair keeps clothes in use longer, which is a good return on both a garment’s emotional and economic investment. Plus, the average Canadian already throws out about 70 pounds of textiles that mostly end up in landfill every year, so whether it’s born out of sustainability, frugality, poverty or practicality, the merits of mending should be praised rather than shamed.
Take a cue from wartime privation and “make do and mend,” a phrase that comes from the name of the 1943 pamphlet of tips issued by the British Ministry of Information during Second World War rationing (75 years later, it’s still a trove of useful information and creative ideas; find it online). You can also look up regional repair meet-up resources such as the Moncton Repair Café or start your own chapter via the Waste Reduction Week Canada network hub (wrwcanada.com).
The British-born visible mending movement considers itself a protest movement, because in the age of fast-fashion and conspicuous consumption, repair is a radical act. Spending as much as you can afford on less will win out in the end, especially because cost isn’t the same thing as value.
Here are some basics about repairing rather than replacing. And remember, whether it’s new or new-to-you from the local thrift store, keeping your wardrobe in a state of good repair starts with smarter shopping choices.
Those simple, seamless comfort and shaping T-shirt bra styles warp out of shape soonest, especially in the washing machine. One option is look for minimum two-ply underwire-free knits, such as those offered by Knix. Larger-busted women already know to avoid these entirely and instead opt for full-coverage underwire styles where each cup has at least three separately seamed pieces per cup. Seams offer support and prevent fabric strain in the cup over time, so they last much longer, as does rotating the usage. A single good bra from a quality European brand – Linea Intima bra diva Liliana Mann recommends Empreinte, Primadonna and Chantelle – can cost upward of $120, so longevity counts as much as uplift.
Rose Marcario, the chief executive of outdoor outfitter Patagonia, suggests thinking of ourselves less as product-consumers and more as owners – owners who are empowered to take responsibility and care. The company’s extensive Worn Wear program includes trade-in credit and repair clinics, and its website boasts a hub with a swap marketplace and free guides to 40 common gear fixes.
Knowing shoe-construction basics before buying helps prevent being down at the heels. Whether monk straps, brogues or bluchers, look for a welted shoe (the welt is that ribbon of leather or rubber that runs along the outsole). Goodyear construction has a hardy lockstitch that runs through the upper, insole and welt as well as another stitch that attaches the outsole. This intermediary construction technique affects durability and makes for a more robust shoe (being a little stiff in the break-in period is a good sign).
Welted shoes have soles that can be replaced because they can be separated without damaging the upper. On even a moderately priced quality dress shoe, resoling is a third or half the cost of buying new. Check out the construction on stalwarts such as Johnston & Murphy, Grenson, Church’s and Allen Edmonds, and for winter boots, brands such as Timberland and La Canadienne’s waterproof boots seam-treated with sealant.
Blundstone and R.H. Williams boots have welt sole construction, Dr. Marten’s new Hard Life range is built to last. But don’t just look for repair-friendly construction: Choose brands that mention refurbishment and after-care upfront. Fluevog, for example, sells “spare parts” such as their Angel Soles in original Hevea Latex, a natural tree-harvested rubber that’s 100-per-cent biodegradable and leaves no production waste, or the longer-lasting 7th Heaven, which is a 50-per-cent hybrid with vulcanized rubber. Cemented or glued dress shoes are less expensive (a construction is also popular in desert boots, casual plimsolls and sneakers), but that technique means they generally cannot be resoled.
Stacked and block heels are more stable and wear best. If you opt for kitten heels and stilettos, replace the heel tips regularly – before it ever comes to re-soling and wearing down to the tread. Keeping heel lifts in good shape is a relatively inexpensive maintenance. Having slip-resistant half-treads put on shoes (yes, even heels) that see the most wear in the first place extends sole life. So does rotating shoes every other day allows the leather to rest. And for your most frequently worn pairs, invest in cedar shoe trees ($15-$20 a pair at suppliers such as Moneysworth & Best) to absorb smell, moisture and maintain shape. You should be protecting even cloth sneakers and, when they’re skin is like leather, regularly cleaning and moisturizing the upper. But there’s no shoe expert more candid than the ones who fix soles, so next time you’re buying shoe care, chat up your local independent cobbler about which specific brands wear and repair best.
In her latest pattern book Knit Mitts, seasoned knitwear designer and instructor Kate Atherley writes about the sustainability of knit and supplies. Her patterns are designed around yardage requirements so knitters can use up their stash of leftovers from other projects. Atherley’s yarn expertise is transferable to ready-made. Pro tip: Don’t be seduced by the softest yarn. Although we fall for the stuff that seems soft and fluffy, she says, that’s what will wear out the soonest. Choose a wool that feels hearty, almost on the scratchy side. You’ve usually got something on underneath it anyway, and that also helps prolong sweater life because it requires less washing (which affects wear). Rubbing, friction and agitation in water pulls sweaters out of shape and scales fibres, so failing a catastrophic food spill or stain, you shouldn’t need to wash it more often than once or twice a year.
Both home-knit and machine-made sweaters in loose seamless styles (the type favoured by novice knitters) will sag and stretch – seams add structure. For a long-wearing garment, look for something where the wool fabric is reasonably dense and has seams. Ditto the new “machine-washable” and superwash wools, which are chemically treated to withstand machines and dryers and become slippery. For repair, Atherley suggests embroidering a geometric pattern or motif such as a flower over frays and moth holes with textured yarn; for worn elbows, deliberately felt another piece of knitted fabric and stitch it on. It’s as much a creative way to use visible mending to personalize an item.
Designer Michelle Turpin of Tailoress is my guru and handles everything from minor garment alterations to extensive repair and reconstructions. Turpin oversees her team of 10, who have a reputation for doing the impossible: They managed to make a Dolce & Gabbana hand-me-down skirt a perfect fit by letting out a pleat, using the self-lining to ruche a fix and replacing that lining with a plain one.
Lining provides structure, enhances drape and prolongs the life of a blazer or skirt. Polyester linings tend to shred and trap heat when you perspire. Replace the existing one with a bemberg lining – especially in any vintage clothes you love – whenever possible and the items will look better even from the outside.
A collar that’s frayed along the outer edge can be flipped to look like new, which only costs about $30 to do. Look for shirts where the manufacturer has stitched rather than glued the flat-fold seams down. Another common shirt issue is a worn elbow on just one shirt sleeve – mostly from mouse-usage friction. Contrast shirting-fabric elbow patches do the trick.
A good tailor knows how to harvest fabric from other, often unseen and hidden parts of a garment – but it has to be there in the first place. They know where to look and so should you: Turn up the trouser hem, for example. On a cheaper trouser, Turpin says, a blind hem will yield about an inch of extra fabric, whereas a higher quality one is more like 2.5 inches. Hems are far from the only place to check. Does the jacket lapel have the same outer fabric (called facing) inside all the way down past the buttons to the hem? There’s a lot they can do with that later, Turpin says, by replacing it and using the fabric to insert new panels into holey or too-small suit jackets so they fit again, from $50 to $250.
The past decade has seen a change in men's’ suiting silhouettes. Older suits can be updated and the alterations that have the biggest impact, Turpin says, are on lapels and sleeves. For greatest flexibility down the road, buy one with a lapel that has no buttonhole; they’re the simplest and most cost-effective to alter. Slimming down the baggy sleeve of a favourite, perhaps more conservative suit or your special-occasion suit from five to 10 years ago gives it a new look. Sleeve length has also gone up and shortening a sleeve to show more shirt cuff is another inexpensive refresh.
At Tailoress, they often appraise the shoulder pad situation on what are considered “dated” suits both for men and women. Reducing a shoulder pad from a half-inch down to a 1/8-inch maintains structure and fit but can give a suit surprising new life.