“Making do” with clothes was something that was talked about and later insisted upon in our childhood home. We thought it embarrassing to practise what our parents preached and we couldn’t wait to go out in the world and earn enough to acquire whatever we wanted whenever we wanted.
You see, Mother had this way of not discarding clothing until it had been “done to death”, as we would say now. She was not the type who would bundle up a whole shelf of clothes on a whim and send them off for someone else to use. No, she would instead go through each item carefully, making mental notes, no doubt, about which seam or hem she could let out or which skirt could be converted into a great pair of shorts or which trouser could be reincarnated as a formal skirt.
Mother had the necessary sewing skills to do all that and thus we went through those early years getting frequent overhauls of our wardrobes. But not all those changes were welcome.
For example, she pulled down old brocade drapes and converted them into elegant housecoats/kaftans for the winter, but we refused to wear them. We did not wish to follow in the footsteps of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and we could not adapt to the idea of the curtains that had long framed our doors and windows now enveloping us! It didn’t matter that Mother had added flourishes of contrast (from other curtains or old shirts and blouses that refused to fade) and given those curtains an absolutely new look and she wore her own housecoat with aplomb: we could still see them as curtains and we dreaded teasing comments that we belonged on the walls too!
Then, a block-printed tablecloth made an appearance as an unusually designed kaftan and admirers wanted to know where Mother had found the material to sew something so unique. She didn’t tell them that she had too many tablecloths and it didn’t make sense to her to have to deal with all the laundering involved with cloth table linen when she could get a pretty plastic table cover instead and wipe it clean after each meal!
Bell bottom blues
Through our college years, we frequently wore “bell bottoms” with appliqué work or painting or even metal attachments near the knee — because Mother had opened up our old school uniforms and converted white divided skirts into trousers with a seam at the knee. She then dyed the trousers and we used our imagination to camouflage those seams — but we were not really happy with those “new” clothes!
Having used and re-used clothes and sheets and pillowcases and curtains, often making them into something different entirely, Mother really did not have much to discard at any time of her life. It was we who got into the habit of discarding bundles of clothes we were tired of using or just didn’t fit into anymore. (Mother would have either made sure she got into shape again in a few months or she would have opened up the seams and added a “twist” of something somewhere to give it a completely new look and make sure it remained an option in her wardrobe …)
Now, we are horrified to read that this worldwide habit of acquiring and then getting rid of clothes has led to landfill after landfill of cloth — and eventually we will have nowhere to dump what we don’t want.
It seems that our parents were right in their parsimony — and we can look back now and admire their simple and sensible habits.
Is there anything that we have practised that our children admire about us?
Or are we the ones who began the wasteful ways and taught it to them?
— Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.