Learn How to Mend and Recycle Clothes

Mending lets you give new life to old clothes the old-fashion way.

Sewing on a Button

Quick work with needle and thread reattaches a button.

iStockphoto.com/Furabolo

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Making repairs to clothing and small household appliances of all kinds was once a proud part of life in North America. Most households at least knew how to mend. But when manufacturing efficiencies and inexpensive labor brought the cost of goods to record lows, mending and recycled clothes fell out of favor. In many cases, repairing an item now costs more than simply buying new. This phenomenon has sent to the landfill many a shirt missing a button or pair of coveralls with torn knees. In many instances, learning how to mend is the answer.

It may be true that you can’t buy the parts to fix your broken toaster for less than you’d pay for a new one, but you can still save a basket of money by giving old clothes a new life.

I’ll admit it. I’m a glutton for the satisfaction of making things last. I grew up watching my mother patch the knees of my brother’s corduroys and hem up my skirts to make hip little minis. On her family visits, my grandmother would take over Mom’s mending basket and help catch up on the backlog of buttons that needed replacing; she might convert an Oxford-collared shirt, after I’d outgrown the sleeves, into a pert sleeveless blouse that would get me through the summer. Mine was a family of savers determined to honor an object for the service it had provided. For us, it was disrespectful to throw a thing away when you could take a tuck in it or glue it back together and extend its useful life.

Today’s economy requires that many of us do more with less. Here’s a secret: less really is more. Less money spent on new stuff makes for more creativity, more satisfaction in extending the lives of useful and well-loved things. Read on for some specific mending tips that’ll help you make useful new things out of old and keep favorite old items performing. 

What You’ll Need:

  • Storage container or sewing basket
  • Straight pins and pin cushion
  • Tape measure
  • Tracing wheel
  • Thread
  • Sewing needles of different sizes
  • Thimble
  • Needle threader
  • Small scissors for snipping
  • Large scissors/shears
  • Pinking shears
  • Seam ripper
  • Steam iron (often available for next to nothing at thrift stores and garage sales)
  • Ironing board (often available for next to nothing at thrift stores and garage sales) 

Mending Instructions 

Blanket binding:

Buy pre-folded binding sold by the spool. Flatten out the end and iron a hem along one side of the binding; refold with the hemmed edge turned under, and iron again to “set” the first end of the binding. Cut binding the length of the blanket to be mended, with a generous (say 4-inch) piece left over – this is to allow for the blanket “relaxing” as you stitch on the binding, which often takes a little more binding than your initial measured length of the blanket.

Pin the binding along the raveled edge of the blanket, sandwiching the raveled edge between the two sides of the folded binding. Stitch to close the end of the binding, then sew fairly close to the edge of the binding along the width of the blanket, making sure to go through both sides of the binding. Three inches or so from the other end of the blanket, cut off any excess binding, allowing for an ironed-under hem; pin as necessary. Complete stitching the full width of the blanket and around the corner to close the second end of the binding.

The same approach is used for that puppy-chewed rug, or any situation where you’re healing a ragged edge; for example, a decorative edge for bedraggled pant or shirt cuffs. 

From sleeved to sleeveless:

Cut off the sleeve about two inches from and parallel with the armhole seam. Iron the cut edge under 1/2 inch or so; then turn the entire cutoff stub inside the shirt and pin it around the interior of the armhole as a facing. You may need to snip into the facing from the edge toward the armhole in a couple of places so the facing will lie flat: experiment, and use your handy iron to press the facing flat. Stitch by hand, unless you want the effect of machine stitching as a decorative element. If you have snipped into the facing, you may need to make tiny hems on those divots and stitch them down for safekeeping. 

Fun with jeans:

Bellbottoms (hey, they’re back in style. Plus, you may need a pair for a ’60s-theme party!): Open the outside seams of a pair of jeans from ankle to knee. Take care to just snip the threads when you do this; you’ll want the edges intact. Spread one opened jean leg to the desired width. Slide a piece of paper under the triangle you’ve made and trace it; then cut out the paper triangle, allowing a ½-inch margin all the way around. Use the paper as a pattern, cutting two identical triangles out of suitably wild and crazy fabric. (Fabric stores sell odds and ends of fabric for a song. You can also find fabric at secondhand stores; or you could mine cloth from a secondhand garment you wouldn’t be caught dead in but can plunder for component parts.)

Iron ½-inch seams onto the long sides of your triangles – one long side under, other long side over (so wrong side of fabric shows). One triangle should have the left side under, the right side over; the other the opposite.

Now, observe your opened jean leg: one side of the split seam (the bottom) is flat, and the top side is folded. Pin the turned-under long side of the proper triangle onto the bottom side of the jean seam using the old stitch line as a guide (a row of pinholes has been left on the cloth). Pin the turned-up side of the triangle under the top side of the jean seam. Leave the little point at the top to fend for itself for the moment, and turn the bottom of the triangle into a twice-turned hem (with the ragged edge tucked in) that is even with the hemmed bottom of the jean leg. Stitch it all up – probably with some combination of machine and hand stitching, unless you have a more powerful machine than I do. Once everything is put together, take a look at the tip of the triangle and see if it wants to be turned under and tacked with a couple of stitches.

Repeat on the other side. It’s easier to do than describe!

Jean skirt – a perennial favorite: Carefully open the inside seams of the legs of two pairs of jeans, one of which will become the skirt, the other a source of filler material. On the future skirt, also open the seam from the crotch to the bottom of the front zipper/button panel; open the back seam between the pockets (we’re assuming classic-model Levis here). Lay out the skirt: will it be slim, with a back slit? A-line? Short, mid-calf, or long and Earth Mother-y? The following instructions are for A-line and mid-calf, but the approach is pretty much the same on all models.

