Learning to Repair, Mend and Sew, part 3

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This is the third part of the series on sewing. In part 1 we looked at how cheap clothing manufactured overseas killed home sewing. In part 2, we discussed simple clothing repairs. Today, we’ll look at the types of complex clothing repairs you can learn how to do.

As we’ve always done, we’ll recommend books you can use that go into detail about these types of repairs.

Simple Clothing Repairs: Is It Worth Fixing?

Just about any garment can be repaired to get some more use out of it, just as any sock or knitted garment can be darned. The difficulty lies in deciding if the garment is worth the time spent repairing it. The other hard decision is deciding if the repair will show and does that matter to you? Knee patches on pants are a good example. I’ve put replacement patches on all kinds of pants —— sweats, jeans, khakis, knits, etc — on the outside or on the inside of the garment. The repair always shows and sometimes it shows quite a lot.

I think it is very worthwhile to patch kid’s pants. Your kids will outgrow them long before the garment collapses from overuse. Knee patches will allow a pair of jeans to last through multiple children.

If not having patched garments matters to you, then you either get new clothes or you put on artistic patches that look like you meant it as a fashion statement. That is, you cover the holes worn in your plaid flannel shirt with large flowers cut out from a floral fabric in a suitable contrasting color. And then, you upgrade the cuffs, collar, and buttons to reflect the beautiful cabbage roses you appliquéd to your worn out flannel shirt. Applique is a fancy word for patch. Patches mean you are poor and thrifty. Appliques mean you are artistic and crafty. The end result is the same: the hole in the garment got covered up. This can be time-consuming work.

If you do it right, it can look like clothing people pay to get damaged.

If you do it right, it can look like clothing people pay to get damaged. (Photo from Once Upon A Craft)

It is worth your time to do this? Only you can decide. You improve your skills with each elaborate repair job and you learn more about how a garment is put together. You keep a piece of clothing from the landfill and you save hard cash. The repaired garment becomes a one-of-a-kind fashion statement. Again, only you can decide.

Fix It In a Snap

As you start repairing garments, you will run across snaps. Very rarely, a snap just needs a touch of a hammer to flatten it so it fits better into its other half. More often, it has to be replaced. You replace snaps one of two ways: sewn on snaps get replaced in kind. You carefully pick off the damaged or missing snaps and sew on new ones. The second kind, a snap that is held onto a garment with tiny, invisible teeth MUST be replaced with a snap replacer. I recommend a specialty set of pliers from Dritz. Get it and a lot of replacement snaps in various sizes and colors at a fabric store in the notions department. A snap replacer and a jar of snaps makes an excellent baby gift as missing snaps make that onesie useless. And yet, it is an amazingly simple repair to make! I’ve salvaged a lot of baby clothes with this gadget.

Zip It Up

Zippers can sometimes be repaired. A missing pull can be replaced with a paper clip or a key ring circle. Sometimes the slide doesn’t quite grip anymore and a very gentle squeeze with a pliers will tighten it. Sometimes the teeth need to be lubricated with a wax crayon or a bit of bar soap. But if teeth are missing, the slide is missing, or the zipper is torn, you have a catastrophic failure and the entire zipper must be replaced. You can never replace half a zipper as they come in a huge array of sizes and types of teeth and you will never find an exact match in your stash. Zippers, even separating ones, are always sold as two halves for a reason.

Zipper replacement troubles range from not too bad, where you can easily see and pick out the whole old zipper, to impossible, where you have to open multiple seam lines, cut the old zipper out bit by bit, hand baste in the new zipper, baste all the seams closed, test for workability, resew, and then do the final sewing. I had to do this for older son’s pizza delivery jacket. It was only a month old when the zipper tore at the bottom. The zipper had been assembled backwards (!) prior to being installed and this may have been why it failed. Or it failed because it was a cheap, crappy nylon coil zipper.

When choosing replacement zippers, remember that you can always make them shorter but you can’t make them longer. Two other points with zipper replacement: separating zippers have to be replaced with separating zippers and get the zipper with teeth rather than a nylon coil. Teeth zippers tend to last longer and if you are going to all the trouble of replacing a zipper, you don’t want to have to go back and do it again.

Reuse Worn Clothes

Clothing that is terminally worn, as in the fabric itself is developing holes all over, may not be salvageable. If a garment has no life left in it as it is unwearable, then please don’t give it to the thrift shop. Recycle it for usable parts. You should always save the buttons, zippers, interesting patches, and any other notions before turning a garment into a shop rag. Buttons never wear out, and the larger your stash, the easier it becomes to match a missing one. Zippers can be reused, or if they are damaged, then they become really cool trim.

