The Basics of Sewing: Facilitating Repairs and Modifications for Clothing and Beyond

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I’ve been around sewing since I was a child. I come from working class and farm stock – being able to sew was a part of life for my grandmothers, great-aunts and beyond, as it was for so many others of a bygone era.

My great-aunt was a product of the Depression, a time where resources were tight and you had to stretch every penny – to an extent, that’s “just how it was” for many back then in small town east Tennessee, but it shaped the kind of life she built for herself. My aunt never married and was taking care of her family from early on – caring for her mother, my great-grandmother, in her golden years as my great-grandmother dealt with health issues and helping my then single-parent grandma – her youngest sister – raise her two daughters through their childhood and early formative years.

My aunt was a seamstress and helped to make much of my mom’s clothes throughout her childhood. Through the entirety of the time I knew her, she made ends meet through sewing construction and alteration work. I have wonderful memories of her home. The unassuming white farm house was one of the original homes on the sprawling acreage that comprised my grandparents’ farm. A post card-perfect wraparound porch was framed by trees in the front yard. We always lived close throughout the first decade of my life, but from birth until about 6 or 7, we lived just down the road, within walking distance. In those days, she was always ready for you to drop by and would often be looking for you from the screen door. She was a slight woman, with a tuft of snow white hair, dressed comfortably in a T-shirt, open flannel, slacks, and a dependable pair of slippers. “Well, hey there!” you would be greeted warmly in a soft Southern voice, gentle hands, spotted by age, pulling you in for a hug. “Come on in…” The little house opened into a narrow foyer space. At the far end, there was a step up into a homey little kitchen, and beyond that, situated neatly in the corner of the foyer area, her sewing area.

One of my favorite things was to go up to the house and sit in the foyer while she worked. She kept scraps from alterations and various projects in dresser drawers and would let us sit and cut up denim, cotton and whatever else had wound up in her collection, giving life to whatever creation our little brains could think up. If she had the time, she might even sew them together for us and really bring them to life.

Being around these types of environments from an early age gave me an appreciation for this type of self sufficiency. Did you find the perfect pair of pants, but they were a little too long? A quick hem would solve that. Tear a hole in a dependable work shirt? A patch will make that good as new. They don’t teach these skills any more on a broad spectrum – being able to maintain your clothing provides longevity, saves you money (can even make you money) and helps lessen dependency on retailers and manufacturers. Men and women can both benefit.

Not everyone will have access to a machine – what should a basic sewing kit include?

  • A seam ripper
  • Needles
  • Thread in some basic colors (black, brown, tans)
  • Scissors
  • Extra buttons
  • Scraps for patching
  • A thimble
  • Straight and safety pins

Most of these items are available at general retailers like your local Walmart, but can also be picked up from somewhere like Joann Fabrics.

Where to begin?

Almost everyone, when you mention sewing or mending, can visualize what is known as a “running stitch.” The running stitch is one of the easiest to learn, and is one of the most common stitches used on both a machine and by hand for sewing and mending garments. The running stitch is created by passing the thread through the fabric in a straight line at regular intervals. That is just the “tip of the iceberg” and there is a whole arsenal of stitches that the seasoned needleworker employs (this article at Thread Curve is great for further reading: “Types of Stitches”).

The running stitch is an easy and great place to start

When patching, if possible, don’t forget to mend and close the hole. For some damage, that may not be possible, but closing the hole before patching it will only help to reinforce the repair. Iron on patches are available at most retailers, but patching with scrap fabric opens up a world of possibilities – be it the nostalgia factor of a scrap from a favorite T-shirt or a splash of color for an already dark garment. It’s a lot more fun that way!

If you’re interested in learning how to sew, there are a lot of resources at your disposal:

  • 4-H groups
  • Community/hobby groups and classes that organize through your local library or community center
  • If you live within driving distance of an urban center, sometimes retailers like Joann Fabrics organize classes and events
  • Some sewing shops organize classes in their space
  • YouTube and internet tutorials are available to anyone with decent internet capabilities – and there are a plethora of online courses that can be purchased

The sewing machine manufacturer Brother USA has a great article here on getting started – with some awesome resources for fledgling tailors and seamstresses.

by Andy Haman

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