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The 'visible mending' trend of fixing clothes can be traced to a Japanese tradition

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Many environmentalists say the key to sustainable clothing is already in your closet, and that has brought new attention to mending torn and worn clothes instead of buying new ones.

REBECCA HARRISON: Mending has been around since people started wearing clothes. And I'm hoping that now we're just kind of getting back to our roots.

ELLIOTT: That's Rebecca Harrison, who believes so strongly in the idea that she opened a mending store in Pittsburgh three years ago. It's called Old Flame Mending. She and her staff say they can fix anything but a broken heart.

HARRISON: It just really celebrates the love that we have for our clothes, and it kind of shows that we don't always have to throw stuff away and buy new.

ELLIOTT: This trend has morphed into a phenomenon known as visible mending. Instead of repairing the clothes to look exactly like their newer, younger selves, it means emphasizing the fix. On one tote bag, for instance, Harrison's team stitched a horse print over a stain. Given toddler shorts with a gaping hole, they've covered it up with a golden heart. Another good thing about making the repair more obvious is that it takes less technical skill than hiding the stitching. Flora Collingswood-Norris, a knitwear designer, teaches visible mending workshops in Scotland.

FLORA COLLINGSWOOD-NORRIS: Visible mending can turn it into something really beautiful, and it's a sort of loud and proud I've repaired my garment and I think a way of enjoying the aging process of your clothes - you know, a bit like us evolve over time and sort of, you know, the look changes a little bit. I really enjoy that aspect of it, and it's just endlessly creative and fun.

ELLIOTT: Collingswood-Norris traces the history of visible mending to sashiko, a form of Japanese stitching that's been around for centuries. Practitioners of sashiko take clothing before it wears out, then stitch geometric patterns into the fabric to strengthen it. Imagine a pair of dark blue jeans with kaleidoscope patterns and white thread.

ATSUSHI FUTATSUYA: Yes, sashiko can be a form of visible mending, but it is more like invisible mending.

ELLIOTT: Atsushi Futatsuya, a sashiko artisan in Lewisburg, Pa., says that instead of making the repairs look like repairs, sashiko transforms the entire piece of clothing into something more beautiful than the original.

FUTATSUYA: Sashiko is the practice to add some life into the fabric to hide the fact that they had to stitch.

ELLIOTT: The practice originated in Japan's rural and seacoast regions, where cloth was hard to come by, especially for people who couldn't constantly buy new clothes.

FUTATSUYA: If they were wealthy enough to be able to replace the fabric, they wouldn't probably have to stitch.

ELLIOTT: On the Zoom screen, Futatsuya demonstrates how to create patterns as detailed as a spiderweb.

FUTATSUYA: The sashiko what we do is like this.

ELLIOTT: His fingers hold a tiny needle, and it dives in and out of the fabric like it's water.

FUTATSUYA: And we don't even look at this finger. I can talk to you while I do this. This one is the kind of - the sashiko we would like to pass down.

ELLIOTT: The fabric Futatsuya is bending is a deep indigo, white thread spiraling over the cloth. Mending, whether visible or invisible, is another example of how the answers to today's problems can sometimes be found in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.