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Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Wartime Make Do and Mend and Today's Savvy, Frugal Consumer

film: Ministry of Information, Great Britain, c.1943

If you just want to watch a kitchy World War 2 government film on make do and mend, scroll down to the near bottom of this post.

You may be familiar with the term "fast fashion." Fast fashion is cheaply-produced clothing that replicates the look of high-end fashion, bringing it to the masses before the trend has passed. It's often produced by under-paid employees overseas. Because fast fashion is intended to be inexpensive knock-offs of higher end clothing, it is made cheaply -- mass-produced with poorer quality workmanship and lesser quality textiles. My daughter has remarked that her fast fashion purchases typically begin to show significant wear just about the time the trend is passing. Think of cheap knits that pill terribly after a few wearings or seams that are not sewn and reinforced well that burst open far too soon. Fast fashion makes executives rich, but doesn't have the longevity that many of us hope to find in our clothing.

Enter "slow fashion." Slow fashion came about in response to fast fashion. Slow fashion garments and ones that are made well by seamstresses and tailors who are compensated well for their craft. It's typically high quality, most often using natural fibers, and sometimes locally made. Slow fashion pieces are relatively timeless in style and costs more than fast fashion pieces. 

So what does slow fashion have in common with apparel from Great Britain circa 1940?

Fast fashion is a relatively recent development in retail clothing. What most folks owned when the war broke out was comparable in quality to a lot of today's slow fashion. People owned fewer clothing items, but what they did have was made well to begin with. 

When you spend more to get better quality, there's built-in motivation to keep that item in good repair for as long as possible. This was true in the 1940s just as most of us find today. Patching, darning, stitching a small hole closed, restitching seams and hems, and replacing buttons are all easy fixes and can be done with a needle and thread. When fabric does begin to show more wear, slow fashion pieces often have enough good portions left to remake the item into something fresh. Think linen slacks become dressy shorts. Wool midi skirt becomes a just above the knee pencil skirt. Husband's oxford shirt becomes my sleeveless tunic. A favorite cotton summer dress becomes a new apron. We call this up cycling today. During WW2, this was called "make do and mend." 

Clothing was one of several categories of items on ration during the war as fabrics were prioritized for military use. Very little allowance was given for new clothing, often just enough for a new coat or one outfit. Imagine if you didn't have very many clothing items to begin with, and those items were beginning to show wear and tear. Pests like textile moths chewed tiny holes in wool clothing. Regular wear tore holes at pressure or friction points, such as elbows. Women were encouraged to mend holes and add patches to the family's clothing. When even these repairs were no longer enough to make garments look presentable, the government came to the rescue with suggestions on how to recycle clothing items into something new.

For your entertainment, here's a link to a cute film put out by the government of Great Britain in the 1940s on the topic of make do and mend

I not only enjoy these films for their place in history, but I also like to think about how they can help the frugal minded among  us today.

A lot of what's for sale at the mall and discount department stores would easily qualify as fast fashion -- trendy, inexpensive, and not exactly top-notch quality. Superior quality clothing is out there. It just has a price tag commensurate with the quality. However, I have found good quality clothing at prices that I'm comfortable with in thrift stores, at estate sales, in consignment shops, and in my own closet (remnants both from my own long-ago period and a  couple of pieces that were my mother's, also long ago). For the most part, these are vintage garments, with vintage or retro styling. Just as in the 1940s film, a little imaginative remake can breathe new life into the garments. 

We often think we're being so clever to up-cycle our old clothes. But the truth is, folks have been doing just this probably since people stepped out of animal skins and into clothing of woven textiles. Good clothing is costly both in time to make and money for materials. It makes very good frugal sense to get as much wear out of our clothes as we can.

I hope you enjoy the film!


  1. I'll watch the film later. My husband presented me with a pair of shorts that needed repair. They are brown camouflage knee length with pockets on the lower front thigh. This is like a denim or carhartt type fabric. He wears them to work every day but they are wearing out. This pair is ripping at the hemline, and on the upper front thigh. It's not simply a zigzag to hold the rip together but it needs reinforcing. There isn't enough strong fabric to hold the patch in place either but with a big patch and some not so good sewing I made it presentable. We've been looking all summer (new and thrift stores) for shorts to replace these but have had little success. They won't last for next year but he really needs some new shorts.


    1. Hi Alice,
      Good work on continuing to repair your husband's shorts. Good clothing are definitely worth the effort to repair, as you already know. I hope you can find a replacement before next year.

