Category Archives: fixing things

Slow stitches: visible mending

Over the last few months I’m finding a routine, a pattern to my days. Paying work begins first thing in the morning and continues until my conscience is clear. Spinning and weaving (other than tapestry weaving, of which more anon) are also daytime occupations. In the evening I sit in my comfortable chair wearing two pairs of glasses (my bifocals plus reading magnifiers) with the floor-standing task lamp lighting the sewing in my lap as I stitch and think about the life cycle of fabrics.

The time and skill needed to make handspun yarn into handwoven cloth means that fabric and clothing was once precious, something that could be measured more accurately by the days, weeks and years of the makers’ lives than by the retailer’s arm length (the ell) or measuring tape. The increasing interest in boro/boromono, chikuchiku, and other visible mending techniques pays lip service to this, but I think fashion and the stitchers working with new fabrics, even buying fashionably-distressed new clothing in order to repair it are missing one of the points: their stitches are adding value by creating something beautiful, not by repairing something too precious to discard. I am genuinely looking forward to repairing something made from my own handmade fabrics, but in the interim I’m repairing things that are precious for other reasons.

sweathsirt

I bought this (black!) sweatshirt as a souvenir at Flag Fen when it was still an active Bronze Age archaeology site in the early 1990s. I wore it regularly, until the ribbing was losing its structure and holes were appearing in the fabric. When I picked it out of the workclothes pile to wear in the garden about 6 months ago I realised it had become precious to me as a reminder of a past time and place, so I put it to one side for repair.

I chose a red handspun mulberry silk for the repairs to reflect its new-found value, to match the logo, and because the red looks wonderful against the faded charcoal greys.
An embroidery hoop holding the fabric straight under light tension made it easier to follow the lines of the knit fabric and maintain even stitching. Magnification is essential: I can’t see to stitch this with reading glasses alone!

hole

With the fabric under tension it’s easier to darn the hole with sewing thread matching the fabric colour and the parallel lines of the knit fabric are clearly visible. Think of the lines of the knit fabric as the warp on a loom, with the red silk needle-woven as if it were weft.   Plain weave weave is over one, under one. A 3/1 twill is over 3, under 1. The repair at top left was done freehand, without the embroidery hoop, as evidenced by the way I lost count of the overs and unders. I love the sense of movement, though.

With patience and good light it’s possible to needle weave complex patterns over the darn:

morecomplex

anothre

That’s a diamond twill somewhat flattened by the difference in ‘weight’ between the silk and the knit fabric rib.
I tried several methods to restore some elasticity to the flabby over-stretched ribbing, but none were successful so I resorted to reinforcement and decoration with a mix of running stitch and chain stitch.

cuff

I may add some of this to the sweatshirt neckline, but then again I may not. It doesn’t need repair.

My vintage (made between 1971 and 1984) denim jacket had some intrinsic value: I paid hard cash for it at a flea market. There are several posts about my stitched repairs to the yoke, starting here. A couple of weeks ago I added a skull-and-roses on the main back using my hand-cut stencil and Japanese Indigo leaves. Even a pass through the ‘delicate’ cycle of the washing machine to wash out the hydrogen peroxide neutralising the bleach (highlighting the skull) and washing out the leaf juice revealed more weak points in the fabric: more opportunities for repair!

jacketback.jpg

The edges of the cuffs and facings range from ‘showing wear’ to ‘disintegrating’. I trialled an edging of Palestrina stitch in the same red silk I used for the sweatshirt; it works but is a little less even than I’d hoped on the disintegrating edge. It might have been better to encase the cuff in another fabric and stitch that, but for some reason I can’t explain I feel that would be the wrong thing to do on this jacket. I will try to come up with a better solution, though, because the facings are just as worn. I do know that I don’t want vertical scarlet lines down my front, so even if I use Palestrina or some other ‘blanket stitch’ it won’t be red silk.

