My son is the only child in his first-grade class whose pants have hand-stitched patches on the knees — and by this late in the school year, we are talking about every single pair of pants. I’m sure other parents wonder why I bother. There’s not a simple answer.
I know that I could just throw out the ripped pants and go buy a new pair at Target for $7. I also know that the hours it takes me to cut, pin, and stitch a patch onto the holes works out to me making less than minimum wage for my efforts. But I don’t mend his pants to save money (although I do save a little). Sustainability is at the heart of why I bother, but it’s not just to reduce waste (a few pairs of pants aren’t going to make or break the climate crisis!).
Patching my son’s clothes (and my own) is part of my larger belief in the value of repair. Every year, Americans throw away 1,789 lbs. per person — that’s a lot of waste! — and much of it because they didn’t know how or won’t bother to fix it. This throwaway lifestyle is depleting our planet’s resources and overwhelming landfills. I patch my kid’s clothing to teach him that our family is doing our best to reduce those numbers. It’s a little thing, but giving my kid’s pants a few more months of life is a way of showing I care.
I’m also trying to teach my son a new way of looking at the world. I read an article in which a sustainable landscape architect talked about wanting to “train young eyes to a new accepted standard for beauty,” and I’ve taken it to heart. I want my son to see a mended object and think, “Hey, that it is cool.” I want him to appreciate this type of handiwork — consider it art, even! My style of mending is not camouflaged; rather, it is visible mending that contrasts the original garment and highlights the repair.
When it’s time to patch my son’s pants, I let him choose the patch fabric and thread (he is particularly fond of bright yellow and orange stitching). I also proudly wear my own mended pants. As a result, my son is proud of his patches, but I know there will come a day when some other child will make fun of his repaired clothes, and I’m ready to talk about it when they do. And when he’s a little older, I hope to teach him the skills to repair his clothes himself!
I’ve learned that my mending is also an invitation to conversation with others. If another parent sees my son’s patched clothes at the playground, occasionally they'll ask me about it, and I get a chance to tell them some of what I’ve told you here. (One mom even asked me where I bought “those cute patched pants”(!) and I was delighted to say I’d stitched them myself.) I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover how many other parents are striving for a more low-waste life — and I get an extra thrill when someone reports back that they’ve stitched up their child’s clothes after we talked.
So the next time you see a child with a lovingly-mended garment, don’t pity the kid for his less-than-pristine wardrobe: Compliment him on his cool patch and seek out the handy parent who repaired it. I bet you’ll find a lot to talk about.
Laura Fenton is the author of The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. A small space and sustainable living expert, she lives with her husband and their son in Jackson Heights, Queens, in New York City. You can find her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.