Helping your possessions stand the test of time with Repair Cafés
Have you ever had a favourite item that you wished you could fix instead of throwing it out? It may be a guitar, an old radio, a game, or even a favourite old pair of jeans! In days gone by, your grandparents’ generation most likely *would* have fixed these items themselves, or at the very least known exactly where to go to get it repaired. Watch repairers, seamstresses, shoe repairers and even radio & tv repair shops used to be commonplace throughout the suburbs, but in an age where replacement is often cheaper than the cost of actually repairing these items, many such businesses have disappeared.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Repair Cafés are free meeting places and they’re all about repairing things (together).
There are several movements worldwide encouraging people to have a lighter footprint on the world. Permaculture, Transition Town movements or local food swaps are some more well-known examples. One such movement is the Repair Café, the first of which opened in Amsterdam in 2009. Repair Cafés are free meeting places and they’re all about repairing things (together). Fast-track to the end of 2016, and there are over 1,000 such places worldwide, including two in Victoria: one in Albury-Wodonga and one in inner-west Melbourne.
Above is an interview with Oberon Carter on 936 ABC Hobart about the Repair Café initiative that has recently started in Tasmania with the aim of reducing waste, whilst strengthening local communities. Permaculture Tasmania are partnering with Zero Waste Tasmania on a new initiative called the Mending Workshop!
We sat down with Michelle Fisher who set up Melbourne’s first Repair Café in the Seddon/Yarraville/Footscray area, and spoke about her passion for the project.
Given that society has such a “disposable possessions” culture at the moment, what inspired you to create a Repair Café?
Michelle: Setting up a repair café just seemed to be something that needed to – and should be – done. Coming from a background in transition towns and permaculture, I saw that repairing rather than throwing away our possessions honours the ethics and principles of looking after our environment and each other, recognising we live on a planet of finite resources and that we have an abundance of skills and talents among us that we can share at a very local level.
Repair cafes offer a low-key social way to do this, while providing an opportunity for neighbours to meet. And I’ve found that a lot of people really do want to keep their goods in good repair, whether because they cherish them for sentimental or other reasons, or because they can’t afford to replace them and risk missing out on the activities they enable – like a working bicycle or dehydrator or sewing machine helping to keep us active, fed and clothed.
These are the sorts of sentiments and motivations expressed by our volunteer fixers who come along to lend a hand, as captured by Karen (of RUDE – reuser of unloved discarded excess) when interviewing John, Dean and Doug at the launch of the Melbourne Repair Cafe in February 2016:
I’m also keen on the idea of keeping items in circulation for as long as possible – whether through repair, reuse, upcycling or re-homing through gifting, sharing, trading or sale. That’s why I’ve started to hold a “really really free market” alongside the repair sessions so you don’t have to wait until something is torn or broken to come to a repair café. You can bring along unwanted items in good nick that you want to give away, or you can come and share your talents, skills, services and knowledge by eg giving free haircuts, singing, teaching the art of juggling or demonstrating techniques for moving towards zero waste.
What skills would a visitor to the Repair Café learn?
Michelle: It all depends on what item you bring along. We’ve had clothing and shoes brought in where our volunteer fixers (Barb, Karen, Gaye, Erin and Fionna) have shown visitors how to sew on buttons, do “visible mending” and patching and fix stuck boot zippers and broken straps. You might bring in a bike that needs the seat adjusted or the tyre patched, so you’d learn how to do that. We have a muso (Dean) who could show you how to repair bridges or broken strings on your guitar. Another of our fixers (Howard) has demonstrated how to revive rusty tools and can assess whether your lamp is reparable.
Sometimes a fix may be more complicated or require specialist skills, so you might not learn how to fix it but you still get to see and appreciate the intricacies of how it’s done. For instance, at our most recent repair session, a number of visitors were drawn in to see a turntable being repaired, fascinated by what’s “under the hood” and how Mikel went about working out what the trouble was and fixing it. We also occasionally hold workshops on things like basic hand sewing techniques or bike maintenance and repair.
What are some of the more unusual things that have been presented for repair?
Michelle: At the launch of the repair café in early 2016, a local artist brought in her sitir – a traditional Moroccan stringed instrument – for repair. It didn’t play at all until Dean managed to get it making music despite having never having laid eyes on such an item before. We’ve also reaffixed the head of a decapitated doll, and we’ve fixed something that wasn’t broken – the owner had simply forgotten to turn the device on!
One of the most common clothing repairs that came in during the early months was a thing called “crotch blowout” – where all the seams in the centre of a pair of pants have come apart but the owner is loathe to toss them away because they’re often their most favourite or comfy jeans or slacks. (And yes, there is a fix for crotch blowout which you can even try at home! See video instructions here or here.)
What do you see as the greatest challenges facing urban society today?
Michelle: Leaving to one side the need to ensure we have sufficient arable land, clean air, pure water, thriving ecologies, food sovereignty, affordable shelter, meaningful work and the time and capacity to nurture ourselves, our relationships and our communities… I think a focus on economic growth as the “be all and end all” needs a huge rethink, especially since this measure ignores things like the health and wellbeing of a society and the environment.
Planned obsolescence needs to be resisted, whether by design (where things are built to break after a time) or by fashion (where manufacturers entice people to replace perfectly useable items with the latest model). At an individual level, we could aim to buy less but buy quality (eg goods with lifetime warranties), and we can be more mindful and responsible for our consumerist tendencies. I’d love to see us move more and more from a linear economy of take-make-use-trash to a circular one that closes loops, minimises extraction and waste, and cycles resources and services (including the art and skill of repair!).
Governments and manufacturers have a significant role to play as well, in promoting product stewardship and regulatory oversight. Collaborative and concerted action is the key.
What does the future have in store for the Repair Café?
Michelle: The Melbourne Repair Café was established under the umbrella of the International Repair Foundation, which has since 2010 helped over 1000 other repair cafes to set up around the world – and it is ever growing! Since opening our doors earlier this year, I’ve seen interest grow overseas as well as across Melbourne and interstate – most recently in Tasmania where Permaculture Tasmania and Zero Waste Tasmania are collaborating to sponsor initial mending workshops as a taster for communities to see if there’s an appetite for hosting ongoing repair cafés in their midst. I would love to take a leaf out of Tassie’s book and see statewide groups with an interest in sustainability and regeneration come together to seed repair cafes across Melbourne and Victoria. Repair cafes are only the beginning though…
I’m hopeful, longer term, that we can see centres which house a “library of things” (where you can borrow things you use occasionally without every home having to buy and store them – like lawnmowers, sewing machines, camping gear, tools etc), a repair café and workshop/skillsharing space, a salvage and tinkering place like Reverse Garbage for artists, teachers and others to creatively source and make/co-create items, and a “buy me once” shop for goods that are designed to last a lifetime. If anyone has the capacity – financial or otherwise – to grow the repair café in the coming year, I would love to hear from you!
Michelle is a member of the Permablitz Collective, has a lead role in Permaculture Out West, is engaged in Transition Hobsons Bay and Transition Town Maribyrnong, originated Melbourne’s first Repair Café and is an all-round inspiring person.
If you’d like to learn more about the Melbourne Repair Café (Inner West), check out their website or their Facebook page. If you’d like to help out with the Repair Café, you can sign up here or join the Meetup group as a volunteer fixer. All other contacts or potential collaborations can be sent to her email at [email protected]