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The OG Canberra Repair Cafe

On the second Saturday of every month, crafters, electricians, and seamstresses gather at the Canberra Environment Centre to offer their skills, perfected over decades, to the public. Since 2017, the Canberra Repair Café has provided help in fixing clothing, jewellery, household appliances, and other bits and bobs, at absolutely zero cost.

The event is entirely volunteer-driven, and attendees of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and abilities are welcome. Repair cafés are warm, wholesome community events, and if you have never been to one, you’re missing out. There’s always tea, excellent conversation, and sometimes cake!

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Last month, I visited the largest repair café in Canberra, which is still quite small, with a handful of expert volunteers coming in every month. Some things to note before visiting the  Canberra Repair Café:

  1. Bring your own tools if you have them! Whether it’s a sewing kit, a tool kit, or even a pair of pliers. The volunteers often aim to teach you how to do a repair yourself while they fix your item, so you don’t need to drive out next time your thingamabob breaks.
  2. Have some tea and stay a while. A key aspect that differentiates repair cafés from paid repair services, is that you pay in conversation and company, rather than cash. All the volunteers are super friendly, and love to share their years of knowledge where they can. Also, bring food! Where else can you trade your baked goods for a good-as-new repair?
  3. There’s probably a repair café near you.  The Canberra Repair Café was the first repair café in the ACT, but many more have popped up since then. If the environment centre is too far out, why not try the Hawker or Tuggeranong Repair Cafés? Even University of Canberra has its very own clothing-specific repair café, ran every Thursday from 11am-1pm.

The Canberra Repair Café’s foremost motivation is to promote sustainability. Founder, Heidi, notes “We help people to repair everyday items to save them from landfill. Our main goal is to allow people to keep using their things for longer, and therefore reduce consumption, but in doing that we’re also helping people change their attitudes about buying new objects overall. Additionally, we create a sense of community, and empowerment. When people know how to fix their every day items, they aren’t reliant on buying new things.”

Photography by Anja de Rozario

The Canberra Repair Café’s dedication to changing attitudes appears to be successful, as customers have brought in all sorts of weird and wonderful items to be fixed. Heidi recalled a disposable rubber glove being brought for repair. “Just the one.” She laughed. “Unfortunately we couldn’t fix that.”

The main attraction of the Canberra Repair café was its warm, communal atmosphere. People of all ages were there to help. Saoirse, a fourth-generation Irish jeweller, regularly volunteered alongside her grandchildren. Her eight-year-old granddaughter, Sam, sat beside her, learning Saoirse’s craft, while her teenage grandson, Louis, had been taken under the wing of the electricians. “They’re making him more useful.” She winked.

The café’s motivations resonated with Saoirse’s family, “In our culture, we believe it’s the duty of the one holding the wisdom to pass it on.” As Sam constructed a bracelet for me out of glass beads, her grandmother spoke further of the cause.  “I think it’s brilliant. It slows down the landfill, and slows down the disrespect of our possessions – if you keep something for a while you may actually become fond of it, and that’s not a bad idea. When you purchase items, you don’t just own them,  you have a responsibility for them.”

John, a retired electrician, laughed and offered a different reason to why people come in. “The main reason I find why someone brings something in, is because they like it. It’s their favourite. It’s not so much trying to keep things out of landfill, it’s that it was given to them by their grandma!

“I’ve repaired Santa Claus. A robotic one, that is. He had a broken mechanical arm, so I bandaged him up. And a mechanical witch from Halloween! Easiest. Repair. Ever.” His eyes gleamed. “They were just flicking the switch the wrong way.”

John and his wife, Monica attend the Canberra Repair Café together, she as a seamstress. “We’ve been coming here for three and a half years. We’ve got to know the people, everyone’s helpful.” John smiled “Sometimes  all you need is a second opinion to confirm something is dead, but people here try their hardest to get things fixed.”

Fiona, another seamstress, shared a biscuit with me while talking about the strangest thing she had ever repaired. “I generally mend clothing and other textiles. Cushions, pillows, that sort of thing. But this one guy brought in his underpants. Twice! Apparently they were very special, Carrie Tucker Underpants. Promotional merch, from her political run. Subsequently, I’ve taught him to repair his own underpants. ‘Cause you know, teach a man to mend his undies…”

Regarding the future of the Canberra Repair Café she answered, “I would really like to see more volunteers. People with skills, who maybe don’t even think of them as skills. I never thought of [mending] as a skill, I’d just always been repairing clothes for my kids, like how my mom repaired my clothes. But I was part of a tradition, and now I’m passing that tradition on.”



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