PITTSBURGH – When thinking about mending trousers or a holey sweater, you might imagine dusty shops run by aging men draped in measuring tapes.
But take a stroll down Butler Street in Lawrenceville, stop in bohemian Pittsburgh, and walk to the back of the market square. There you will find two effortlessly cool women in their early 30s who just tailor ill-fitting clothes but are also on a mission to clear the landfills one by one.
Tia Tumminello and Rebecca Harrison are the “closer” behind the 3-year-old Old Flame Mending. Her focus on mending attracts many customers interested in “slow fashion,” a philosophy that takes into account the supply chain and its ethical implications such as the fashion industry’s impact on the environment and human rights.
However, other customers are drawn into the shop for other reasons.
Doris Ullendorff lives in New York City, but when her Pittsburgher daughter had a baby last year, she and her husband rented a “little house” in Squirrel Hill to facilitate visits. First she brought a few pieces of clothing to Old Flame to be patched, but as a new grandmother she felt the urge to keep something far more important than pants: her 67-year-old hummingbird “Bella”.
“It really needed repair, but I never had a clue where to take it,” she said.
Ullendorff, 70, was born in New York City but spent part of her childhood in Switzerland, where she first met Bella. After returning to the United States, she remembers dragging Bella with her on walks through Central Park like the donkey was a dog. When she had her own children, Bella was only allowed to play sparingly because those walks and lots of love made her fragile.
But with a new grandchild and a pre-existing relationship with the Old Flame duo, she thought they might be the answer to revive the German-made donkey. With Bella on the shotgun, Ullendorff drove to Pittsburgh.
Customers seeking help with “heirlooms” often delight Old Flame owners with the stories behind their treasures, and Bella’s introduction was no different. Tumminello had developed a specialty in handling stuffed animals by chance and took over Ullendorff’s project.
Bella’s original filling was made from wood chips – a new sight for the seamstress – and the seams to hold it in place were seemingly hand made. Tumminello thoughtfully added some modern materials and tightened the seams to preserve decades of memories and prevent Bella from joining the piles of textiles that are thrown away every year.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2018 balances – the latest collection of data – 11.3 million tons of textile waste, or 7.7% of all municipal waste, went to landfills, motivating the Old Flame duo to act as a conduit for greener decisions. “We use our sewing skills as a service to our community so that they can take action against textile waste as well,” said Tumminello.
Compared to “fast fashion” items that cost only a few dollars each, their services aren’t exactly cheap: $ 3 to reattach a button, $ 5 to repair a hole, and at least $ 25. Dollars for replacing a zipper. But these prices try to follow an important line.
“Women’s work has been disregarded as something that shouldn’t be paid for, that thing that’s only part of the women’s experience in a household,” Harrison said. But when women entered professional life in the mid-20th century, a “generation or two generation gap” arose in some skills, such as sewing.
“We’re trying to go that line by making people understand the value of our work, but also by encouraging people to do it,” Harrison said.
Another incentive could be their family tree. Harrison and Tumminello have degrees in fiber art from Savannah College of Art and Design and art education from Temple University, respectively. This leads them to offer “visible” repairs to garments, which often adds an artistic flair that enhances textiles rather than just preserving them.
But some customers are driven by their imaginations – in Ullendorff’s case, they envision their beloved childhood stuffed donkey in the hands of their brand new granddaughter Ari.
“It brings a smile to my face to know where Bella is and that she is in so good shape,” she said. “It’s like my Bella has come back.”
Customers looking for help with “heirlooms” often delight the owners of Old Flame with the stories behind their treasures.