Wabi-Sabi, Mending, and a Slow Fashion Philosophy

Lately I've been seeing more and more new denim that is already distressed and noticing an increase in the interest of mending. But not just learning how to mend but also faux mending or new jeans that look mended straight off the rack. It's forcing me to dig deeper in my mending work and to examine my motivations and influences. Wabi-sabi has been a big influence on my fast fashion fast, Make Thrift Mend, and specifically on my mending. Embracing imperfection and finding the beauty in natural wear and tear has helped to shift my mindset away from the fashion world's ever-changing trends to a more personal and meaningful wardrobe.

I've written before about Leonard Koren's book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers but I just read his follow-up book Wabi-Sabi Further Thoughts. In the second book he writes about the digital age and concepts surrounding design and digital mediums as it relates to wabi-sabi. But he also writes about replication. That's what interests me most. Can slow fashion and visible mending be replicated by fast fashion manufacturers? Can it be reduced to a fashion trend? Or is it really the beginning of a new way of considering the ethical and environmental impact of the fashion industry and shifting our habits towards slow fashion?

Koren writes, "Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete; a beauty of things modest and humble; a beauty of things unconventional...". This is the language I keep in the forefront of my thinking when I'm mending. I'm looking to create something that is beautiful or pleasing but not pretty and certainly not perfect. He goes on to write, "Material qualities (of wabi-sabi): the suggestion of natural process; irregular; intimate; unpretentious; earthy; murky; simple." I'd wager that most folks interested in visible mending find some resonance with this list of adjectives. We feel drawn to these descriptions. We want to embody this aesthetic on some level--maybe on many levels--but certainly in our worn clothing. Or in our mending. Or both.

I keep thinking about Sashiko and Boro and how it's intrinsically tied to the time, place, politics, and people that created these beautiful, unique garments. How Sashiko started as a utilitarian stitch to mend and fix garments and then through time, place, politics, and people it evolved into a decorative art form more like embroidery. My Sashiko Mending is a blending of the two and yet it's also a bastardization-- I hesitate to use the word "Sashiko" in my mending workshops yet it also deserves recognition as my inspiration but I admit that I don't follow the strict rules about knots, stitch length, pivots, designs, etc found in modern Sashiko. It is a precise and beautiful art form and I don't claim to have mastery.

Two years ago I found Sashiko through my yearlong fashion fast, Make Thrift Mend. I had a practical problem that needed solving: My torn jeans needed mending and I couldn't buy a new pair because of my self-imposed moratorium on purchasing new clothing. My project is/ was an act of resistance and an ongoing art project fusing sustainable fashion and my studio work with social practice. Of course, how this relates to the Japanese forms of Boro and Sashiko deserves more exploration but let me get back to my thoughts on replication.

Currently, Sashiko is everywhere. Mending is fashionable. Hard to believe, but I've seen Boro inspired designs on the recent fashion runway. This shift has happened quickly even in the last two years since I first started my project. In August 2013 I could only find a handful of mending resources and many of them were outdated. Sharing mending skills was one of my primary goals in starting my fashion fast so I'm very excited folks are interested in mending--I want to share this passionate work and I want to help people learn the skills to mend their favorite garments.

But seeing factory distressed denim and faux Sashiko mending on factory made clothing is making me cringe. Yes, maybe it's fashionable. And maybe that's okay. But the point of slow fashion is to slow down our buying habits not to jump on the next fashion trend and purchase a certain aesthetic straight off the runway. So the point is not to replicate handmade stitches through a factory made garment but to embrace the natural wear and tear and take the time to mend. But wabi-sabi makes this even more interesting: Can we replicate a philosophy or an essence anyway?

In Wabi-Sabi Further Thoughts author, Koren, touches on the idea of replication. He writes about the rise in the trend of a wabi-sabi aesthetic. Or for brevity's sake and to reduce a very complicated aesthetic philosophy into a bite-sized phrase let's call it "that worn look". (Of course, wabi-sabi is much more complicated than "that worn look" but I want to use a bite-sized phrase that we can all understand regardless of our familiarity with wabi-sabi. If you're a wabi-sabi scholar, just let me explain.) I think about replication frequently in my Sashiko Mending. As the rise in distressed denim seems to be everywhere right now and every time I see a pair of new jeans that are already distressed I cringe. Why do I cringe?

I cringe because slow fashion is the opposite of new ripped jeans. Slow fashion would advocate to buy quality jeans new and then make time to mend those quality jeans once they start to fray. As Vivienne Westwood famously said, "Buy less, buy better". No matter how high quality the jeans are to begin with they will inevitably fray if they are worn with any consistency. After all, they are made of cotton and they are ultimately going to breakdown and even biodegrade, if we are lucky. They will not last forever but through mending we can extend their usefulness for much longer than if we don't mend at all. In buying secondhand jeans I even employ this thinking--I buy better quality used jeans that are still affordable but better quality and destined to last longer.

