Guest post from…Kate Wentland is graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary this summer with two Masters Degrees in Theology and Intercultural Studies. She sews some of her own clothes, and writes a vegetarian food blog. This article was originally published in The SEMI, the student publication for Fuller Seminary.
You? Mennonite? I never would have guessed – you have short hair and wear cute clothes!” Over the years, a few people have been surprised to find out that I’m Mennonite because I don’t wear black “plain-clothes” or a hair-covering. Black long dresses aren’t part of my Mennonite experience because my Mennonite extended family has been living in California for four generations. Only one of my great-grandmas wore “plain-clothes,” and one of my other great-grandmas wore red lipstick and short flapper dresses. I only reference that clothing tradition when my friends beg me to wear more colors – I joke that my tendency to wear black and grey is my modern form of “plain-clothes.”
The Mennonite practice of wearing “plain-clothes” arose from a concrete commitment to live more simply and humbly in obedience to the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus said to take no thought about what you wear, or eat and drink, he was not just forbidding obsessive attachment to material things, he was setting his followers free from competitive consumption, status marking clothing, showy abuse of hospitality, ostentatious preparations for the next banquet. So Mennonites followed simplicity as a basic way of life. Today most Mennonites wear contemporary clothing, but many still attempt to live simply through their clothing and not dwell on their image.
The famous More-with-Less Cookbook from the Mennonite community was revolutionary in galvanizing people to eat “lower on the food chain” and cook more frugally. The companion book Living More with Less taught other practical skills for living simply, including wearing clothes that are basic and functional, and owning fewer articles of clothing. Many Mennonites attempt to practice simple living in order to use fewer of the earth’s resources and to live in freedom from the anxiety of consumerism. In my mind, the new stereotype of Mennonite fashion tends to be thrift store clothes and cheap haircuts instead of black dresses and head coverings. Both styles are no-nonsense and downplay personal image.
Those of us Mennonites who take a special interest in aesthetics find our own way to make sense of our tradition of plainness. While I embrace the value of living simply and using fewer resources, I don’t think it’s necessary to eliminate beauty and good design. Likewise, as a 15-year vegetarian, I seek to eat ethically and “lower on the food chain” without sacrificing the sensuality and pleasure of the table.
There is a growing DIY (do-it-yourself) culture these days, but because I’m a Mennonite, I think I combine this creative crafting trend with my own Mennonite tradition of simple living. I make things by hand not only because they are cute, but also because I’m also saving money, and sometimes recycling materials. I see myself as participating in the Mennonite simple living tradition, but in a relevant and contemporary way.
I wasn’t interested in sewing until one day in 2004 when my feisty 80-year-old friend Pearl showed me a book she had checked out of the library called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Her eyes were electric as she flipped the pages to show me the bold quilts. Most conventional quilters are afraid to quilt this way, with crooked lines and wild patterns that looked like modern art. The quilts come from an isolated community in Alabama where the women had a made quilts out of necessity for lack of heating. The quilts were made from recycled clothes – especially old work clothes – but the women in this isolated region developed a uniquely bold style over the decades that made something especially lovely from a utilitarian craft.
The Gee’s Bend quilts inspired both of us. Pearl used some old scraps to make a minimalist quilt like one in the book, which was mostly light grey with orange accents. I promptly signed up for quilting classes because I wanted the skills to make bold quilts like these. I wanted to be as resourceful and creative as these women.
Although many quilters today buy expensive color-coordinated fabrics to make quilts, the quilting tradition arose out of frugality and resourcefulness of using fabrics from leftover scraps and recycled garments. I admit that I have made quilts both ways. I have made a few Japanese quilts using good fabric I bought at full-price, but I also made a quilt last year in which I recycled old clothes, including some of my clothes from childhood.
A few years after I started quilting, a friend taught me enough additional sewing skills that I could start making clothes for myself. In the past 2 years I have sewn at least 15 blouses for myself, and countless purses and other small projects. Sewing has become a way for me to save money on a tight grad-student budget, both in making garments for myself and gifts for others. Once, in a Maria-von-Trapp-moment of resourcefulness, I cut up an old curtain to make a blouse.
I suspect that I’m also interested in sewing and making things by hand because I lived on a farm for part of my childhood. We definitely weren’t rugged pioneers, but I indeed grew up learning the value of frugality. Living on a farm also shaped me in a way that I don’t worship or prioritize convenience. I truly see the value in putting effort into making something well. Not only do I like making crafts; I also do quite a lot of cooking from scratch.
Today more people are crafting, so better, more fashionable sewing patterns are out there. I’ve recently been using Japanese sewing patterns that have been translated into English because of popular demand here. I love that there’s a modern movement of people making things, beyond the communities of traditional quilters. Crafts are cuter and edgier now, compared to say, denim vests with quilted hearts and teddy bears. I love that DIY is pushing crafting in new directions.
What the Mennonite simple living tradition can offer to the DIY movement is a commitment to being centered in frugality, re-purposing, and resourcefulness. Crafting and making things – and indeed gourmet cooking from scratch – can so easily be connected to hedonism and image. Instead, the simple living tradition can speak to the enjoyment of the small things and moments in life. A spirituality of simplicity can take many forms. Creating one’s one food or clothing can be a reminder of what is truly significant in life.