Andrea Sandor finds out more about Manchester’s make do and mend scene

THIS weekend, Big Fix 2020 will see fixers from over 70 repair cafes around the country opening their doors with the aim of mending more items in one day than ever before. In Greater Manchester, Chorlton Repair Cafe is teaming up with Levenshulme, Marple, Moss Side, Sale and Salford to hold one mega event, fixing everything from bikes and clothes to electricals and furniture.

With lots of electrical things, it will often just be replacing a fuse or quite simple things like that

So what is a repair cafe and why should you make do and mend rather than buy shiny and new? Over to Bryony Moore of Stitched Up, a grassroots collective advancing an alternative to the fast fashion industry. Apart from running events from sewing and upcycling workshops to sustainable garment sales, they also launched Manchester’s first repair cafe in 2016 in, of course, Chorlton. Since then, others have sprung up, and now each takes it in turn to hold a monthly event (see box below). Bryony says, “It’s reached one of those critical mass things where people say, ‘ah, I want one of those’” and Sale in Trafford is the latest to set up shop.    

2018 3 15 Bryony Stitched Up
Briony Moore of Stitched Up

Stitched Up’s website says: “A Repair Café is a free meeting place where people get together to repair things.” ‘Things’ range from appliances to toys; basically, if you have a broken item, take it to a repair cafe to get advice and borrow the tools you’ll need to fix it. When I drop in at Levenshulme’s Repair Cafe, Sarah, who lives nearby, has brought along a toaster in the hope it can be saved. She thinks the lever has snapped because the knob won’t stay down, but once the repairer unscrews the bottom of the toaster, it turns out crumbs have simply got stuck under the plate. A quick wipe and the toaster is as good as new. Community organiser Jack Laycock tells me, “We encourage people to sit with the repairer to see what’s going on and learn to fix it themselves.” 

You don’t have to be an expert to help out at a repair cafe. As the Levenshulme repairer says: “We’re not geniuses, we’re just inquisitive.” Volunteers are also needed to run the cafe, greet visitors and look after the repairers, and helping out in this capacity can lead to learning new skills and becoming a fixer. Bryony says, “Some of our volunteers came and set up tea and then were itching to get their hands on things. Lots of people are interested in repair and have some skills but don’t consider themselves a repair expert, but you don’t have to be an electrician. It’s more about having the confidence to open something up. With lots of electrical things, it will often just be replacing a fuse or quite simple things like that.”  

2020 02 11 Chorlton Repair Cafe Exterior
Head to the Chorlton branch of Manchester's Repair Cafe network at the Stitched Up premises

Manchester’s repair cafe scene is growing and more volunteers are needed. This growth is no doubt linked to increasing environmental awareness. Bryony says, “People for a long time have been concerned about waste but I think Extinction Rebellion have done a really good job at linking the things we’re all concerned about under the climate change banner. People are having enough of capitalism and are just wanting to feel that handmade, creative element in life. It’s also really frustrating spending money on an item and then it breaks and you can’t take it to a repair shop because they’ve all gone out of business. That’s where repair cafes come in.”

2018 3 15 Stitched Up Workshops
Manchester’s repair cafe scene is growing and more volunteers are needed

The Manchester repair cafes are part of the Repair Cafe Federation, a global network of over 2000 cafes in 35 countries that was founded by Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2011. In 2018, the Federation reckoned they saved 350,000 kilos from landfill. According to stats, we throw away nearly everything: 85% of textiles, 80% of electronics and 75% of electricals end up at the tip each year. Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of UN Environment, recently told The Independent: “Our planet’s survival will depend on how well we retain the value of products within the system by extending their life.”  

Yet it can be hard to repair some things due to planned obsolescence and the need for specialist tools that can make items such as electricals and electronics hard to access. Back at Levenshulme Repair Cafe, Jack points to a vacuum they weren’t able to fix. “A lot of things today aren’t designed to be repaired. They’re designed to be used for a year or two and then thrown away, or designed in a way that you can’t open it without breaking. This Hoover, we just can’t get into it without breaking it because it uses specialist screws.” Nevertheless, he says, “We can’t always repair everything, but we can tell you where to go or that unfortunately it’s not worth repairing. It has to go to landfill, but at least you know you’ve tried and done what you can.”    

2018 3 15 Stitched Up Workshops3
85% of textiles end up in the tip every year

For some jobs, though, not having the right tool isn’t a problem. At least not if Alfred and Sue are on hand. This couple are legends of the Manchester repair scene, on site at nearly every repair cafe each week. Alfred calls himself a ‘maker of things’ and has been known to fashion screwdrivers on the spot to get into a particularly difficult item. Meanwhile, Sue takes care of mending needs and says, laughing, “I’ve just done so many cafes and know the techniques that I’m referred to as an expert now!” It’s thanks to Alfred we have Manchester’s repair cafes. After building a trailer for Stitched Up, Alfred says: “They worked out that I was useful. They told me they were thinking of starting up a repair cafe and would I be interested in fixing things. They said, ‘If not, we’re not starting.’ Well, I couldn’t say no!”  

He goes on, “We’ve been in from the start, and there’s enough volunteers now they can stand on their own two feet.” At one point the commitment got too much and Alfred tried to take a step back, but sitting home alone while Sue went off to fix things and socialise wasn’t so fun. “I missed the company,” he says, enjoying the camaraderie between repairers, problem-solving together and supporting each other.   

There’s a lovely atmosphere at the Levy cafe, with anticipation building for this weekend’s Big Fix. Even if you don’t have an item needing repair, it’s worth a visit. “We’ll be selling tea and cake and will split donations between all repair cafes,” Bryony says. “Come, buy some cake and support the project.” 

Follow Andrea on Twitter 

Manchester Repair Cafes

Boothstown, Salford: First Saturday of the month

Levenshulme: Second Saturday of the month

Chorlton: Third Saturday of the month

Moss Side: Last Saturday of the month

Sale: Starting up and looking for volunteers

Marple: Next sewing workshop 26th February

Big Fix 2020: Saturday 15th February, 9.30am-12.30pm, Wilbraham St Ninian’s United Reformed Church, Egerton Road South, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, M21 0XJ. More info here

Read: ‘Total confusion’ over the council’s climate crisis action

Read: Clothes swaps to kilos - Manchester fashion events that are saving the world