Earth Day, One Stitch At a Time

 Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!

For many years, after I had finished reading a magazine, I took the used issue to the office and shared it in our small lunchroom. It seemed such a waste to merely throw each magazine out, even into recycling bins.  Later, pre-pandemic but retired and no longer having the office as a sharing option, I’d offered my used issues to an acquaintance to take to the reception area at her job.  She dropped by my home to pick them up.

She arrived to find me surrounded by billowing yards of cloth, needles, thread and scissors. “What are you making?” she asked curiously.

I explained that I was not making, but mending. A fitted bedsheet, still quite new, had ripped at one corner because the elastic was too tight. So I was fitting in a piece of extra elastic. Then I would use a bit of cloth from an old, worn pillowcase to repair the shredded seam. If I completed the work carefully, the finished product would probably last at least another two, perhaps three years.

She shook her head in disbelief. “I’d just have thrown it away,” she commented.

I wasn’t really surprised. Thirty-some years younger than I, this woman had grown up paying lip service to and even a few concrete actions toward recycling. But the concept of genuinely reducing waste by thriftily repairing had never really been requisite in her life.

I was raised in a different mindset. My parents, both born at the start of the Great Depression, had lived with the necessity of thrift throughout their earliest years. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!” was their mantra. I recall watching my mother darn socks—a skill that I was never able to master—or repair a purse by carefully using an awl to punch new holes before restitching the worn leather. In those long ago days, the buttons of my father’s office shirts were made from slivers of mother-of-pearl; when the shirts became worn, Mom conscientiously cut the buttons from the cloth before reducing the rest of the shirt into cleaning rags.  She never even considered wasting paper towels for housecleaning.  (I still have, by the way, some of those delicate mother-of-pearl buttons.)

My father was no slouch when it came to making do, either. Dad washed and waxed his cars himself (how much less water and energy consumed than at a car wash?) and mowed his own lawn, raked his own leaves (a simple power mower as opposed to large equipment; a rake, not a leaf blower) until he was well into his 80s.

Despite my lack of skill at darning and my habit of lavishing paper towels on housekeeping chores, something of my parents’ careful economy must have rubbed off on me; hence, the mended bedsheet, as well as the seams of various throw pillows and the fringe of the entryway rug, all of which I carefully repaired, stitching them back together. Those buttons from my mother’s old button-box are still often the subject of a search when a replacement is needed for an item of clothing; there is no need to buy new ones. In fact, I once passed over the purchase of a warm, high-quality winter coat in favor of another, just as fine but much more reasonably priced due, I felt certain, to its very cheap, ugly plastic buttons. I took the ugly-button coat home, clipped off the hideous fasteners, and stitched on a lovely metal set which I recycled from the old button box. There was no need to buy new buttons, and the plastic uglies went themselves into the button box.

But returning to the event of the mended sheet, the real question was, to my mind, the fact of paying lip service to the whole process of “recycle/reduce/reuse”. I have, I must admit, been known to (guiltily) toss out a plastic water bottle when I could not find a recycling bin handy. But now I began looking at the concept of recycling from a larger perspective, and I realized that my inherited thrift was, in fact, the very definition of genuine recycling. Now I wondered to myself exactly how much water was involved in growing the cotton blended into that sheet set—how much gasoline powered the combine that harvested that product—how much energy was used as the cloth was woven and then sewn into sheets using thread that had also been produced by a mechanical process—everything involved in the packaging and shipping that had finally resulted in the (defective) product that I plucked from a shop shelf. Then I considered not just the waste of money, had I simply thrown away the ripped sheet rather than going to the effort of repairing it, but the real waste—the waste of all that damage sustained by Mother Earth in producing a simple set of sheets for my bed. Sheets that I would not even have purchased had not the old ones been worn past repair and past using.

I recalled the young woman’s reactions when, first, I asked her if she wanted to reuse my finished magazines, so that they would not be wasted by being read merely once; and, second, at my effort to mend the spoiled sheet. She’d been almost taken aback by the first; flabbergasted by the second. Yet both actions were those of reusing and reducing waste.

The generations since the Industrial Revolution are often accused of having damaged the Earth nearly beyond repair. Perhaps it is not entirely our fault, after all.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Second Hand Rose”, which you can find in the Archives, posted July 1, 2020.