Repair cafes are about more than just mending.  They create connections and solutions, one stitch at a time.

Fixing the tiniest of things can have the biggest of impacts. A pair of scissors sharpened, or a seam re-stitched on a vintage silk skirt may seem small, but patch them all together on a Saturday afternoon, add cups of tea and company, and the whole suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts. This is the unique experience that is a Repair Cafe.

What is a Repair Cafe?

Repair Cafes began in The Netherlands in 2009 when Martine Postma set up the first one in Amsterdam aiming to make repairing broken household items a part of the community. It was so successful that it became The Repair Cafe International Foundation in 2011. These cafes preserve repair skills in society and promote more repairable products.

Why Should you go?

In the UK, Repair Cafes bring people together, for free, to make do and mend, share stories, drink tea and volunteer their time fixing broken items in a community space near you. The vibe is 40% chinwag, 50% bring and buy sale and 10% GP waiting room, with added power tools and homemade flapjack. Whether you have a broken item, or a flair for fixing, there is space for you to get involved.

How Many Repair Cafes in the UK

In the UK, the repair cafes movement is growing, fuelled by environmental concerns and the cost of living crisis. In 2017, a survey counted 58 in the UK and 1562 worldwide. Post-pandemic the numbers are up, with Repair Cafe’s online map showing over 400 in the UK alone, at least 9 of them here in Wales. In the Dyfi Valley there are two monthly repair cafes, one in Machynlleth and another in Aberystwyth.

Aberystwyth Repair Cafe

I went along to the repair cafe in Aberystwyth – so new it’s pre-map, and spoke to organisers and volunteers there about their experiences mending, fixing and spending time together.

The repair cafe is held in the bandstand, right on the seafront, the prom still covered with sand and shingle from the winter storms. The bike being fixed right outside attracts attention, and people wander in after their morning coffee and stroll. This is how Alex Griffen became a sewing volunteer.  Alex said, ‘We looked in to see what it was, and when we realised things were being repaired, we joined in. It’s a really nice way to spend a few hours and I feel like I’m using my time in a useful and helpful way.’

Stitching It All Together

Sewing volunteers can fix tears or broken pockets, sew on buttons and shorten sleeves and trousers. They draw the line at complete alterations, although have been known to tackle a canvas shoe. Sewing volunteer Rachel Munday takes a minute away from the sewing machine at her table strewn with scissors, fabrics and threads. She said, ‘It feels good to know that all these clothes we are fixing will not just be thrown away.’ She looks down at her busy hands and grins, now teasing at a ball of wool, ‘It’s also an opportunity to do a bit of my own darning in between!’

What Happens at a Repair Cafe?

Repair cafes last for around two hours and each cafe has different sections depending on local expertise. Here in Aber, volunteers fix jewellery, bikes, sewing and electrical or mechanical items. The repair cafe is run by volunteers, including regulars who come and volunteer each month. Volunteers get to know each other in between fixing. The mixing together and meeting new people is all part of the appeal.

The Sharpening Guy

Andy Bakewell, chainsaw expert and general fixer has become known as ‘the sharpening guy,’ and can sharpen knives, scissors, secateurs, even handling the saw-tooth triangles of a pair of pinking shears. Today, he is busy sharpening scissors that belong to Karen Taylor, a repair cafe supporter and frequent user of scissors. She said she was ‘over the moon’ to get her scissors fixed. She said, ‘After Andy has sharpened them the blades are as good as new. Otherwise you would just have to chuck them. It saves purchasing a new pair and we really don’t want to be the type of household that just throws things away’

Saying Goodbye to a Throwaway Society

In recent years, knowledge about the environmental costs of manufacturing mean a real move away from the idea of badly-made and single-use products. Movements such as The Right to Repair are challenging planned obsolescence, where companies make frail and unfixable products to drive consumer spending.

Andy said, ‘It’s a real joy, fixing stuff and putting it back together. I especially enjoy repairing the older items. A lot of it was better made in the past, built to last longer, and fixing it connects us with the people who built it in the first place. I love the variety too. You never know who is going to come in and what you are going to be presented with.’

‘You’re a man of many talents aren’t you,’ said Karen, picking up and admiring her newly sharpened scissors, ‘Those pinking shears I bought you last time are still absolutely perfect!’ 

Is Using Volunteers a Loss to Local Businesses?

