Friday, November 28, 2014


I used to sew a lot as a youngster. I wasn't brilliant at it, too slapdash, and school needlework was a nightmare; a 'waist petticoat' consisting of a rectangle of white poplin with one French seam (what? Who'd want to be bothered with a thing like that, seaming twice when once would do fine... Come to that who the hell wants a poplin waist petticoat anyway?) and elastic round the top took me all of a school year, since the (possibly clinically insane) needlework teacher sent me back to unpick it time and again until it was frayed with wear, grey with fingermarks and brown with rust from the pins. However, I really did learn to sew at my mother's and my sisters' knees, it was a source of enjoyment and challenge, and if making something myself was an option I'd usually give it a try; bras and jeans could never quite match the bought versions for fit, but most other things could be attempted, and in those days home made really was often cheaper, especially when you had a mother whose idea of a good Saturday afternoon out was market stalls selling fabrics. 

Nowadays though, I've come to realise that sewing isn't really a great pleasure for me any more; it seems to be one of the many things I'm letting go with relief and without regret*.  I will make the odd curtain or cushion cover or other item for the house if called for, but I don't really enjoy it that much, and getting the machine out feels like a chore, it's strictly about the product not the process. I have a small pile of interesting fabrics, for which I had a few plans, but lately I became aware that looking at them made me feel tired and weighed down and guilty. The awareness came to me because of the difference between that feeling and the one engendered by the prospect of my stash of knitting wool, which is always one of exciting possibility and tingling in the fingers at the projects it represents, even though they may not ever come to fruition. 

However, there is one area where I regard a bit of sewing quite cheerfully, and that's in the area of mending. I know a lot of more gifted and serious needlepersons regard mending as a dreary horror, but I'm genuinely quite happy to do it, and always have been, in fact.  A patch represents a manageable morsel of sewing for me, and darning a rather charming little symbiotic flowering of weaving or embroidery. The work brings the item back into commission, but its existence isn't dependent on it. And more recently I've become quite taken with the possibilities of more creative mending, using it to embellish and make things unique.  It helps of course that I now live in such a way that eccentrically mended and tatterdemalion clothing can be worn as no one much sees it anyway. Though I've always been rather drawn to motley; there used to be an urban tribe of dreadlocked anarcho-feminists who hung out somewhere in north London when I lived in the city in the eighties who wore jeans and leather jackets entirely composed of shreds and patches, and I often looked at them rather enviously. I doubt that I would have qualified to join, my half-hearted reading of Bakunin and Malatesta and occasional purchase of 'Green Anarchist' weekly (their recipe for chickpeas with apricots was a blow-out, green anarchists must have had hearty appetites) probably wouldn't have been enough.

Anyway, here are some examples. Tom's favourite Black Watch M&S shirt, worn at the collar then torn on the sleeve on a nail, I really actually no kidding turned the collar! I have never before done this, it looked a bit odd and I had to stitch it down a bit or it stuck up but it's wearable. Then I patched the tear with a piece of green cloth table napkin someone gave me, and I decided we were never going to use leaf green cloth table napkins:

Whimsically I made it leaf shaped. And I was very pleased with my patience because I didn't tell him but put it away in the wardrobe at the end of the summer so he didn't find it done till he got it out in the spring (it's a quite thin cotton shirt).

I decided I liked the leaf motif, so when I found I had spilled something nasty on my old plummy-browny-purply yoga pants which caused a kind of stained and wrinkled splodge, I used it again:

We both wear rather a lot of polar fleece. Sometimes I feel a bit conflicted about this, it's rather nasty cheap synthetic stuff really, and contrary to some belief is almost never made from recycled plastic water bottles. It is however lighter than wool and warmer than cotton, doesn't itch, comes in nice colours, is economical and dries from the wash in the blink of an eye. If it ever scorches, though, which is an occupational hazard with a wood fire, or even from leaning over the stove, it melts in an instant, which was what happened to this purple one, of which I really was very fond because it's a very good colour.

Oh, and another thing about it is it doesn't felt, unlike wool. I have a number of old felted sweaters in my piles of stuff, and sometimes I chop them up with a view to doing something creative with them. So I made a big pocket from the bottom of one and used it to cover up the scorch mark, and as it didn't have a pocket this was quite useful. Then I put more whimsical leaves on the elbows which were a bit thin and worn, and some other totally unnecessary bits in other places too.

At this point it becomes clear how much dark reddish, brownish and purplish clothes we have in our wardrobes. Like my best linen trousers, which I thought I took good care of but then splashed some bleach on them through the laundry basket. The resulting white spot had to be covered up. Spiders' webs inspired the repair this time. 

They're really redder than the above one, the camera tends to a bluish cast, this one's more like:

I still don't mind wearing them for best, it's quite a small mend and doesn't stand out.

Sometimes mending and knitting can be comined, Tom's old Shetland jumper, which has been in his life longer than I have, went through at the elbows, so I knitted some elbow patches:

In fact the jumper's so thin now that I think it may not really have been worth the effort, but not to worry.

I like this red and purple stripe so much that I started knitting myself a hat with the same wool, but then I needed the needles for something else.

