Updated: Jun 25
The Make Do and Mend movement emerged as a response to clothes rationing, which began in 1941. Clothing books containing coupons were issued to all households. Every garment was given a coupon value, which was handed over along with payment, when purchasing a garment. A lined coat (over 28 inches long) for a woman required 14 coupons, a set of menswear pyjamas needed 8 coupons and a pair of socks required 1. The act of making and mending clothing at home saved the limited number of issued coupons for necessary purchases only.
‘Everything was mended and patched and darned and better mended y’know. It was made to last as long as possible’
‘You had to make do, make things do. You had to mend, oh forever mending things and patching and when my husband changed his job and he got a little bit more money, I was able to spend a few coupons on some pants and vests and that was a luxury!’
‘…pyjamas for children out of your hubby’s old pyjamas, shirts the same, children’s blouses out of dad’s stripey shirt tails which weren’t worn- oh it was endless the things you did with sewing.’
These quotes were published in a book by the Museums service called ‘Words on War’ by Helga Hughes (1991)
Shopping trips to C&A or Marks and Spencer were rare occasions and these clothes stayed in circulation for a long time, handed down through the family. British households embraced the Make Do and Mend approach, repurposing available materials using hand or machine sewing skills and equipment. Sewing was taught in Domestic Science classes at school and, in many cases, clothes making and mending skills were taught in the home by family members who worked in the textile industry. If you could sew, you could Make Do and Mend and with this in mind the government launched a campaign to get Britain sewing, along with a Make Do and Mend booklet including tips and advice, published by The Ministry of Information.
Nearly 80 years later, the rationing, coupons and clothing booklets are gone, but we find ourselves living through unprecedented times. Many households are struggling financially and the future for business-as-usual is uncertain. What can we learn from Make Do and Mend to help us as we shape our New Normal?
“In a disposable society, to repair is to rebel” - The Economist, 2019.
In the 21st century it is shopping, rather than sewing, that takes precedence for many people in their spare time. More people search YouTube to learn a back flip than a back stitch (i) and gone are the days of unravelling old jumpers to acquire more yarn. A country of home sewers has been lost to a global fashion industry, mass producing high volumes of clothing, selling at low prices. The majority of clothing bought from high street and online retailers in the UK is manufactured overseas and a complex international supply chain has disconnected the customers from the origins and journeys of their clothing. In the UK, the quantity of garments sold has increased, but their lifespan in our wardrobes has decreased. According to government research, garments are worn for an average of 3.3 years before being discarded (ii). This disposable culture is challenged by a sustainable fashion movement which encourages everyone to ask important questions about the materials used in their clothing, support ethical manufacturing processes and encourage re-wearing and repairing to avoid waste.
Learning sewing techniques empowers citizens to make, mend, customise and upcycle the clothing they own. Not only does this reduce textile waste, it helps people to save money by reducing purchases of new clothing. Investing skills and time to bring an item of clothing back to life increases the owner’s emotional attachment to it and helps the owner to understand the work and processes required to make it.
In the New Normal people need to be acknowledged as citizens, not consumers. Citizens with skills, no longer reliant on retail giants. Many elements of a 21st century Get Britain Sewing campaign already exist. In place of Domestic Science, we have YouTube. Instead of a seamstress aunt, we have Pinterest and the Love Your Clothes campaign is the modern day Ministry of Information.
Upcycle Fashion Challenge
Learn three stitches
- Running stitch
- Back stitch
- Cross stitch
CHOOSE TO REUSE
“Textile Waste is estimated to increase by 60% between 2015 and 2030” - Global Fashion Agenda, 2017
Make Do and Mend required people to see clothing differently and think creatively about repurposing. Deconstructing clothing to change shapes, styles and sizes of worn out or unwanted garments was supported by government publications whilst newspapers published patterns and ideas for transformations. Every garment was seen as a resource. Nothing was wasted.
The limited resources of wartime Britain contrast sharply with the abundance of clothing and other textile products sold today. We have no limitations on purchases and are actively encouraged to buy more, even when we don’t need it. This level of overconsumption is unsustainable. Yes, we can donate our unwanted items to charity, but how many of us stay there to buy replacement pieces? Choosing vintage, second hand and pre-loved clothing closes the loop in our shopping habits and takes us from a linear (buy – use – bin) model, to a circular approach, where our waste becomes someone’s new product, or raw material.
We have charity shops, clothes swaps, table top sales, eBay and Depop and the list is growing. Let’s give a boost to reuse! Easy access to second hand brings an affordable sustainable fashion option into the New Normal. Do you have any ideas for sharing or swapping the collective clothing in your community? With charity shops closed and donation banks taped up, let’s take some time to deal with that bag of clothing you cleared out of the wardrobe at the start of lockdown.
Upcycle Fashion Challenge
Lay out a selection of clothing from the charity shop bag. Question why you discarded the items and think creatively to generate solutions to increase the chances of you wearing those items again.
- Would that jumper look better as a cardigan?
- Would I wear that dress more without that frill?
- Would those sleeves fit better on that top?
MENDING OUR MENTAL HEALTH
“Care for your clothes like the good friends they are ” - Joan Crawford
In these unprecedented times of crisis many people are struggling to adjust to the changes. Many were already struggling. In the New Normal, prioritising time to look after our mental health will be essential.
In addition to the environmental damage and human suffering that is caused by the increased production and disposal of clothing, our shopping habit isn’t making us any happier (iii). Those who find themselves with more time in lockdown to slow down might begin to take notice of things previously overlooked. Spending time mending a garment brings a calm focus. The repetition of precise stitches required for stitching on a button, darning or patching is therapeutic for many and has been coined Mendfulness in response to the rise of Mindfulness: The practice of paying attention in the current moment.
Rather than thinking about what you invest financially in clothing, seek joy and value in the investment of your time and skill to increase its longevity. To be part of a clothing love story builds connection and enables the wearer to value the piece from a different perspective. To own our clothing is to repair it so it lasts a lifetime. In doing so we find pride, a sense of achievement and satisfaction.
Upcycle Fashion Challenge
Learn 3 mending techniques to future-proof your wardrobe.
- Replace a button
- Darn a hole in a sock or a jumper
- Patch a hole in a garment
Tag me in your challenges, I would love to see them! #upcyclefashionchallenge
Upcycle Fashion is based in Kirklees and delivers garment upcycling and repair workshops to school and community groups to increase the useful life of clothing.
Fashion Revolution - https://www.fashionrevolution.org/
Love Your Clothes - https://www.loveyourclothes.org.uk/
(i) YouTube search for “Backflip”: “How to learn to backflip in 5 minutes” (2016) 20,471,786 views
YouTube search for “Backstitch”: “Back Stitch” (2012) 1,759,281 views
(ii) Valuing Our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion
(iii) Shopping Doesn’t Make Us Happy