Friday, December 20, 2019

A stitch in time, or maybe a little late

One of the first rules written in historic texts on mending is to reinforce thin or weak spots before they form holes. This is useful advice, it is far easier to patch or reinforce a thin spot than it is to patch a hole or tear. But there are times when 'fashion'  or convention dictate that something not be mended. I once worked with a women who's partner was a painter, and the first thing they did with new coveralls was mess them up. To appear in pristine new white coveralls, with no paint stains was just not done. Denim is one of those fabrics which has more 'value' when worn in, when a little worn or roughed up or faded. Manufacturers and Designers (not always the same thing) go out of their way to distress or 'pre-wear' denim, so it doesn't look so new, so unworn. This is something that increasingly makes me uncomfortable - distressing, bleaching, sanding, or ripping denim to look 'cool' shortens its life by years and years.
One of my oldest clothing items is a denim jacket, made in New Zealand by Workshop, it looks the same the the one they still sell. I bought it before there were children I my life, way back nearly 30 years ago, at the time it was expensive and a special purchase. It was slightly distressed (something I would avoid now as it shortens the life of garments), and I  have always loved the fit, the long sleeves and the narrow body.
But the problem with long sleeves is the same as the problem with long jeans or trousers - the hem wears out first. At first I didn't mind, I kind of liked the 'this old thing' vibe of the ragged sleeve hems. I wore it with pride, imagining that the wear was kind of a symbol of a favourite jacket and of a slight disregard for conventions around clothing having to be new. As the frayed edge threads got longer and longer, and people started ask if I should trim them, and I realised that while a worn jacket might be 'cute' or 'street' it wasn't very practical, I started to catch the threads on door knobs and other edges.

It was time to repair my favourite denim jacket, my only denim jacket. First I trimmed away all the loose threads. This was good as trimming revealed the work that needed to be done. The edge had worn away and the inner and outer cuff were now separate layers. I realised the long threads were the threads that ran around the edge of the cuff -- as the edge warp threads wore away the horizontal weft threads had nothing to hold them in place.

There are traditions of mending all around the world. In my 'work' world I research mending and repair of textiles in New Zealand Museums. My focus period is 1870's to 1950's - kind of arbitrary dates based on when needlework including mending was included in the New Zealand school curriculum. I pair this with research that looks at text books published at the same time - and look at instructions for mending. One of the universal methods is a running stitch mend - it appears in all the books, and is the one I see most in mended textiles in collections. The second most frequent is a patch.  This method is the one that has become popular as people look at and emulate Boro textile repair. The darning samplers I have seen in New Zealand museums usually have the repairs worked in contrast threads, this is so who ever is viewing the sampler can clearly see how the repair was worked. This was twofold, so the teacher and examiners could assess the work-pesonship, and so the owner could use the sampler to remind them how to complete a repair.

I used Japanese Sashiko thread, from Minerva(in Wellington), to reinforce and stitch the cuffs. They don't list it on their website but if you phone them they will happily ship to you. The thread comes in several colours, but I choose to use a soft natural white. It also comes in at least two weights - I went for the finer thread. I could have used machine sewing thread and if I had the stitching would have been less visible. I could have used embroidery thread - but it would have had less twist than the Japanese repair thread.

 The first cuff - I just used the thread to reinforce the edge, the second cuff I added in a layer of folded cotton to even up the edge. This was the right sleeve and was more worn than the left (I'm right handed). Adding the layer of folded fabric between the two cuff layers - meant I had to work the horizontal stitches first.

How did looking at mending samplers in museums and vintage books inform me? Well I knew that the thread had to be kept soft, and not pulled too tight. If I pulled the mending threads too tight the work would become stiff. Keeping the stitches 'soft' allowed the fabric to retain its soft flexible fabric qualities.

The finished cuffs look mended, but that is ok, the jacket is 30 years old, it looks far more used and worn than any new garment would. Replacing the cuffs would have taken much more work and looked odd with the vintage fabric of the jacket.

The final cuffs are mended, and I can't wait to wash the jacket so the threads blend into the fabric more. Except my learning about sustainble fashion and the 'cost of fashion' informs me that laundry is one of the major ways to wear out textiles - we have been encouraged to over clean and wash our textiles far more than they need to be. There is some evidence that 80% of the environmental cost of a garment lies with a consumer - in the laundry  practices they use. I discuss this with my students - that as designers they may only be able to make decisions that affect 20% of the environmental cost of a garment. There is quite a bit of noise around how 'Fashion' is unsustainable - and most of it points fingers at manufacturers and designers - very little highlights the role customers have in caring for their garments. I will wash this jacket - when it is dirty, too dirty for a brush or an airing to deal with.  I did use my iron to steam the mend - knowing that the thread and fabric would puff up and relax and just look a bit more integrated.

Na Stella

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