There are quite a few other half-completed mending projects in the bag: woolly walking socks with soles cut from felted sweaters waiting to be slippers, other old sweaters with their sleeves cut off to be made into waistcoats, the sleeves perhaps into boot toppers.  They may not all get finished, and it's all quite unnecessary, inexpensive and perfectly adequate new clothes can be bought, but it's fun, and satisfying, and no one else has got them.

*Many of these - drawing, painting, writing poems... - are quite possibly just on hold, and I'll come back to them later, for the moment I simply don't feel I need to be doing them.


The Crow said...

I learned to darn socks by putting them over a light bulb and weaving the knit edges back together. I've saved many a pair of otherwise still good and serviceable socks this way.

I like your embroidery and your patches. They look proper and whimsical at the same time - wabi-sabi-ish.

The Crow said...

PS: the elbow patches are the bee's-knees!

Catalyst said...

I like the leaf patches, as in "leaf me alone!"

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I love it all, all of it! Have thought along similar lines but never got round to doing anything about it. Anyway my sewing skills are very rough but I don't mind.

Also love those purplish/blueish/browny colours.

marja-leena said...

I too love all of these, especially those knitted elbow patches. I've been almost a life-long sewer though less in later years. Knitting I never mastered. Darning socks, mending and patching I do in spurts but the pile is always high! So is my pile of fabrics waiting to be made into garments. ( I could blame the internet and blogging for using up goodly chunks of my free time, heh.)

Stella said...

There's a word in there (I can't scroll up now to find it) that is good enough to win a prize. You'll know the one I mean. Your mends are wonderful! How clever and creative you are. You have reminded me that my mother would turn collars, and cuffs, and mend sheets. Use it up/Wear it out/Make it do/Or do without. Something Holy in that.

Fire Bird said...

I love your mending and it made me grin to remember the dreaded Mrs Lee (throwing caution to the winds and using full name - shock!)and how she would rip apart our tacking and make us do it again as if tacking were intended to be permanent!

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

Crow - most modern socks aren't really darnable or worth darning, I tend to use old cotton socks as cleaning rags, or maybe as patches on something else. The exceptions are the thick woolly walking kind, which are worth a mend, especially as you can get quite fond of them. Even then, the trouble is it's like the biblical image, the mend tears worse at the old fabric. I sometimes cut the feet off with a view to making them into ankle warmers or boot toppers, but seldom really do. Putting felted soles might be another solution. Wabi-sabi, yes I'd forgotten that; the Japanese are the masters/mistresses of creative mending, like those ceramic repairs they do where they fill the crack with gold, or that lovely darning they do on blue cloth called boro, with millions of tiny running stitches. Tom's elbows are the bee's knees eh!

Bruce - yes, it's part of one's general reclusiveness in fact tostay at home and make do and mend!

Natalie - Rough sewing skills need not be a discouragement, if anything they make for more interesting results! But you do proper, creative, worhtwhile making of new beautiful things anyway.

ML - I suppose I'll hang on to some of the fabric I've got, but in fact I've found it quite liberating to admit I don't really want to get on with those projects, and let them go. I think part of the problem with sewing is the machine, but also I'm not longer bothered with decorating surfaces any more, other than for mending, so embroidery and needlepoint leave me cold just now too, and I've left too many projects unfinished in the past. Getting rid of them feels good.

Stella - it was a cheat really, it's a noun not an adjective as I've used it, 'tattered' would have been fine, but I used it quite gratuitously because I like it, it's got some kind of association with the Romantic poets I think, or maybe Hopkins. The collar wasn't really amenable to being turned, you can't unpick the neckbands properly now, they're all sort of bonded together, so I had to just cut it off and join it rather awkwardly. It's OK though. Tom frets a bit that he says now he'll never be able to throw these things out because I've mended them so lovingly. Which is nice.

FB - so glad you stopped by and picked up on that! I seem to remember I mended more of your jeans than my own, you must have been hard on them or something. Your mum used to tell you off for getting me to do them, but before we were smokers I used to like to have something to do with my hands when hanging out. Re Mrs Lee, I think you may have been in the running with me for the longest time spent on a waist petticoat that year (c 1972/3?). Legend had it her mental instability was something to do with the Japanese prison guards sticking matches under her finger nails. By the end of the year I think we were beginning to sympathise with them.

the polish chick said...


this post had a sweet familiarity for me because the little embroidery (or something very like it) is precisely the way my mom always dealt with small spots or holes or tears when i was a child. i remember my dad always having a small embroidered flower or dot on a shirt or pants, and i, a chronic spiller of wine (red), have done the same with thread or fabric paint.

i ran into my boss at work yesterday and he was rather concerned because the buttons on his jacket were coming loose, and i asked him, incredulous, if he didn't know how to sew on buttons - he did not! it shocks me that people don't know how to do these simple things, and even though i'm not worth a darn at proper darning (har har), i still feel a certain degree of pride at being able to take care of all such things myself. not that i always choose to - larger items get sent to a nice little vietnamese lady who runs a shop next door.

no to go on and on, but i do believe skills like the ones you write about are part and parcel of a philosophy that refuses to discard the imperfect just to buy buy buy. thank you for that reminder.

Zhoen said...

I was about to say Me, too, until I saw what a beautiful and artistic job you did with the 'mend.' My mends look slapdash... oh, wait, we have a very different definition of that as well. My mends are nothing to take a photo of, although I can keep a button on longer than the item of clothing exists. Never could darn socks successfully.