Creative Opportunities in Clothing Repair

Rather than concealing imperfections, learn about the traditional stylish stitchwork that adds flair to garment repairs.

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Photo by Flickr/Saké Puppets

Textile arts are a great lens through which to view cultures around the world. When I started mending torn denim, I came across the Japanese form of mending known as boro, which translates to “rags” or “tatters,” but has recently become synonymous with the patched, stitched, and mended garments of Aomori prefecture in northern Japan. The history of boro is rich and complex: It evolved from the necessity to preserve the smallest scrap of fabric; add strength and warmth through patching; and use fibers such as hemp and cotton to withstand wide-ranging weather conditions, including very cold winters. The boro garments were mended with basic and utilitarian sashiko stitches. While modern sashiko has evolved into a more precise and highly skilled craft, traditional sashiko stitches prioritized utility over precision; the stitches were primarily meant to repair and patch garments while adding warmth, not solely to serve as decoration or embellishment.

Patchwork from the Past

Boro garments have recently experienced a global celebration, punctuated with exhibitions in Tokyo, London, Paris, and New York City, as well as the publication of Boro: Rags and Tatters from the Far North of Japan. When I first came across images of boro garments and white sashiko stitches on indigo cotton and denim, I was smitten. I adored the minimalist approach of a single color of thread on a single color of fabric, and the high impact of line, shape, scale, and size. The simple act of adding a few printed blue patches or varying blue and white thread creates endless possibilities. There’s a magnificent visceral beauty in original boro garments that tells a fascinating and complex story of the intersection of design, textiles, agriculture, economics, and the potential for striking aesthetics in artful invention.

Although similar in style to simple running stitches, sashiko is used for the resulting striking effect of white thread on indigo fabric, highlighting repairs while strengthening garments.
Photos by Flickr/Saké Puppets

I’m just as fascinated with boro garments and sashiko stitching as when I first started mending, but through this inspiration, I started looking to other cultures around the world to see how they mend garments. I came across the patched and stitched silk saris of kantha in India, the patchwork and reuse of fabrics for bedcovers in American quilting, and the various darning samplers and darning techniques used to mend knitted and woven fabrics throughout Europe — particularly antique, homespun, handwoven European linen and hemp. Not surprisingly, as I continued down the mending path across cultures and continents, I found that we’ve been repairing garments and household linens forever.

Sometime during the 1990s (arguably, even as recently as the early 2000s), people started embracing cheap, trendy, and disposable fashion, which, of course, meant mending was abandoned and landfills started filling at alarming rates. (For more about these statistics, see “Conscious Clothing Choices”) But prior to fast fashion, we simply mended our clothing because it made sense. Some expertly mended or darned historical garments are so perfectly matched and repaired that the stitching is nearly imperceptible, making it difficult for even textile historians to detect. While I don’t aim for this type of perfection or invisibility, I do have a very deep appreciation for this level of craftsmanship. It’s humbling and inspiring, not to mention truly gorgeous.

A Personal Mending Movement

I found great liberation when I realized I could mend my clothing any way I wanted. I didn’t have to use the stiff iron-on patches of my youth or make a repair that failed at being invisible. I could embrace the wear of my garment and attempt to make something oddly beautiful through my mending. I could opt for more minimal color palettes, such as blue, gray, brown, white, and black. I could make mending that looked and felt and moved like me. And I could use my background as a fiber artist and my focus on simple design elements to mend. I gave myself permission to not just fix my torn garments, but also to consider the fixes as fiber art — literally fusing fashion and function.

Photo by Karen Pearson

Since I started Make Thrift Mend in 2013 (learn about it here), I’ve noticed a spike in contemporary crafters embracing mending. This brings me great happiness. The current zeitgeist considers sustainable and ethical fashion and honors the importance of repairing garments to prolong their usefulness. What I admire most among the various folks leading this contemporary mending movement is how each person allows aesthetic training, life experience, and craftsmanship to inform his or her mending work. Like any creative form, the point isn’t to simply replicate another artist or established aesthetic, but instead to let this outside work influence you while honing your unique style and skill. This practice allows you to let your unique viewpoint, training, shortcomings, and strengths lead you forward. The better we know and accept ourselves, the more easily we can create this expression. Like anything else, menders’ stitches strengthen with experience, exposure, opportunity, and simple repetition.