The photo below shows the Palestrina stitch cuff with a different repair strengthening worn areas of the fabric body.

cuffandline.jpg

People on Facebook have asked how I do this. It looks impressive but is very simple provided you’ve got magnifying glasses and good light: I’m simply backstitching a single strand of embroidery floss down the ‘ditch’ in the twill. Just for fun here’s a X80 view of the stitches and the ‘ditch’, which on this – the good or blue side of the denim – is created by the weft revealed as it passes over one warp thread: on each side of the ditch it dives under three warp threads. The diagonal results from the shift one thread to the right (in this photo) in each successive weft pass. The weft is white, the warp (the long verticals) was once dyed blue with indigo, but the surface of the cotton and its embedded indigo wore away leaving only indigo dust embedded in the crevices of the fabric. The needle in the photo is only embedded in the backstitch position to give you the idea: I confess I usually stab-stitch the backstitch for more accuracy when I’m working it.

detail

This is what it looks like over a larger area. I started working only with blue to maintain the sense of blue in the jacket fabric, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to change colour across a wider area. The white fuzz is in an area where the warp has been worn away to reveal the weft. In a small area like this I re-create the ditch lines with backstitch holding the weft threads together but if it’s any larger I add a backing fabric for strength, especially on the shoulders or other areas subject to stress. The visibility of that particular fuzz is annoying me, so I will probably go back and needle weave some darning structure under the backstitch to add structure before trimming some of that fuzz away.

multicolditch

 

me

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Time for boro (sort of).

Five weeks pass in the blink of an eye, or so it seems. But not without tangible results. Some I can’t talk about because they’re for an article for Spin Off.

But I can talk about more boro-style patching. I have a Real Japanese vest/waistcoat/thing, purchased online for a low price because it had a damaged collar (which I regarded as an advantage because I wanted something to patch. We both win!) The vendor supplied a piece of Japanese indigo cloth and sashiko thread which I used to repair the collar. After about a year of frequent wear holes appeared on the back and on edge of the front facings. Time for more repairs! I dug out my stash of precious Japanese cotton scraps and started. I considered complex sashiko stitching – I need a lot of practice to gain precision and accuracy – but decided I wanted a faster repair. IMG_4846

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The reverse of the front is more worn, so the patch extends further on the underside, hence the tiny blue stars on the original fabric.

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img_4953.jpgVarious shades of blue embroidery thread in blocks of stitching. I included one of the remaining fragments of my favourite fabric, and left a circle clear of stitching for a semamori motif. Semamori are amuletic patterns stitched onto children’s garments that lack the protective line of stitches down the centre back. I decided that as the damage affected the original seam a semamori was deserved. This is handspun cotton, but I’m not happy with the thread – it should be thicker, easily done – and the quality of my stitching, so I’ll take it out and try again.

Denim jacket yoke leads to a new obsession

I mentioned last June that I’d bought a vintage denim jacket that proved to be in worse condition than I’d thought, so it became an excuse for my first sashiko stitching project. As Wikipedia says, this is traditionally done using white thread on blue fabric, although the truly daring use red thread for decorative effect. I thought it would be interesting to go beyond daring into eccentricity and use the stitch grid as a basis for changing colours. Of course there had to be a skull somewhere too.

This is what it looked like when I showed it to you in June.JeansJacket1

This is what it looks like now.

jjfinished1

I am rather pleased with this. The stitching is far from geometric perfection – the old denim has stretched and as a twill fabric it moves – but it has life. I extended the stitching onto the front left shoulder (see the photo at the end of this post) when I realised how thin that fabric was; this wear, taken with the visible wear on the seams on the left side leads me to think that someone who owned this jacket carried a shoulder bag on their left shoulder.

purplecornerThis shows the details but the colours are dark and lifeless thanks to the dim British winter light.

