Our clothes sorting warehouse buried deep in an industrial estate in Wembley in North West London is where clothes donated to TRAID go to be valued before heading to our shops. We see a broad range of garments which gives us an unique insight into the physical and psychological factors at play when discarding, leaving us to guess why an item of clothing might be considered waste and no longer desirable to the owner. Clothes with the shop tag still attached may imply they were either an unwanted gift or a misguided purchase perhaps bought in the sale, or perhaps victim of the common ‘One day I’ll fit in it’ inner turmoil that reinforces fashion’s authority to impact how we feel about ourselves. Clothes might have been donated by a retailer, taken off the shop floor in bulk with a recurring fault, or even a make-up stain acquired from the changing room and therefore no longer considered new and perfect.

Increasingly we see more and more donated items that were clearly purchased from online retailers which might lead us to wonder if they arrived at the TRAID warehouse because the owner couldn’t try it on before purchasing it and discovering it didn’t fit, perhaps the colour and fabric didn’t translate from screen to real life, or that perhaps there was never truly a connection with the garment when it arrived on the doormat.

Clothes with gentle wear, clothes washed a few times – discoloured, stained, shrunk or pilled, clothes loved and worn beyond being recognisable as a garment are jumbled up amongst garments that might have a missing button or a small hole that the owner decided was not worth the trouble of fixing, lacked the time to fix it, or perhaps didn’t know how to fix. Naturally it’s all subjective, one person’s trash and all that, but at TRAID it’s up to our clothes sorters to decipher what can be worn again and for all of us to imagine its past and reimagine its future when we’re buying, wearing, using and passing on our clothes.

When you’re faced with a spectrum of clothing at different stages of life and from different brands and of varying quality it’s the imagined past and how a garment arrived to TRAID that helps us to understand our relationship with our clothing and to tailor our education programme to address it. According to WRAP’s Valuing Our Clothes report we are now keeping clothes for longer, approximately 3.3 years before discarding, we’re buying more secondhand, but we’re also buying more clothing in general. In fact, we’re buying 1.1 million tonnes of clothes in the UK each year, up 200,000 tonnes since 2012. The ‘I have so many clothes but nothing to wear’ syndrome? Changing size, changing tastes, changing trends along with mood, over familiarity, boredom, and finding the time to fix and alter clothing all factor into fuelling our consumption habits amongst others.

There are a number of factors to consider why a garment wouldn’t be repaired. One focus for brands that have signed up to WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan is to design and produce more durable clothing in an attempt to tackle planned obsolescence, rife in fast fashion, alongside its friend perceived obsolescence.

Tackling perceived obsolescence or ‘emotional durability’ of a garment is tricky because it requires getting to the root cause of why we fall out of love with our clothes. From speaking to young people it’s become apparent that social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and the like leave little space to relieve anxiety when up against the perceived judgmental eyes of followers no longer only reserved for celebrities in trash magazines. ‘Oh look, she’s wearing that dress AGAIN’. *Unlike*. You could argue that we’ve become celebrities in our own social media worlds with similar pressures, and this requires the expense of curating constantly evolving looks. Planned obsolescence, the ‘physical durability’ of an item of clothing, might be an easier beast to conquer. One simple idea would be to make it compulsory that if a garment has buttons that a spare button is attached to the care label (which is now no longer the case for the lower quality fast fashion brands). Brands could go further and provide basic repair kits, for example including a small amount of matching yarn when you purchase a jumper for when it inevitably gets a hole, or a scrap of fabric for patching. Perhaps they could consider supplying spare parts, as is the way for other goods industries, so when a zip fails, or a strap breaks, or the pull on a zipper goes, you can purchase those replacement parts easily from the brand with a guide on how to do the repair yourself. Making a minimum of a 1.5cm seam allowance should be mandatory to allow a seam to be repaired if it comes undone, or even allow for taking a garment in/or out if the wearer changed size – a ‘growth allowance’ – would all help to increase its lifespan. Allowing a garment to be repaired should be standard, and certainly some brands such as Patagonia, Nudie Jeans and Russell and Bromley are offering free repair services to customers – a sort of guarantee that if or when their product fails they will fix it for you – and there’s something quite attractive about a brand that values your custom (and hard earned money) enough that they don’t want you to throw their product away if they can help it, although of course this goes against the grain of a business that want to sell you more stuff. Using quality materials that don’t suffer pilling (that bobbly texture on the surface that comes from washing) could enable us to wear our clothes for longer and not feel the need to buy new to get that feeling that only new clothes have. We need to feel that regardless of how much we paid for an item of clothing, it’s much better to repair than replace, even if it’s less economical to pay someone to fix it. So, can learning repair skills fix our relationship with our clothes?

