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‘Visible mending movement’ takes Burwell Repair Cafe to next level of recycling chic

Mandeville Hall was today’s venue for Burwell Repair Cafe, the community group run by volunteers who donate their time and skills for free to fix items that might otherwise be thrown away.

The motivation for the initiative is partly recycling and partly common sense of the make do and mend’ variety, a culture which has caught the imagination of a new generation even though it began in the 1940s, when rationing meant that people were invited (not least by the government) to repair, reuse and reimagine their existing clothes as part of the war effort. Today’s repair cafes began in 2009 in Amsterdam and there’s now 30 countries involved. By participating you’re helping reduce waste, sharing skills, and building a sense of community.

Horologist Jon Malins at Burwell Repair Cafe. Picture: Mike Scialom
Horologist Jon Malins at Burwell Repair Cafe. Picture: Mike Scialom

You book in a week or so in advance. There’s usually walk-in slots available, but it’s not guaranteed. The last repair cafe I went to was in Barnwell in February: it was very crowded and I was lucky to get a slot. That time I took in a clock for repair: this time it was shirts. I’d booked in for 3.30pm but Mally and Lucy kindly agreed to see me when I showed up at 2.45pm, because there’d been a no-show.

So I sat down to talk through the repairs I was requesting. The important thing to recognise, even tacitly, is that you have been a fully paid-up participant of a disposable consumer culture but you’ve seen the error of your ways and now want to make things last a bit longer. In my case, I have to explain why I’m such a sewing fiasco I can’t even thread a needle.

I put my case to Mally, who’s sewing along with Lucy this afternoon. Mally isn’t particularly impressed with my explanation (poor eyesight).

“You can buy pre-threaded needles as part of sewing kits,” she said. “Or there’s needle threaders you can buy.”

She looks at me quizzically.

“Yes but then you have to thread the needle threader and that’s what I’m not very good at,” I say, but I’ve taken the point on board, and that’s one of the things you’re expected to do at a repair cafe - learn how to do these sorts of repairs for yourself where possible.

Mally then asks me how many buttons I brought along. None was the answer. So far I was nul points.

“You see,” she explained, “I come along here and give my time and skills for free, but then I’m supposed to have the buttons to give you as well?”

I’m really squirming now. I offer to pay for the buttons.

“You can make a donation on your way out,” says Mally helpfully.

The only good thing about my case was that out of five shirts three didn’t have any buttons missing, some were just very loose. One had buttons which could be switched around, and only one needed buttons, and they were the more common pearl buttons which Mally had a supply of.

Mally started on the pile of shirts but soon stopped.

“It looks as though someone has sewn some buttons back on this one - the wrong way round?” She looked quizzically at me again.

“Do I get brownie points for trying?” I stuttered.

As soon as things settled down I got to the other reason I was there: to find out how they got involved.

Mally, left, and Lucy at Burwell Repair Cafe
Mally, left, and Lucy at Burwell Repair Cafe

First up, Lucy, on the right in the picture.

“I lost my job in Covid, I was a sales and marketing manager for a hotel,” she says. “So I started an Etsy account.

“I was making face masks during Covid, which I donated to the NHS.”

And the sewing?

“I’d done some sewing at school and with my grandma,” Lucy replies. “I bought a sewing machine on the second day of my redundancy then I didn’t open it because I was scared, then I opened it and… set sail.

“I make bags and cushions, and do lots of alterations, for Ottomans, curtains, blinds, and commissions.”

Lucy recently got a job at the US Lakenheath air base so “I don’t do as much” but this was her first repair cafe, so big respect to her.

I ask Mally about her name, which I’d not heard before.

“It’s been my name for more than 35 years,” she says. “Mary is my middle name. I do historical reenactments from medieval and Tudor times and the most popular names were Mary or Catherine then.”

She continues: “It’s a made-up name which I found on a list of acceptable Tudor names.”

So you’re a Hilary Mantel fan then?

“Yes, in fact I did some of the props for Wolf Hall.

“It was set in Anne Boleyn’s court, in a scene where the women were sitting there sewing, and I had a friend who was the assistant costume director and I did some bits for that.”

Mally “makes costumes - textiles is my thing”. It’s her second repair cafe. One of my Indian-style shirts need a button sewn back on. The button’s there, but what colour did I want? There were five or six colours of thread in front of me. One was yellow - for a dark blue shirt. Wouldn’t that stand out?

“It would, but that’s the idea,” replies Mally. “It’s part of the visible mending movement, so when an item has been darned or patched you let it show. It emphasises the recycling idea and makes the item look original too.”

Meanwhile over at the clock repair stand, amateur horologist Jon Malins is busy as always. He’s made progress since I met him at the Barnwell repair cafe in February.

“I’ve joined the British Horological Institute,” he says cheerfully. I congratulate him and make my way over to the tea-and-cakes area.

“We had another great repair cafe with plenty of items mended from hoovers to conservatory furniture to clothes,” said Burwell resident Alex Spencer, who does the press for Burwell Repair Cafe. “And it was a good turn-out, even on the hottest day of the year so far.

“Afterwards we will tally up all the carbon that has been saved by fixing items that would have gone in the bin and we will put the total on our website.”

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