Got a split seam in your backpack? A shirt button you need to sew back on? Or, if you’re ambitious, a hole in your jeans you’d like to patch? Let’s talk about the basics of repairing clothes, so that you’ll know what’s in your power to fix and how you’d go about doing it.
We’ll start with the easiest things, and work up to repairs that are a bit more difficult. Everything on this list can be done by hand, so you don’t need a sewing machine, although for some repairs it will help.
The basics of hand sewing
Get yourself a needle, some thread and a pair of scissors. If you have a sewing kit somewhere, it’s probably good enough in a pinch. Ideally, though, you’ll have a selection of needles of different sizes, so you can select what makes the most sense for your project, and some good quality hand-sewing thread.
First, cut your thread. The length should be enough that you can work with it comfortably, so for most projects you’ll want it slightly shorter than the distance from your lap to your outstretched hand. If you plan to use a single strand of thread, use that comfortable amount plus a little bit of excess (six inches or so). If you’re doubling your thread—which I recommend for sewing buttons or for anybody who is terrified the thread will unravel—you’ll want exactly double the length that feels comfortable to work with.
When you take the thread off the spool, it will often be curled up, and likely to tangle. If you’re using a double length of thread, cut the full double length, thread the needle, and bring the two threads next to each other before allowing them to untwist. Each side will wrap around the other, stabilizing the thread so it won’t snarl. If you’re using a single length, just do your best to let it straighten out before you begin sewing. If you still have problems with it tangling as you sew, you can run the thread across a chunk of candle wax or soap to stiffen it a bit.
Before you thread your needle, make sure the end is cut cleanly, so there are no frayed bits hanging off. I have a habit of licking the end of the thread if I need to squeeze it through a small needle eye, because that helps to keep the fibres of the thread together. I’ve never used a needle threader (those little tinfoil-and-wire gadgets that come in a lot of sewing kits), but you can if you’d like. Here’s a video showing how.
If you’ve used a double thread, tie an overhand knot in the end to act as a stopper, and insert it into your fabric so that the knot and tail are hidden on the back of the fabric or inside a seam. If you’re using a single length of thread, just sew two or three stitches in the same spot, on top of each other, to anchor the thread before you begin.
From there, you’re ready to sew. The basic stitches you’ll need to know are here. I use a backstitch for most hand sewing and repairs, since it’s strong and secure.
The easiest repair is one where two pieces of fabric were joined at a seam, and now the thread holding that seam together has weakened and failed. This is an easy fix if the fabric on both sides is still fully intact. If the stitching is intact and it’s the fabric that ripped, you can’t repair the seam; you’ll need to patch the whole area instead. Same deal if the fabric is still there but worn thin. There’s no point in putting fresh new stitches into weak fabric that’s just going to rip again.
So, the fabric is still good, but the stitching has failed. Get your thread (as above) and start sewing where the stitching is still good. Sew a few new stitches over the old ones to lock them in place, then just keep going. You should be able to see exactly where they old stitches were, so follow that line. Finish the same way you started, using the new thread to lock the old in place. If your stitching was straight enough, the repair should be invisible from the outside.
Re-attaching a button
If a button falls off, it’s pretty easy to replace. Clothes often have a spare button sewn somewhere on the inside, or sometimes a button will come attached to the tag when you buy the garment. If not, buy a new one (or find one in your stash; it’s worth keeping a stash of buttons) and make sure it’s the same size as the one you’re replacing. If it’s too big or too small, it won’t work with the buttonhole.
On thick fabric, like a coat, the button needs to sit above the fabric. That means you’ll need to make space for the fabric while you sew the button. A toothpick or two crossed pins can help.
Patching is tricky because it looks so easy, but if you patch a garment incorrectly, you can create more problems than you solve.
The idea is to replace the entire area of weakened fabric with fabric that is at least as durable as the original. Let’s take a pair of jeans as an example. You’ve worn a hole, maybe two inches wide, at the kneecap. The denim around the hole is also going to be thin and weakened, so you can’t fix it with a two-inch-wide patch. Look closely at the fabric, and feel it with your hands, to figure out how much fabric has to go. Chances are, you have to replace the entire knee area.
So, find a large enough piece of fabric—ideally denim, if you’re patching denim. (It pays to save scraps from old pairs of jeans if you think you’re likely to patch more jeans in the future.) Iron-on patches are great in a pinch, but they often require a bit of sewing to keep them in place and properly anchor them. Here’s a video showing different ways of using iron-on patches to fix jeans.
For a basic patch, you have two options:
Sew the patch on the inside of the garment, behind the hole, which strengthens the fabric but leaves the hole visible.
Sew the patch on the outside of the garment, which means the patch is visible and the edges need to be finished.
The second option is the neatest looking. Either iron the edges of the patch to fold them under, or plan on whipstitching or blanket stitching over the edge of the raw fabric. Whichever approach you chose, sew the patch, making sure your stitches go into good, strong fabric. Then if you used the second approach, trim away the old fabric underneath the patch so that the raggy edges of the hole won’t annoy you when you wear it.