Beth And Her Visibly Mended Socks
Beth And Her Visibly Mended Socks

There was a time when repair skills would have been passed down through generations or taught in school leaving a skills gap that Repair Cafes are starting to fill. Free meeting spaces for people to come to and learn how to fix broken things, these spaces are run by volunteers itching to share their skills and empower people to have better relationships with the things they own. Repair Cafes have filled the gap bridging social inclusion with the opportunity to build confidence when a product fails rather than resign said object to landfill or incineration and replacing with something new. The brainchild of Martine Postama, a journalist and local politician from Amsterdam, there are now 1,256 Repair Cafes around the world since launching the concept in late 2009.

TRAID began running Sew Good workshops in 2010 to teach repair, altering and upcycling skills on evenings and weekends in our shops in London. These twice monthly workshops proved popular amongst people that wanted to share a space with like-minded people and get the most out of the clothes they owned. Although we no longer run these workshops we’re focussed on continuing offering these workshops through collaboration and pop up in-store workshops targeted at specific repairs, for example, darning knitwear or sashiko on denim.

Earlier in 2016 TRAID partnered with Waltham Forest Council to launch a monthly repair café in Leytonstone in East London alongside electrical repairers the Restart Project, Dr Bike and local furniture upcycler Shed Homewares. Since launching TRAID have helped save 40 items of clothing from being wasted and supported 27 people to learn the skills to continue to fix their clothes outside of the Repair Café space. The most common reason for coming to the repair café was to learn new skills, save money and to prolong the life of their clothes. The most common mends are holes that need patching or darning, followed by seams that have come undone or split closely followed by alterations to resize an item of clothing.

Lena and Santi at Leytonstone Repair Cafe in April
Lena and Santi at Leytonstone Repair Cafe in April

By extending the life of a garment by an extra 9 months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%. 77% of those asked at our clothes repair workshop said that they would keep the item that they had mended for at least another 3 years with a third of people stating that they would keep the item for more than 10 years.

When the biggest environmental impact comes from the production of a garment – extraction of raw materials, water use, chemical processing, factory floor waste, surplus materials and so on – repairing clothes only reduces the environmental impact of our clothing if it displaces purchasing a new garment. Over 50% of participants that mended items in our workshop at the Repair Café in Leytonstone said that they would not replace the item if they could not repair it. People come to Repair Cafes because they don’t know how to fix something and want to learn the skills to keep it for longer, for financial incentives because why buy something again if you don’t have to? Half of those asked said that they would be able to do the mend again confidently on their own, applying new found skills or brushing up on old ones to continue to make an individual contribution to taking responsibility of our own waste whilst we work with brands to tackle theirs. The benefits to local authorities to save money by supporting Repair Cafes is huge. It costs £18 to send a tonne of waste to landfill in the UK and we’re throwing away 300,000 tonnes of textiles every year in the UK. A quick calculation means that local authorities are spending £5.4 million every year just to dispose of our clothing and textiles, money that could be better spent on vital services in their boroughs brutally cut year on year.

Mending Activism
Mending Activism

There are many useful tips and video tutorials on how to mend your clothes on the Love Your Clothes website, and if you’d like to see a Repair Café in your area and are interested in setting up your own, the Repair Café have a toolkit with lots of advice and tips on how to get started. And of course, you can check our events page to see if we’ve got a clothes repair workshop happening near you.

Further Reading:

Meet The Fixperts

Community Repair: A Pop Up Alternative to The Throwaway Society

Are we ready to ditch the disposable economy?

Repair Matters