A look at modern mending with Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald

There are times in life when you will meet somebody who is ‘get up and go’ personified. This is how best to describe author, creator and mender extraordinaire, Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald. The original founder of Bright Sparks Melbourne (electrical repair social enterprise), Erin has since gone on to teach, write and mend her way into the fabric of our (hopefully) more sustainable society.

Ever since Erin met with Sugru’s very own founder Jane, at a repair event back in 2019, we’ve been following her projects closer than ever. Not least the launch of her fantastic book Modern Mending, essential reading for anybody hoping to bring new life to old clothes in a genuinely fun and stylish way. A comprehensive guide to mending clothes that combines creativity and sustainability - what’s not to love? 

Here Jane picks back up with Erin to find out more.

Congratulations on the book - it’s gorgeous and truly inspiring. Who is the book written for in your view?

Thank you! I had two audiences in mind: absolute beginners (ages eight and up) who’ve never used a needle and thread and are quite possibly terrified about getting started, and people who’ve already tried mending but want to take it a bit further, with new techniques or inspiration, to make their mending look more beautiful and intentional. My hope is that no matter what skill level you’re at, you’ll get something out of it.

Is visible mending always something you’ve done and had fun with?

No. I’ve been sewing since I was nine and didn’t come across an intentional visible mending until this blog post in 2009, which is how I learned to darn. Seeing a fluorescent-orange mend really clicked with me and I got excited about the possibilities. That was a year before Tom of Holland started his Visible Mending Programme and the hashtag #visiblemending when the idea really started to take off.

I use invisible techniques if I’m mending my own stuff, and it’s technically and easily possible, or if there’s damage in areas where I don’t want to draw attention – crotches, armpits, boobs, etc. But I only do visible mending for others so I can have more fun, be creative and avoid fixing broken zippers (ha!). I choose visible mending for myself if invisible is technically too difficult or time-consuming, or I have a good visible concept in mind that I know will inspire others and (hopefully) attract attention in a good way. Visible mending is always more fun for me than invisible mending, but both are satisfying in different ways.

At Sugru, we believe repair is the unsung hero of creativity. How can we get people really on board with that notion?

I’ve learned two secrets: the first is that people get inspired when they see how beautiful and/or fun repairs can be. I’m quite crafty but usually won’t try a particular craft technique or activity (e.g. quilting) unless I see how it can be done beautifully, in a modern way that appeals to me. Aesthetics are important, and visible mending, Instagram and Pinterest have a big part to play in getting people on board.

The second thing I’ve learned is that people need to know a particular type of repair is possible before it will occur to them to try it (like the fluorescent-orange darn that inspired me). Most people aren’t brave enough to be the first one to try something; they need a little nudge in the right direction. Many years ago when I ran a series of pop-up repair events, I fixed a hole in the seat of someone’s jeans. I posted a picture on our blog and at the next session 13 people brought in jeans with similar holes to be fixed.

 And one of my most famous mending commissions, a striped shirt (below), came about because the owner saw another striped shirt I’d mended and realised hers could be fixed too. With Sugru, the game-changing ideas I’m always recommending to people are repairs to dishwasher cutlery baskets, laundry baskets and shoes. The more different types of creative examples we can show, the more people will be encouraged to try other types of repairs.

You seem pretty well travelled. Are there any cultures you feel celebrate and embrace repair more readily than in the UK, US or Australia?

Amsterdam has the most interesting modern repair culture or ecosystem that I know of right now – Repair Café began there, they have Heleen Klopper of Woolfiller and Made to Mend, and Humade repair patches are from there. It’s no coincidence that the Netherlands has a strong design culture too. I love traditional textile-mending practices from Japan and India, but I don’t know if they’re widely accepted now or if most people living in those regions would shun repairs these days. 

Some of the most beautiful mending has been borne of necessity – when people have or had less money and resources were scarce, so they valued their possessions more highly and took care to mend them. The more affluent any society becomes, and the cheaper it gets to buy clothing and other goods, the less motivation we have to look after our possessions. Clare Press has a great podcast interview with economist Richard Denniss, author of the book Curing Affluenza, that made me realise it’s human nature to be drawn to the shiny and new, and we’re working against strong forces to resist that impulse.