I didn’t plan the colour changes before I began work, just decided I’d move from a relatively pale blue on the left shoulder to purple/red on the top of the right shoulder, and picked colours on the spur of the moment to effect the changes as I stitched from left to right.

skull2

I laid out a grid of stitches for the skull. Each grid square contains 6×6 fabric threads and is true to the grain of the fabric. The skull is counted cross-stitch calculated to fit on the area of the internal label, 4 stitches per grid square, worked with a single strand of embroidery floss. I don’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed that most people who see it, even local Guild members, assume it’s painted with fabric paint until they look very, very closely. I intended to leave the grid in place as background to the skull – I like organic shapes set in visible opposition to geometry – but the more I looked at it the more the ‘busy-ness’ of the grid+twill lines detracted from the skull. So I cut the threads and pulled the grid out, thread by thread. skullfinished

I confess I find this sadly exciting. I can paint with thread! In January I attended an Opus Anglicanum workshop at Hand & Lock in London. Working from 10am until 4pm with 30 minutes for lunch I managed to cover about 2cm^2 with stitches… but what stitches! The tiny patch of underside couching at bottom left was a revelation (I can live without pearls). opusang

We started with embroidery floss to establish the technique and finished with gold. I loved it. Tiny stitches requiring precision (and magnifying glasses), exactly what I love. Then Helen McCook (the hare, look at the hare in her header!), the tutor, mentioned Or Nue: tiny stitches requiring precision, painting with colour on gold so the density of stitches influences both colour and shine…  I MUST TRY THIS. LOOK AT IT!
I have acquired an Elbesee ‘sit on it’ hoop stand and hoop (that I have to wrap), I’m stitching a cotton square to mask the areas of embroidery I’m not working on. I’ve ordered gold thread for a trial design, a pack each of gold and silver thread for my first real projects. I know what I want to do but I’ve learned patience: I will start by working something very simple to test my understanding of the technique. And before that I must get some paying work done.

If anyone reading this knows what type of transfer paper might have been used to copy what looks like a laser printer image onto the fabric, I’d really like to know. It’s slightly stiffer than the fabric around it, but there’s no thick layer of plastic as I’ve seen on other transfers.

And of course I get to wear my jacket. First rock concert of the year is in May. I will practice using a wallet so my backpack/purse does not obscure and eventually damage it.

jjfinished

The less time I have, the more I want to do

When work is busy, I find myself dreaming up more projects for what little leisure time remains. The less time I have, the more I want to read, make, travel, buy. I’ve begun to suspect that some of this is a form of promising myself that I WILL be able to do these things at some unspecified time in the future, when I am at leisure to devote my leisure to the things I want to do. [Mostly. I don’t want to clean the bathroom, but I’ll still have to do it or risk our early deaths from disgust, embarrassment or horrible diseases.] There was a time when I could not resist a nice handspinning fleece – and didn’t bother trying. I just promised myself that there would be a time when I had time to spend sorting, washing, drying, combing or carding, spinning and then using that fleece. Fortunately a summer spent washing and drying and starting to comb some of the hoard taught me a lesson: I already have a lifetime’s supply of wool to spin. Not to mention cotton, silk and flax.

More productive and more fun than buying promises to myself is devoting some of my precious spare time to artistic mending. A couple of years ago I found an umpteenth-hand denim jacket in a flea market. It had a peculiar odour and was covered with a fine red-brown dust, but it fitted me: I bought it. I wore it a couple of times before washing it, which was just as well because I had time to start to love it before the washing machine revealed patches of incipient disintegration.

The yoke is in the worst condition, possibly due to exposure to the sun. I decided to learn sashiko [not sashimi, stupid computer] stitching by using it to attach a lining to the yoke, with embroidery thread shading from blue to red because colour can be fun. I tacked the lining to the yoke with a grid of white sewing cotton and began stitching. When I reached the first badly damaged area where only the white weft of the denim remains, I realised that sashiko alone would not be enough to take the strain, so decided to further reinforce those areas. I duplicate-stitched the twill furrows in various shades of blue; the more I did, the more my technique improved. I really like the finished effect (it’s better from a distance when you can’t see all the imperfections as below).

