Ditching fast fashion: Belfast designer Mary Rose McGrath on fixing our clothes

Despite its destructive impact on the planet and hazardous working conditions, fast fashion is accelerating at such a pace that it has now been termed ultra-fast fashion.

ith online shopping habits and the rise of social media, these ultra-fast fashion brands are able to use clever digital marketing techniques to entice us into buying more and more clothes — at a time when we’re being warned to reduce our consumption and cut down on waste to help tackle the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, slow fashion — the revolution against these fleeting, throwaway purchases — is also growing in popularity, as a way to rebel against the dominance of fast fashion.

Advocates of slow fashion aim to protect the environment and avoid exploitative working practises by cutting down on buying new clothes, and extending the lifespan of garments to create a more circular economy.

Focusing on quality over quantity, the slow fashion movement encourages us to buy second-hand, rent or swap clothes, and get creative by using age-old skills, like sewing, to repair and recycle garments already in our wardrobes.

Belfast fashion designer Mary Rose McGrath is passionate about slow fashion, and is helping bring back the lost skill of sewing, as a way to help create a more sustainable wardrobe.

Armed with 25 years of high-end experience in the fashion industry, the mum-of-one has set up a sewing academy offering classes for adult beginners and a summer fashion academy for kids, as well as ‘Mummy and Me’ classes for adults and kids to learn how to sew together.

“What I love to do is teach people what I know,” says Mary Rose.

“Sewing is a phenomenal skill to have and it sparks the imagination and creativity.”


One of Mary Rose’s designs

Sewing resurged as a hobby around a decade ago thanks to the TV programme, The Great British Sewing Bee. But Mary Rose says interest in her classes peaked during the pandemic, when people had more time for hobbies and started stripping back on consumption.

“I think as consumers we need to be buying less. I don’t need another coat, I don’t need more jeans. I think trend-wise we need to move back and this definitely has been something that’s been talked about in the industry, as opposed to rattling out these hundreds of trends every year.

“Yes have your key piece, but also have your basic sewing skills so that if you do need to take that pair of trousers up, you can do it.

“If you do find a beautiful, sixties, vintage jacket in some second-hand shop and it’s in the wrong size, you can pick it in at the side seams or you could take that amazing sixties beaded collar and put that on to something else to revamp it, and to customise it and reuse it,” she says.

“It’s not just sewing, it’s creativity. People will in the future — as the forecast predicts — will be anti-fast fashion. We’ll be going back to the old skills of making it yourself or buying less and customising.

“There definitely is a movement towards going back to individuality, it will instead in years to come be much cooler to be seen with something that’s a one-off, or something you’ve created yourself.”

Mary Rose is passionate in the revolt against fast fashion, and sewing your own clothes is a way to ensure that you are enjoying fashion guilt-free. “I’m all for understanding that people have to work to budgets and I totally get that, but it’s why I feel instead, if we could all be a bit more creative and think about the environment and think about landfill,” she says.

“If it’s £5 for a dress, there’s maybe something wrong with that factory.

“And I think it’s really good to recognise: ‘You know what, it’s got a wee hole there, I’ll fix it up myself’, so that it’s sustainable”.

The fashion designer has noticed interest from people from all walks of life — young and old. She is passionate about instilling a love of sewing in the younger generation, as it is a skill that is not taught on the school curriculum.

“I’m absolutely delighted to see an interest with the kids wanting to sew — encouraging them from a young age to be creative.

“And instead of following the herds in regards to fast fashion — to be unique, to be the leader as opposed to the follower.

“It is girls and boys and that’s something that I’m absolutely delighted with, the interest from boys, because why can’t boys sew? There’s loads of boys out there that are really interested in it and they’re learning with me which is amazing. I think that the kids should all be taught it as a basic skill.

“I think not only does it get them away from screens, it lets them take some time out where they’re concentrating, they’re making. It’s full of creativity. It’s back to working with their hands,” she says.

“I’m super, super up for that, and to promote sewing and making with any kids. It’s passing on a really good message to them, that they can make it, that they can customise it, that they can sew, as opposed to having this non-stop buying.

“That’s why I have the summer camp, which I started last year which was brilliant craic. It’s exhausting whenever you’ve got all those wee ones in the class but it’s fun, and they’re phenomenal. I mean some of the work that is produced is just literally amazing!”


Collection of sewing equipment

Besides the benefits of sewing for the environment, Mary Rose points out that the hobby can also be therapeutic — because you have to concentrate on the task, it can be good for mental health.

“Sort of like a therapy where it does give you a bit of time off, if there’s something going on in your brain. Pupils have to focus on precision or a sequence of work, which takes their brain off their worries,” she explains.

“I’ve had so much feedback from students — not only do they have the confidence to do this at home but they have had a laugh with other students in a small intimate group, and just not thinking about the stuff going on in their head.”

Mary Rose keeps the classes small, so by the end of their session everyone feels confident that they can go home and recycle their clothes — whether it be mending a ripped shirt, taking up school trousers or revamping a second-hand dress.

With our throwaway culture, our instinct in the past has been to chuck out a dress or leggings that have been ripped, but learning how to sew with Mary Rose helps instil confidence that we can get creative and fix it ourselves.

“You don’t have to be the best sewer in the world but if you realise what you can do, and if you have the smart skills and tips and tricks…and that’s definitely what I’m doing, just giving people the tips and tricks of how to get a great looking garment that looks store bought just by either customising it, altering it, or making it from scratch,” explains Mary Rose.

“If you learn these clever ways of working and making things look like they’ve got a great finish to them, the world is your oyster.

“So you don’t have to always buy new. There is an awful lot you can do with remake, redo and re-love.”