habit shift: mending clothes.

April 27, 2023

Over the weekend, James and I sorted through the zipped bag of kids’ clothing we keep on the highest shelf in the closet. It’s the time of year for dewrinkling shorts and sundresses that have been curled up all winter and for washing and storing wool sweaters that need to sit out the hot summer months. Together we went through the pile of toddler-sized clothes we’d saved from our older kids and culled from our stash what we thought might be useful or wearable for our current assorted sizes of children. We found holey-kneed cotton gauze pants that could get a second lease on life if lopped into shorts. We found linen shorts with bums worn thin but that could survive with a simple patch. We made a pile to pass along to a baby cousin and an increasingly small stack of special items we’ve decided to save for purely sentimental reasons. A few items, I cut into scraps for future sewing projects. I spent a few hours making simple repairs and fixes where I could.

I’m not a particular expert at mending clothes. Since my first time patching a pair of beloved jeans in high school, I’ve learned a few things about the techniques and the process. I’ve gotten somewhat steadier with my stitches and my patches have gotten a bit sturdier. My kids have provided me with a truly bottomless font of opportunity to practice. Does it sometimes feel ridiculous to spend time patching a pair of $1 jeans I found at the school rummage sale that I know might not survive another recess soccer game? It does. But then, so does discarding a pair of perfectly great jeans with one busted-through knee.

For the most part my kids meet their patches with good spirits. This could change in an instant, of course, but generally they’re happy, sometimes even delighted, to wear clothes that have been mended or tweaked. Silas went to school with a knee patch this week that he declared looked like a continent and made up a little dance to for the occasion. Faye went sporting shorts sewn from the aforementioned pants. My children’s belief in my talent extends far beyond what I actually possess, but I can usually set expectations for what’s fixable and what’s not. Fabric and quality of the starting garment, I’ve found, makes a big difference in what I might be able to mend myself. I’m more likely to have success patching a woven natural fiber than anything very stretchy or knit. The stash of black jeans James found at the school rummage sale for Silas have proven very solid and easy to mend and we have little linen shorts and cotton pants that have been hanging on for a decade, passed from cousins and back again. Soft and stretchy knit jersey cottons like the ones that many kids especially love to wear can require a bit more patience to patch. The thin stretchy leggings Faye was partial to a few years ago were better off becoming potholders, but I’ve had better luck mending thicker sturdier knits with small embroidery patches. (I keep an old sweatshirt around for the purpose and cut my patches from that.) I’ve had great luck needle felting in wool, but I’ve yet to really learn to darn efficiently.

Crucially, there’s also this to know: Patched or no, my kids look a little like ragamuffins, most of the time. Calder especially, in part because her collection of hand-me-downs has been more well worn than the others, in part because she’s partial to her hole-y leggings, no matter the alternative (in part because she’s morally opposed to brushing her hair). I’m not saying this to be self-deprecating, only honest. Kids’ clothing becomes tattered and stained almost immediately upon wearing and carefully tending and patching and stain-removing requires care and maintenance and a not small amount of time. Like most every other act of care, it’s work that’s done without pay or easily quantifiable value. I don’t always have the time or desire to carefully tend to or patch or keep up with the maintenance that would have my kids’ wardrobes looking top-notch, and neither do I have the stomach or the bank account for replacing every t-shirt with a small hole or a stain, or egregiously gray sleeve cuff and so often, I simply don’t. As always, there’s a gray area (sometimes quite literal) to settle into between two opposing poles. I sent one kid to school yesterday with a hole in the elbow of their shirt and pants two sizes too small. Another went in a white long-sleeve with cuffs that looked like they’d been dip-dyed in dirty bath water. The third insisted on wearing broken sandals and was thwarted only when they fell entirely apart on the way out the door.

I’ve found that mending can feel creative and satisfying and worthy of my time. The bright patches and stitches can add a little dimension and personality and verve to an otherwise sad item. The process can feel triumphant and meaningful, even fun. Mending can also feel onerous and fiddly and like its keeping me from other things I need to do. So, I mend what I can and, as the old bards once sang, disregard the rest.

In case anyone out there is looking for particular advice, I’ve been helped and inspired enormously along the way by folks more talented and diligent than I am. Here are a few books and instagram accounts from a few favorites:

+ Make, Thrift, Mend: Stitch, Patch, Darn, Plant-Dye & Love Your Wardrobe by Katrina Rodabaugh

+ Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh

+ Mending Life: A Handbook for Mending Clothes and Hearts by Sonya and Nina Montenegro

+ Make and Mend: Sashiko-Inspired Embroidery Projects to Customize and Repair Textiles and Decorate Your Home by Jessica Marquez

If you’re an Instagram user needing small bit of inspiration, I keep a highlight of mends. What have you mended lately?

