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Instead of hiding rips and tears, the visible mending movement turns them into art

Born from the Japanese art of sashiko, visible mending enables crafters to eschew fast fashion and make mistakes beautiful.

Jessica Marquez

When Jessica Marquez’s boyfriend ripped his favorite jean jacket, he asked if she could fix it. Marquez, a “visible mending” maker, teacher, and author, began researching hand-embroidery techniques she could use to fix the rip. She came upon sashiko, a Japanese mending technique involving a running stitch and geometric patterns. As she practiced, she realized that she wanted to start using the same technique on her own clothes. A favorite pair of jeans now has four mends, each rip patched up with darker denim and beautiful square fields of bright white cross-stitching.

For Marquez, visible mending “becomes a means of self-expression.” In mending an item of clothing in a highly visible style, she can turn a rip into a personal piece of art. Rather than trying to hide a garment’s flaws, she tells me, “it’s just something that becomes uniquely mine.”

In this way, visible mending is the antidote to fast fashion. Instead of seeing clothes as disposable, visible mending values sustainability and suggests a different way of relating to our clothes. Colleen Hill, a curator at the Museum at FIT whose 2018 show “Fashion Unraveled” displayed mended and deconstructed fashion, explains that, in response to the ubiquity of fast fashion, “people are starting to dial back and think more about what makes clothing meaningful, and I would imagine that visible mending is part of that.” She tells me that visible mending “tells us that we can, in fact, have a connection to our clothing. And that that connection can continue. And rather than seeing something that is perhaps a little shabby or worn out, [and] seeing that as a negative thing or something that we need to replace, to in fact embrace it as something that we love and that expresses who we are.”

Marquez echoes this, telling me, “I think people are becoming really more conscious of where their clothing is coming from and learning more about the stream, like the real lives that are making their garments, and kind of pushing against fast fashion and making their visible mends kind of a statement against this consumerism that’s shoved down our throats.”

Hill explains that “when we look at clothes within museum collections, historically we would see something like a stain or a tear, and it might be something that is a bit repulsive or that we don’t necessarily want to show. But I think that, in fact, there’s a different, much more positive way to look at that, and that is the idea that these clothes have lived a life and that they were, in fact, important to someone and had this kind of moment in the sun.”

A museum show is one way of highlighting that, and visible mending provides a way to do the same in day-to-day life. Hill tells me that she recently organized a visible mending workshop with Golden Joinery, a Dutch organization that uses golden thread for visible mends. Golden Joinery’s Margreet Sweerts tells me via email that “there can be beauty in a flaw, a golden scar. It is a sign of life, it tells the story and history of a piece.” It is hoped that through Golden Joinery’s mending workshops and a mending game that it has developed, people will “experience the beauty of imperfection.”

Sustainability-minded brands are also starting to embrace visible mending as a way to extend the life cycle of their clothes and to reach customers whose interest in the concept is growing. Lilah Horwitz, who works on both visual branding and garment design for Eileen Fisher’s Renew program, which buys back customers’ used Eileen Fisher garments and resews, mends, and resells them, tells me, “It’s just a strong message that we feel like we can’t ignore as a clothing company, and to be able to look at the product that we make and take that kind of responsibility and use creativity and design to bring that in and offer a new type of product offering.”

She also tells me that “we actually find it very exciting when a piece comes in and it’s just really well-worn, rather than when it comes in and is basically new, because it means that somebody put their life in their garment and they wore it out into the world and they really lived in it, and that’s exciting.” She explains, “We’ve lost this connection with our goods because they’re so disposable, and I think the process of visible mending is taking a bit of a stab at that, like, wait a second, let’s reconnect with what we already have, and what can we do to it to make it new again.” This suggests that, rather than discard things that have ceased to serve us, perhaps we should aim to find a way to make them beautiful again.

This rethinking of disposability has an anti-capitalist appeal, as does thinking of oneself as someone who is not only, always, a consumer in search of the next purchase. But in the same way that making sustainable clothing purchases is a privilege many cannot afford, it is a privilege to have the resources needed not only to mend something but also to take the time to make it beautiful. It is also a privilege to feel comfortable wearing clothes that are visibly worn, however beautiful the repair. We need to be careful not to romanticize the history of mending, a craft that has grown out of necessity.

Miho Takeuchi, a traditional sashiko instructor and designer born in Japan and based in the United States, tells me via email that sashiko, which developed in poor communities in Japan’s Edo period, “was born from the necessity of mending and patching garments, beddings and household items. In ancient days, clothing and bedding were made from homespun fabrics woven from native fibrous plants such as wisteria and hemp and necessity demanded that this clothing be recycled for as long as possible.” It was only later, she tells me, that the technique evolved to include the elaborate surface-level designs and intricate patterns popular with visible menders today.

