Why I Repair, Sew and Mend (part 2)

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Last week, we looked at how learning to sew, once a skill taught to girls in the school system, has nearly vanished thanks to an increase in the supply of cheap clothes from overseas manufacturers.

But with cheapness comes a price. There’s a saying that when it comes to anything, you can have it by picking two out of these three choices: fast, cheap and good. You can have it cheap and good, but you can’t have it fast. Or, you can have it fast and cheap, but not good. Or Fast and good, but not cheap.

So how can you ensure that your family wears good, well-made clothing? You can have clothing custom-made by a seamstress or tailor. You may have to look pretty hard to find this service but these people exist. Then pay them what they ask. If you can’t stomach the prices, reflect on the fact that the local seamstress or tailor wants to earn more than the 29 cents an hour that sewing machine operators get paid in Third-World sweatshops. That the local seamstress doesn’t get to pay the lowest possible wholesale price for fabric bought in 100,000-yard increments. That the local tailor has rent, Social Security, and utilities to pay. Third-World sweatshops and Chinese prison labor is the reason why new clothes in the United States cost so little relative to the amount of workmanship, fabric, notions, and time invested in them.

How do you solve this problem of cost? You learn to do it yourself. You start with a needle, thread, thimble, and sewing scissors. Then you teach yourself to make the most basic of repairs: sewing buttons back on and closing up split seams. Thanks to the miracle of Project Runway, sewing has become popular again, and so you can now find basic how to mend and repair books with loads of pictures that aren’t sixty years old or older.

home sewing
A current book is “Mend It Better: Creative Patching, Darning, and Stitching” by Kristin M. Roach. A really excellent older book is “”The Mender’s Manual” by Estelle Foote. The difference between the two books is that Ms. Foote assumes you already know how to sew. Ms. Roach assumes you’ve never had a needle in your hand and so gives you plenty of photographs to demonstrate how to thread and hold one.

cooking-for-absolute-beginners-cover-home-sewingThe progression in sewing books is the same as that of cookbooks. Most older cookbooks — unless aimed at total newbies such as “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” by Muriel Fitzsimmons and Cortland Fitzsimmons (Dover Publications) — assume you already know what to do. More modern cookbooks have to assume you have never boiled water and proceed accordingly. As your how-to-sew books get older and older, the basic information and directions become more and more sparse with many fewer illustrations. Older books can be more useful as they assume you need to save money and so give instructions for things you wouldn’t get today such as replacing a lining in a jacket. Older books also assume that you have an older relative around whom you can ask. If you do have a mother, grandmother, or aunt who still mends, repairs, and sews you have a stunningly valuable resource. So ask for help! I’ve learned a lot from books but being shown by someone who knows what she’s doing is far better than trying to interpret cryptic instructions and tiny line drawings.

Why Sew At All?

home sewing

Cooking is drudgery. Why else would Hamburger Helper be invented?

What happened is that sewing, like basic home cooking, has become a lost art; a skill that in two generations went from the vast majority of women (because let’s face it, most men didn’t cook or sew) knowing at least how to repair a hem and put meals on the table three times a day to most women barely recognizing a needle and thimble and relying on the miracle of pre-fab convenience food cookery. Sewing, like cooking, is time-consuming work and both can turn into drudgery really quick.

If you can’t find the Zen of being bent over a sewing machine for hours on end or making a meal in an hour that gets eaten in five minutes and then repeating the process three times a day for the rest of your life, you start resenting the work. Why wouldn’t you? Especially if you can maintain some 60-hour-a-week career and use some of that money to pay poorer women of color to do the same work. And, you simply can’t maintain that sixty-hour-a-week career (this is about how many hours a week my sister the programmer works, at a minimum, every single week; during sick days and vacations she is expected to check her email faithfully and make up every single missed hour of work when she gets back) and spend three hours a day cooking and cleaning up from said work and doing all the sewing of garments, household linens, plus repair work and mending. This doesn’t cover any of the other daily work to run a house well nor does it include hours spent on exercise and other body maintenance, commuting, community service, church work, housekeeping, personal time with children, spouse, and friends, and food growing and preservation. That 24-hours-a-day pesky time-management problem reappears with a vengeance.

