Make do and mend

Buy less, learn how to darn, and save the environment

Although we are all pressed quite heavily to be green, and to recycle and not breathe out too much, this admirable agenda does not seem to extend to fashion. We are encouraged to buy new clothes regularly, to prune our wardrobes and keep up with the latest best buy. In fact, we reserve no small admiration for those able to do so. Whatever happened to making do and mending? What happened to darning? But who wears clothes long enough to need to know how to mend them? Losing a button on a half-worn shirt is as good a reason as any to buy a new one. (And to think that shirt collars used to be detachable so you could replace just that bit, as it wore out first.)

This may be why the haberdashery department is very much the Lesser Spotted these days. In central London three remain: at John Lewis, its brother store Peter Jones, and Liberty. Otherwise, for any sort of choice in petersham ribbon, or needle size, you need to search on the internet.

When my grandfather died, aged 89 - by throwing himself out of the window, the silly sausage (he had survived the First World War) - I was asked what physical thing I wanted to keep to remember him by. I had a choice of, among other things, his pack of cards, thick with having been shuffled over the past 20 years (he was a scopa champion, had never once been beaten, and, despite being illiterate, he would remember every hand you'd played). Or his walking stick, which he used to emphasise a point, as if his 6ft 4in frame and low, bird-scattering voice wasn't enough. Or I could have one of his handkerchiefs, which I hesitated over.

In the end I chose his waistcoat, because not only had he worn it while goatherding but, if you looked inside, you would see that over the years my grandmother had darned it extensively. So, in one garment, I had a memory of him and also of my grandmother's handicraft: more precious to me than any diamonds she didn't have. I wore it all through my adolescence and early twenties, flipping the waistcoat open to look at my grandmother's stitches - big, hurried, glorious, the work of a woman with ten children and bread to bake - when the world felt too big.

We are encouraged to recycle by giving old clothes to charity, but this doesn't actually stop clothes being made - 25 per cent of all pesticide use is due to cotton production. But a darned sock seems to attract scorn, not admiration.

I am actually one of the bad offenders. I think I don't have time to mend things, until I consider the time needed to go shopping for new ones. I may have to start a trend for sitting in of an evening with a threaded needle, poised in front of Coronation Street (Roy Cropper for prime minister!), to make good a battle-worn T-shirt.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics