I'm very hard on my clothes. Digging garden beds, wrestling thorn-laden roses, chopping and canning produce, and even sitting down with a book and a cat on my lap all take their toll. In the warmer months, though, there's so much to do that I end up tossing items that might not survive another wash into a basket for later. After cleaning out the chicken coop, clearing encroaching brush, or building a bonfire for marshmallow roasting, the pile of mending grows even more. What to do with all these clothes? They aren't worn enough to turn into rags or throw out, but they aren't exactly presentable anymore, and work clothes are less useful when they're full of holes.
Mending small tears or holes is very easy, and adding a patch to cover a large hole or reinforce a worn spot is only a little more difficult. I don't own a sewing machine, so I do almost all my mending by hand. In many cases, hand sewing is preferable: It's easier to manipulate a constructed garment in your hands than on the bed of a sewing machine.
No matter what you're mending, be sure you have good light, a comfortable place to sit, and all the supplies you need before you start. The job loses all its joy if you have to fight your environment to accomplish anything.
Patching large holes
Jeans with torn-out knees and shirts with thin elbows are perfect candidates for patching. In fact, any garment with a thin spot you can feel will benefit from being patched before it rips. You'll need a needle, thread, pins, the torn or worn garment, and the patch. Cut the patch the same shape as, but about an inch bigger than, the place you're patching. In general, you'll use fabric similar in weight and fiber type to the garment you're patching — denim for jeans, thin cottons or polyesters for shirts — but there are always exceptions, such as using heavier fabric to reinforce the elbows of an often-worn shirt and extend its life.
Step 1: Stabilize the hole. Work a whipstitch or blanket stitch around the edges of the hole. This keeps it from growing while you work with it. If you're reinforcing worn but not torn fabric, skip this step.
Step 2: Pin the patch.I prefer patches placed on the outside of the garment, so the edges don't chafe and the damaged fabric is hidden. Center the patch, right side out, over the damaged area, and pin it securely. Try to avoid wrinkles: If you stitch them in, you won't be able to iron them out.
Step 3: Anchor the damaged fabric to the patch. Turn the garment inside out, so you can see the edges of the hole or the worn area. Using thread that matches the patch as closely as possible, work a small running stitch about 1/4 inch from the edge of the hole or across the worn area. If you're reinforcing a large area, stitch across it in several places to make both pieces act as a single piece when you're finished.
Step 4: Turn the edges of the patch. Turn the garment right side out again (mind the pins!). Unpin the patch one edge at a time, turn the raw edge under 1/4 to 1/2 inch, and pin again before moving to the next edge. If the patch is a rounded shape, work with about 2 inches at a time. The patch isn't in danger of going anywhere, but you've already smoothed it onto the garment, so why make more work for yourself by pulling all the pins out at once?
Step 5: Topstitch the patch. Anchor your thread so the tail is hidden and work a small running stitch or slip stitch all the way around the edges of the patch, being sure to catch the garment fabric underneath. Remove pins as you come to them, and on rounded patches be careful not to stretch the edge while you stitch it.
Note: Whatever your sewing project, always anchor your thread before starting a seam. You can knot the end, but I find a few very small stitches in the same spot more secure over time. Use about an arm's length of thread — it's better to have to rethread your needle than to waste time untangling too-long thread after every stitch.
Mending small tears and holes
If you can catch a tear before it damages enough fabric to require patching, you can just seam it up — though, if the tear is at a knee or elbow, I'd go ahead and put a patch on it. Those areas take so much stress from ordinary use that the reinforcement is worth a little extra work.
For the sorts of tears you get from snagging a sleeve on barbed wire or rose thorns, you only need to stabilize the edges and reconnect the fabric. You'll need a needle and thread, and if you want to use pins, you can. When I'm fixing small tears, I tend to find pins in the way more often than not.
Step 1: Stabilize the edges. How you do this step depends on how much your fabric is prone to fraying. If you can rub your fingers across the edge, making a motion like you're trying to open a plastic bag, without many threads coming free, you can work a whipstitch over the edges and be done. If threads are coming free without your help, or if rubbing the edges makes them come loose, it's better to work a blanket or buttonhole stitch, which offers a bit more protection for the vulnerable threads at the torn edge.
Step 2: Close the tear. If you don't mind a more visible repair, you can work a version of a ladder stitch to butt the two edges together again. Anchor your thread on the underside of the work. Pass the needle up to the front, then down through the tear, and back up through the opposite side of the tear. Keep working this way until you reach the end of the tear.