JeansJacket3

The rectangular area marking the position of the label on the inside of the yoke posed a problem. I could try to stitch through or skim the label and continue the sashiko across it, or I could use it to define a feature, which is what I did. I designed a motif suitable for cross-stitch, picked 6 shades from my ancient hoard of embroidery thread, donned my most powerful magnifying glasses, laid out a 6×6 thread grid, and started counting and stitching. Then stopped, counted, ripped out, and counted again before stitching again. Clearly I need practice at both counting AND stitching.

At this point I reserve judgement as to whether a motif was the right decision. Looking at the back of the jacket in its entirety, I think I’d have done better to continue the sashiko. But, with more work on the motif than in the photo above, it’s working and I like it. Even if variations in the thread thickness of the soft, worn denim mean that the stitching lacks precision: to paraphrase Tara, it loses precision but it gains life.

JeansJacket4JeansJacket1

I could rip out the motif and the grid, re-do it elsewhere on the jacket, and continue the sashiko to cover the yoke. And I think I want to expand the sashiko beyond the yoke, too. After all, it’s only time. I should use the time I have to do my best. Who knows, this jacket may long outlive me. I do sometimes imagine people decades or centuries from now looking at something I made and wondering about me and my life, as I wonder about those who made  the antique textiles I look at today.

Speaking of which, who wants to see some antique lace?

 

 

 

Fridays are for fixing.

Some time ago someone started a ‘Fridays are for Fixing’ thread in one of my Ravelry hangouts. It seemed a good idea – I have lots of fibre-ish things that need repairing – but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to the work. Last Friday evening found me sitting on the couch happily fixing something I love; I’d had a tiny lightbulb moment I’d like to share.

tabiOn

These are my tabi. Japanese sock/slippers, with a gap between the big toe and the rest so the owner can comfortably wear zori, which resemble UK flip-flops or what I called thongs in my Canadian childhood. It’s perfectly possible to ram feet wearing ordinary socks into a pair of flip-flops, but it’s very unkind to the socks. I like tabi. They’re comfortable.

tabiSide

The ankle opening is closed by interesting fasteners, faster than buttons: metal tabs that neatly slide over and behind threads, like hooks and eyes, but larger and very much more … Japanese. Elegant.

tabiFasten

Sadly I haven’t been wearing my tabi because they’re broken: they weren’t very well made and the snug fit that makes them comfortable and safe to wear has pulled the material of the sole out of its seam in several places on both.

tabiDamge

They’ve been sitting in the bag of things to do for almost a year because I was intimidated by the damage. I felt it should be repaired to be ‘as good as new’, and I couldn’t think of a good way to do that; there’s simply not enough fabric to mend that seam. I could handstitch entirely new soles, but for the work involved I might as well buy a new pair. Or make my own, which is on my short list of projects, but I’m waiting until I have some special fabric for that. Last week the solution became instantly obvious as I cut up an old pair of my husband’s trousers for scrap fabric to test slipper patterns, stacking the pieces next to my sashiko project bag. Sashiko is the Japanese art – it IS art – of repairing, reinforcing and embellishing fabric with simple stitches. I’m fascinated by it, and by boro, the textiles (usually indigo-dyed ‘country cloths’) that have been patched and mended using these stitches. Personal revelation: I didn’t have to make my tabi as good as new. I just had to make them function as they should. I didn’t have to use indigo cotton and white thread, I could use whatever I had, which is true to the tradition of clothing repair. What I have is pieces of trouser leg and a box of embroidery threads, some of which are over 40 years old.

EmbThread

RepairDet

I tested the patches before I started and no, I can’t feel that overlap. The repair might not last a long time – the embroidery thread is probably a bit too fragile – but it should last long enough for me to make my own slippers.

I’m not a seamstress. I’ve done my best to avoid sewing for most of my life. But I’m beginning to enjoy it as part of the process of bringing real things into existence. I hope I’ll get better at it. I think I will.

RepairInSide

After all, practice makes perfect and I’ll get more practice now that I know perfection is not the goal. Fridays are indeed for fixing.