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A mending circle in Ithaca helps foster community through sewing

The Story House Mending Circle meets once a month in Ithaca
Aurora Berry
The Story House Mending Circle meets once a month in Ithaca.

For many people, a hole in a favorite sock or sweater is a simple inconvenience. For members of the Story House Mending Circle in Ithaca, it’s an opportunity to connect with others.

People from the community bring an item in need of mending: torn shirts, worn trousers, holey socks. Kathrin Achenbach, who runs mending circles across Ithaca, brings the supplies and, most importantly, her sewing knowledge to the meeting.

“People come with an item of clothing and get some help or know already where to start and then are able to provide help to others,” she said. “It's mending and community.”

Kathrin Achenbach showing off her mending bag
Aurora Berry
Kathrin Achenbach showing off her mending bag.

The event is hosted by the Story House Ithaca, a local community arts organization. The Story House Mending Circle pops up once a month at Ithaca’s Buffalo Street Books. There is no formal membership so anyone can drop by for a quick mend.

“Regardless if you have ever mended in your life or you're even connected to mending,” Achenbach said. “You come here and there are so many wonderful people to meet.”

Connections through craft

The mending circle is about tapping into a traditional sense of community, Achenbach said.

“I think the social aspect of being together and sharing stories, either about the garment or what is happening in their lives, is easier when you have something in your hands that you can work with.”

It’s a sense of community that goes back generations.

Zoe Van Nostrand is new to the mending circle. Her father taught her how to sew and he was taught by his mother.

Her family was thrilled to see the tradition continue.

“Pretty much all the elders on both sides of my family got so excited that one of the grandchildren wanted to sew,” she said. “I inherited the sewing trunks of four or five different grandmothers.”

Zoe Van Nostrand's "wandering seamstress" sewing kit
Aurora Berry
Zoe Van Nostrand's "wandering seamstress" sewing kit

Another mending circle attendee, Emilee Lindner, said her grandmother taught her how to sew.

“She's no longer here,” she said. “So I’m trying to keep the skill going and learn from others.”

Lindner brought her mother Lisa and her daughter Elly to this month’s meeting. Elly is just two years old so she’s playing with a ball of yarn instead of darning socks with her mom.

“It’s just kind of a testament to see we’re all here together today,” Lindner said.

Kathrine Achenbach’s own story with mending starts with family too.

“My grandmother had a textile store with all kinds of haberdashery. But also, amongst other things, there were things to mend,” she said.

Achenbach used to see mending as a solo activity. But after a trip to Mexico, that changed.

She recalled the moment she realized she wanted to bring community to her craft.

“There were like, maybe 10 or 12 elderly women sitting together on some stoops in Mexico. They were mending together and sharing stories and there was laughter and then that was quiet.”

Achenbach said she wanted that same connection.

“I thought, I want to be one of those people,” she said. “I want to be one of those people who sit together and do something and share stories.”

She wanted to create a sense of community that she felt was buried by the loneliness of modern life and the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think there's very few spaces where you can go and do something for free and meet people,” she said.

Mending with a mission

This modern mending circle exists in a world far different from their grandmothers’.

Taking the time to mend old clothes instead of buying new ones is a way to combat unethical labor practices and climate change, Achenbach said.

“There's tons of clothing that has been thrown out every year and there's so much overproduction.”

Emilee Linder said a rejection of throwaway culture is a big part of why she thinks it’s so important to bring her daughter to the mending circle.

“I like teaching her that our resources are limited on Earth,” she said. “And I don't want to show her that we can just throw things away when things get holes in them.”

Lindner hopes to teach her daughter the importance of mending
Aurora Berry
Lindner hopes to teach her daughter the importance of mending

Mending old clothes instead of replacing them created a closet full of items Achenbach feels connected to.

“It makes it unique and that also counteracts the mass production, right? You are wearing something that nobody else has because you have put some seam or something together for that item,” she said.

That’s the magic of mending, Achenbach said.

“You come in with something broken and you go home with something that's a little more whole again,” she said.

For groups like this one, the goal isn’t just to leave with a garment that’s repaired.

“That’s part of repairing the social fabric while also repairing something that you wear,” Achenbach said.