I find the greatest inspirations in craft-based art forms that offer a new perspective on a familiar challenge or tradition. I love boro mending for the way it lends a unique aesthetic to mended indigo cotton, hemp, and denim; the simple white stitch across the blue and brown garments has depth and definition, but it’s not intended to be perfect. There’s relief in that imperfection. There’s space for my imagination and my sensibility to enter. Through the layers, there’s a literal strength and warmth, but through the intimacy of revealing those layers — and acknowledging the hole or tear — I can make a connection with the garment. This connection fuels me. And yet, I don’t aim to replicate traditional boro or contemporary sashiko in my work, nor do I claim the mastery of modern sashiko stitchers; instead, I let this influence inspire my work, and then I refine the techniques until they look like my own.

Generations of Garments

My mother taught me to sew when I was quite young. I have fond memories of curling up by the side of her rocking chair as she stitched and quilted and knit in the evening hours once the day’s work was done. My mother learned to sew from my grandmother, and my grandmother learned from my great-grandmother. This lineage of textile crafts is something I’ve always treasured, and that I honor through my own textile work and mending. Through this passing down of crafts and traditions, I feel a tether to my ancestors and their work with textiles, perhaps through observation, but also through instruction, storytelling, and handwork. I think of my own turn from traditional crafts to conceptual fiber arts back to wearable garments and mending, and how my stitches accompanied me through various stages, locations, and life events.

Photo by Flickr/Heather

By studying my family quilts, handling a few heirloom tools I’ve inherited from my mother, and studying stitchwork, I have this sense of being connected to my grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as the women before them. This lineage of crafting, sewing, and stitching holds me closer to my heritage than I could be held otherwise; it creates a literal and physical thread through my maternal lineage to ancestors I never met. I aim to honor this lineage and this personal inheritance of textile arts through my mending work as much as I aim to research, learn from boro garments, and find inspiration across cultures.

We can honor this tension between influences by looking far and wide in creative traditions as much as looking very close to home. Travel, research, formal study, and informal influences all meld to create an artist’s unique viewpoint. I welcome the international and intercultural influences that inspire my work as much as my own personal heritage, firmly rooted in the rural towns in western New York. I find connection and community through textiles across cultures and continents. And I hold fast to that connection in an ever-more-instant world that might promise speed and efficiency, but cannot replace the intimacy and meaning of honoring the hands that stitched clothing, patched quilts, embroidered wall hangings, and knitted hats for generations before us.

Photo by Stocksy/Kristin Duvall

This straddling of influence and homage can keep the work relevant and make it resonate across time. I honor the women who stitched the original boro garments, and also Chuzaburo Tanaka, who collected, documented, and shared them with the world. But I also honor my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother for the textile traditions they passed on to me. Mending offers us an international look at textiles while also connecting us more deeply in our particular heritage and current place in time. We’re right here making this decision toward self-sufficiency right now. And through this decision, we’re honoring generations before and also ushering in generations to come.

Homage to Slow Stitches

The basic running stitch can be found in handcrafted folk art and textiles around the world, but the use of sashiko stitches in Japanese boro and mending has a particular beauty that makes my pulse race with excitement and the promise of a stunning repair. Sashiko stitches allow for the use of stitching and patching while highlighting the particular tears, rips, frays, and distress of each individual garment. Any running stitch would work, and more elaborate embroidery stitches might add whimsy and detail, but the boro style of repair is endlessly inspiring.

Sashiko stitches force us to slow down, be intentional, and remember what we can do with a basic needle and thread. No electricity or expensive equipment is required. Sashiko is a simple running stitch, but it creates striking results in mending through repetition, line, contrast, and the beauty of the stitchwork. We appreciate this stitch in the same way we appreciate a hand-quilted blanket: in the time it takes to create it, rather than the difficulty. In a technical and high-speed world, the hand stitch reminds us that continuity, intention, and commitment to time and practice hold incredible value.

Artist Katrina Rodabaugh explores social and environmental issues through craft techniques. This is reprinted from her book Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim and More (Abrams Books).