Modern Mending, Frugal Fashion

By Elizabeth Norris.


A chore practically none of us do, or want to do, anymore. The thought of mending a piece of clothing conjures images of “little old ladies” sitting for hours, fixing holes in socks, worn knees and seats of pants. Maybe they’re sitting by firelight, kerosene lamp, or even candlelight, humming forgotten tunes.

As recently as the late 19th century, farming families’ garments were hand-sewn, mended and patched. They were made and fixed mostly by women and their daughters. Most people owned only two or three outfits, saving one of them for best.

Socks were hand-knitted. Kids clothes often were made from adult clothing and grain sacks: woven fabric was precious. With all that time and effort invested, of course you would mend.

Barn coat made by Cora Benfield Hasson, a farmer’s wife, Upper Frederick Township, Montgomery County.

By the early 20th century, garment factories were on the increase, but much clothing production was still done at home or in smaller workshops. It wasn’t until World War II that standardized production started to become the accepted norm. Even then our closets weren’t filled with clothes and the garments we did own were cared for longer than they are today. You could buy an inexpensive sewing kit at any drug store in town.

By the 1960s “trendy” fashion became more readily available to the entire populace. As fashion began to change with the seasons and was increasingly more easy to acquire, it’s become more acceptable to toss away clothing considered too worn or out of style.

In the 1990s we began to see “fast fashion;” made inexpensively outside the US and which could be sold inexpensively as well. Trends could be brought straight from the runway to your local mall with lightning speed. Now statistics show that the average garment is worn somewhere between seven and ten times before being discarded. Textile waste, generated yearly, has doubled over the last 20 years, with the average American throwing away approximately 80 pounds of used clothing. This adds up to over 15 million tons in our landfills.

Those of us concerned with the environmental impact have returned to mending, but with a twist. In a growing movement, called Visible Mending, what was once a necessity can become art.

Based on the Japanese form of mending–sashiko (which translates to “little stabs”)–which most likely originated some time in the 17th century, visible mending is a series of stitches, in either straight lines or geometric patterns. It can be very relaxing, even meditative, which, in these stressful times can be a creative escape. And your favorite jeans, sweater or jacket can become an original fashion statement, unique to you only.

So, as “little old ladies” become a thing of the past and we all age gracefully, we can also be creative and singular in our beautifully mended fashions.

Here, I have just completed a patch on my partner’s overalls of 20 to 30 years. They’ve been mended in a variety of ways by other needleworkers, but I hope to ad some pizzazz.

These much-worn, much-loved overalls are getting a bit of a spruce up with some visible mending.

Cut the patch fabric at least one inch larger than the hole you intend to fix.

The fabric I chose has a grid pattern so I decided to use that pattern to create my stitches. I was going to freehand my work but with the geometric pattern, I chose to draw lines following the grid pattern on my patch.

You can use embroidery thread, perle cotton, crochet cotton and you can even buy sashiko thread. Embroidery thread will be the weakest for mending because its threads are individual: perfect for using two or three for delicate embroidery work, but weak because they’re not plied like the other choices. While going through my thread stash I found a package of “craft thread” I bought on sale.

Crochet cotton is an inexpensive option, comes in lots of colors and is great if you’re planning on doing a lot of mending (or you want to make a doily).

I chose red to accent and augment the color of my patch.

You can pin the patch in place or, as I did, baste it to hold it. I chose to baste it because it’s in an awkward spot and I think the pins would work their way out of the denim, or I might stab myself while turning the work back and forth.

Use a long, slender needle: sashiko needles are available and are long, straight and even, so they pass through the fabric easily and you can take several stitches at a time.

Cut your thread no longer than an arm’s length. This is a comfortable length to work with- much longer and you have to stretch your arm way out repeatedly. Also, too long a length weakens the thread from passing through the fabric repeatedly.

I dug right in in the middle, then I flipped my work over and went the other way. I like the way the random hatching came out: if you want to be more precise you can make the stitches even so that they cross each other every time.

Keep working, making stitches as even as you can. The typical sashiko stitch is done in a 3:2 proportion with the longer stitches on the surface.

You can work in straight lines, make circles, spirals…..feel free to do whatever you like!

Here’s my finished patch. There’s more embellishing I could do here, but these overalls have more holes in other places, and I’m already getting ideas for the next patch.

Hope you have a beautiful piece of fabric that inspires you to try this fun and relaxing technique!

Elizabeth Norris is an artist, baker, and expert mender. At the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival she can be found baking tasty traditional treats in the Antes House oven.

4 thoughts on “Modern Mending, Frugal Fashion

  1. What an interesting topic! Wish I could attach or forward a photo of my great aunt’s sewing and mending “sampler” from 1899 with 10 examples of her work, including stocking darn, earning woven material and hemmed patch.


  2. Ha! I should have paid closer attention to my phone’s auto spell, which corrected words it had never seen before. Let me try again more carefully: stockinet darn; darning woven material; and hemmed patch.


  3. I too wish I had paid some attention to my mother’s mending and “darning.” I recall she used “darning cotton” to sort of weave the threads over holes in clothing… a sort of warp and weft.
    Unrelaterd to mending, she used to line her boys’ dress pants or school pants with a flannel lining for winter.


  4. Beautiful mending. I’ve been mending my spouse’s jeans this week. Re-weaving threads where it’s bare, and then going back opposite direction with a filling/running stitch. It’s very close, and really makes new fabric that blends in with the old. I used black thread as I had that on hand, but if you do it with matching thread, you can barely see the mend. That’s what I’m aiming for. I’ve recently gotten several 1940’s patterns for modest dresses (so hard to find these days)and so I will be working on them soon.


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