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I am being proud of myself a bit. It isn’t about the accuracy of stitching or Sashiko technique, it is about what I had planned for this jacket and the outcome is as I planned. ☆ Creating the item as we planned is very normal procedure for many other manufactures. In some field, blueprint is pretty much everything (as I understand. Sorry if I am wrong.) In Sashiko, it is so difficult to have the same result as we imagined in our head. It is not about good or bad, yet I feel happy when we can make the one we imagined in the head. ☆ I am so happy to take photos in the very first day of Spring we feel in 2019. Winter is almost over, and our Cherry blossom will bloom soon. ☆ 少しばかりの自画自賛を。いや〜。カメラのファインダー越しに、モデルに着てもらって、声が出ました。素敵だぁ。針目とか技術とかじゃなく、「当初に予定した通りの出来」というのが本当に嬉しいのです。これ、当たり前のようで、刺し子では当たり前ではない不思議な話なのです。想像と違う作品ができることの方が当たり前なほどで。 ☆ もう少しばかり手を加えて完成です。春の麗らかな日の中で写真に納めることができて良かったです。 ☆ #Sashiko #SashikoJacket #SashikoFashion #Handstitched #Sakura #SlowFashion #刺し子 #刺し子ジャケット #刺し子リメイク #スローファッション

A post shared by Keiko & Atsushi Futatsuya (@sashi.co) on

Marquez makes sure to emphasize this history in her teaching as well. “I talk a lot about sashiko as a Japanese technique, and I talk about how it was developed,” she explains. “It’s a resourceful technique; it’s birthed out of necessity and thrift, and we have everything.” Whereas mending was once the province of those who could not afford new clothes, today’s visible mending is the province, primarily, of those who can afford the time and attention it takes to make one’s clothes into a statement.

As much as visible mending is about the privilege of connecting with one’s clothes, it also builds connections between people. Takeuchi says of teaching sashiko, “Not only teaching the stitching but also sharing [the] culture of Japan with my students is really fun. While practicing the stitching, students ask many questions and I try to answer as much as I can.” She adds that the technique is a way to develop cross-cultural connections: “We are connected with common interests and enthusiasm toward the beauty of hand-stitching,” and sashiko, she says, “is the bridge for me to introduce my country and my culture to the people in the US.”

Community building is an important aspect of visible mending for Marquez, too. She explains, “I’m always trying to share what I’m doing and working on, and I try to build community through crafting and making.” Visible mending is particularly popular on Instagram: The hashtag #mending, with over 68,000 posts, is filled with photos of holes filled in with colorful thread or covered up by interesting designs, and the hashtag #sashiko has over 131,000 posts.

Marquez tells me of her social media followers: “I like that [on Instagram], through hashtags and the kits, they can kind of see what other people are making and doing, and I think it’s fun, when you’re working on something or you’re excited about something, to see what someone else has made with the same technique.”

Hill, the curator, also highlighted the importance of community in this space: “in my experience, the best part of the visible mending workshop that I did was the conversation we had while we were mending.”

This is not the first time that mending has been a community effort. Sashiko mending, for instance, was traditionally the responsibility of women and girls, who mended clothes for family members. The technique was often passed down from mother to daughter.

In the United States, many women took up mending during World War II, when it was encouraged as “a governmental campaign in Britain and it was a very strongly encouraged initiative in the United States,” according to Hill. She tells me that “it was considered patriotic to do your best and do your part to allow things like nylon or any kind of material to be put towards the war effort.”

Now, while interest in mending is resurgent, the meaning has changed. Sashiko, which had come to be devalued as a craft associated with poverty and with women, was reappropriated by high-fashion designers like Issey Miyake as early as 1973. It has more recently come to be embraced as one of the most popular DIY visible mending techniques, valued for its utility but also for its beauty. Visible mending insists on and revels in the beauty of disrupting the existing paradigm. For Hill, “the idea of visible mending, or kind of distressed or deconstructed garments in a more general sense, leads to this intrigue of disruption in the fashion system. And that can be disruption of beauty ideals, or appropriate attire, or the focus that we often see between the fashion industry and wealth.”

Visible mending insists that beauty can be built in the wake of a breakdown and that we can connect with one another even in times of rupture. That we can connect through our desire to challenge existing norms and to create a system that is more carefully considered and more thoughtful. Sweerts tells me that, at Golden Joinery, they prefer the word “healing” to “repair” because, she says, “it is not only a RE-pair (towards a past that was once whole), it is also a transformational process, not only for the garment, but also for your soul. A move into a ‘new’ future.” Visible mending offers us hope that we can transform our broken present into something better, not by reaching across the aisle or glossing over division, but by building something new from the rubble. It presents a small opportunity to build something good.

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