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A Time to Sew, A Time to Mend

My old mending tin is full of generations of notions and spare thread.

It’s funny that while I dream of acquiring the latest, most advanced sewing supplies, mending inspires a different yearning.

If I need to mend something, I want to make those stitches with one of my grandmother’s needles. The sewing box I reach for doesn’t have a special spot for every notion. It’s an old tin with a jumble of real silk thread, bakelite buttons, tarnished snaps, bits of sprung elastic, and a defunct light bulb tossed around inside. You have to pry the tin open with a butter knife, which I would never put up with from my regular sewing box.

For a long time I simply thought mending was a chore – and a boring one. How it irritated me when someone found out I could sew and asked if I could put a button back on a shirt! My sewing time was more important than that! I bet doctors feel something similar when they’re asked for a diagnosis at a dinner party. Now, however, I’ve come to have a different impression of mending. (Although I’m still not eager to do it for other people!)

For one thing, I realized that there are chores I might like – once I stop putting them off. Doing the dishes, folding laundry, and vacuuming – really not so bad. Really! A lot of it is love for the talismans of mending I’ve saved. It is wonderful to resurrect just the right thing from that jumble, or consider the origin of some of the pieces. Mending time is also quiet time – when you can think, but not too hard. I like to watch TV or listen to the radio and still accomplish something.

How do you feel about mending? Do your friends and family ask for your help? Are garments so plentiful and free time so rare that you don’t even do it any more? I think I lost some disdain for mending when I realized it informed my sewing. Repairs are almost exclusively for ready-to-wear garments – as I am sure many Threads readers have found as well. I’ve learned how NOT to sew almost everything, from buttons to zippers.

In addition to my grandmother’s notions, I’ve used her tips and tricks as well. She learned in grade school never to use a piece of thread longer than the distance from her fingertips to her elbow. The light bulb in the mending tin? It’s a darning egg, of course. And some of that silk thread is the color of stockings that came in flat boxes from a very exclusive department store. You didn’t throw those stockings out or dab them with clear nail polish when you had a run. You carefully darned them with matching silk thread.

I’ve posted some pictures of a miniature stocking repair kit I have. I’m not sure how old the kit is and I would love to hear from anyone who might be able to tell me how old it could be. I’m also interested in hearing about any other vintage mending items you may have. I think they were wonderful little marketing tools and I wish businesses still gave them away.


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  1. SisterPlasterer | | #1

    I never really thought about mending stockings before. Perhaps now I'll consider the $175 cashmere/silk Wolford stockings....Nah, but it's good to know they can be mended.

  2. naughtymonkeys | | #2

    What a cool mending tin -- it's really like a treasure box!! And the history lessons are great -- I had no idea women used to mend their silk stockings, or that a light bulb could be used as a darning egg, what wonderful information to share!

    Mending can be fun at times. I like rescuing pieces that are fine overall, but missing a button or the hem's come undone, etc. Loads of pieces in thrift stores like that, so I'm assuming mending is a dying art, or at least a mystery to lots of people. Considering today's economy, it be making a a comeback, though.

  3. tapestry_dee | | #3

    When I sit to mend something, it forces me to remember why I learned to sew in the first place, to expand the lifetime of something, to show my family the hands-on handling of an item extends life to it. It's to show me that the condition of something was made better by my touch. It's so I may reflect on the years of items I've given life back to, of my mending of those things, if just in those moments of mending.

  4. KelleyHighway | | #4

    First of all, I love your writing style and testimonies. Second, I enjoyed the photos. The memories they evoked took me to my grandmother's sewing tin, in storage on Guam. Can't wait to pry it open again...

  5. mcarr719 | | #5

    based on the artwork -- mid 1940's I think.

  6. LouiseCnote | | #6

    Your mending box is similar to mine--a fruit cake tin from the 50s (I'm 75). I do have MY grandmother's, Mom's, and aunt's tins from the 20s & 30s--also fruitcake tins, & my other grandma's Chinese wicker basket (with legs) from early 1900s. Inside are her threads, as well as a gauze sling, printed with directions, maybe WWI? My 95 yr old aunt & I talked about mending a few days ago. I called to apologize for not coming for my usual weekly visit--I had lost track of time with mending--she was shocked & asked why I still mend, because she doesn't!! I told her it was things like dropped hems, sprouting seams & missing buttons. That she could justify! However...when my 47 yr old daughter arrived one morning Auntie was already in the kitchen in the middle of a traditional Italian cheese crescent, called Fiadone! My daughter spends weekdays with her & my uncle (97) & is coming back to all the home arts she learned as a girl! Auntie will stir the pot or work on a project till she tires, then Gina finishes--usually at her direction! Gina has finally learned to knit under Auntie's disciplined techniques. It's hard to say who is getting the most of these loving tasks!I can hardly wait to share your mending box with her!

