Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Necessity of Mending

-this is my Gramma's pincushion; she sewed everything from winter clothes to fancy dresses, and taught my Mom how to sew.

Deanna from Eclectic Meanderings answered the question from my first post 'why mending now?' with the answer that, as in the recent past, it is necessary again.

Deanna, your answer is a puzzle, and makes me revisit my thoughts about mending and making do. I assume we live in a world in which the kind of sewing, patching and mending once common in my family are outmoded.

Not just 'old fashioned', but unnecessary, given the easy availability of cheap clothing. Even if you can't afford to buy new, second hand is easy to come by. There is a 'clothing bank' around the corner here, we have multiple organizations in town here which provide vouchers for clothing at second hand stores.

And it is no surprise there is so much second hand. As a share of their incomes, US households last year used 3% of their income to buy clothes, one third of the 9% they used in the 1950s. And these households (as in Canada) are consuming more clothing than ever before. With a smaller portion of their income.

Reading around about my assumption about the loss of this culture of making do, I have found out that the transition was much less smooth and much less complete than I thought.

In particular, I read Susan Porter Benson's beautiful work Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States this week (Amazon has it if your library doesn't). Writing about a period that most economists and social historians view as the beginnings of "the Age of Consumption", Benson finds women at the heart of the work of 'making do'. How? By deliberately staying out of the trend to mass consumption: making clothes over, taking second hand, mending.

As Benson points out, these strategies were important not just because they provided clothing, but because they allowed people to stay out of debt. Benson is making a case that 'making do' is much more than struggling at the economic margins. It is a world of carefully crafted decision making that, in the end, creates its own space, its own culture, its own community.

There is lots more to think through about this, but for now, for me, Benson's work identifies the persistence of a space 'outside of' consumerism, even as consumerism was trying to capture consumers. Imagine that.


  1. in my mind, it is necessary again not because we don't have access to new but always going for 'new' is causing lots of waste in every aspect of life. i have no objection to buying new or used but if we can in some little way prevent the waste that is accumulating we should do it.

  2. Ah, Deanna, thank you. The idea that preventing waste is necessary is very compelling. A necessary idea, in fact.