Getting Into Heavy Metal

As you become more proficient in your sewing, it may be time to buy an iron and an ironing board. Ironing up a hem to the correct length makes the sewing much easier. It took me years to learn that you need to spend as much time at the ironing board as you do at the sewing machine. Pressing as you sew (by hand or machine) makes the finished work look smoother and more professional. The leading cause of failure in irons is being knocked over onto the floor by bad cats, so always put your iron away when it’s not in use, and it will last for years.

The conflict between cats and irons has lasted almost as long as between cats and dogs.

The conflict between cats and irons has lasted almost as long as between cats and dogs.

If you expand your repair work, a sewing machine will be next. Start looking around for sewing machines, new and used, pass-alongs and thrift shop ones. If you choose to buy a new one, shop carefully and check to see if you really want all those features. Many places that sell sewing machines throw in free lessons. If your shop does this, make sure you take advantage of it. If you are fortunate enough to get a pass—along machine, take it into the sewing repair shop (ask at the fabric store) and have the machine cleaned and tuned up. Get a manual so you know what it can do and how to thread it. The sewing machine repair shop might be able to order you one, or you can get them online.

Be Your Own Fashion Designer

Repair work on clothes easily segues into the wonderful, amazing, eye-popping, and fascinating world of altered couture, the practice of remaking old clothes into new clothes. That’s what all ye olde sewing books call the process. Once you’ve learned to sew big cabbage roses over holes in a flannel shirt, it’s an easy mental step to removing and swapping the sleeves from the blue flannel shirt with the green flannel shirt. This work, both the ripping and the resewing, can and should be done by hand. It’s much easier to make the tiny tucks needed to fit one almost the same size edge against another when sewing by hand. When you do this work by machine, you have to hand baste it completely to make it line up right; at this point, you might as well do it completely by hand.

If you live in central Pennsylvania, you can see altered couture for yourself. Suze Moll is a long-time, local practitioner. She has small stands at various places in the area and she does the local craft circuit. Go to www.remixstyle.webs.com or her Facebook page, remixstyle, to find her stuff. She does just the best thing I have ever seen to upcycle fancy colored bras: she turns them into tiny evening bags! Just the cutest things ever, and each one is unique.

There are tons of on-line resources for altered couture and plenty of books and magazines on the topic to get you started. I’ve listed some titles that I’ve used at the end of this blog post. What does studying all these resources do for you? You see the possibilities. You get much braver about taking apart and putting together clothes. As you remake things, you learn how garments are constructed, and since all the raw materials come from the back of the closet or the bargain bin at Goodwill, very little cost in money is involved. Only time and the nerve to take a pair of scissors to a old prom dress are involved.

I have personally recycled many old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses into new items. Those big skirts have a lot of only worn-once fabric in them. I upcycled several of these dresses into nursing tops for me. On-demand breastfeeding is way, way easier when you wear a nursing top. The ones you can buy are very expensive and tend to be boringly utilitarian. Get the patterns, learn to sew (or have them sewn for you) and you can have summer- and winter-weight tops in a variety of colors. I even colorblocked some of mine, using the black skirt from one dress as the underlayer and the bright pink skirt of another dress for the overlayer. I would show pictures but all of my nursing tops got freecycled long ago. I made them quite well, and it is possible that, thirteen years later, someone is still using them.

Prom dress turned princess gown, from Pinterest.

Prom dress turned princess gown, from Pinterest.

Prom and bridesmaid dresses upcycle beautifully into princess costumes for little girls. The easiest one is to cut off the spaghetti straps and then resew the new shoulder seams closed where you cut off the straps at the top of the bodice. The dress is now magically a foot shorter. Try it on your little princess and decide if you need to chop some of the hem off. Or, take in the side seams. Or not, as little girls get taller fast. Dear Daughter ended up with a huge assortment of princess attire that she and her friends wore for years as they enacted complex psycho-dramas in our living room. Each dress has to be handled differently but since they are free or almost free for the asking, it’s worth the risk of mistakes. And, you start getting your confidence up about taking a pair of scissors to a garment as you learn more about how a garment is constructed. Remember to save any unneeded notions. That butt bow can be made over into a massive Halloween hat!

Repairing and remaking the clothes you acquire second-hand gives you, at the cost of only your time and thread, a custom wardrobe and a better understanding of garment construction. You’ll get far more life out of your clothes. As you learn more, you can even make ready-made garments fit better; shortening too-long hems, moving over buttons, and taking in side seams or adding darts.

Your improved skill set will allow you to move naturally and easily into making your own clothes out of whole cloth, new or used. Once you’re making clothes from scratch, you will have to have a sewing machine, an iron, and an ironing board if you haven’t already gotten them. A sewing machine is an enormous time-saver for those long seams. Changing from hand sewing to a sewing machine is the equivalent of going from writing in longhand versus using a typewriter. It is that much of a change. This is why, back in the day, after purchasing a James hand washer with a wringer, the second appliance every woman bought, as soon as she could, was a Singer sewing machine.

Next Week: Sewing with Patterns