Monday, February 1, 2010

The Joy of Mending

Checking out Alison Schwabe’s blog this morning, I was intrigued by her comments about an exhibit she saw years ago called “Objets Blesses.” It showed things from Africa that had been painstakingly mended (she posted a photo of a drinking gourd mended with leather) and the point was that people mend things that are important to them – and that “mending therefore confers a higher level of value to the object.”

That resonates with me, as I am an aficionada of mending. With a husband and two sons I have rarely been without mending opportunities in the last four decades and I am really good at it. Once I told a young teenage son that he was forbidden to wear that pair of jeans out of the house unless he let me mend them. He reluctantly said OK, “but only if you maintain the integrity of the rip.” So I did, by putting the patch on the inside and largely hiding the mending stitches underneath the floating threads of the original hole.

Only last weekend I noticed frayed edges on the bottom of my husband’s pants cuffs as they emerged from the dryer, and spent a comfortable hour fixing them. Trimmed off the frayed bits, opened the hem, put a piece of muslin behind the fold line and reinforced it with stitching, then turned the cuffs a quarter-inch higher and rehemmed.

I often mend holes or spots in sweaters or knit shirts with ultrasuede. These below do double duty of holding up cuffs that would droop if left to their own devices.

Usually I restrict the stars to women’s clothes (I call it a designer detail, and have received oohs and aahs) and stick to rectangles for men, but I did put a high-contrast heart on my husband’s sweatshirt when the neck ribbing started to disintegrate. The grocery clerk loved it – “Look at this heart! His wife sewed this heart on his shirt!”

Here’s a purely utilitarian mend, occasioned when I was sewing the facing on a quilt and managed to snip open my own shirt instead of snipping the thread. This was a purchased shirt, so I didn’t have scraps stashed away. I took off the pocket, cut a piece of fabric for the patch and replaced it with something else, then incorporated the patch underneath the button. I like to think it looks deliberate, like one of those safari jackets with doodads that you don’t understand but must have some purpose.

We lived in Germany in the early 1970s, at a military base with a pathetically haphazard library. I found a book published in Great Britain during the war to tell all about mending. And this was heavy-duty – not just how to mend sox, but how to transform a worn-out man’s coat into children’s clothes and the like. I was fascinated, and imagined myself creatively and frugally mending everything in sight. It’s just like I consider myself as a potential pioneer woman. Thank heaven I don’t have to mend socks and transform coats into kids’ pants and chop wood and kill bears – but I bet I would have been great at it.

But back to Alison's point about the mend conferring value on the object.  That's one lovely concept that is 99.9% absent in today's consumption-mad world.  Sure, the grocery clerk loved the heart on the sweatshirt, but in general a guy in mended clothing elicits pity as a victim of poverty, probably homeless if not outright wacko.  Maybe I can fob off my ultrasuede patches as designer details, and cover up the stains on my shirt by overdyeing, but I feel latent guilt when I do so -- will people see my creativity or just my inner bag lady?  Most of the time I wear the shirt anyway, but it nags.

For some time I have been wrestling with the concept of mending as art.  I even have the title for the show:  "Mended In Gold."  Haven’t figured out how to execute it, but I have started to save my world’s greatest mends after the garments nevertheless wore out. Some day….


  1. I was too young to remember the suit my mother had when I was born, made for her by her mother-in-law from one of her father-in-law's suits, but I remember the improved version of a childhood dress, which had a light colored skirt and a dark print bodice and wide sash. When the skirt got some small holes from spattered bleach in the laundry process, my mother cut some butterflies from the wide ends of the sash, leaving it still long enough to tie, and appliqued the butterflies over the holes. Much prettier.

    Coming from this background I have never had any hesitation about wearing mended clothes.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  2. I, too, feel no qualms about mended clothes although generally I wear them at home or when I duck out to the grocery store convinced no one will see me or notice I haven't got my makeup on, either ;-D My mother and grandmothers mended everything which I took to have been the influence of The Great Depression and never thought about until I saw the exhibition that Kathy refers to in her post. I know the Brits were particularly focused on making do and mending in WWII, and sometime I would love to read such a book as you found, Kathy. People mend and pass on clothing here (Uruguay) far more than they do in Aus and USA by which I mean in all socioeconomic classes, not just the poorer people. I took a workshop with Dorothy Caldwell several years ago in which she showed us some wonderful mended garments she'd collected over the years. The work of Wendy Lugg, personal friend of mine and highly eminent Aus textile artist references mending in fabric as part of the story of the life , often very long, of the fabrics she collects and uses in her wonderful art -

  3. I have often wished I had not returned that mending book to the library. Especially since I suspect I was the only person to ever read it, before or since.

  4. Somehow we need to be able to celebrate our inner bag lady.

  5. I would love some suggestions on mending a quilt that my Mother-in-Law made and she passes last fall. She used 1/8" or less seams and cheaper material (I'm sure its all she could afford.) As it is mostly white, and between my husband and the dogs, has to be washed frequently. I use cold and gentle for washing, but now the fabric has frayed at the seams. I thought there was enough to do a small overlap and maybe hand sew an "X" stitch with a quilt hoop, but don't think there's enough material to do it. No change in getting any scraps from the original sewing of the quilt. Would love any suggestions as we are moving to a 100+ farmhouse and would love for people to see this quilt on our spare bed.
    Thanks, Denise