If you want to hide the repair, turn the garment inside out, and turn the very edges of the tear inward (toward you). Give yourself enough fabric to anchor the seam, but no more, or you'll really alter the way the garment fits. Stitch together with a backstitch, or, to reinforce the edges further, a very small blanket stitch.
I am quite short, but the wrong shape for petite jeans. I've spent a lot of time with my hems dragging in the mud, getting stepped on, and eventually fraying into ratty fluff that trails behind me. It's not attractive, but more to the point, it's not practical to wear jeans that are too long for outside work, especially when the weather is wet and cold. Luckily, hemming jeans is fairly easy, and you don't even have to take the existing hem apart to do it!
This is one project I recommend a sewing machine for. While you can sew denim and other heavy fabric by hand, it's faster and easier on your hands to use a machine. If you do decide to hand sew, use a heavy needle and jeans thread, and protect the finger that pushes the needle through the fabric with a thimble. Either way, you'll need pins and a measuring tape for this project.
Step 1: Measure and mark. Put the jeans you want to hem on inside out, while wearing the shoes you intend to wear with them. Have someone else fold up the excess fabric and pin all around just below the existing hem. To do it yourself, measure the length of the inseam and outseam on your jeans, and then on yourself, and fold up enough fabric to make the measurements match — and remember, the existing hem will be part of the final length. Try on your jeans to check the length before you begin sewing.
Step 2: Sew the new seam. Fold the existing hem up inside the pant leg, so it's out of the way. Use a medium-length stitch setting on your machine, or a small backstitch by hand, to stitch along the pinned line. Go slowly over the side seams, where you'll be working through as many as 10 layers of fabric at once, and consider hand cranking your machine to help it over them.
Step 3: Trim and finish the new seam. If you know you won't be letting these jeans out again, you can trim the excess fabric away, leaving between 1/4- and 1/2-inch seam allowance, and finish the cut edges with a zigzag stitch or blanket stitch. Press the new seam toward the hem, and turn your pants right side out again.
Sewing on a button
Reattaching a button is one of the simplest repairs you can make to extend the life of a garment. You'll need a needle, thread, pins, and, of course, the button. I often use all-purpose sewing thread, but if you're fixing a button on pants or a coat, you may opt for sturdier buttonhole or carpet thread.
Step 1: Mark the location of the button. If the button is loose, but still attached, this is easy! Put two pins through the fabric, making an "x" right over the spot where the thread passes through, then snip the worn threads. If the button has already fallen off, do up the remaining buttons and mark through the center of the missing button's buttonhole.
Step 2: Anchor the thread. Take a few tiny stitches through the fabric; you can trim the tail later. Knots tend to pull through fabric eventually, and then the button's loose again.
Step 3: Attach the button. Stitch several times through the button, passing your needle through the fabric each time as close to the same point as possible. Leave the pins in place as you sew to space the button slightly away from the fabric. This creates room for everything to lie smoothly when you do up the garment.
Step 4: Create a thread shank. When you've finished stitching on the button, you can remove the marking pins and wind your thread around the stitches in the space between the button and the fabric, making a shank. Stitch through to the back of the fabric and tie off your thread by taking a small stitch and passing the needle through the loop twice before pulling it tight. Snip the thread tail.
Types of Stitches
Bring the needle to the front of the fabric, take a small stitch backward, and come to the front again two stitch lengths forward. Continue to the end of the seam.
The only difference between these is the stitch density. Buttonhole stitch completely covers the fabric edge, while blanket stitch is spaced. Bring the needle up to the front of the fabric, 1/4 inch or less from the edge. Insert it from front to back in nearly the same spot, holding a loop of thread down on the surface with your thumb. Pass the needle from back to front through this loop (without catching the fabric), and snug the stitch against the edge of the fabric. Insert the needle from front to back a stitch length over, holding the new thread loop open with your thumb, and again pass the needle through the loop and snug it against the edge. Continue the length of the edge.
Bring the needle up just inside one edge of the fabric. Pass it through the opening, coming up just inside the opposite edge. Continue to the end of the seam, pausing occasionally to snug up the stitches and bring the fabric edges together.
Bring the needle up 1/4 inch or less from the edge of the fabric, pass it around the edge, and come up again from back to front a stitch length down the edge. Continue the length of the edge.
Caitlin is an associate editor for Mother Earth News and Heirloom Gardener. She has been practicing textile arts for more than a decade. Follow her projects at Sunshine and Roses.