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  • Reply Grace April 27, 2023 at 10:50 am

    I love this, and enthusiastically second the recommendation of Mending Life! I just started a new job and was heartened to see my coworkers sporting elbow patches and small darns- my people! And also- phew! Our mending pile is looming large at the moment, so much so that I keep pulling things out to wear “just once more!” making my future efforts that much harder. Most recent mend: a cotton Pansy bra, partially chomped by the laundromat washer, patched with tiny pieces of teal linen. Next up: the thousandth darn on my Opa’s totally thrashed yard work sweater.

  • Reply anne April 27, 2023 at 11:07 am

    I’m a big fan of mending, and of doing things like dying/overdying my clothes if I’m sick of the color or they’ve gotten too dingy. I like that I can use scraps of fabrics from sewing projects of my own and I buy patches from ace&jig since I love their textiles but can’t really afford to shop there at the moment. I also love needle felting for small holes in woolen goods.

    As for darning, I’ve never really learned to do proper darning, but I do have a speed weave darning loom that I use to make patches (sometimes very visible, sometimes the same color) and it works a treat.

    • Reply Rachel April 28, 2023 at 7:16 am

      I so appreciate your point about your kids being ragamuffins! The littles in my sons toddler class are so trendy! So MONOGRAMMED. Lol. My husband told me recently these moms have way more time and money than I do, but it really does feel wasteful. Let them be ragamuffins.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 28, 2023 at 9:54 am

        Oh man, if my kids’ stuff were monogrammed they’d be constantly called by the wrong names!

  • Reply Sara April 27, 2023 at 12:40 pm

    Oh man, this totally speaks to me. Every little piece. The hand-me-downs on their way to kid number three, becoming more and more tattered along the way. The pile of pants with ripped knees, moth eaten sweaters, fraying under things, all waiting to be mended in more and more creative ways. The patched and stained clothes and tangled hair on my wild little ragamuffins.

  • Reply Megan April 27, 2023 at 12:41 pm

    Man, my stack of too be mending keeps growing. My partner and father to our own band of ragamuffins is far better at it than I am, which I why I want to learn. It genuinely seems from (and daunting and where will carve out the time?). Needing to mend: the armpit of an adult button up shirt, the collar of a children’s cardigan, the straps of a children’s romper and of an adult top, and my biggest hurdle: my very favorite pair of jeans that ripped completely in the crotch that will require patching skills that are likely far beyond me. And I’m going to still try and look for the above mentioned books at my local library.

  • Reply Emily April 27, 2023 at 12:47 pm

    I’m in much the same boat as you, my 6-year-old has perpetual holes in the right knee of his pants (who knows why only the right knee!!), and I have waxing and waning energy to mend all the holes. But I’ve certainly done a lot of it! I bought a sashiko book, which has been fun, and done the speed weave loom like Anne. I can do some darning but haven’t tried needle felting. A local non-profit is organizing a repair cafe and I volunteered to help with textile mending! I’m a little hesitant because I have no professional experience but we’ve got to spread these skills, right?

    • Reply anne April 27, 2023 at 3:52 pm

      that’s really great that you’re helping with the repair cafe, Emily! I agree, definitely good to spread the skills!

    • Reply Audrey April 29, 2023 at 9:15 am

      That must be a thing! My 6-year old always gets holes in the left knee only. Never fails.

  • Reply Hannah April 27, 2023 at 1:04 pm

    I also love mending and have breathed new life into many of my 2 year old’s beloved pants and shirts that way. What gets me are the massive oil stains everywhere (no longer interested in using a bib but the food often slips off the fork/spoon). Patches seem intentional and fun, oil stains just seem dingy (to me, at least). I guess I could sew patches over the worst offending spots, I just thought of that! But if anyone has oil removal tips I’m all ears!

    • Reply Kristin April 27, 2023 at 1:35 pm

      Hannah, having three kids and being in charge of the family’s laundry has taught me a few things about stain removal. Regarding oil stains, I learned that blue Dawn dish soap (yes, the blue one works best but I’ve tried and had success with other types too) gets out oil stains like magic. I just apply some to the stain, rub it in and rinse it out in hot water before washing it. I can’t remember where I learned that technique, but I’ve been using it for years and nearly always works.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 27, 2023 at 2:15 pm

      Oof, I know! I recently tackled spot removal on the rugs in the kids room that had accumulated some “protein” stains over the years and even though it’s a petroleum product with a not amazing ingredient list, old fashioned lestoil really worked wonders. i was so skeptical and so pleased with the results.

    • Reply SJ April 27, 2023 at 4:39 pm

      I spot treat with dish soap (sooner is better than later) and also sprinkle with baby powder or cornstarch before I wash and that is really effective for oil.

  • Reply AnnieH April 27, 2023 at 1:21 pm

    My mending is mostly darning socks, and sometimes the occasional hole in shirts or pants. My mother had a darning egg made from a small shellacked gourd of some kind. I don’t know how old it is or who made it, but it works well when darning socks. I usually do mine while listening to podcasts or music in the evenings, or on rainy days. Always happy to extend the life of my clothes or other fabrics when I can. I re-stitched the corners of our old comforter. Just noticed some towel hems that will need mending, a good way to spend what will be a rainy weekend.

