Recycled, reused and repaired work clothing
October 1, 2023 | View PDF
Over 25 years ago, while at my sister's house in Glennallen, a gentleman dropped by to discuss some business. I found myself staring at his Carhartt vest and blue jean bib overalls, which featured multi colored patches upon patches. I had mended clothing for my family of four for over 20 years and had never seen anything like it. I couldn't help making a comment about the patches and learned he'd done all this repair work himself. I found this intriguing because many people viewed mending as "women's work" and yet this guy was an expert welder, as well as other typically "manly" crafts.
I've talked with him periodically over the years and again this past July, when I attended the Glennallen High School annual reunion. At the reunion, I learned he operates a statewide business (Gary's Sewing Works) which includes a variety of things including embroidery, zipper replacement, and snow machine seats.
Near the end of September I put a load of my (end of season) work clothes in the washing machine and thought of him. My brown jeans have had double patches on the knees for several years and they looked pretty ratty last fall when I washed them, but I decided not to throw them away until the zipper fails.
This summer, the zipper did give me a little trouble some days, but it never completely quit working. Should I put them in the washing machine or just throw them away?
Soon my mind is contemplating the whole topic of clothing. Several articles about clothing repair, reuse and recycling have come to my attention lately. France is actually offering a government program that will pay a "repair bonus" to have items mended in a new scheme aimed at cutting waste. Other articles discuss how bad the "new" clothing industry is for the environment and suggest remedies for our throw away, disposable society. I mostly just skim these articles, though, because I've already held the mindset that is now being encouraged. My clothing shopping has been done almost exclusively at thrift stores for over 20 years and I've been mending anything that needed repair since I was a teenager.
I've always kept a set of clothing on hand for working on dirty or clothes-damaging jobs, which includes gardening, painting, berry picking, processing salmon and moose meat, tending burn pile fires, etc. They come out in April and usually by the end of September or early October, they get washed, mended if needed, and put away for the winter.
I rarely wash these items during the summer. If I'm working on an especially dirty project one day, like kneeling in the mud using a pick mattock digging out wild rose or raspberry roots, and plan to continue the same work the next day, there's no reason to start out the second (or third or fourth) day with clean clothes. At times, my jeans are quite stiff when I put them on, but the dried dirt often wears off during the next project.
Usually, the jeans have to be soaked in a bucket of water and the caked dirt scrubbed off the knees, before even considering putting them in the washing machine. Stains don't bother me, but when holes appear in the knees, they get patched. And then patched again. I'm on my knees a lot and I do have knee pads, but they don't work in many situations.
This past August, I hired a teenage neighbor boy to help me with two projects. We worked together for more than an hour moving some compost materials. Since he wasn't really wearing work clothes, I gave him the less dirty job of shoveling the sweet smelling, already composted material, while I wrestled the large plastic garbage bags of stinking, rotten year old lawn clippings, spilling some on my bare arms, my clothes and my footwear. Of course, in those situations, I not only wash my work clothes, but take a shower, too. And, when I go berry picking or process salmon or moose, I always start out with clean work clothes.
I have a whole wardrobe of work clothing. One each of heavyweight and lightweight long sleeved shirts, which are great protection from scratches and bug bites, and everal severely stained tank tops, a couple t-shirts in various stages of disrepair, and a pair of shorts. Lightweight and heavyweight jeans and a lightweight jacket and a heavy duty vest are all part of the mix. I did purchase some of these items new, but after several years of regular use, they end up as work clothing.
When I have to go into the house, I learned years ago that it is easier to change my work footgear and clothes for house footgear and clothes, than to clean up messes. No work clothes in the house is a strict rule.
Some days, this can mean up to four times of changing clothing in the garage (coming and going makes eight) to accommodate fixing meals, taking my afternoon rest, or even having an impromptu Skype session with my granddaughter.
As I fold and put away the load of work clothes until next spring, I again think of Gary's Sewing Works in Glennallen. I could mail my brown jeans to him and get the zipper replaced, but I have to draw the line somewhere and it really wouldn't be worth the postage. Once the zipper fails, I plan to cut out the brass pocket rivets, snap "button" fastener, and zipper, and put the brown jeans in my next burn pile fire. They weren't purchased new and I think they have been recycled, reused and repaired enough. Some people might think too much. I know the French government wouldn't pay a repair bonus for them.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at email@example.com.