This technique guide has been written by Eirlys Penn who writes about mending or textile upcycling, or about old sewing equipment.
This tidy oval patch has an old-fogey vibe, rather like a classic leather elbow patch on a cosy cardigan.
It’s partly based on a traditional repair called a calico patch, a method used historically to mend underwear. This kind of mending had to be smooth and comfy on the inside edge of a garment that would lie against the skin. Yet it feels robust and secure. In today’s technical sewing jargon, it’s ‘reverse applied’ – meaning that the patch is placed on the inside (rather than the outside) of the garment. It works particularly well on blown-out jeans knees, as well as on the worn elbows of woven cotton shirts.
This repair is all worked by hand, which might seem a bit slow. But knees and elbows tend to be hard to access by sewing machine, and a small repair project such as this will take a relatively short time to complete. Embrace it as an opportunity for relaxed, mindful hand-sewing – or ‘mendfulness’.
Tools and materials you’ll need:
- Oval template: for example, the cardboard punch-out from the opening of a box of tissues, or an ‘O’ printed out in a super-enlarged font. You don’t need to work an oval; draw around a glass or a cookie cutter instead, but it’s good to keep the shape fairly simple until you’ve gained more patching experience
- Pen/pencil for marking up
- Fabric scissors or sharp craft scissors
- Fabric glue or double-sided fabric tape (optional)
- Hand-sewing needle
- Cotton thread or other thread to match the fibre of the fabric you’re repairing
- Beeswax, to condition your thread before sewing
- Patch of fabric culled from an old garment of similar weight (or new fabric – but do pre-wash it so that it is pre-shrunk)
Handy hint: always use a patch cut from fabric of about the same weight as the garment you’re repairing. Using a very different weight will create a strain which will likely tear one fabric or other. Also, if you’re using new fabric to patch with, pre-wash (and therefore pre-shrink) it to give your repair the best chance of being effective and long-lasting. Again, if new fabric is sewn onto a previously worn and washed garment, it will very likely shrink and pull away from the garment, and the repair will fail.
1 Marking up
First, we’ll turn the worn hole it into an intentional shape – in this case, an oval, but you could choose any curved or straight-sided shape you want. Start by marking up. Working from the right side of your garment, establish the full extent of the torn and weakened area, and place a pin on each side of it (see photo) where the fabric is stronger and intact. Then place another couple of pins about a centimetre outside of those. The inner pins mark where your cutting line ought to be, the outer ones mark the ‘window’ behind which your patch will eventually sit. Don’t worry – it will all start to make sense soon.
Handy hint: it’s very tempting when working a repair to make it as small as possible, but try not to skimp. If you leave thin, weak material in place, it’s very likely to tear quite soon and wreck your hard-worked repair. So, the rule of thumb is to always make your patched area a little bigger than you think is necessary, and be sure that you’re working back into an area of sound fabric.
2 Creating an oval hole
Find an oval template that is the width of your inner window. You may find an oval in the house somewhere (the perforated hole from a box of tissues, for example). Or print off a large font ‘O’ instead. The important thing is that it should match the distance between your inner pin markings. Use this oval template to draw around on your garment, touching on the points marked by those inner pins. Then draw a bigger ‘O’ a centimetre outside of this.
Now cut out the smaller ‘O’, using fabric scissors.
3 Reinforcing, clipping and turning the edge
Thread your needle with an arm’s length of cotton. Draw your thread along the side of a lump of beeswax (if you have it) to strengthen it and stop the thread kinking as you work. Backstitch a reinforcing line around your bigger ‘O’. This is called ‘stay stitching’ and will help your oval window hold a good shape. Now turn your garment inside out.
Clip all around your inner oval about every centimetre or so, just making a small snip up to that stitching line you’ve made on your outer oval, but being careful not to cut right into it. This snipping will allow the fabric to fold out smoothly and lie totally flat, forming a nice, smooth curved edge. Press carefully to reveal a smooth curve.
Handy hint: this method of making a smooth inward curve is also very useful for dressmaking (necklines and armholes for example) and a host of other craft and home-sewing purposes, so it’s worth getting to grips with. Working repairs provides a useful, bite-sized route into general sewing techniques and expertise.
4 Preparing your patch
From your patching fabric, cut out a rectangular patch that is at least 6cm taller and wider than your prepared ‘O’-shaped hole – so that the patch extends at least 3cm in each direction beyond the window. Still working from the reverse side of your garment, place this patch – centred and right side down – on top of the oval hole. You can use a few dabs of fabric glue, or fabric adhesive tape, around the edge of your patch to help hold it in place (see picture). Or just pin it.
Now handstitch around the edge of your patch. The stitch doesn’t really matter; I used a slanting hemming stitch here, partly because I wanted it to show on the right side, but a blanket stitch or a herringbone would also work well.
Handy hint: I didn’t turn the edge of my patch under as denim is bulky, and I wanted the repair to be as smooth as possible against the skin. It won’t fray much, but you could use a proprietory non-fraying product along the edge, if it bothered you. If I were working in a finer fabric, I would generally turn the edge under first – by about a centimetre – and mitre the corners to minimise bulk – remembering to press it towards the right side of the patch. Don’t forget to factor in these turnings when calculating how big to cut your patch (so add on a couple of cm to width and height).
Here’s what it should look like now on the right side…
And finally, on the right side of your garment, stitch around the edge of the hole – again, you can choose a stitch that feels comfortable to you. Whipstitch is great or, as here, you can simply use a basic running stitch (or stab stitch, to make it easier to work if you are repairing thick denim) a short way from the oval edge. Whatever stitch you use, just make sure you are going through all the layers – both the garment and the patch underneath. And now you’re done.
Nothing left to do but wear your repair with pride.