Meet Australia’s fashion fixers: ‘There’s no apprenticeship, it’s more Bruce Lee style’

Doosie Morris
·6 min read

“It’s like a puzzle,” Yusra Adin says, smiling from behind her sewing machine at Second Stitch, a community textiles initiative in Melbourne’s north. The former civil engineer from Iraq chuckles, recalling the tattered remains of a favourite T-shirt, brought in for repairs after its owner tore it off in shreds during a surprise arachnid encounter. “It was in pieces, but we solved it.”

Adin is a newly trained textile worker putting her proclivity for problem solving to use at just one of many thriving businesses catering to an increasing number of us keen to repair, refurbish or resell our fashion rather than let it go to landfill.

  • Yusra Adin of Second Stitch in Melbourne

The scourge of fast fashion has been hitting headlines for years due to its appalling environmental and human rights reputation, and one of the answers to solving it is to take better care of what we already have. Humans have been mending and upcycling textiles forever, domestically and professionally. Our easy-come-easy-go attitude to garments is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it is fast eroding many of the domestic textile skills that were commonplace just a few decades ago.

While crafting and DIY became huge trends in the 2010s, with millennials seeking out ways to engage more personally with the objects in their lives, not everyone has the time, skills or inclination to take matters into their own hands. Most people of a certain age will have had a hem professionally done, or grip added to slippery leather soles, but the increasing awareness of fashion waste is compelling more people to find ways to make their clothes last longer, without learning how to sew themselves.

  • Some of the work being repaired at Second Stitch

Second Stitch have built a reputation as an outfit willing and able to bring items like beloved jeans, T-shirts and knits back to life. At a time when fashion is increasingly casual (and nostalgic), this is a major draw. Unpicking the botched relining of a leather jacket, Adin explains the job will set her client back about $40, including materials and labour. The seamstresses of Second Stitch are paid award wages and the prices reflect the time they spend on each item, which are often repaired with donated fabrics to help keep costs low.

An increasing diversity of repair requests is a trend Anna Timou has also noticed. For the last seven years she has been working up to 70 hours a week in her Fitzroy workshop, On the Mend, repairing everything from baby carriers to bondage wear. “It used to be more businessmen, wealthier ladies, a lot of resoling shoes, but the mentality behind fixing things has changed … and the language has changed – they’re younger people and they don’t want things to go to landfill, they say that.”

  • Anna Timou, the owner of On the Mend shoe and bag repairs in Fitzroy, Melbourne

Timou says she sees a lot more bags and other items that people are realising they can get fixed: tents, sporting items, instrument and equipment carriers. Timou completed a certificate III in textiles production at RMIT in 2002 and was inspired by the repairs module, which remains one of the only official shoe and garment repair courses in Australia. “I could have been a mechanic,” she says, offering her strong, work-worn hands as proof. “There’s no apprenticeship, it’s more Bruce Lee style, you just have to do your 10,000 hours.”

Timou honed her skills at Max’s Shoe and Bag Repairs in Melbourne for seven years before opening her own business, which has grown to turn over more than $150,000 a year, not only due to an increasingly conscious clientele, but also because of her passion for getting the job done right. “I’m gonna fix something like I’m gonna wear it myself. They have to trust me.”

  • Anna Timou holds a pair of damaged leather shoes

Timou takes an effervescent pride in her work and says she regularly works with clients to “reverse engineer” changes: altering bag straps, patching and matching dog-chewed items, or bringing neglected leather goods back to their former glory through nourishment.

This idea of not only repairing or altering, but refreshing items, is Cullachange’s bread and butter. The direct-to-consumer dyeing service, in Sydney’s Surry Hills, has been in operation for nearly 30 years. When local swimwear brands went offshore in the 90s, Rosemary Wright’s garment dyeing business started sending out mail order bags to local dry cleaners. The company batch dyes textiles for as little as $25 per item, changing their colour chart twice yearly to reflect new trends. Black and French navy remain the most common choice for giving darks a freshen up, or to cover bleaching or staining disasters, and the full palette can be used to treat everything from scarves to couch covers.

Before and after images of a Mardi Gras outfit dyed at Cullachange in Surry Hills

Each item receives a pretreatment check and outgoing inspection, though Janelle Hutton, Cullachange’s marketing manager, says “there are risks”. She says most of the time they’re able to gauge which way a dye job is going to go, but are always upfront about the results-may-vary factor. Natural and mixed fibres, she says, take colour best and can even be stripped of their original pigment to achieve lighter hues. Synthetic fabrics are more tricky, and while glass beads will “dye up beautifully”, plastic embellishments like sequins and some buttons won’t take colour. Hutton and the team consult with each customer, and often unexpected results have proven to be “different, but even more beautiful” than customers were hoping for.

Variability or a bad experience makes people nervous. Howard Graham of Circe, a 30-year-old tailoring and alterations outfit in Melbourne’s CBD, knows that customer satisfaction is the name of the long game when it comes to alterations and repairs. He says: “The key with this business is understanding what people want, and getting that clear in the beginning. It’s matching expectations.”

Like the other menders, Graham believes in a personal touch and individual solutions, even when dealing with simple hems or zips. His racks bulge with a chaotic assortment of unique fixes which, like the other businesses mentioned, often cost clients less than $50.

It’s clear to most that the binning of textiles through sheer lack of ingenuity is obscene; and from behind her cluttered workbench on a Sunday afternoon, Anna Timou encourages: “The little jobs don’t bother me at all. If I can get my head around it, I’ll help you. No charge for an extra hole in your belt either.”