So, as soon as there was a little more money, a job took up your time, and clothing and household cloth items became super cheap (when all the American textile jobs went overseas to sweatshops), sewing fell off of the radar. Your time matters. It matters a lot. So again, why sew at all?

1. Repair work is easy. It is crazy and wasteful to discard a blouse because a button is missing or a seam has opened up. These are both incredibly easy fixes and take far less time and money than shopping for a replacement blouse. If of course, you have a needle, thread, thimble, scissors, and a jar of buttons and you know how to use them.

At this point, let me say that every household that plans on doing repair work to clothing should have a button jar. Take a clean, clear peanut butter jar and start saving all those buttons you find loose in the washer, you picked up off the floor, and that come attached as replacements to the clothes you bought. When you have to buy a packet of buttons to replace the one missing shirt button, put the extras into the jar. Since I sew a lot, I have collected a lot of buttons.


My buttons are sorted by type (shank or hole) and by color. For basic repairs, you won’t need nearly this many. What makes button replacement hard is that you can almost never find an exact match of even a plain ½-inch white shirt button. Even the most basic buttons comes in dozens of variations; fancy types are impossible to match. So I save every single button I come across, I joyfully accept the unwanted buttons from other people, and if I come across a jarful of buttons at a thrift shop or yard sale, I buy it and add it to the stash. This way, I can come pretty close to a match or I can replace all the buttons on the garment, ensuring they match.

To complete your basic repair kit, you need a few spools of thread: white, black, cream, and three shades of gray (light, medium, dark). The gray thread will allow you to get reasonably close to the color tone of the item you are redoing the seam on. Since this stitching is hidden, you don’t need an exact color match. If the thread is going to show, you may want to make the trip to the fabric store and buy an exact match. I use Coats and Clark thread and Gütermanns; both are widely available and work very nicely. Avoid the super-cheap no-name thread you sometimes see in dime stores. This thread is so poorly made it is not suitable for anything but hand basting as it may break apart when the garment is washed.

A book of hand needles in various sizes, a thimble that fits your middle finger on your dominant hand, a pair of sewing scissors, and perhaps a small box of straight pins and safety pins will round out your repair kit. All of these items are widely available; even grocery stores carry some of this stuff tucked away in the aisle with the household cleansers and mops.

The thimble is the hardest item to get as you have to try them on. Yes, thimbles come in sizes. You want one that fits snugly over your middle finger on your dominant hand but not so snugly that it pinches. It has to fit well so it doesn’t come off as you sew. The thimble lets you push the needle through the fabric without puncturing your flesh. It is absolutely worth the trouble to learn how to hand sew with a thimble if you are going to do any repair work at all. It increases your speed and saves your skin.

Get a decent pair of sewing scissors and mark them as such. Do not EVER let anyone cut paper with your sewing scissors. Paper cutting ruins the blade for fabric and you will then have to cut out the heart and liver of the person who ruined your good scissors as they are now useless for anything else. Damaged scissors have to be resharpened; fabric stores sometimes offer this service. You can sometimes find someone who sharpens scissors at farmer’s markets too; I got all my scissors redone at the Hershey Farmer’s Market and what a joy they were to use afterwards.

Then you get the basic mending book such as “Hand Mending Made Easy” by Nan L. Ides and you are ready to start fixing simple stuff. Once you learn to resew on buttons and close opened seams, you move on to repairing hems. When you have learned to repair a hem, you can start changing a hem. I do some sewing for money and a simple job I do a lot of is shortening the hems on pants. Depending on the type of pants, I do it by hand or by machine. Any sewing job that can be done by machine can be done by hand and hems are an easy place to learn. It usually but not always just takes longer. And, there are some jobs that even if you can do them by machine should still be done by hand. It works better, it looks better or it just takes less time. Yes, hand sewing can, sometimes, be faster than machine sewing. It can make just as strong a seam.

Learning basic mending is empowering. You no longer have to discard a garment because of an easily repaired seam. As you get better at it, you learn to do harder, more complex jobs. This saves you time and money; the time spent shopping for replacements and the money spent on buying new garments. Doing your own basic repairs will also free up the money for paying a tailor or seamstress for the much harder ones: relining or taking in a suit jacket or replacing a complex coat zipper.

Next Week: We’ll take a look at more complex clothing repairs