Design*Sponge · Sep 30, 2015

Three Easy Ways to Mend Fabric, Inspired by Japanese Textiles

Ever since I started embroidering I’ve had a growing love for textiles. Surface design, pattern, texture and embellishment have crept their way into my everyday work. Fabric is also everywhere! From the clothes we wear, to the blanket at the foot of the bed, we use and need fabrics for daily living. I wanted to share some ideas to help keep, care for and mend our clothing and other textiles in heavy use, inspired by century-old Japanese textiles.

On a cloudy afternoon I visited Stephen, the owner of Sri Threads — a showroom specializing in antique Japanese folk textiles, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — and pretty much touched every piece of fabric I could. There are kimonos and other clothing, futon covers and weavings, painted and indigo-dyed textiles beautifully worn with use, layered over time with careful repairs of patches and stitches. The repaired textiles with many patches and stitches are called boro, or ragged, and are often built up of many layers of stitched-together cloth and scattered patches as needed. At the time of repair they were not meant to be an aesthetic enhancement, but purely functional and even hidden.

Instead of throwing away a torn piece of clothing, or paying the tailor to hide the repair, I love the idea of seeing a flaw as a chance to playfully enhance the beauty of the garment. Using these Japanese textiles as inspiration, here are three ways to easily repair your own clothing and textiles, with minimal materials and fuss, in tried and true methods. The stitches are very easy, a running stitch or backstitch, and you can be as loose or precise as you like with the stitching — as you can see in the various example pieces. —Jessica

Fabric to repair
Sashiko Thread (embroidery thread or thick thread will work, too)
Darning or sashiko needle
Fabric scraps (denim and canvas make great patches)
Fusible webbing (optional)
Chalk wheel and ruler (optional)

Patching with fabric

Mended futon cover with a pink safflower dyed patch and hemp stitching. Late 19th century.

Patches in a Sakiori, ragweave, work coat. Early- to mid-20th century.

A boro futon cover featuring chrysanthemums dyed with a stencil-resist technique called a
Katazome. Late 19th century.

Often made from scraps of old cloth, an Obi shin was placed inside of an obi, a kimono sash, to add fullness.

Mixing patterns and adding color is a great way to immediately transform your textiles. As the examples above show, you can patch on top of your fabric, use several patches in layers, or patch from the reverse side, so that the patch peeks through. I chose to patch from the reverse. First, I cut the frayed edges of the tear. Then, secured the reverse patch with sewing pins and stitched an outline of running stitches around the tear. For added strength, stitch rows of running stitches up and down the patch as well and you can also add another layer of fabric. I added a layer of sturdy canvas behind the striped linen fabric. Start and end threads with a knot. Cut around the patch to remove excess fabric.

Note: If you’re worried about fraying fabric edges, you can also use fusible webbing to adhere your fabric patch with an iron and then stitch over, dab a bit of Fray Check on the fabric edges, or machine sew around the patch. For a more authentic look and stronger patch, leave the full square patch intact, don’t trim it and hand sew or machine sew around the outline.

Decorative reinforced stitching

Mended child’s jacket. Early 20th century.

Mended trousers. Combination of hand and machine sewing. Early 20th century.

Farmer’s or fisherman’s jacket with sashiko stitching. Early- to mid-20th century.

In areas of greatest wear to garments, like the elbow or knees, adding tightly placed rows of running stitches helps to reinforce the fabric, adding lots of strength and a killer decorative pattern. Add a patch underneath the worn or torn area before stitching. I used a thick canvas. Mark rows with a chalk wheel and ruler. You can also eyeball this, which I did in between rows in an alternating pattern of stitches.

Patching with solid stitching

This sakabukuro, or sake bag, was once used to filter sake. Great pressure is applied during the process and heavily used bags often required mending. To strengthen the bags, the cotton sacks are dyed with green persimmon tannin, or kaki shibu.

First, create a patch of fabric a bit larger than the tear. I used a thick canvas again. I wanted my stitches to be the focus so the patch is on the reverse side of the garment adding strength, but out of sight. Then I used the backstitch in tightly packed rows to create an area of solid stitches. Leave your thread tails long when beginning a length of thread, so you can weave your beginning and ending threads underneath your stitches for a seamless finish, without knots. Cut excess fabric around the patch.

Thanks to Stephen at Sri Threads for sharing these amazing pieces with us! I highly recommend visiting Sri (pictured below) if you get a chance, so many beautiful, inspiring pieces to explore.

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