Why we should embrace make-do and mend

09th December 2021
Rae Ritchie

“Make-do and mend” is up there with “Keep calm and carry on” as a well-known motto we associate with World War Two. Yet while the government never actually used the distinct red and white design of the latter during the conflict, the phrase “make-do and mend” did feature on posters and other materials produced by the Board of Trade in the 1940s. Eighty years later, it is taking on new significance as we face up to the climate emergency.


Where the make-do and mend ethos originated

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, the British government’s biggest priority was ensuring that the needs of the military campaign were met. This required diverting resources, including production facilities, labour and raw materials, from other areas – which in turn meant ministers and civil servants had to become involved in the economy and everyday life as never before.

Major measures introduced included clothes rationing in June 1941. Every individual received a certain number of coupons to use on buying clothes, but to supplement this limited allowance, people had to repair existing garments as well as reuse and recycle what they already owned. The concept of “make-do and mend” was born.

In autumn 1942, the government’s Board of Trade gave official support to a “Make-Do and Mend” scheme featuring the rather terrifying Mrs Sew-and-Sew, an animated doll who provided sewing tips. Other posters from the series include advice on how to care for clothes, such as a guide to avoiding moth damage, and encouragement to make use of what was in your wardrobe.

Where today we largely regard activities such as sewing and knitting as hobbies, even a form of mindfulness, “make-do and mend” in the 1940s was a civic duty and the actions of those on the Home Front (typically women) to conserve resources made a vital contribution to the war effort and, later, post-war reconstruction.

“Make-do and mend” materials recognised this, albeit in a manner that sounds patronising to a modern audience. A “Darning Do’s and Don’ts” leaflet in the Imperial War Museum archives, for instance, tells readers that “a neat darn is a real badge of honour.”


What does make-do and mend mean today?

We got a glimpse of how crafting skills can contribute to the wider social good during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Google Trends data, for example, reveals that UK searches for “how to sew scrubs” surged in April 2020 as the public rallied to support NHS workers by providing extra protective clothing. A month later, there was a similar increase in searches for “how to sew face masks”.

A more general interest in sewing flourished around the same time, with “how to sew” searches rising two-fold compared to earlier in the year. Lockdown and furlough meant some people suddenly had more time to pursue such activities, but there were other cultural influences at play too – notably television.

Programmes promoting the joy, creativity and satisfaction that “make-and mend” style handicrafts can generate are proving popular. Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau, which follows British couple Dick Strawbridge and Angel Adoree as they restore an abandoned French house, is now on its eighth series, while the BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee has clocked up seven.


Make-do and mend: a slogan for sustainability

The winner of The Great British Sewing Bee in 2020 was Clare Bradley, a physician with a distinct 1940s aesthetic. Bradley has spent the last four years channelling the ethos of “make-do and mend” by dressing entirely in line with the rationing scheme. She gives herself an annual coupon allowance for purchasing clothes, fabric and wool then remakes and refashions to create the rest: a shawl collar blouse from a men’s shirt, a petticoat from old sheets, a green striped t-shirt from an unloved top.

Crucially, however, Bradley is not motivated by a desire to return to the past. On the contrary, she is concerned for the future: “Challenging myself to follow UK 1941 clothes rationing for environmental reasons,” she tells her 26,000 plus followers on Instagram. Bradley’s approach contains valuable lessons we can all learn from.

Current clothing consumption levels are damaging the planet, with an oft-quoted statistic claiming fashion is the world’s most polluting industry after oil and gas. One simple way to change this is by buying less and keeping what we own for longer – and adopting the “make-do and mend” principles of repairing and reusing our clothes helps with that.


How to do the mend part

Inspired to embrace “make do and mend” but don’t know where to start? A basic sewing kit contains “an unpicker, a small set of needles, cream, black and a coloured thread,” says Claire Couchman, tailor and founder of Couchman:Bespoke atelier. “Other essentials are small scissors known as snips, fabric scissors and either an embroidery hoop or a large-ended jar and an elastic band for repairing holes.”

If you’re new to sewing, Couchman has the following advice: “Firstly, don’t feel daunted by the task. Decide if you want to patch over or stitch up, make a bold statement or have the repair look invisible. This will determine what thread to use.”

For sewers who want to improve their skills and take “make-do and mend” to the next level, she encourages practising what you want to master. “Practice makes perfect. When I teach people to sew, I start them off by going over a straight stitch then curved stitches until they are sewing nice lines. Then we move on to zips and such. If there is anything you are unsure about, just keep practicing. Have fun with it and be proud of the history you have with your clothing.”

This year at Revival, the Revive and Thrive Village will be packed to the rafters with artisans, experts and influencers sharing their wisdom around both thrifting and how to then repair, repurpose and restyle your haul. Learn how to transform old clothes into new looks, scrap metal into works of art and unloved furniture into stylish statement pieces. Book your tickets now to join the second-hand revolution.

Photography by Toby Adamson.

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