Note the little triangular flaps in front that used to form the crotch of the jeans. Lap these over each other, leaving one triangle outside and one inside. Topstitch the outside one onto the former leg; the inside one can be trimmed off and hemmed. Evaluate the back side: depending on the person who will be wearing the skirt, do you need more or less room than a straight re-stitching of the original seam would allow? If more, you may want to start your panel insert between the pockets; if less, you may be hitching in that back seam an inch or more.

Once those decisions are made, you have the top of a skirt with big gaps fore and aft. Put on this skirt-shell and put a pin in a former leg at your desired final skirt length. Cut off the excess material, leaving an extra 1 1/2 inches to be turned under for a hem. The gaps will now be filled in with panels of denim cut from the spare pair of jeans – or for that matter, with flour sacks or curtain material or whatever you please. For those panels, follow the instructions for bell-bottom inserts – it’s the same thing on a larger scale.

Patches: I am opposed to cosmetic patches; patches should cover a hole or a weak spot, which doesn’t mean a patch can’t be decorative. One of our favorites is a pocket removed from a defunct pair of jeans and transferred to the knee or the seat of the pants where a patch is required: it produces a certain confusion in the viewer (“can that be a functional pocket?”), which pleases those of us who enjoy such visual jokes. I also like to use properly hemmed, geometrical or asymmetrical shapes superimposed over each other over time, as the fabric next to the triangle patch weakens and is patched with a rhomboid. However, see “When Not to Mend”: By the time you’ve slapped a second patch on or near the same spot, the mender probably has better things to do. 

How to revive a tired T-shirt:

Snip the shoulder seams at the neck to wind up with a slightly wider neck than the original round collar. Turn under the tattered collar and 1 inch of former shoulder seam, pinning it down to serve as facing for the new boat neck. Taking care not to stretch the jersey as you sew (otherwise you’ll wind up with an off-the-shoulder look), stitch around the top of the former collar, creating a hem about 3/4 inch from the neck opening. Chances are the sleeve ends may be a little hard-worn, too; turn them under as you did the neck. Or maybe you’ve got a newish, long-sleeved T with an ugly stain on the front: you could cut off the sleeves and attach them to the sawed-off sleeves of your boat-neck – perhaps with a band of fabric to hide the seam.

If the graphic is still fresh on a T-shirt, you can cut it out and pin it onto another T. The trick is to keep from stretching or buckling the fabric on either the graphic or the move-to shirt. Use masking tape to frame the graphic, cutting through the tape, then turning under the remaining taped frame to create a hem. Pin it in place on the new shirt. Yes, there is going to be masking tape between the graphic and the shirt, and it sounds crinkly and acts stiff for a washing or two, but eventually it relaxes. In tacking the graphic in its new location, consider a quirky placement: on the side of the shirt rather than the chest or back, or cocked off-square.

Of course, teen chic cares not for tidy hems. A cut-and-pasted graphic is tacked to its new location with a double row of stitching just inside of its ragged edge. A baggy T-shirt is snugged up by cutting a chunk out of the back and stitching up a bumpy seam. The boat neck described above can be accomplished entirely with scissors, which can be applied to the other end of the T-shirt to expose the requisite expanse (not too much, we hope) of hip and midriff. This might be described as mauling rather than mending, but, by all means, let’s get our sons and daughters thinking about how to turn old things to new ends that suit their style. 

Darning:

I never learned to use a darning egg, but the theory of darning is simple and applicable to anything knitted, from sweaters to socks to T-shirts.

Study the pattern of loop-through-loop in the material, find the broken loop(s), then catch the nearest whole loop with your needle. Run your thread (yarn) through the next whole loop below the first, and snug up the hole. If it’s a large hole, you may have to proceed in stages, working your way around the circle connecting loops and gently pulling the edges of the hole together. You don’t want to wind up with a dense little knot of pulled-together loops; better to make a new warp with your threads through the pulled-apart, up-and-down loops, then weave your thread across that warp to roughly recreate the original pattern of the fabric. I’m rarely successful in healing the hole altogether, but I’ve rescued many a garment from unraveling with a “darn in time.” 

Fun with notions:

The ribbons-and-buttons section of the fabric store is outright fun. Take a plain-Jane shirt and add pewter or mother-of-pearl buttons, or buttons shaped like acorns or little books; voila, jolie Jeanne! Use a pretty ribbon to hide a worn seam or cuff-edge. Liven it up with rows of rick-rack, fringe, ropes of pearls … 

When not to mend:

Don’t mend underwear; by the time the first seam goes, it’s moments before the whole garment self-destructs. With all the money you’re saving patching jeans and letting out skirt waists, you deserve new underwear. Ditto with socks; mending the heels and toes of socks leaves a little rough place that rubs unpleasantly – it’s not worth the trouble. If you happen to snag a hole in another part of the sock, it’s worth a try to darn it to keep from spreading.

Don’t mend the same place twice. OK, twice maybe, but not three times – if it keeps tearing in the same place, the fabric is just fatigued there, and you won’t be able to mend it back to life. Try to think of something else that garment could do.

Don’t mend something you’re tired of wearing. Give it away, or turn it into a polishing rag, and go on a secondhand shopping spree to find something worth fussing over.

Paige divides her time between a home-based, mom-and-pop consulting business in Santa Fe and a 12-acre farm not quite 60 miles north of town. While her husband, Neil, drives, the commute provides a great opportunity to patch and hem and sew on buttons.