My grandmother Elli was an expert seamstress. She learned from her father, a Berlin fashion designer during the 1920s. When she came to visit us in the spring, she would help me make doll clothes. One particularly striking outfit was a black-and-white houndstooth check dress with hand-sewn, red rickrack. My dolls were quite stylish. When I sewed my own senior prom dress, Elli was there to teach me how to insert a prick-stitch zipper. The dress no longer fits, but it still hangs in the back of my closet.
When Elli died, I inherited her huge, multi-tiered wooden sewing box, which included, among other treasures, tin boxes full of buttons. Over the years, I accumulated my own stash, a source of delight for my daughters as I worked on sewing projects at the dining room table. Buttons would become tiny plates and food, matching and counting games.
The sewing box is battered, now, sitting in our basement family room. But it still contains wonderful traces of my grandmother—spools of silk thread that must be at least a century old, tiny cardboard tubes wrapped with various dark shades of darning thread for mending socks, black hooks-and-eyes sewn to a card.
I never learned how to darn, and I can no longer sew on buttons by hand without great difficulty—too hard to hold the button in place and manipulate the needle and thread. So I delegate that task. But I like to repair clothes. It’s a way of conserving resources and fighting back against our throw-away economy. I tackle any mending project with my trusty Viking Husqvarna sewing machine, which I purchased about thirty years ago and has never failed me.
The other day, my eldest asked if I could mend a favorite sweater that had gotten snagged, causing a seam to unravel. Ideally, it should have been crocheted back together, but that was out of the question. I wasn’t sure if I could fix it, but I promised her I’d try.
From decades of sewing, especially when my hands were more nimble, I have accumulated a thread collection that rivals the one I inherited from my grandmother. Sure enough, I had the right maroon thread to match the sweater. I pinned the seam back together, carefully unrolling the edges to align without losing any more knit stitches. I set the machine for a narrow zig-zag, to secure the seam without losing stretch. And I slowly stitched away, forcing the knit fabric toward the feed-dog so the seam wouldn’t sag.
I didn’t know if my method worked until I finished the seam—but it did. The inside edge is not as neat as the original, but the outside looks perfectly fine. One sweater saved. A small victory in a world so far removed from Elli’s day, when mending was not only a practical matter of conserving scarce resources, but also an art form.
At a time when so much seems so easily torn asunder, a worthy pursuit.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.