Visible Mending

mending
Creatively patched jeans. Photo by Karen Pearson

Visible mending is trending at a time when there have never been so many clothes in the world. In the past two decades there has been a transformational shift in the way most people buy, use and dispose of clothes, leading to exploitation and waste, as well as a loss of skills and knowledge of how clothes are made. Because we know modern-day slavery and the increasing use of synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels are the main reasons clothes have become so cheap, many are now looking for more thoughtful ways to dress.

Choose Natural Fibres

Long before sustainability became fashionable, HRH Prince Charles had been urging people to consider the environment when choosing what to wear. As patron of the Campaign for Wool, he promotes wool as a renewable and biodegradable resource and has expressed concern about the poisoned legacy we are leaving our children and grandchildren through the rise of synthetics.

Ecological research led by Dr Mark Browne in 2011 revealed that synthetic fibres shed microplastic particles every time they are washed. We are yet to understand the health implications of this, but clearly it does not augur well.

In 2013 two-thirds of apparel fibre used to make clothes were synthetic and cellulose fibres, while natural fibres made up the other third. Just a decade earlier it was half and half. Synthetic fibres are polyester, nylon and acrylic derived from fossil fuels. Celluosics are viscose, rayon and bamboo made from reconstituted plant material. Natural fibres are mainly cotton and linen from plants, and wool and silk from animals.

Slow Clothing – A Personal Choice

Clothes that mean something to us personally, that carry a good story about how they came to be in the world, are much more likely to last in our wardrobes than fast fashion. We want to mend them because we love them. And if we rush to buy new things for reasons of status, convenience and looks, we lose the opportunity to be mindful and resourceful through the act of making and creating.

Other things we can do include thinking more before we buy, choosing natural fibres over synthetics, buying less but choosing better quality items that are preferably made locally, washing less and sponging more. We can learn to make clothes of our own, wear secondhand, learn to upcycle and restyle, or totally repurpose, and use as rags, bags and rugs.

Mending Back In Vogue

In earlier times, mending was practised from scarcity and thrift. Our grandparents mended and tinkered to keep clothes and other valuables in circulation. They did not toss at the slightest sign of malfunction. Textiles were conserved and reinforced by stitching. In the United States there are original patchwork quilts of Gee’s Bend in Alabama and modern-day visible mending is emerging with a vengeance. In India there is kantha stitching and in Japan there is boro. The Japanese word, mottainai, translates as ‘what a waste’. In Tokyo, the Amuse Museum houses an amazing collection of heritage boro textiles renovated using sashiko stitching.

We’re catching on. Mending is the simplest way to minimize our material footprint. It is an ethical and sustainable action within easy reach. It is something that comes instinctively to permaculture people.

Mending With Heart

kit
Mending kit. Photo by Jane Milburn

Mending is fun, and good for the soul. It transforms both mender and mended. Of course we could just buy new garments, but it feels good to breathe new life into existing ones (which are often of better quality anyway). We stitch a fresh story into the fibres and show care for the garments, as well as save the energy, water, resources, time and money required to buy new.

Each moment of mending becomes an investment in the change we want to see. Our mending actions push back against endless consumption. When we mend, we embrace the imperfect reality of a mended life. Mending makes us feel good because the rhythmic movement of needle through cloth brings our mind into the moment. When we put energy into fixing clothes they carry our signature, be it neat or messy.

Mending Is For Everyone

There are no rules about how to mend and we don’t need to be particularly skilled. In fact, mending is a good way to learn hand-stitching. All you need do is thread the needle and secure the stitches. If you have trouble threading the needle, flatten the thread using saliva between your fingertips and have a white background behind the needle to help you clearly see the eye. In general, use 100% cotton thread that has a bit of weight and will be strong enough for repairs. Or you can pair your stitching with your fabric, ie use silk thread when mending silk, and linen thread when mending linen.

