Written by Melissa Dick

For the past year or so, I heard a lot about “Repair Cafes” that take place in community centres and other public spaces across Canada. I really liked the idea of learning from others about simple repair techniques for things like jewellery, small electronics, clothing, books, and more.

The Repair Café, Toronto.

Over the years I feel like I’ve cultivated a lifestyle in which everything I own has a dedicated purpose and place. The physical things I own work and they work well. If I know that something I like and use regularly is in need of repair, the constant reminder of, “I need to fix that” is always in the back of my mind. I’d rather spend time learning how to repair an item and getting it back to its proper function, rather than throwing it out and replacing it with something new. I am striving towards reaching what I see as a “net zero” level of consumption in which I take and consume only what I need. I squeeze out all the use out of the items I own and dispose of material and non-recyclable goods as little as possible. I think this would align well with what Danielle may have envisioned for her life-skills learning project in The Cautious Optimist. In the spirit of Danielle’s curiosity and drive to learn about how to survive in the climate apocalypse, I headed to a Repair Café in Toronto and repaired my favourite pair of pants with my partner, Alex, also in need of pants with repair!

We walked into the public library where the Repair Café was being held. I expected to walk into a small room and see maybe a couple of tables and a handful of people casually looking over various repair projects and chatting quietly. When we found ourselves in was what may have been the largest room in the library filled with over 50 people, wearing colour-coordinated t-shirts and buttons, with flip charts in each corner, a snacks table that could have fed a small army, and many volunteers milling about–I knew I was in for an experience beyond anything I may have expected.

You can repair anything at The Repair Café.

After a short time, the volunteer that took our names down on the flip chart informed us that a clothing repair mender was ready to help us, and introduced us to Jacqueline.  We sat down with Jacqueline in the middle of the whirring sewing machines, and she quickly assessed our repair needs and got straight to work. I was hoping there would be an opportunity for her to teach us how to use a sewing machine for simple clothing repairs, but I quickly came to realize that the Repair Café was focused more on getting the job done rather than passing along new skills, which would obviously take much more time and required more trial and error.

As Jacqueline worked away on our pants with the skill and confidence that only decades of practice gives someone, we chatted with her and learned about her experience as a member of the Repair Café community and as a mender. She learned to sew with a treadle sewing machine which is powered by a pedal and doesn’t even require electricity. Today, she uses a nice digital sewing machine that allows her to select from over 60 types of stitches with the press of a button.

After signing the waiver forms and being directed to the flip chart where we could list our names and repair projects, Alex and I took a moment to take in the scene as we snacked on pastries and drank tea. This was clearly not this Repair Café’s first rodeo, and they had a system figured out to the T! I observed as people of all ages were matched up with “menders” with various areas of expertise. In this one space were menders working on anything you could think off–people were rebinding an old book together, a man with magnifier glasses on was inspecting a piece of jewellery, on the other side of the room was a table filled with volunteers looking over electronics, all with sewing machines running in the background and, from time to time, a loud bell ringing and some clapping rippled through the room.

A ringing bell indicates an item is repaired at The Repair Café!

As Jacqueline quickly finished the pants repairs, we soon learned what all the bell ringing and clapping were about. As soon as an item was fixed–whether it was a watch, a lamp, a ripped t-shirt, or a broken piece of jewellery–the person who brought in the item would ring the bell loudly and others from around the room would clap to celebrate the successful repair. I really liked how this action brought the community together, people who were initially shy rang the bell loudly, smiling proudly as they held their repaired item in their other hand and as their mending mentor smiled encouragingly. It also had menders who were engrossed in reviewing an electrical circuit or wearing magnifier glasses look up for a moment and join in clapping with the rest of the group. I appreciated how the repairs were shared with the group as a whole in this celebratory way.

After Alex and I rang the bell and thanked Jacqueline for her handiwork, we left the Repair Café not only with mended pants but a wonderful community experience of offering one’s time and skill to helping a neighbour. When I return to the next Repair Café, likely with another repair project of some sort, I will take more time to seek out the opportunity for knowledge transfer and to learn a new skill from a mender. The Repair Café feels like a great start in meeting others who may have skills that are of interest to me and to finding opportunities to learn.

Jacqueline repairing our pants.

I think Danielle would have been a big fan of the Repair Café, of course for the skills-sharing and the time and conversations shared between strangers, but also for the bell ringing and the big smiles and clapping and community celebration that came along with it.

This life skills blog was written in honour of Danielle Moore, 2018-2019 Youth Advisory Board member. From May – December 2019, the youth advisors have chosen a month (or two!) and committed to learning and blogging about new skills, such as: growing and preserving food, repairing appliances, and building bio-sand water filters. The blog will be carried on through our Waterlution blog, and each post will reference Danielle’s original blog page as inspiration. You can read Danielle’s January 2019 learning saga through her 3 blog posts about knittingspinning wool, and dyeing fabric.

To learn more about The Cautious Optimist Legacy Project, visit: https://waterlution.org/the-cautious-optimist-danielle-moore-legacy-project/

Danielle Moore, The Cautious Optimist.