  2. I hope to watch the film later, maybe while I have lunch. But in the meantime, this is a topic of importance to me. Personally, I found merino wool clothing through backpacking, where it's well-known to be naturally anti-microbial and odor-resistant. But SO comfortable and temperature-regulating as well. This led me into the rabbit hole of slow fashion. The bulk of my wardrobe is now merino--if this sounds crazy, know that I don't have a huge wardrobe by most folks' standards, but several quality pieces. The bonus is that I love my clothing and am comfortable in it. Recently, I took part in a 7x7 challenge--the premise was to choose 7 items of clothing and wear only those for a week. Super easy! I chose two wool dresses, 3 wool tops, a wool/cotton blend short (these have a texture like linen), and my synthetic Purple Rain Adventure Skirt (which I usually wear over wool boxer briefs in warm weather or leggings in
    cold weather). This was MORE than sufficient for my week, and, when I had an unexpected chance to backpack towards the end of the week, worked for that as well (the skirt is what I often wear for that anyway).

    Anyhow, just bought some gray thread to match a wool dress I purchased used for a deeply discounted price because of a tiny hole. I find good deals like that online now that I know what I like. And I absolutely love the sustainability of wool.

    Cat (because google isn't letting me sign in on here this morning)

    1. Just adding that I did later watch the (much shorter than expected) video. Cute in an old-fashioned way that you'd expect for the time. I wonder how it was received in that time period? Sadly, seems like not a lot of folks do mending these days, let alone sewing.

    2. Hi Cat,
      You added an important element to the conversation -- you may not have a huge wardrobe, but the pieces you have, you love. I've been working on putting together a capsule wardrobe of only pieces that I really love (which entails comfort as well as appearance). That's good to know that merino wool is temperature regulating. I had only thought of wool as a winter textile.

      Great job on seeing the potential of your new dress, needing only a small repair.

      Part of the problem with the loss of clothing repair skills is that fast fashion is relatively inexpensive. I think a lot of folks figure it's a waste of their time to repair clothes, when they can just buy a replacement. Sad.

    3. Something else I love about merino is the fact that that natural odor-fighting property allows it to be worn several times before washing. And often, if I get a spot of something on it, I can simply rub in a little blue Dawn, rinse that area, hang it up or lay it out, and it's fine to wear again a few hours later. So I feel it's saving on laundry as well. I had my husband try wool for his new undershirts (made sense to start there as he wears a button up with undershirt each day for work) and he's hooked. But he wears one, hangs it to air, then wears it again a day or two later, so he only has the three merino undershirts these days. Win-win!

    4. I'm going to start searching for a basic merino wool item and give it a try. Thank you for all of the info, Cat.

  3. I so love and appreciate this post. Thank you! I love to make do, repair, and mend. I bought a pair of Earth Origin shoes recently for $3.50 and spent almost $10 for shoe glue and buttons to fix it. I look forward to wearing it in Fall.

    1. Hi Farhana,
      Great job on repairing your "new" shoes! You gave life to a pair of shoes that might have otherwise gone to a landfill for need of repair. May this pair last you a long time and add comfort to your day.

  4. My closet is in a very sad state of affairs and desperately needs attention. I haven't bought any pieces of clothing in years, vowing to "make do and mend" . Clothing never has been important to me. Especially in Hawaii, no one seems to care what anyone wears, especially as an older person. Perhaps the logic is it is time to use up what you already have and fashion is for the young. As I say this, I recall how my mother always cared what she wore and being her dressmaker sewed all her dresses (she never bought ready made, not once in her life). Ive kept all of her dresses after she passed, and recently deconstructed it to make a Kawandi technique patchwork memory blanket for my children to remember her. I have lots of fabric to make many more blankets. It's silly but I'm stuck on the idea of making blankets as my legacy, dated, with my initials. I hope one day future generations will know me by the blankets I've made.

    Have a wonderful day,

    1. Hi Laura,
      I always learn something interesting from your comments! This time it's about Kawandi quilting technique. I think your memory blanket made from pieces from your mother's dresses sounds like such a lovely thing to pass down to grandchildren. My husband's grandmother was a quilter all of her life, and he has a quilt she made. Quilting/blanket making was the art of women for centuries. Before women would be taken seriously as painters and sculptors, women artistically designed and made quilts/blankets. Initially and dating your blankets will make them all the more special. I hope future generations have the good sense to realize what pieces of art your blankets are.
      I would love to see a picture of the Kawandi blanket you've made or are in process of making. Are you doing the top-stitching by hand?
      You inspire me to tap into my creative side, Laura.
      Have a wonderful rest of your evening.

    2. Sure, I'll send you a picture tomorrow morning. Kawandi is done entirely by hand, no machine stitching. It was quite an undertaking, being my first try and using smallish pieces from the sleeves. I also threw in my husband's old aloha shirts, so it was a crazy mishmash. Because it is not easy to use Hawaiian prints in patchwork design, Kawandi was the answer where fitting pieces like a puzzle seemed more important to the process than overall design. Because the process was slow and laborious, I questioned whether it was worth continuing, especially since it was jarring like a print salad. But being a memory blanket, I think it'll be fine. I want to make another Kawandi using larger pieces and arranging it more aesthetically if possible.


    3. Thank you, Laura. I look forward to seeing it!


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