I was folding the whites, shaking each garment or piece of linen up out of a hot, fresh mishmash in the basket. I morphed them into soft, neat squares or rectangles, and I piled them on the dining room table. A feel-good job: to take a thing rendered rootless and rumpled, smooth it out, neaten it up, and return it to meaningful usability,–an item with purpose and place.
Then I realized that one of the white t-shirts had a hole below the sleeve; the rest of the shirt was intact, but there was that gouge, that gap, on the shirt’s torso. Does it matter? I thought. No one will see it. It’s an undershirt, after all.
I started to fold the shirt again, but something stopped me. A little inner voice, said, ‘Sew that up.’
Reluctantly, obediently, I smoothed the shirt and folded it over the back of a chair,–on top of a pair of pants that needed a button.
And then, of course, I started noticing. A washcloth had an L-shaped tear. A dishtowel had a hole big enough to waggle a finger through. Another hole-y t-shirt. A towel with edges flying into fringe. I piled them all neatly on top of the t-shirt and the buttonless pants, and by the time I was done folding the basket of laundry, I had a sizable heap.
‘Mending,’ I thought.
I hadn’t had a pile of mending for years. Things got busy, I guess. Life’s accouterments grew sort of disposable. But once, mending was a regular chore.
My mother mended, of course; in the 1950’s and 1960’s, most women with children did. They had big, rowdy families; they had small, puzzling incomes. They made things last.
Jeans and corduroy pants, as long as they were decently wearable as what we called ‘play pants’, passed down from kid to kid regardless of gender. Ours all had thick pads of patches on the knees. We joked that the patches were so sturdy, the pants could stand up on their own. We could stand them in a corner of our bedrooms and leap off the bed and into the pants–one hop dressing–in the mornings.
Our socks had yarn lumps that filled holes; when we put them on, we took care to turn them so the darns were on the top. Otherwise it felt kind of like walking with a golf ball in your shoe.
Mom had an old-fashioned Singer treadle machine which sat in the dining room. It was a pretty piece of vintage furniture, but it was also a functioning tool. On certain days of the week, she would slam the heavy old ironing board into place and pull her big basket of mending from where it was tucked, on the black iron treadle, and it would be mending day.
Mom liked the heavy old treadle because it handled denim, and its thick, sharp needle pierced easily through the layers of patching. She might save an old pair of jeans, finally past redemption, and cut its viable parts into squares. She had a stash of potential patches; some were cut from old flannel shirts, too. When the shirt was too far gone to stitch up, Mom dissected it. She snipped off the buttons, picking out the thread, and she put them into the button tin that was her inheritance from her mother.
I don’t think mending was one of Mom’s favorite jobs; she attacked it grimly, resolutely, that task of taking the worn and torn and making them usable once again. It seemed, no doubt, never-ending; none of us–with the exception, maybe, of my oldest brother Dennis,–were careful children. I could simply turn a corner and catch a sleeve and hear a wrenching tear. My brothers played catch on the way home from school, slipping on slick wet patches of leaves, opening vents in their school pants.
Clothes that left the house intact in the morning came home destined for the mending basket. We would bundle off the damaged item, stuff it down the laundry chute, and pull on play clothes. On laundry day, Mom would wash the piles of clothes, dry them on the line, and then fold them, either to be put away, or, very often, to be patched or sewn. I’m sure there was never a wash day that didn’t add to the mending.
I was the only girl child, and Mom taught me how to hand sew. I learned how to replace a button–the burgeoning button tin always offered a close facsimile of the missing culprit. I learned how to measure and fold up a hem, ironing it flat, and securing it with a whipstitch. Our goal was to have as little thread as possible show on the outside of the garment; I worked carefully.
I liked sewing; I dreamed of embellishments and enhanced designs, but I was neither scrupulous nor determined.
“Are you going to FINISH that?” my mother would yell after me as I hopped up, lured by the sounds of a kickball game taking place in the backyard. I would sigh, heavily; I would sit back down and finish the job, with quick, sloppy stitches and bad grace.
Once I went on a play date to a friend’s house, and noticed she had very regular–I’d call them die-cut–patches on her play pants. I asked her about them, and she said her mother bought the patches and ironed them on. Her mother, she said, didn’t have time to sew patches onto all of her kids’ pants.
Her mother, said mine when I told her of the wonder of iron-on patches, was a SLOB. It was the worst thing my mother could think of to call a person. I didn’t bring up the subject of pressing on patches again.
