The high street is shut, the world has ground to tortoise pace and people who previously bought sliced bread are spending hours nurturing sourdough starters. So it could be a good time to learn a skill that can set you up for life: sewing.
As the pandemic brings news of warehouse workers and drivers being forced to put themselves in harm’s way to deliver clothes to our doorsteps, the need to slow down fashion has never been more pressing. As one recent report stated, the global fashion industry is a major factor in putting the planet on course for environmental disaster, due to the throwaway nature of seasonal trends.
One way to help tackle this is to stop buying new clothes – and to make the most of what you have. From mending and customising to darning, we asked the experts for tips on rejuvenating and repairing your wardrobe.
If you have never used a needle and thread, it would be worth going through the basics before you start darning. Totah recommends Wendy Ward’s Sewing Basics for Every Body and Tilly Walnes’s Love at First Stitch as good books for beginners. Lily Fulop’s new book, Wear, Repair, Repurpose has some good illustrations for newbies, too.
Before starting to stitch, you will need something solid to put behind the hole, to make it easier to work on. If you don’t have a wooden darning mushroom, Totah recommends an orange or a rounded glass. The idea is to create a weave to cover the hole. First, working from the fabric around the edge of the hole, stitch horizontally across the hole with a running stitch. Then, do the same vertically. “You’re essentially creating an extra layer of fabric,” she says.
If the hole is fairly big, you will have to make your stitches longer to cover it, but otherwise keep them small. Be careful not to stitch too tightly, as this can distort the hole.
Use a yarn that is similar to the garment. “Sometimes knitted garments come with a length of the yarn that’s been used to make it,” says Lauren Guthrie, who owns the Guthrie and Ghani sewing shop and school in Birmingham (it also has excellent online resources for beginner sewers). This is useful if you want to colour-match your repair job. If not, don’t worry. “You can make it into a feature and use contrasting colours,” says Totah. “Choose a rainbow of colours and repair each hole in a different one. It looks really beautiful.”
Bringing frayed jeans and jackets back to life
Knees, bottoms, thighs and elbows have a tendency to fray – especially on denim. The simplest thing is to buy an iron-on denim patch. If you want to do it properly, though, you will need a sewing machine.
Find a piece of denim that is bigger than the frayed area and is close in colour to the garment. Pin the fabric behind the frayed area and tack (roughly stitch) it in place. “Then put it into the sewing machine,” says Totah. “Go backwards and forwards many times with a wide, tight zigzag stitch to create a dense mass of stitches all around the edges.” Totah says you could also “stitch within the patch itself. If you’ve picked a matching thread, this should help to make it blend in.”
If it is a larger hole, Guthrie suggests making a feature of the repair with a patch. Totah suggests using a contrasting, textured fabric, such as flannel or corduroy. Straight stitch or edge stitch around the patch by hand to attach it. You can make a feature of this, too. Totah points to the Japanese art of sashiko – a form of repair that is traditionally done with white thread on indigo fabric.
Fixing hems and seams
Again, this is pretty straightforward, says Totah. Iron-on webbing will do the trick quickly (be careful with synthetic fabrics under the heat of the iron, though). For a more thorough job, fold the hem over twice to fully cover the raw edge and, with a matching thread, catch stitch your way around the hemline.
To do this, bring the needle up through the fold from behind with your first stitch, then, says Totah, “at a diagonal angle, take another stitch on the garment, but only catching a few fibres. Repeat this, going back under the fold so that the stitch only goes into the folded fabric – the hem – and not into the outside of the trouser or skirt.” The idea behind the stitch, she says, is that “it doesn’t show on the right side – you only see little pin pricks, if anything at all.”
Seams are even easier, says Totah. They can be done by hand or using a machine. “Sew on top of the original stitching line where it has come unattached, making sure to overlap some of the remaining stitches and back stitch at either end so it doesn’t unravel,” she says.
Replacing a button
The basic method is to thread a needle and sew through the fabric and the buttonholes over and over until it is attached. But why not double up your thread to speed things up, says Totah. “Each stitch will count for two.”
If you want to give your standard buttons some of the resilience of shank buttons (those that are threaded through a loop of metal or plastic at the back), leave a few millimetres of thread each time you stitch the button, so that you are not pulling it tightly against the fabric. “Once you’ve finished sewing it on, you’ve created a little shank – wrap your thread around it a few times.” This technique is particularly useful for replacing buttons on thick garments such as coats.
If you have clothes at the back of your wardrobe that you have not worn since that unfortunate incident with a bottle of red wine, there may be hope. The internet is awash with good stain removal advice, from the broad (how to rid items of fruit stains) to the specific (how to get rid of Silly Putty).
Dr Lisa Ackerley, AKA the Hygiene Doctor, recommends cleanipedia.com, while Stephanie Zia’s book, Clean: Organic Household Tips That Don’t Cost the Earth is full of ideas.
With most stains, the Martha Stewart-approved rule of thumb is: act fast. But not always. “Some stains are set by hot water, some by soap, some by ironing,” says Zia. “Trickier stains don’t always come out the first time; for those, it is about repeating the process rather than acting fast.”
Stain removal is a vast field of science, but Zia has a few basic rules. Learn to recognise your stain type – greasy, protein or tannin – and act accordingly. For grease, say engine oil, use hot water and washing up liquid, but don’t leave it soaking for too long. For protein stains, say cheese or sweat, use cold water and washing up liquid. For tannin stains, say coffee, perfume or spices, avoid soap, but do use hot water.
Beware of combination stains, though – the way you would treat a straight-up coffee stain is complicated if you take yours white with sugar. Dye stains, she writes, such as from cherries or blueberries, “are one area where a commercial stain removal product is worth keeping handy in your store cupboard”.
Repurposing your old clothes
I have given T-shirts a new lease of life by tie-dying them. “Do a whole batch of things at once rather than one thing at a time, as it’s quite wasteful,” says Totah, who also suggests natural dye.
There are a range of techniques, such as the Japanese shibori – which is where you stitch, fold, bind or twist fabric for different effects. Alternatively, add texture by binding small objects such as coins and pebbles into your fabric.
Transforming old jeans into shorts is a classic, and easy, way to repurpose them, says Totah. Cut to the length you want them to be, then “sew a line of stitching in the same colour around the hem – you’d still have a raw edge, but it would be a barricade to stop it unravelling too much”.
Guthrie says: “Embroidery is also a lovely way to add some personalisation.” Adding details to collars or back pockets can make old items sing again.
If all these skills designed to extend the lifespan of your clothes have you feeling creative, maybe it is time to learn to make your own clothes. Start small, with a tote bag or a sunglasses case. Remember: even Versace had to start somewhere.
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.