But I had to take a moment to really try to understand why someone would be drawn to distressed jeans straight off the rack. Why buy jeans that are already distressed? It's for "that worn look" right? Back to wabi-sabi. But I think this actually touches back to Koren's idea of replication. We can't fabricate wabi-sabi and we can't reduce it to one bite-sized notion or "that worn look" either. If we could replicate it, then it's just a look. Just a trend. Just something that's been replicated to look like the way something else makes us feel and wabi-sabi is more complicated. Perhaps, the essence of what we're after can't actually be purchased.

Buyers want to purchase "that worn look" because maybe it also indicates comfort, casualness, maybe edginess, counterculture, or maybe even authenticity or an idea that the wearer has had these distressed jeans for many fashion cycles, they hold faux memories, they hold faux meaning, and the appearance of time or the result of time wearing away the outer fibers of our clothing suggests legacy in some way. Or maybe they want to buy faux mended jeans for that handmade look. I would argue "that worn look" is usually inspired by wabi-sabi. What the buyer wants is the essence of wabi-sabi that simply cannot be purchased or replicated. Even if the jeans can be purchased to look like wabi-sabi they somehow miss the essence or experience of decay.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term that has been detached from its cultural context and reapplied as an aesthetic term that can be explored by several of the adjectives Koren uses: Imperfect, impermanent, incomplete, modest, humble, unconventional, irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, murky, simple. Beautiful descriptions, of course. But to achieve wabi-sabi perhaps we should imagine we have to use all of those words in one object, not just pick and choose. And maybe we can't achieve wabi-sabi anyway because of our time, place, politics, and people. But we can be inspired by it, of course.

I think it'd be too trite if we didn't acknowledge wabi-sabi's meaning is much deeper than the list of adjectives or certainly than my own reductive "that worn look". Though I've only been studying wabi-sabi for a few years I shudder at the thought of it being reduced to simply superficial terms. It's also a philosophy. Koren writes, "I also asserted that wabi-sabi was one of the defining aesthetic sensibilities of Japanese civilization". Obviously, this needs more exploration than my singular blog post but again we should not divorce language from the time, place, politics, and people where it evolved.

Koren writes, "If we adopt the Japanese linguistic custom to describe how wabi-sabi comes to be, it would be more accurate to simply say that wabi-sabi 'occurs'...". Ah ha! I think this gets to the heart of the matter. New denim that is distressed in a factory did not "occur". It was fabricated to look like it occurred. On some level, then, this did not "occur" at all. It was contrived. Forced. Manipulated. Designed. And perhaps this is the depth we are looking for in adopting slow fashion as a mindset, as a lifestyle, as a philosophy and not just as an aesthetic. Particularly in mending as we must respond to the unique tear, rip, fray, or decay at hand so in some ways it more naturally lends itself to wabi-sabi. Tears occur. They happen. Decay is inevitable but can be staved off with mending.

I'm not going to pretend that I can fully embody the depth of the philosophy of wabi-sabi as an American artist in Oakland, CA in 2015 working on a personal art project. Or that I can simply apply it to my visible mending and claim ownership because I cannot. But I bring it up here because it's been very influential on my work and more so in my approach to visible mending and making my own clothing. More so, it helps me better understand why faux mending and distressed denim make me cringe. Because slow fashion isn't just an aesthetic. It's actually a mindset. Though I still maintain that language cannot be divorced from the time, place, politics, and people where it evolved, wabi-sabi is key to my mending.

My mending isn't just meant to be fashionable. It's meant to reference my hiatus from fast fashion and a shift in mindset, wardrobe, and fashion consumption that grew from my work and former study as an environmentalist. It's also meant to advocate for slow fashion. Make Thrift Mend started as a personal protest to the mistreatment of people and the planet. It was intended to create a dramatic shift in my habits--which I already considered "mostly environmentally friendly"--to stop buying new clothing altogether and to focus on making, mending, and buying used. It's also meant to share this work with a larger community.

But this trend in distressed denim and faux mended garments (or garments that look "embellished with mending" right off the rack) makes me cringe. For me, it's missing the point. The point is not to buy new clothing that looks worn. Or to simply wear garments that appear mended or loved. The point is to be able to repair our clothing when it tears so that we might wear it for longer. So that we might step off the fashion treadmill for long enough to even witness the natural decay of our clothing. And so that we might relearn the skills we need to mend our clothing and extend its usefulness.

So, here we are at this juncture in fashion. This moment when two years ago the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh drew the world's attention to an escalating issue in the fashion industry--people's lives are literally at stake. The founding of Who Made Your Clothes and Fashion Revolution and folks like Tom of Holland and his beautiful Visible Mending project are the advocates we need. And organizers and writers like Kate Fletcher and Elizabeth Cline and so many more that deserve mention.

