Sewing my Way to Sustainability

By Rachel Smyth

While browsing in my local library a few months ago, I came across a small hardback book called Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations (with foreword by Jill Norman). The book was a compilation of leaflets published by the British government during WWII, encouraging households to conserve everything from clothes to fuel to food. Mostly, it was made up of short guides teaching ordinary people how to make their clothes last as long as possible through mending, upcycling, washing and storing correctly. While the leaflets are definitely of their time and heavily emphasise a woman’s role in the home, I was struck by the amount of information that remains highly relevant today. Just as today’s TikTok tutorials show how to flip an oversized shirt into a trendy crop top, these wartime instructions suggest turning ‘men’s pyjamas into small children’s underclothes, sleeping suits, nightdresses, overalls, blouses and shirts or summer frocks’. They also provide illustrated guides to widely forgotten skills like darning, reinforcing and lengthening or shortening clothes.

Before the wartime period, clothes were much more expensive than today, with average families only affording a few garments per person. Each purchase was carefully considered in terms of usefulness and durability. In wartime, clothing rations heightened the need to invest in high-quality pieces: if something was damaged, there was no guarantee that a replacement could be procured that season or the next. In the post-war boom, the relief of rations and intensified industrialisation of the clothing industry led to cheaper and more readily available clothing. Today, the fashion industry is unrecognisable to its form eighty odd years ago. Fast fashion brands churn out billions of garments a year, many of which are thrown out or stashed deep in wardrobes as next season’s fashion overthrows the previous. Global sustainable fashion activists have been demanding a new system for years, one that treats both people and the planet well and values the clothes that are still in circulation before new ones are made. It seems to me that we should return to the principles of ‘making do and mending’ that were so important during ration times, even if the government does not provide the same practical advice and support necessary to transition. Having basic sewing skills opens the door to many more options than donating or throwing away. We must take the responsibility to halt the speeding train of consumption and strive for a circular clothes economy.

I learned to sew when I was ten or eleven, starting off with a simple needle, thread and some scrap fabric. I had always liked working with my hands and loved all sorts of crafts, from card-making and knitting to painting and pottery in school. I began to receive craft books for Christmas and birthdays, which taught me to sew little things for myself and my family, like cushions and dolls and even a basic skirt. After a while, I asked for a sewing machine for my birthday, eager to move on to the next level. My Nana was a seamstress in her youth and now possesses a wealth of information about sewing and garment construction. She would often come over and sit down to help with my latest project after a cup of tea. It was both exciting and frustrating- I would get impatient with my cheap, often faulty sewing machine but was always delighted when something worked out that I was proud of. Despite being decades older, my Nana’s metal sewing machine was made to last and was generally more reliable when my own decided to quit. I continued sewing through secondary school, eventually upgrading my machine, investing in new tools and taking over part of our old playroom for a sewing space. Although I was inconsistent due to exams and busy schedules, sewing and crafting were great creative outlets and allowed me to take pride in something non-academic. I now have two machines: my trusty Janome sewing machine and a Singer overlocker that gives fabric edges a professional look (I found it second-hand in perfect condition online!). I have moved on from kids’ craft books and five-minute YouTube tutorials to detailed sewing books and patterns. I have also discovered the sewing community on Instagram, which is a great resource to gain inspiration, connect with fellow sewists and improve my skills.

Starting out sewing, it only made sense to use fabrics and clothes I already owned to avoid ruining new and expensive material. I remember buying an ugly dress in a second-hand fair (and making it into an uglier skirt!), receiving bags of “retro” clothes from my grandparents and piles of old curtains and fabrics from neighbours. Inspired by “thrifted transformations” upcycling videos, my sewing friend and I did an upcycling challenge with charity shop dresses, I separately bought pairs of second-hand jeans to turn into denim bags. While I did progress to purchasing new materials, the love of upcycling has never left me, and I always peruse my stash and charity shops before going on the hunt. I’ve recycled my family’s old jeans into a patchwork picnic mat with pockets still intact to stick snacks into. In Transition Year, I started making jewellery from recycled paper and fabric to sell at local fairs, which I continued for a few years. One of my favourite ways to use scrap flannel (think pyjamas, shirts) and cotton is to make reusable makeup remover pads, which help the planet in more ways than one. More recently, I made a kimono style jacket from contrasting black and red fabric scraps. I love the feeling that it is uniquely mine. There is no fear of matching with your friends when you make something yourself! My latest projects were upcycling a pair of disposable hotel slippers and my Dad’s old jacket. I covered the slippers in fabric to create cute bee-patterned sliders and created a cosy zip-up fleece with the jacket lining. I always have a pile of clothes ready to upcycle, and it’s exciting to experiment and see what’s possible. If you’re new to sewing, starting with altering a pre-existing garment can be less daunting than a blank piece of fabric. Looking inside my own clothes helped me learn how they were constructed and gave me a deep appreciation for the level of skill and hard work that textile workers put into every garment.

“I love the feeling that it is uniquely mine. There is no fear of matching with your friends when you make something yourself!”

My Nana still comes over for a cup of tea and a sewing chat. Recently she brought me several pairs of linen trousers that she had painstakingly seam ripped into pieces for me to reuse, declaring that I’d “get something out of them” and that they were “too good to waste”. Her ethos of reusing old clothes and appreciating quality material has rubbed off on me so that I find the most joy in transforming old material or garments with a previous life. We may not have government-issued pamphlets instructing us how to darn the perfect hole or reinforce a pair of knickers for maximum durability. But between sustainable practices passed down from our grandparents and the rising upcycled fashion movement across online platforms, we have more resources today than ever before. Nothing is stopping us from taking back control of our wardrobes and, through collective effort, the global fashion industry.

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