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Why My Slow Fashion Practice Is Yoga, Too

Cyndi Lee describes her mendfulness practice.

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A week before writing this, we got our first cold day of the season in central Virginia, where I live. It was time to swap out my handmade summer dresses for clothes that cover my legs. As I pulled out my favorite jeans from last year, I wondered if they’d still fit.

The zipper went right up, and my jeans felt like home. But I noticed there was a big hole in the seat that needed to be patched. Not everyone gets excited about having a piece of their jeans missing, but for me, any excuse to sew is a happy occurrence. As a teenager, I’d sit at the sewing machine, bang out a new dress, and be wearing it at a party an hour later. But these days, I take my time. It’s my practice that I call mendfulness. Like mindfulness meditation, it involves a conscious placing of the mind. In meditation, you focus on your breath. In mendfulness, you put your awareness on the feeling of your fingers on the fabric, the needle, and the thread moving through each stitch.

So I carried my jeans down the hall to my sewing supply shelf—the biggest baker’s shelf you can buy. On the middle tier is a wine crate stuffed with patterns and a couple of Ganesha lunch boxes that hold rickrack, ribbon, other trims, and elastic. Stacks of blue, black, red, and patterned fabric make neat rows. There’s soft corduroy and velvet for winter and, behind it, the cotton ikat and linen for warmer months. My beloved collection of odd-shaped scraps pours out of a woven barrel.

I knelt down and fingered each piece in my fabric stash to find something that was the right size, with some stretch and a good amount of strength. After all, this patch was going to be sewn in the same spot as last year’s repair. I tend to wear a hole in the same place, year after year. I decided on a sturdy piece of Japanese indigo material dyed in the traditional shibori way that was left over from the pillows I made for my bed last year. No fabric ever gets thrown out in this house.

Sometimes, when my attention strays, I think about how sewing a patch is a little like practicing vinyasa, which is Sanskrit for “placing in a special way.” Vinyasa includes three parts: arising, abiding, and dissolving—and ultimately, the dissolving of one thing is the arising of the next. This pulls my attention back to the needle going into the fabric, pulling through, and coming out the other side—arising, abiding, and dissolving. Part of these jeans had dissolved, and now a patch would arise, stitch by stitch, breath by breath.

Sometimes while stitching, my mind wanders back to the past, and I think about my mom, who taught me how to sew. She started me off with easy embroidery on pillowcases and, when I got older, I learned to make more complicated garments on the sewing machine. It fills my heart to think about this lineage of making and how it has evolved for me as I’ve learned about the global movement of sustainable and slow fashion.

Over the past 20 years, the traditional crafts of hand sewing, mending, and patching—once considered low-level skills practiced only by those who were too poor to purchase new clothes—have grown into Instagram-worthy art forms, thanks to the growing understanding that fast fashion is harmful to the environment and takes advantage of the earth’s limited resources. Fertilizer to grow cotton, chemicals used in dying, and oils for making synthetic fibers all make a huge contribution to global carbon emissions and wastewater. People (like me) who support the slow-fashion movement much prefer covering their skin with recycled, reimagined, and re-styled clothing—creative expressions of worldwide awareness and activism that offer a corrective to the fast-fashion approach of cheap, trendy, disposable garments.

It has become uncomfortably apparent that buying low-cost apparel—T-shirts, yoga pants, hoodies, even shoes—that get tossed out when they inevitably fall apart translates into bloated landfills, below-living wages, and dangerous factory conditions for textile workers. Simultaneously, the societal pressure to be on-trend with what we wear creates a certain kind of insatiable craving that is only momentarily satisfied until the next must-have item seduces us.

In 1999, I took a class with a teacher who called his decades of yoga practice “an exploration of what happens to my sternum when I press down my big toe.” In other words, yoga is about paying attention to the effects of our actions.

Everything can be yoga, even sewing. As I turned my pants inside out to reinforce the underside of the patch, I wondered who harvested the cotton for these jeans, who drove it to the factory? Who grew the indigo, and who dyed this fabric blue? Just like yoga, slow fashion can help us to understand our interdependence with each other and all that is.

As I made the final knot in the thread, I felt a sense of wholeness, or what we yogis call santosha, contentment. These perfectly good jeans are going to make it through another winter.


Ready to go deeper into your vinyasa practice? Join Cyndi’s six-week online course Slow Flow: Sustainable Yoga for Life.

Cyndi Lee, the author of five yoga books, is the first female Western yoga teacher to integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching. In 1998, she founded the OM Yoga Center in New York City. As one of the most influential teachers in the United States, Lee now focuses her teaching work on engaged yoga, meditation, and sustainability. Learn more at cyndilee.com.