By the time I hit eighth grade, skirts had gone from below-the-knee length to mini. I was glad of my hemming skills, and my mother, I know, rued the day she’d taught me how to hem. We had endless wrangles over appropriate length, endless bouts of, “You are NOT going out like that!” countered with “You are determined to ruin my life!”
Even when I grumpily acceded, I rolled the waist of the skirt up in the girls’ room, usually remembering to roll it back down again, to avoid the reverse argument (I can’t believe you went to school like that!) on the return home.
And I didn’t mend my jeans. Holes and tears were cool; some people took razor knives to their denim. I was enough of my mother’s daughter not to do that; and I still ironed creases into my blue-jean bell bottoms, but as the wear and tear appeared, I welcomed it. I embroidered flowers or peace signs or slogans on my jeans, but not particularly to cover holes–more to be clever and cutting edge.
Sometimes I added extra denim around the leg bottoms, ensuring that the jeans were suitably lengthy. Those were the days when the wearing of ‘high waters’ or ‘flood pants’ was a huge fashion faux pas. The bottom of your jeans should drag on the floor.
There was little need for mending, although I did still sew buttons on when buttons were needed.
I shlepped through high school and college, walking holes in my overlong pant cuffs with my funny-toed earth shoes. And then, there I was, in a late 1970’s marriage, trying to figure out the role of a wife in a time of liberation. We both worked; we both cooked. He took care of the car; I took care of the clothes.
Our apartment was a welcoming pass-through for a wonderfully wacky assortment of friends and relatives. One day, Patrick sat with me, keeping me company while he waited for my husband. I was mending socks, and he asked me why.
“There are holes in them!” I said, and I did not add, ‘Duh.’
“Then you throw them out and buy new ones,” he told me.
I looked at the tube sock, lacy with long wear, in my hand, thought about the hours I spent in mending, and decided Patrick was right.
I had never mastered the art of darning, anyway. Like my mother’s, my mended socks were lumpy and uncomfortable. I wasn’t able to be so cavalier as to just toss those old socks; I stashed them in my rag bag, and used them to polish furniture and wipe down freshly hosed cars.
But I never again attempted to darn a sock, and as life went on–that marriage ended, my jobs intensified, another wedding opened up a whole new, wholly busy, way of life,–the art of mending itself was not one I often practiced.
Culture changed, too, I think. New became good; old became bad–except in the case of really old, when terms like ‘antique’ or ‘vintage’ could be aptly applied, and those fragile items would be more for show than for use. My rag bag grew to hold so many hole-y socks that I did indeed wind up culling them by throwing some away.
I did not feel a twinge of guilt at abandoning my mending roots.
Yesterday, with an enticingly open early morning hour, necessaries performed, work-ready, I sat down at the dining room table with my sewing box and button tin–the very same tin my mother had from hers. I took the white thread out first, rued my changing eyesight that makes, as I season, threading a needle more and more of a challenge, and I started on the mending.
I sewed up the gape in the t-shirt. I repaired the L-shaped rip in the washcloth, trimmed and whipstitched the fringy towel, and I stitched together the holes in the dishcloth. I realized that a pair of denim shorts no longer offered enough fabric to be mended; I found an old pair of blue plaid sleep pants, and I cut and sewed a patch. I tested the shorts when I finished, tugging them this way and that, and I felt a strange sense of pleased satisfaction when I realized the patch would surely hold.
I finished it all in that hour, all except the left cuff on the pants that had needed a button. The button on, I realized that the cuffs were frayed, with threads flying and dangling, so I trimmed the rough edges and, finding thread that just exactly matched the fabric, I whipstitched one pant leg. Tonight I’ll do the other.
How odd. How odd that this comes back to me now, after years of aggressive avoidance, and that the practice should bring so much pleasure–I’d venture, even, to say it brings me joy.
I am tempted to create some kind of old lady’s metaphor, to talk about life in term of stitching up the gaps, and about the importance of knowing when the fabric is too flimsy and some kind of patch-type reinforcement is needed. But that would be placing way too much ponderous weight in the common cup of mending.
It’s enough to savor the simple act of taking something damaged and returning it to the land of the functional. A tangible satisfaction that goes, maybe, with ages and stages of life. Maybe I start out by learning the skills and the tools, and I come back to use them when the act again means something to me.
Whatever. I enjoyed, this week, doing my mending.