For this last full week of Slow Fashion October, I want to focus on that “maybe” pile you pulled from your closet during the cleanout, or the stack you likely already have sitting around somewhere — the near-misses, worn out favorites or should’ve-beens that you’re having trouble letting go of, either out of regret or sentimentality or maybe, just maybe, because there’s a way to turn them a pile of “yes.” (And by the way, we’re having the critically important conversation about how to responsibly re-home the “no” pile right here.) So this week’s interview is with our ol’ friend Katrina Rodabaugh (of the Slow Fashion Citizen interview series), whose new book Mending Matters has also just published! Katrina is such a great advocate for starting with secondhand and handmade, and then dyeing and mending as well as altering and refashioning, all ways to take something that’s not at its best for you, for whatever reason, and transform it into something you’ll genuinely love.
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During the initial Slow Fashion October, one of the first things I asked people to share was the oldest/dearest thing in their closet. It was really striking how many posted a pair of shoes, and could say exactly where they got them, how long they’d had them, how many times they’d had them repaired to try to keep them going. I say striking because given the state of most shoe-repair shops these days, it seems to be a dying industry, and because I don’t think we generally take the same approach to our clothes. It seems like when something develops a hole or a stain or didn’t work out for whatever reason, our thought is simply to let it go. Why do you think that is?
I think there are two parts — I think the first part is emotional attachment and I think the second is value. Sometimes we keep garments in our closets simply because we have a sentimental or emotional connection and don’t want to let them go. The wedding dress is the classic example. But, also maybe a grandmother’s coat, a favorite sweater from college, or an outfit that a child wore repeatedly. Handmade garments fall easily into this area too because we feel invested in making them so we’re less likely to discard them.
But I think the second area is value. We keep things we value. Sometimes this means financial worth — we pay more money than usual for a garment, say a great pair of leather boots, and we’re willing to keep investing in them because of the initial financial cost of the boots. But, also value can mean how hard they were to acquire — we value them because they were hard to find or we value them because they fit perfectly. And, of course, value can mean craftsmanship or aesthetic beauty too.
There are all kind of ways to modify or update garments to breathe new life into them or make them work better for us. You’ve been posting recently about making even minor alterations to things that turned duds into wardrobe heroes. Can you give a few examples for those who maybe don’t follow your Instagram account (yet)?
I think natural dyes are a great way to reinvigorate garments. Color is amazing at transformation. So, if I purchase clothes that are biodegradable and made from cellulose (plant) or animal fibers then I can toss them into a natural dye pot when they get stained, discolored from laundering, or I just want to shift the color. Indigo dye is a great solution for cotton, linen and hemp clothing that needs a boost. Of course, mending, patching and altering clothing is a great way to reinvigorate too.
Things like shortening a top or taking in a skirt or pair of pants are really easy to have done at a tailor or dry cleaner, for those who don’t have the time or skills to do it themselves. Dyeing is another possibility for transforming a tired or unloved garment, but that one’s not quite so simple or so easy to outsource. (Teenage me who had no qualms about dumping Rit dye into the bathtub is laughing at homeowner me right now.) I often wish dyers — especially natural dyers — did offer this as a service! I have at least three things right now that could use a dye job, but gathering the tools and supplies and setting it all up is something I find daunting. What are your thoughts and advice on that?
I think my role in slow fashion is really that of a teacher, writer and activist. While my tools are that of a fiber artist my passion is in helping folks to reconsider their wardrobes from a sustainable standpoint. I have a background in art and writing but I’m not a trained fashion designer. So, I’m thrilled to show someone how to dye, mend, stitch or rethink their clothing but it’s not currently my interest to take custom orders or start a clothing production line. Maybe someday, but not right now. I think it’s just about different strengths and focuses.
Some dyers might be willing to take custom work but there’s consumer education that has to happen too. Natural dyes express differently than synthetic dyes and predicting the exact outcome is often imprecise. It’s more like cooking — the ingredients vary depending on season, location, weather, water, fiber and the experience of the dyer. If the customer was willing to accept their clothing back in a range of color — not a specific shade of yellow but a yellow within a range — then I think more dyers might be interested in custom work. But we have to allow for some uncertainty and imperfection as dyers and makers — that’s the beauty and practice of the work is that it evolves and shifts.
Some of my favorite projects — my own or things I’ve seen others do — are refashioning projects. Taking a garment that’s wrong in whatever way and making something else out of it. That could be a garment already in your closet (like the way-too-big Clyde dress I bought for a song at last year’s Elizabeth Suzann sample sale and haven’t yet figured out what else it might become) or a lot of clever people will hit the thrift store not just looking for great garments but for garments that have the potential to become something else. Do you think that takes a special eye, or just practice and a new way of thinking?
I love redesign. I think it’s really untapped in the fashion world — there are so many beautiful clothes to be found secondhand or even in our closets that could benefit tremendously from great redesign. I think it’s about practice and a willingness to experiment as a maker. But I really hope to see more fashion designers moving in this direction too. Especially with secondhand clothes because there is such a need to keep them from the landfills.
And then of course there’s the matter of mending, the subject of your new book. Mending is another of the lost arts, and part of why I think we dispose of even our most-loved clothes without considering if they could be saved. Most people have no idea how to “properly” darn a sock or fix a tear in a shirt. But the rise of “visible mending” has said, in effect, “you don’t have to be good at this or able to make it invisible.” It’s become cool to let your inexpert mend show and treat it as art and personalization and expression. But of course, even then, you do have to get a few basic things right for it to do the job. All of which you address in your book. Do you think visible mending is a trend or a movement?
I hope it’s a movement. When I turned my fiber arts studio towards sustainable fashion five years ago there were only a handful of menders online. And now there are hundreds of menders and so many folks integrating mending into their craft work. I hope that mending is finding its place in the craft and maker movement. It’s a great way to use hand-stitching, basic design, and a visual approach to repair. Yes, the repair needs to be sturdy — and I share all my techniques in my new book, Mending Matters — but once you have the basics you can progress quickly, like any craft.
Do you think visible mending leads people to also want to learn more about the “proper” ways (for lack of a better way of saying that!) and hone their skills? Is it a gateway hobby?
I think it’s like any other craft. I’m a beginner knitter so I’m only looking at basic knitting patterns right now but I hope to advance to more intermediate patterns and someday advanced patterns too. But first I have to learn the basics, exercise patience and just keep practicing. When I first started mending I wasn’t using the same techniques I use now. Through so much trial and error, student feedback, teaching, researching and writing I’ve developed techniques I feel really good about. But it took five years to get to this point in my mending work. If folks keep mending, they’ll make beautiful repairs with enough time.
What do you think is the best, most rewarding aspect of altering/refashioning/dyeing/mending or otherwise exerting influence over your clothes?
Creative expression. Making the garments truly my own. Using the basic elements of design to repair jeans and knowing that I leave my imprint as a fiber artist on the garment. But, also being able to infuse my wardrobe with an aesthetic that feels like my art. And it’s a political statement too — better for the planet and the people.
And what’s your best advice for someone who is interested in some or all of this but has no idea how to start?
I always refer to that beautiful Arthur Ashe quote, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”. I came across that quote years ago and I’ve been using it ever since — it’s the best metaphor for sustainable fashion. Just one garment at a time.
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Thank you, Katrina — I hope everyone is feeling inspired to get into fix-it mode!
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