The Patchwork Initiative at Colorado State University

Meet a group of college students who are making a difference by striving to mend the gaps in clothing sustainability—both literally and figuratively.

Doreen Beard and Robert Moccia Nov 9, 2022 - 5 min read

The Patchwork Initiative at Colorado State University Primary Image

Thick brocade, corduroy, and suede swatches and decorative embroidery adorn the seat, upper legs, and knees of these 1960s patchwork jeans. Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising permanent collection, 1986.10.3. Photo by Joe A. Mendoza/CSU Photography, Colorado State University

Invested serious money in your Smartwool socks, but now they’re thin in spots? Big tear in a favorite jacket? How about a busted zipper in that trendy vintage piece? Guess it’s time for the trash. But wait—a growing number of Colorado State University students are saying, “We want to help!”

The Patchwork Initiative (TPI), a recent addition to Colorado State University and the Fort Collins regional community, is looking to change that first impulse to toss the no-longer-new or trash the less-than-perfect. Coming from a wide variety of majors, the students’ common concern is that our consumer culture makes it far too easy to produce, order, use, and dispose of clothing at a blistering speed far beyond rates sustainable for the planet, and often well outside of ethical boundaries for worker health or pay. However, with dwindling access to sewing and mending know-how, far fewer people are familiar with clothing repair and textile upcycling.

The thrift of the 1940s informs CSU students’ know-how of the 2020s! Make and Mend for Victory, The Spool Cotton Company, 1942. Author collection; inherited from her grandmother (left) Photo by Doreen Beard. The Patchwork Initiative’s team member Kate Ulibarri sets up her sock and wooden egg for stitching at the March 2022 darning workshop hosted by The Patchwork Initiative for all interested CSU students (right). Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography, Colorado State University

Enter The Patchwork Initiative—a student-led clothing sustainability collaborative spearheaded by CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability’s Student Sustainability Center (SSC), the Department of Design and Merchandising (DM), and the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising, with grant support from the President’s Sustainability Commission.

Designed with the goals of reducing clothing consumption and growing a culture of clothing restoration, The Patchwork Initiative project geared up in the Spring 2022 semester when like-minded students gathered to figure out how to be the change they wanted to see. In February and March 2022, they met to practice darning and mending techniques, and by April they were at CSU’s 2022 Earth Week Fair, set up with sewing machines, connecting with students, and running clothing repairs (it certainly helps that several members are majoring in apparel design and construction). That same month, the TPI team made their first off-campus appearance by organizing the community mending workshop at the annual Earth Day Fort Collins event in Civic Center Park. All told, over the course of the Spring of 2022, the students of The Patchwork Initiative conducted a half-dozen mending workshops, with more than 100 cumulative hours of clothing repair and education.

The Patchwork Initiative’s educational events also include behind-the-scenes encounters with mended apparel in the historic clothing and textiles collection of CSU’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising. Photo by Douglas Andrews/Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising, Colorado State University

Fall 2022 brought more apparel repair workshops, expanding social events, and increasing educational opportunities for CSU students and the Fort Collins regional community. Among several larger events: a Halloween Upcycling Workshop for students working on costumes, and a Campus Sustainability Collective Clothing Swap that united multiple fashion and sustainability groups into one big social sustainability and clothing event. While the fine autumn weather held, the TPI team also hosted smaller “Mend-and-Greet” tables on the Lory Student Center plaza—a great chance to get outside, talk to passersby about the project, and help repair a few items of clothing.

Looking ahead into 2023–24, The Patchwork Initiative aims to broaden its work to help mend the gaps in clothing sustainability, one thread at a time. For more information, follow “the Patchwork” on instagram @thepatchworkinitative and subscribe to the TPI mailing list here.

Doreen Beard is the Director of Operations and Engagement for the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University.

Robert (Sam) Moccia is the Director of the Student Sustainability Center (SSC) at Colorado State University, School of Global Environmental Sustainability.