  7. gram22015 | | #7

    I am not crazy about mending for my family. I put it off as long as I can. But...once a month about 5 or 6 of us from our church go to a retirement home to mend. This is all volunteer and we have more to do then we can possibly do in one long morning!! Somehow this is rewarding?

  8. laureehead | | #8

    This is what I do!! I have a mending and alterations business at my home, Keep You In Stitches. My husband gave me half of his shop to use. Put up dry wall, a ceiling, put in windows, layed lineolum...I have heat and a/c, even a changing room for clients!! We have a daughter with special needs and holding down a job "outside of the home" is impossible at this time. PLUS, since I love projects, I can get paid for doing some while still making things I want for my family. In this day, replacing a zipper is much more sensible than buying a new coat!! Each project is its' own puzzle. What am I working on right now? A kilt from Scotland that has hung in a closet for years because it's too long. Soon it will be shortened with the abundance used as a sash and for letting out the waist along with some of the pleats. It's beautiful material and I get to see lots of different craftsmanship...quite an education in garment construction!!

  9. User avater
    RevDi | | #9

    I LOVE mending. It gives me a chance to sit and relax, and think about the person whose clothes I'm mending. I'm at my daughter's house this week in Louisiana, and I've just finished mending two reusable shopping totes, a pair of my grandson's Cars underwear, a cami for my daughter, a pair of her slacks, and put buttons back of three of my son-in-law's shirts. I live in California, and only get to see them once a year, so this is a real blessing.
    When I was a child in the 1950s, we never gave clothing to the thrift shop; we mended it. (Of course, clothing was made much better back then.) when it was too far gone to mend, we took off the buttons and zippers and put the fabric in the rag box. What fun I had making doll clothes (and clothes for the cat, I confess) with treasures from the rag box. The zippers and buttons were re-used, and I still have some of them in my collection, waiting to be used again.
    I have my great-aunt's old sewing box, what appears to be an old chocolate box with a wooden lid, and my granny's sewing box, what looked like a treasure chest when I was younger. I just inherited my mother-in-law's, a toffee tin. I love using their needles and threads and old trims when I can, although I wonder how in the world they could thread some of those impossibly small needle eyes!
    Mending is a connection back through time. I see them when I sit down, and I remember the wonderful crazy quilts I slept under, probably made with pieces from their own rag boxes. What a shame our world today is too busy to take a little time to slow down, and too disposable to save a bit of something and make into something special.

  10. ChaseAnderson | | #10

    I have my grandmothers' wicker goose sewing basket. It is lined in silk and the wings open the back of the basket. They are padded with velvet as pin cushions. I have her button box, darning egg, crochet hooks and some of the tiny buttons she used when making baby layettes for the local hospital. That's one of the ways she supported herself when my grandfather died very young. She would be 128 years old.

    I actually know how to turn collars and cuffs.

  11. dreamie | | #11

    Loved this article! I have an old sewing chest on legs with three drawers and a hinged hatch on each side which can really hold quite a bit of whatever you wish to put in there; I use it for a quick mending kit, extra scissors, knitting needles, knitting projects in process. It's missing a couple of drawer knobs, not great to look at, but I'd never part with it. One drawer even has a removable tray on the top, and underneath that, a bar reaching from side to side on which you could store spools of thread, as it's removable. I can remember it in my mothers bedroom from early childhood. I'd thought of having it refinished, but maybe it's better of left as is.

  12. LindaKnitSew | | #12

    I have been a professional seamstress for 40 years specializing in bridal, alterations and women's wear. I have always been very happy to mend for my customers. First of all, I earn the same wage no matter what kind of sewing I do, and it is satisfying to save a garment from being thrown away with less than an hour of work in most cases.
    When customers learn that I am not only a knitter but also a machine knitter, I see all manner of sweaters with holes, tears, stains, etc. Usually the repair is nearly invisible. Mending also appeals to my environmental attitude. What is more saving of resources than mending!

  13. Farmergal | | #13

    I love hearing that other women also enjoy mending. I think just throwing clothes away is the more common practice these days, and the waste of that bothers me.

    Dreamie--I have a sewing stand just like the one you described. I inherited it from my mother, and I use it as a bedside table, because my favorite place to mend is sitting up in bed, my bedroom has the best natural light in the house. I love the little wooden dowels that hold thread, you can just snip off the length you need and your spool never goes rolling across the floor.