We’re really impressed with the work you achieved with Bright Sparks in Melbourne. Firstly, what was the most useful skill you picked up? And secondly, is there any one take out from the project that might energise us all to do the right thing with our electrical waste?

I don’t know if I’d call it a skill, but at Bright Sparks I feel like I took the red pill from the movie The Matrix, and I can’t unsee the massive volumes of electrical waste we produce anymore. Everyone who donated a sandwich press, for example, only saw their sandwich press – they didn’t see the dozens of other unwanted working sandwich presses on our shelves out the back, which we couldn’t sell because there was no demand. We received 72 functional DVD players and sold just one. I suppose you could say I gained the superpower to see the large-scale impact of our personal choices and how they affect us all.

The idea of Cupboard Procrastination Syndrome must resonate with everybody. Can you tell us more about that?

Cupboard Procrastination Syndrome happens when something breaks and you don’t know how to fix it or where to recycle it, but you feel guilty about throwing it away so you shove it in a cupboard until you figure out your next step. There are heaps of repair tutorials on the internet, but what if you don’t know what the problem is called, or the name of the part that’s broken? You can’t search for what you can’t name. At my local Repair Café, I spend a lot of time just pointing people in the right direction. This YouTube tutorial for a blanket stitch is one I’ve recommended a lot, for example (below). I’ve just created my own pretend prescription pad because if I write down the technique required or the local shop where people can buy the tool they need, they’re less likely to forget and their thing will more likely be mended. 

We read somewhere that your retirement dream is to run a deluxe toy hospital for stuffed toys. Tell us more!

I love toy repairs more than anything else – they are pure joy. A few years ago I read about this plush-toy hospital in Osaka. When I visited Japan in 2017, I tried to see it in person, but they were too busy to accept visitors. Around that time, I read that they had a three-year waiting list and had to stop taking new toy clients, which did not surprise me after my experience with Bright Sparks (with people driving more than two hours just to visit us). I just loved the toy hospital’s attention to detail and the way they made everything an adorable, fun experience, which is how it should be! (I put a lot of fun, slightly kooky details into my book and I’m so glad my editor didn’t take them out – she actually added more exclamation points, believe it or not.) I would love to do something similar one day.

Of all the projects in your book, which one would you say is the one that will get people hooked on modern mending?

Everyone seems to have a different favourite project from the book, which I love. But there are two case studies of mended work clothes – a wool blazer (below) and a button-up shirt – that demonstrate how visible mending can be understated and classy, too, not just for jeans and other casual clothes.

Lastly, which five tools are essential, in your view, to getting started?

  1. Tea!
    “Make a cup of tea” is the first step in all of my tutorials! I am a tea fanatic – it’s one of the reasons I make more sense in Australia than in the U.S., where I grew up. It’s a nice ritual when you start something new, helping you relax and get in the right frame of mind.

  2. Hand-sewing needles
    There are so many sizes and types that it can get overwhelming for beginners. I recommend getting a combination pack with a variety of different-sized needles, so you can be ready for duty no matter the mending job. You might be able to find an assortment of needles in a charity shop, among your friends and family, or in a Facebook swap group or buy-nothing group.

  3. Sewing thread
    All-purpose sewing thread is good, and the new recycled and organic-cotton varieties are even better. But a cheaper, more versatile option if you’re just starting out, is cotton embroidery floss. It’s inexpensive, widely available and comes in a huge range of colours. You can use one strand for hand sewing, all six strands for embroidery or darning, or any number of strands in between, depending on what you need to mend.

  4. A good pair of scissors
    Small, sharp scissors are my favourite – embroidery scissors or even nail scissors will work. I have a small pair with a protective cap that I keep in my travel kit (an old mint tin).

  5. Safety pins
    I learned the hard way why they’re called safety pins, after too many hand-mending disasters where my fingers bled after getting pricked with pins. Safety pins are also great for temporarily marking holes in clothing, especially in dark or woollen items, where the holes might be hard to find. If you mark all the holes before you begin mending, it can help you form a design and ensure you don’t miss any.