Is visible mending only for the rich?

I have mixed feelings about visible mending.

For the longest time, visibly mended clothes indicated you were poor. Think of all those pictures of paupers and hobos and ragamuffins with crudely patched trousers and bare feet. A lot of the sewing books I grew up on, often from my mum’s or my nanna’s generations, talked about making sure your clothes didn’t look home-made, and that your mending was invisible. My nanna, who lived through the Great Depression, taught me the same way. I even remember an infomercial from the 80s, for a sort of mending kit where you clipped little threads of wool from the seam allowances of a moth-eaten suit and mashed them together with some sort of glue to invisibly patch the hole. The last thing you’d want to do was make a big visible patch.

Visible mending on a kid’s trousers from the Great Depression
A family photo from the Great Depression, showing kids with roughly patched trousers. Photo credit: reddit user paperstars0777

More recently, if you asked me, I would have said that I mended invisibly so that things would be work-appropriate. One of my visible-mending friends works for a big-city tech consultancy. When we have a mending day they often talk about how once visible mending’s applied, the clothes won’t be professional enough to wear to client sites.

“Professional dress” is capitalist, classist, sexist, racist, fat- trans- and homophobic bullshit, but it’s something most of us have to deal with if we want to get by. Being able to push back against it is a sign of privilege, like when I used to get away with brightly coloured hair at work as long as I paid $200+ for it to be done in a salon. In the same way, visible mending indicates not only a willingness, but a privileged ability to push against societal norms without negative consequences.

Does that mean the ability to wear visibly-mended clothes is a bad thing? To quote Billy Bragg’s version of The Internationale, “Freedom is merely privilege extended unless enjoyed by one and all.” The two jobs of someone with privilege are: 1) recognise that not everyone has that privilege, and don’t assume that someone who lacks it will have the same experiences and outcomes as you, and 2) work to extend the privilege to one and all.

As I move out of the tech world and into the arts/textiles/sustainability world effectively full time, I have the privilege of being able to dress in ways that are not office-professional, and to visibly display aspects of sustainable living that might read as poverty in other circles. I also have ample time to mend things, and access to quality clothing that’s worth mending at no more than the cost of materials (and more of my time.)

Clearly not everyone has these privileges. I’m don’t want to imply that everyone can realistically mend their clothes, or that they should use visible mending if it would have negative social consequences. Yet by talking more openly and showing my mending, I’m in a position to help normalise it in society, speak out against the inequality that means some people can’t practice it, and educate about why and how to do it for those who want to.

So, last night I sat down in front of Season 4 of The Crown (so good!) and chose blatantly mismatched colours to mend my socks. I felt the discomfort of it, and found myself wondering if my colour choices would seem twee or tacky, or whether it would make me look “holier-than-thou” (pun totally intended) in my efforts toward sustainability. All this for darning that is on the sole of the foot anyway!

Visible mending (hand darning) on a pair of socks
Dark brown woollen socks, visibly hand-darned with red, mustard and olive green thread.

How about you? Did you grow up mending your clothes invisibly, then switch to visible mending since it became hip? Do you feel the same strange vulnerability that I do when you let your mending be seen? Why do you do visible mending — pure aesthetics, a public statement of your values, a mixture of both?


1 Comment

  1. meroe on April 19, 2022 at 5:55 pm

    My grandmother was taught how to do invisible darns when she was in the orphanage in England. If the mended section was obvious, the teachers would cut it out, and she’d have to darn a larger patch.

    I reckon that I could have got away with visible mending when teaching at some government schools (especially if the mending was seen as quirky), but definitely not at most private schools!

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