  • Reply Sarah April 27, 2023 at 4:06 pm

    So glad to see book recs– thats my favorite way to learn. I’ll read a book rather than watch a video every single time.

    I have a few holey shirts that I’m going to try to patch. My holey jeans are going to the professionals for mending though. Pretty pleased that I replaced the elastic in my favorite sweats a year or two ago to extend the wear!

  • Reply Allison April 27, 2023 at 5:01 pm

    Sent Zoe to school in leggings with a hole in the knee and a split seam at her calf. “It’s like another pocket I can use”. To each their own.

  • Reply Marie April 27, 2023 at 6:03 pm

    One tiny pair of woolen pants i had in storage from my daughter was covered with holes when i took them out for the new baby. i mended twenty holes with a dozen colors (it took forever but i couldn’t let them go…) i put them back to use with pure joy. My daughter‘s comment: why these were not mended yet when i wore them !? I like them much better now.
    Since then i mend mostly everything but was never again so successful as with that pants…. Might be no other piece of clothes had that many holes… Love your mending – so non-chalent – inspiring and encouraging. .

  • Reply Evie Squadrille April 27, 2023 at 7:47 pm

    I don’t mend much anymore but occasionally sew a loose hem or replace a button …
    But I enjoy reading all your posts… whether you’re mending ,sewing, weaving, painting- it doesn’t matter!
    you remind me of my mom and your words transport me to a gentler time!
    I love Calder’s orange jacket ❤️

  • Reply Frieda April 28, 2023 at 2:41 am

    I’m all for mending. Usually it’s T-shirts that get for some reasons lot’s of little holes. I really love that you fixed the hem of the jacket’s sleeves. It frazzles often on my clothing but I never considered fixing it.

  • Reply Alba April 28, 2023 at 10:53 am

    I havr been rrsding your blog for years and I have never commented but this is SERENDIPIA. Yesterday I discovered Sonya Montenegro in Worn Wear Stories (Patagonia) and spent my afternoon patching my favourite jeans with their tips. What an amazing feeling to be able to do som thanks Spnya and thanks Erin for providing a scape from this consumerist world!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 28, 2023 at 11:22 am

      Ah! So glad to hear this! TY for reading!

  • Reply marion April 29, 2023 at 5:17 pm

    It was until my 30’s that I really started to be into mending and sewing (to the joy of my grandma, who had lost her hopes). I truly enjoy so much now, and it’s a new topic of discussion for both. My mending techniques are quite basic (like so so basic), but truly makes me so happy that I can extend a little bit more so much clothes that I have. I am more and more getting worried about all the discarting of this clothes not more in use because of a hole…

  • Reply Silvia April 29, 2023 at 10:32 pm

    How fun to read this right after I mended two wool sweaters that I love and hope to keep alive for another 10+ years! One of my favorite discoveries was using crochet to mend torn knees of my kid’s knit pants- if you use self-striping sock yarn, you get cool concentric circles. He was the envy of his fellow fifth graders.

  • Reply Rebecca April 30, 2023 at 3:44 am

    My kids are also firmly in the ragamuffin camp. A dear friend who is a person of color, though, pointed out that sending your kids out the front door with unbrushed hair and stains on the clothes comes from a place of privilege. Her children are always immaculate-not a hair out of place or a dry patch of skin to be found-she explains this is partially due to stereotypes and pre conceived biases that she feels she has to push against and she feels she couldn’t send her kids out into the world with unbrushed hair. Gave me lots of food for thought.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 30, 2023 at 7:49 am

      yes, no doubt.

    • Reply Erin May 1, 2023 at 5:47 am

      I was stitching together a torn hem on a well-loved button-down shirt this weekend. The mending pile is relentless! Thanks for the mending inspiration, Erin.

      And thanks for bringing this up, Rebecca. This was emerging for me as I read, too. It’s the yes and. Yes to caring for our clothing, to visible mending–and to recognizing that in many ways, whiteness allows us to show up this way. It’s making me think about keeping Black and Brown children and families safe at school.

      I’m an elementary teacher. Too often, our implicit bias toward what caregiving should look like can lead to teachers assuming neglect on the part of Black and Brown families. And this can involve reports to social workers and Child and Family Services. White children get to be messy and playful kids. That same privilege of leniency isn’t always extended to our children of color.

      Dr. Jamilia Blake has done a lot of work on adultification of young Black girls and the ways in which they aren’t allowed childhood in the same ways white children are. Here’s a report she worked on if you’re interested: https://genderjusticeandopportunity.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/girlhood-interrupted.pdf

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 1, 2023 at 6:39 am

        Totally agree and regretful that I didn’t I didn’t acknowledge this in the original piece. Thanks so much for sharing this study.


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