Repair cafes organisers are sometimes asked if they are taking work away from businesses who do small-scale repairs. Andy said, ‘Getting involved in repair cafes can actually work in their favour as we are attracting new people who do not know where or how to get their item repaired. Local repairers could come, bring their business cards, volunteer for two hours and advertise what they do.’  Eco Hub Aber signposts people with items for repair to local businesses such as TV repairs, tailoring and computers.

There are many different benefits for volunteers. Andy said, ‘As a self-employed person, I love the simplicity of it all, I don’t have to cost a job, waste time on any admin. All the time is spent doing the work. There is no stress, no expectation of productivity and no deadlines. Also people want to talk about the story of their item. It creates community.’

A Surprise Jewellery Fix

Maeve Moran had a favourite pair of silver earrings she wore all the time, until one went missing at her girlfriend’s house. She brought the one amber stone she had left to volunteer jewellery-mender, Lucy McQuillan. They decided to remake the earring into a delicate necklace on a silver chain. Maeve said, ‘it feels great to be able to transform the earring into something else that’s beautiful, and If the other one turns up, we can make my girlfriend one too.’

How Much Does Mending Cost?

Mending doesn’t have to cost the earth and is often cheaper than getting things replaced. One woman saved a vintage sewing machine that belonged to her mother by purchasing a replacement part for just 80p. Billy Langley, the electrical volunteer who fixed it, said, ‘The sewing machine had been her mothers and hadn’t worked for years. At the last repair cafe, a part was identified to be replaced. She went away and bought it; a small electrical component. She returned today and I fitted it right away. The part only cost 80p. It was incredibly cheap to fix. She was so grateful and happy to see it working again.’ 

Our Belongings Have Meaning

Another volunteer who mends electrical items said, ‘We have an emotional attachment to our things. Everything we fix means something to somebody.’ One woman bought me a radio she used to listen to with her husband. The radio had remained silent since he passed away. ‘When it was fixed and began to play music again she had tears in her eyes.’

Sharing Skills and Experience

Repair cafes are not just for experts. They can be about learning and swapping skills. One experienced repair cafe organiser said, ‘We try and get the person to do part of the fixing as it makes repairing something feel more possible. Lifting a lid off, or soldering a wire, or putting screws back in, are things we can all do. When people are shown these skills they really believe a thing can be mended. Those are skills that we have lost a bit in recent years.’

What if an Item Cannot be Fixed?

Sometimes not everything can be fixed and that’s okay. The first woman through the door on this drizzly Saturday, could not get her item mended. She nevertheless said, ‘It was lovely and the atmosphere was fantastic.’

Billy Langley, mused on why people might enjoy attending, even if their item was beyond repair. He said, ‘Sometimes even if you can’t fix it, you’ve given the person and their belonging some attention. You’ve really tried to help. They feel better after that, even if it can’t be fixed. And if they have to throw it away, at least, they tried their best to mend it first.’

Information about items that can’t be fixed is collected and sent back to manufacturers – all part of the “right to repair” movement.

Repairing All Our Futures

Repair cafes are attracting multi-generations of people who want to learn and pass on skills to help lessen environmental impact, save things from going to landfill, and reduce the unnecessary purchase and production of consumer goods.

Kate Rolt from Aber Eco Hub surveyed her repair kingdom as she reflected on how the Aberystwyth Repair cafe has grown, she said, ‘It’s great to see it gathering momentum. Every one we do gets more relaxed, and we have more and more people bringing more repairs.’

One volunteer fixer said, ‘‘We had the war generation who knew scarcity and how to fix things, but since then a lot of the confidence to fix things has fallen by the wayside. Now, due to environmental concerns and the cost of living crisis, people suddenly want to know how to do this stuff.’

He continued, ‘Our egos and lack of confidence can get in the way of joining in, people thinking they are not good enough at fixing things to volunteer their time, but you do not need any specific skills to come and help out. You don’t have to fix it all yourself either, someone else will always help and it’s great because we all learn from each other.’

So much can feel broken and unfixable, but here at the Repair cafes, the idea is we still have to try. It is all about small positive actions. Interactions between people that are worth more than the sum of their parts. Andy said, ‘At a time where so much of the news is negative, here is a spot which is positive.’

These small positive actions lead to a ripple effect, changing attitudes, one fix at a time.

Bringing people together to fix things, at a time of global crisis, what could be more important than that?