A stitch in time: simple, low-skill clothes mending and alteration techniques

Closet clinic

Whether it’s fixing a button, darning a sock, or repairing a fallen hem – you can achieve plenty with a needle, some thread and a little patience

My memory of my mother’s sewing basket stretches as far back as I can recall. Even now, if I went looking for it I’m sure the fabric scraps, loose buttons, thimbles, pink pin cushion and spools of coloured thread would be exactly as I remember them.

It seemed like something every grown-up house would have: the relevant tools to sew on lost buttons or stitch together ballet costumes. But as an adult, I’ve never owned a sewing kit. I outsource all my clothing repairs to my dry cleaner or tailor.

Speaking to Nicole Mallalieu, a fashion lecturer at the Australian College of the Arts, about easy home repairs made me realise I’ve been missing out on one of life’s simple pleasures. The satisfaction and meditation of mending something for yourself.

How to sew on a button

Before you sew on a button, Mallalieu says to “take the time to examine the other buttons on the garment” so you can see what stitching pattern to use, and where to place it. She says to start by threading a needle with thread, doubling the thread over and knotting it at the bottom.

Then, hold the button in place and starting from behind the fabric, poke the needle through the fabric and one hole of the button and pull it until the knot hits the back of the fabric. Then feed the needle back through the other hole, and push it through to the other side of the fabric. “You keep doing that until the button feels quite secure,” she says. If the button has four holes you can stitch in straight lines, or make a cross – just follow the same pattern as the garment’s other buttons.

To finish, poke the needle through one hole to the back of the fabric and make a knot by wrapping the thread around the needle two or three times before pulling it through, and cutting the tail off. This is called a French knot. If you want more guidance, Mallalieu suggests looking at online tutorials like this one.

How to darn a sock

“The act of darning brings you into a meditative state,” says Mallalieu, “you’re fixing the sock instead of fixing life, but kind of fixing life as well.” To darn a sock, she says you need a darning mushroom which is a piece of wood shaped like, well, a mushroom.

‘Stitch with the yarn and a needle to cover the hole in the sock with what looks like bars in a jail.’ Photograph: Zvonimir Atletic/Getty Images/EyeEm

You place it inside the sock, so the hole is spread over the curve of the mushroom. She suggests getting yarn to match or compliment the colour of your sock. Starting from one corner, she says to “stitch with the yarn and a needle to cover the hole in the sock with what looks like bars in a jail”.

Once you have captured all of the fabric with vertical lines, work the needle back through the stitches horizontally, “one under, one over, one under, one over as if you’re weaving fabric”. She tells me there are lots of videos online that provide clear instructions for how to do this.

How to sew a patch over a hole

If you don’t have a lot of skills, Mallaelieu thinks patching can be a very fun way to cover holes or stains or embellish clothes. She says to embrace the visible mending trend so “it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at stitching”.

She suggests using a “colourful yarn or thread” and doing a “running stitch by going in and out with a needle” around the edge or across the fabric which “you might need to pin in place”.

Repairing fallen hems

Adjusting the length of a hem is a two-person job to make sure it’s even. Photograph: Todd Pearson/Getty Images

The easiest way to repair a fallen hem is to use hemming tape, that you put inside the hem and press with an iron, but this is a stopgap that will only hold until the next wash.

Alternatively, you can stitch by hand using a needle with a single thread, knotted at the end. Mallalieu says to press the hem first and then stitch between the two edges of the fabric, “your aim is to have it not show on the outside”. She suggests watching an online tutorial that demonstrates different techniques like herringbone or whip stitches.

If you’re handy with a sewing machine and the hem was machine stitched, she says, “you’ll need to get back onto a sewing machine, press the hem into shape and copy what’s been sewn.”

According to Mallalieu adjusting the length of a hem is a two-person job, because you need “somebody else to measure it up from the floor and pin it on you” to be sure it’s even. She advises pressing the hem and then putting the garment back on to be sure it’s sitting where you want it, before cutting and sewing it into place.

How to safely turn your jeans into shorts

To cut your jeans into even shorts, Mallalieu says you need to lie them down flat and match the inseam from the crotch to the ankle, then fold them in half so the legs are one on top of the other.

Carefully match the inseam of a pair of jeans from crotch to ankle before cutting them, and always leave a couple of spare centimetres for fraying. Photograph: Veni vidi…shoot/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Using a big pair of scissors, cut through both legs at the same time. Keep in mind that denim will fray a centimetre or two after it’s been cut, so you need to leave a bit of extra length.

How to change the length of a sleeve

When you cut the sleeves of a cotton t-shirt, it will not require hemming, because the fabric will roll up naturally. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

Mallalieu says sleeve alterations really depend on the item’s fabric and the finish you want. If you just want to cut the sleeve off and leave a raw edge, you need to be aware of the fabric’s weave. “The tighter the weave, the less likely it is to fall apart, finer fabrics with looser weaves are more likely to fray.” To prevent fraying she recommends “running a small zig zag stitch around the edge”.

Alternatively, she says you can cut the sleeves off a T-shirt, or anything that’s cotton jersey without worrying because “it won’t fray, it’ll just roll up”.

She says if “you’re turning a shirt into a short sleeve shirt, cut it to the length you want plus three centimetres, so you can fold it over one centimetre, and then two centimetres,” and hem it by running a sewing machine around the edge, or if you’re doing it by hand, use a herringbone stitch.

Mallalieu offers some final advice, applicable to any home-mending job: “Know that it’s not that hard and give it a crack. The most important thing is knowing that you can do it, especially if you put in a little bit of time.”












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