Living sustainably has fired public imagination. Brands attract discerning customers with promises of local and sustainable products. Businesses are becoming increasingly mindful of their carbon footprint, though some just greenwash. As consumers, we pay a lot of attention to mindful purchasing, recycling and upcycling, which are worthy practices, but not enough to the subtle art of mending.
Mending simply refers to repairing an object. If we seek to live more meaningful and eco-friendly lives in an increasingly consumerist world, mending would need to be at the core of our living philosophy. Most of us have heard about Kintsugi, the Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery with gold seams, where the flaws in a broken piece end up being celebrated. Another technique, Sashiko, is used in Japan to repair fabric. These concepts elevate mending to an art.
Closer home, mending used to be, and in some cases still is, a useful and integral part of our lives, ingrained in a frugal lifestyle. However, the willingness and the ability to mend something rather than replace it is perhaps on the decline.
We are fortunate to have a bustling ecosystem of menders, from cobblers and tailors to upholsterers, often just on the corner of our streets. There is the ‘dhaar wala’, who comes on a bicycle to sharpen blunt knives, giving them a new lease of life. Ummed Khan, recalls the time when he carried the knife-sharpening machine on his back and walked from home to home. That was about three decades back and he served about thirty customers daily. Today, he cycles across South Mumbai but only gets 5-6 clients a day. While chatting with him, I learn that old scissors can also be sharpened and one needn’t buy a new pair every time. I forget to ask him about pizza cutters though.
Khan attributes the low demand for knife sharpening today to the fact that people don’t cook at home anymore. I’d believe it’s because people find it easier to order a new set of knives than go through the trouble of getting them sharpened.
“The problem today is that things are manufactured to be thrown. For many products from new-age brands, even if you want to repair them, it’s hard to do so,” says Arundhati Mhatre, a nature educator in a Steiner School in Mumbai. Having been involved in environmental activism, she underscores the fact that disposable income has led to a ‘use and throw’ mentality. “The culture of mending is fast disappearing in those with higher disposable incomes. However, those who still need to rein in their spending often embrace mending, simply because they have no other choice,” she says.
One of the themes that runs through the conversations with menders is the value of expertise and quality. “We work to earn respect,” says Parshottam Bhadricha, an upholsterer in Mumbai. “When we make a bed or a mattress, we are very particular about the quality of the materials we use, and the quality of the craftsmanship. We use teakwood and good quality springs. This ensures that not only is the piece long lasting, but when the time comes it can be mended and used again for years to come,” he says
“When something is of a good quality, people do want to come and mend it,” agrees Sunil Shinde, a cobbler. “However, I have seen that for cheaper things, people will prefer to spend a bit more and get something new. It does lead to a lot of wastage. When we mend a shoe or a bag, more often than not, you can continue to use it for a longer time.”
In a similar vein, design professionals and local tailors also strive to mend fabrics in order to prolong the life of the garment. “Darning, done usually by hand, is a mending technique to repair holes and tears in fabric. There are tailors who specialize in darning. They skilfully darn tears and ensure that the fabric blends in seamlessly,” says Amisha Kocha, a fashion designer, as we sit in her quaint Juhu-based boutique, named after her label Morpankh. She says reinforcements for delicate fabrics can do wonders to prolong the life of old sarees or dupattas.
What can we do to support and encourage a thriving mending culture? “Mending was a key part of our lives. Within the family, if we focus on mending things rather than replacing them, we will set an example for our children, who will carry this into the future. At the governmental level, there should be encouragement to provide service centres where skilled menders can thrive. The education system must empower children with mending skills such as sewing that will go a long way in being self-reliant,” says Mhatre.
But perhaps the most poignant suggestion she gives is simply, “Express gratitude to menders”. Mending really could fill that hole in our approach to sustainable living. While writing this piece, I realised that ‘menders’ are actually ‘craftspeople’, often carrying on the professions of their forefathers, inheriting equipment used by their fathers or grandfathers. They’re dedicated to their craft and have an intrinsic respect for expertise and finishing. All this stands true despite their dwindling prospects in a world where things are not made to last.
Dhanishta Shah is a freelance writer and book reviewer, currently pursuing further studies in psychology