It’s not an overstatement to say that mending changed me. What started as a simple act of self-sufficiency—learning to repair my jeans—grew into an act of love, resistance, reclaiming, creative expression, self-acceptance, disruption, activism, and more. The huge turning point—my light-bulb moment—was when I realized I could use my background as an artist to apply simple design elements to the repairs on my jeans.
I use basic stitches in my repair work because I want the stitches to be accessible to all the students in my workshops, regardless of their experience with sewing or embroidery. I also use basic stitches because they are often all I need. Adding more decorative stitches is always an option, one I leave to the maker. But I like to remind folks that if your repairs are in hard-wearing places on your garment—like the upper thighs of your jeans—they are going to continue to receive friction and ultimately tear again. This is an opportunity to remember that mending is an ongoing process. Each repair is also an opportunity to strengthen our designs. Sometimes we might want to save decorative stitches for areas that receive less direct friction. But, again, that’s up to you.
My visible mending on denim is largely influenced by traditional Japanese boro and sashiko. Boro translates to “rags,” but the term has recently become synonymous with the patched, stitched, and mended garments of the Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan during the Edo period. Boro evolved from the necessity to preserve the smallest scrap of fabric, add strength and warmth through patching, and use fibers like hemp and later cotton to withstand wide-ranging weather conditions. These boro garments were mended with basic and utilitarian sashiko stitches. While modern sashiko has evolved into a more precise and highly skilled embroidery technique, traditional sashiko stitches prioritized utility over precision—the stitches were meant to repair and patch garments while adding warmth. The history of boro and sashiko is very rich and beautifully documented in the gorgeous book Boro: Rags and Tatters from the Far North of Japan.
While my mending is inspired by boro and sashiko, particularly repairs on denim, I’m also influenced by the various darning techniques found throughout Europe. Each culture has its own history with making and repairing garments, and even a quick search for historic darning shows different examples in Sweden, Germany, Belgium, England, and so on. I’m fascinated by the culturally specific techniques and many variations for darning and mending clothing. My mending is also deeply inspired by the hand stitching and patchwork of my great-grandmother’s quilts and my family’s craft lineage. If we look across the globe, particularly before the rise of fast fashion, we can see various repair techniques across cultures, dating back to the beginning of textiles. Fibers were so valuable that we learned to repair our clothes. From this place of need, many beautiful techniques were developed that combined utility and design.
I use basic darning techniques to repair my sweaters, gloves, socks, and more. Based on the basic weave (sometimes called basic darn), my darning is often stitched in high-contrast color to the garment, drawing attention to the act of repair—much like the basic stitches I use to teach visible mending on denim, linen, and silk. But if you are familiar with more decorative darning stitches—or if you knit, crochet, or weave and you’d like to use your favorite stitches to match the stitches in your knitted garment—please use what you have available to make a repair that is the most satisfying to you. After all, they are your clothes, and I want you to feel 100 percent ownership of what makes you feel confident, expressive, and joyful.
One of my favorite things about mending jeans is the possibility of continuing to mend them for years to come. Patches build layers and texture over time, offering an opportunity for a canvas of repairs—square and rectangular patches, vertical and horizontal stitches, adding color or print—to make the jeans more beautiful with each fix. Some of my first mending stitches are hidden under the knees of these jeans, and at this point I have repaired most of the original denim (I stopped counting after 21 mendings). They are now like a journal, a memoir, a record of each time I sat down to repair them so I could have the pleasure of wearing them again. And again.
- Garment to be mended
- Scrap fabric
- Tape measure or ruler
- Fabric scissors
- Straight pins or safety pins
- Washable fabric pen/pencil, such as tailor’s chalk or a quilter’s pen
- Sashiko thread
- Sashiko needles
- Iron (optional)
- Pinking shears (optional)
- Needle-nose pliers (optional)
- Embroidery scissors or snips (optional)
- Thimble (optional)
- Lay the garment flat on your work surface. Iron if needed. Measure the hole or tear, adding ½ to 1 inch (1.3 to 2.5 centimeters) to all sides. Be generous: It’s better to make a patch that’s too big than too small. This will allow you to cover the hole as well as the damaged, frayed, or weakened areas around it, and to sew your patch into strong fabric. Cut the patch from your scrap fabric according to the measurements from Step 1. Use pinking shears if you want to help prevent the patch edges from fraying.
- Pin your chosen patch in place on top of the garment.
- Using your washable fabric pen/pencil and a ruler, trace straight, parallel lines on top of the patch at approximately ¼ to ½ inch (6 millimeters to 1.3 centimeters) apart. Alternatively, if using striped fabric, use the lines on the patch as stitching guides.
- Thread a needle, knot the thread at one end, and insert the needle from the underside of the garment, keeping the knot hidden underneath. Using your marked guidelines and a running stitch (page 41), stitch to the end of each marked line. When you get to the next row, simply drop down a vertical stitch down the back side of the patch, keeping these vertical lines on the garment’s underside.
- Continue sewing the running stitches until the patch is secured. Tie off the thread on the garment’s underside, leaving a ½-inch (1.3-centimeter) tail on your thread to prevent unraveling.
- Using your washable fabric pen/pencil and a ruler, draw a straight line ¼ inch (6 millimeters) from the edge of the patch on all sides. This will help you to create a tidy, even line when stitching.
- Thread a needle, knot the thread at one end, and insert the needle from the underside of the garment. Using a whipstitch (page 41), secure all edges of the patch to the garment. Use a low-contrast thread if you like. If your hands get tired, use a thimble to push the needle and needle-nose pliers to pull the needle as you stitch.
- Continue until the patch is secured, tie off the thread on the garment’s underside, again leaving a ½-inch (1.3-centimeter) tail on your thread to prevent unraveling. Congratulations. You’ve given your jeans more patina, and even a bit of grace.
Excerpted from Make Thrift Mend by Katrina Rodabaugh. Copyright © 2021 Katrina Rodabaugh. Excerpted by permission from Abrams Books. All rights reserved
Have you ever tried visible mending? What did you repair? Tell us in the comments below.