    One of my favorite treasures is a double darning egg, one end is broad enough to fit the toe of a ladies sock, the other is small enough to fit a baby sock. It is made of wood, maple I think.

  14. gailete | | #14

    You are so right about store bought clothes needing the mending. I have rarely ever had to mend something I made in the first place. While I say I don't like mending, I have found doing it for hubby and my sons fulfilling. I found a like new shirt at a thrift store for my husband and when he put it on we realized why it was still like new. The buttons had been sewn on in the wrong spots so it couldn't be buttoned. Well I took them all ff and sewed buttons on correctly and then he had a new work shirt. I have a 26 year old autistic son that lives in his own apartment and supports himself and has to live very frugally. I am always happy to mend what I can for him so he can wear his clothes longer without having to replace them as quick. My other son who lives out of state brings home clothes for me to mend whenever he visits.

    Except for sewing on buttons, most of my mending is done with my sewing machine though and I have found some interesting mending stitches to use.

  15. User avater
    quiltbeads | | #15

    This is for Dreamie, your chest sounds wonderful. Do not refinish it. A furniture restorer I once knew who trained in England said to use men's shoe wax - she liked tretorn- and a very fine steel wool to restore the finish.

  16. sufa | | #16

    I too have my grandmother's sewing basket, and I love to mend. I'm glad to have sisters-in-thread. Sufa

  17. dreamie | | #17

    Farmergal and Quiltbeads, thanks so much for your comments. I don't know if I'll try refinishing at this point, but will keep your advice in mind if I do. Also, the tip re keeping thread on the bar, which so far I've never used, I'm going to start keeping some frequently used mending threads there, as I've never thought of using it that way. Thanks to both of you!

  18. dollnovice | | #18

    These comments have made for interesting reading. I find that whenever I do any sort of needlework, from knitting or lacemaking to sewing, I feel closely united with my ancestral mothers. I'm so aware of the fact that I choose to do these things, but that they had no say in the matter. If they didn't do them, the family was naked and starving!! And the thing I treasure from my Grandmother's sewing stuff is the special sizzors for cutting horizontal button holes open. It has a screw you set before you start, and lets you cut exactly the right distance --- and not a thread more!

  19. bobbysox | | #19

    I grew up in the 40's & 50's, wore dresses that my mother made on her black Singer, and remember sitting on the floor under the extendable top of her sewing machine table, sewing clothes for my dolly with the scraps from my own clothes. She taught me to mend socks and make other repairs. When I went off to college in the 60's I was greatly surprised that nobody on my floor knew how to mend their clothes (some not even how to sew on a button!) And now I can chuckle at the younger generations who think they've made a great discovery about "recycling" garments and other goods, when once my own children laughed at me for doing so. What goes around... Also have made extra money through the years doing alterations and repairs for clothing shops. The look of appreciation on someone's face for fixing a run in their favorite sweater is worth the time & effort. Mending ranks right up there with the other arts.

  20. MizN | | #20

    Recently when I mentioned to a sewing friend that one of my favorite sewing tasks was to mend; she said "How boring". Some think that may be the case but I look at it in a recycling way. Making something new again and making it last longer. I have fond memories of my mother mending. After we children were put to bed, mom sat in the living room, pulled her sewing basket next to her and began mending all the family's socks, pants, shirts, and anything that had a hole in it. She would weave back and forth across a hole in a sock making it disappear and look like it could be worn for another year. I learned the skill from her and today when my husband, daughter, or sister askes me if I could "fix" or patch something for them, I gladly accept the project. There has been many a winter night when I sat by lamplight mending and thinking of mom and all she taught me about sewing and mending. What a beautiful tribute to her that I can continue this art/skill in her memory.

  21. Midwestmiddleage | | #21

    Both my daughter and I have a sewing cabinet like dreamie has. I purchased mine for 5 dollars and it was my first piece of furniture when I got married 36 years ago. It is called a Martha Washington cabinet. Don't refinish it! My daughter received hers from her grandmother who had purchased it as an antique and stripped it-it's not very pretty any longer! I, too, love to mend and am still learning how to make repairs as invisible as I can.

  22. itsactuallyfee | | #22

    I work in my school's costume department, one of two or three people. It just so happens my favorite thing to do as a costumer, is mending. When the school does musicals with +100 cast members, a lot of pieces come through the door needing a new button, mended hem, torn tie loop. And since the musical is so large, a lot of students use personal items where possible. It's really a great feeling when you've fixed someone's favorite shirt or tie. It also just so happens that I'm better at mending than ironing (you wouldn't believe how many kids think that they are SUPPOSED to go onstage looking like a mess), so... it works out pretty well. There really is something special in fixing something up, restoring it.

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