After reading Leonard Koren's second book I was so inspired by his ideas of replication that something came into focus: What we need is a shift in mindset and that philosophy cannot be replicated through aesthetics alone; we don't need another fast fashion trend disguised as slow fashion. Saying my mending work is wabi-sabi is also complicated but denying that wabi-sabi has had a major impact on my mending work would not be accurate either.

Hopefully we can help to redirect the compass of fast fashion by embracing a slower mindset, by adapting "mendfulness", and by mending our own jeans instead of buying jeans that are already distressed or designed to look mended. Hopefully this trend in slow fashion is here to stay. That it's more of a shifting of the compass than the latest trend to be purchased off the rack. Certainly, that is not the point at all. Certainly, a shift in philosophy is my hope.

I'd love to know your thoughts about any of this if you're willing to share in the comments section. Thank you for reading this very long post.




  1. A very thought provoking blog - horrible how the fashion industry greedily tramps over the most worthy of ideas and grabs them as its own. But take heart! Your concept of mendfulness and its associated ideas will persist when the fashion industry has moved on to its next gimmick.

    1. What a wonderful thought--that our intentions outlast fashion trends. Thanks for visiting here.

  2. what a lovely post. and i am now looking to get the book. i loathe the word trend, it implys that we have to join in, and if we dont get it soon we miss out - a few years ago i wore an old kimono top to a party and a young colleague admired it and thought by telling me it was 'so in' right now this would reiterate her compliment - which only made me put it to the back of my wardrobe for a while!!! whenever i make my own clothes, i do the best sewing my skills and patience allow and if there are imperfections i am strangely less bothered as i used be, as they show an integrity that is mine. I have recently tried sashiko mending and am a convert. i used darn denim on the machine but for stretch denim its not effective, whereas sashiko is AMAZING, it moves nicely and i love the chunky stitches

    1. What a great story about stepping off the fashion treadmill! Yes, we do our best and embrace imperfections and I think mending reminds us of this too. Sashiko mending is such a beautiful thing--glad you are also inspired to mend your clothes with these beautiful stitches.

  3. "this is the depth we are looking for in adopting slow fashion as a mindset, as a lifestyle, as a philosophy and not just as an aesthetic"

    that's the core of it for me.

    i don't judge others for taking on something as a pure aesthetic - whether it's clothing, décor, dreadlocks, or the books on their shelves. but as a spiritual person i believe we are here to fulfill our potential. as food for our souls, taking on mere aesthetics robs us of nourishment. we remain in the superficial layer of life.

    having said that, anything has the potential to become a trend, and a positive way through that is to use the trend to the advantage of the philosophy. a talking-piece as it were.

    thank you for such thoughtful words.

    1. Very interesting point, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, the trend can also help to gain interest from the masses, this is true. Something I should remember while I'm advocating for a shift in thinking too--thanks for the reminder.

  4. Katrina, what a thought provoking piece. I attended your workshop on visible mending last year, and since have been doing a lot of reading on boro, sashiko and dyeing!

    My thoughts are similar to Autumn's - people buy things for different reasons. Some purely for the aesthetic and some others for the philosophy behind it. When a 'trend' goes mainstream, there will be companies who will try to benefit from it. That's the very essence of business - addressing a need! Till the 1950s only raw denim or 'rigids' were popular and manufactured. However post 70's sand-blasting, acid washing became mainstay. Later in the 90s, distressed jeans started making an appearance.

    For a true denim aficionado, any artificial wear/tear or wash is completely unauthentic. Yet, millions and millions of people buy pre-washed, faded jeans straight off the shelves today!So, if visible mending / boro inspired trend starts getting a wider appeal, there will be companies and individuals who will make a business of this as well. Personally,I'm not sure if that's wrong. This way more people will at least get to know what it is! Then it's the individual's choice... whether to stick to the aesthetic or delve deeper into the philosophy!!

    That said, I completely agree with you on the terrible cost of choosing fast fashion. It's sad when one hears of safety violations and child labour.
    This was recently shared with me - a documentary on how India up-cycles the tonnes of fast fashion garments discarded by the world. It's worth a watch!

    And finally, thanks for sharing your views on wabi-sabi. The Unknown Craftsmen and these two books are now on my reading list!!

    1. Thank you for such thoughtful comments. Yes, very good point about the history of denim. And also it's history as a "work pants" too. I guess the part that bothers me most is using an aesthetic trend to justify more consumption when the point of slow fashion is to slow down our buying habits, not to consume the latest look every season. Or every weekend! But good points, thank you for sharing.


Thank you for your comments, friends. I like to think we are creating a dialogue in this space--building a virtual community.