The Second World War saw unprecedented government intervention into everyday life on the British home front, and clothes were rationed from 1 June 1941. Fabric was essential for war purposes, such as uniforms, and by reducing civilian clothing production, factory space and labour could be freed up for war production.
The government backed the ‘Make Do and Mend’ scheme which was introduced to encourage people to revive and repair worn-out clothes. Handmade and hand-repaired clothing became essential, and people got creative out of necessity, finding ways to make and care for clothes. I remember my mother talking of parachute silk being ‘acquired’ to make wedding dresses, blouses and underwear! Such a powerful symbol was a soldier’s parachute that one man even proposed to his future bride using his parachute instead of an engagement ring and she said ‘yes’!
Do any of you remember your mother turning collars? Who actually knows what this means? The collars of shirts were the only thing that wore out, so it was painstakingly unpicked, turned back to front, and restitched back into place.
Would anybody bother to do that these days? I doubt it. She used to mend sheets as well – sides to middles – and there would be no arguments about who was hogging the bed, as there was a great big seam you could feel dividing up the bed!
Another trick was expanding a waistband. The back seam of formal (men’s) trousers was opened a few inches and a triangle of material was stitched into the waistband and into the back seam – I would imagine the man would be in terror of taking his jacket off to reveal how much weight he had put on around the middle.
Darning socks stems from wartime rationing, and initially, darning wool was sold by the ‘skein’, i.e. loosely coiled and knotted, and was free of clothing coupons – until it was discovered that ladies were buying it and knitting whole garments from it, so it started to be sold in short lengths wound onto a card. The canny darner had a special wooden tool that looked like a mushroom to stretch the sock over to make the darning easier. Nowadays we just throw away the socks and buy more.
I am not sure if people are mending anymore. I know from experience that sometimes it is easier (and cheaper) to buy a replacement, whether it be a pair of socks or a dishwasher these days.
We now seem to be living in a disposable world, and if something breaks down or falls apart we just go out and buy a new one. Do you ever get your shoes mended these days? I swear shoes are designed to be thrown away anyway, and they probably go out of fashion first. Broken iron?
Cheaper to buy a new one… and so it goes on. Big items such as washing machines get replaced because getting someone out to look at it and getting parts (if you are lucky) costs more than it is worth.
The other aspect of mending is mindfulness. When you take the time to learn how to sew and repair your own clothes, you’re forced to slow down and are able to reflect on the task at hand, but it gives you this jolting realization while working with the clothes that someone actually made these. A person’s hands in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or wherever, touched every single part of our clothes, cutting the pattern out and running it through sewing machines. Before that, other hands dyed the fabric and processed the fibres. These hands belong to people who often don’t make a living wage, and who work in dangerous conditions just so we can get our clothes cheap.