How To Begin

Secure the thread with a knot (knot on) or by doing several small stitches on top of each other to begin the mending process. Once your thread is secure, you just move the needle to the front and back of the fabric to create an agreeable pattern (lines, circles or random) and then secure the end of the thread (knot off) so the work doesn’t unravel.

How To Knot On

Use about 50 cm of thread, insert through the eye of the needle and create a knot one end. Any knot is good, below is just one way.

  1. Thread the needle, position the tail end of the thread along your index finger and place the needle down on top with two-thirds of it (the needle) sitting beyond the finger.
  2. Place your thumb lightly on top of the needle and thread.
  3. Wrap the thread twice around the needle and reposition your thumb so it now sits on top of needle with thread loops.
  4. Pinch thumb and forefinger together and pull the threaded needle out and away, until the knot is left sitting between thumb and finger. You are now ready to stitch.

How To Knot Off

After a run of stitching, ensure you have about 5–10 cm of thread (if a beginner, less when you know how) left on your needle to begin the knotting off process. It is useful to do one tight little stitch to secure the tension of your work before you knot off as described in these diagrams.

  1. Before the thread becomes too short, create a small stitch and pull most of the thread through, leaving a small loop.
  2. Pass your needle through this loop and pull most of the thread through it. You will see another loop forming as you draw the thread through.
  3. Pass your needle back through that second loop and pull both loops tight to create a double knot. Snip off the excess thread, leaving a visible tail rather than cutting too close.

Stitching

Running stitch is the most versatile stitch and simply involves movement of the needle and thread from one side of the fabric to the other to form a row of stitches. With experience, you can load up the needle and do several stitches at once. Other types of stitches are illustrated below.

Darning

Darning is a way to repair holes in fabric by weaving new threads (warp and weft). Using knitting wool or other thread, make long stitches back and forth across the hole (check tension to avoid puckering) then change orientation to weave in and out of these threads to fill the gap.

If you are darning a sock, avoid using knots by weaving the ends back on themselves. If the hole is very small, just make one stitch left to right and another top to bottom. Darning can be decorative, using contrasting or multicoloured threads to please your eye. Ensure you also darn into the fabric beyond the hole, as it currently exists, to prevent future weaknesses. Stitching circles is another way to darn a small hole.

Patching

There is no limit as to what can be done with hand-stitching to repair and embellish garments. Use a similar weight fabric, which can be an old T-shirt or wool garment, denim or woven fabric to create your patches. These can be applied on the front, or behind the fabric surface. If applying to the back, you can cut away the front damaged layer after you have attached the patch underneath. Use running stitch (also known as sashiko) and decorate with stitches, buttons or threads to your own style.

jeans
Patching jeans. Photo by Jane Milburn

Clip away the stray threads around the damaged area and even up the hole, perhaps into a rectangular shape. Find a scrap of similar-weight fabric (from old jeans or remnant material) that is bigger than the hole and extends at least 2 cm on all sides. Using pins, attach the patch so it is sitting behind the hole (i.e. on the inside of the garment). Safety pins are best for this task, as they don’t fall out or prick you.

For a rectangular hole, clip 1 cm into each corner and turn the raw edge under before stitching the patch in place using blanket stitching. If the hole is circular or random-shaped, clip at regular intervals as required to enable you to turn under. You may prefer just to stitch the raw edge without bothering to turn under and do running stitch across the entire area. Any patch is a good patch and there are no rules.

We can contribute to a more sustainable, less toxic environment through everyday choices in what we wear, by focusing on longevity, meaning and story. Caring for clothes is integral to the slow clothing philosophy through which we choose to dress for health and wellbeing. I’ve written about all this in my book Slow Clothing: Finding Meaning in What We Wear (Textile Beat, 2017).

Images and illustration taken from Textile Beat, The Process of Mending by Jane Milburn (Textile Beat, 2017). Photos by Karen Pearson, taken from Mending Matters, Stitch, Patch and Repair Your Favourite Denim and More by Katrina Rodabaugh (Abrams, 2018)

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