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Warning, I may not be a conservator but I have been a professional seamstress and draper/pattern maker for 25 years. So I do have this club in my bag.

Now that you have your fab find or two home and clean, let’s finish getting get in good shape. But before we go too far, if you are seller, I do want to state that any repairs that involve replacement of original pieces, e.g. new buttons, need to be stated at point of sale. If you either collect or deal in vintage clothing, I heartily recommend you acquire basic sewing skills. I know, you avoided Home Ec like the plague but some basic skills will save a lot of time and hassle, not to mention cash.

A course at the local fabric store may be available, or self taught skills can be had by picking up an old Vogue or Singer How to Sew text in a used bookstores. Stitching techniques haven’t changed. A slip stitch in 1919 is a slip stitch now.

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Tools you need:

The main thing is to use sharp and fine needles and pins as they will make smaller holes in the fabric and will penetrate easily.

Some guidelines: always try to match the existing thread of the fabric, which may be quite a different color from the material. Be gentle with the fabrics – no tugging. Match any hookssnaps, etc. in type, size and color.

There are quite a few basic repairs that can easily be managed:

  • Reinforcing loose buttons, hooks, snaps, etc.
  • Stitching popped seams, be sure to follow the original stitching line.
  • Reattaching loose hems.
  • Restoring hems to the original length when they have been lengthened.
  • Restoring hems to the original length when they have been shortened requires a judgment call. If the shortened hem has left a dirt or fold line, you are better off leaving it as is.
  • Re-tacking facings and shoulder pads.

Holes are more involved. If the garment is old enough or of enough interest to warrant it, the best thing is to match the fabric and invisibly stitch a small piece from the back. No visible thread is the goal. This is something you might do on an 1890s print dress, but wouldn’t bother with on a 1950 house dress. Patches placed on the outside just look bad and are very distracting. You may be able to find a small bit of fabric in a seam allowance. Match the direction of the weave and the pattern.

Missing buttons and fasteners. There are several ways to go here. If the garment is older and the buttons are of great interest, leave it as is. If all the buttons or hooks are gone, find replacements in the right size, and period. Modern buttons just don’t cut it. Neither do modern hooks on an 1850s bodice. Plastic buttons on an 1881 dress (I have seen it!) just don’t work and are a waste of time. If most of the buttons are gone, try replacing them but keep the original ones with the garment as a record.

Tears. Smaller tears can be reinforced from the back by hand sewing a thin, sturdy fabric such as organza to the garment and arranging the edges a they were, then stitching them down with small, discreet stitches in a matching thread. If you can, match not only the color, but the fiber of the thread. Some people do small darts in the fabric to hide the tear. This still shows and distorts the lay of the fabric. It’s not the best solution.

Traditionally, cotton garments were darned when they developed holes and tears. If you are good at darning and patient enough to do a good job, you might give this a try.

Moth holes. These take reweaving which is a job for a pro. If you want to give this try and do a little practicing on new garments, here are some suggestions.

You will need excellent lighting and most likely a magnifying glass. You also need tons of patience. This is Zen sewing. Threads are unraveled from seam allowances or hems, and threaded through a short needle using a needle threader. Since any thread you get from the seam allowance will be short, this has to be done frequently. These are then literally woven in each direction of the grain, working from the back of the fabric. For this to look good, the weaving must follow the grains very closely.

NOTE: Some fabrics cannot be rewoven. Sheers such as organza, chiffon and organdy will show all the work. Velvet, taffeta and satin are a no-go as well. Changeables or multi-color twills are very difficult. The best results even from a professional are on rougher textured wool weaves and tweeds, or coarser weaves of linen and cotton.

Reinforcing loose trims. Duplicate the way it was sewn on to start. Many trims, especially from the turn of the century and before were sewn on from the back with largish stitches, so while secure, they seemed to lay on the garment effortlessly.

It’s important that in doing repairs, you are restoring the garment as it is was, not redesigning it or trying to ‘improve’ it. Those type attempts are most often quite obvious and devalue the piece.

Buttonholes. These are for the adept hand sewer with time and patience. Hand sewn buttonholes are an art. Directions are available in many older sewing texts. A great deal of practice will be required before attempting these on any garment you care about. Do purchase the correct thread – buttonhole twist is still available in some shops.

Added panels and size alterations. Many older garments have had panels added as the original or subsequent owners need more room. If added panels are distracting or a non matching fabric, these can be removed and the original seam lines restored by hand sewing. If it’s an older piece, you want to document what you have done.

If a garment has been taken in or let out, usually on the sides, the question is: Can you put it back without the old alteration lines showing? If a line of needle holes will be visible, it may be best to leave this alone.

Beading. This requires matching beads, a beading needle and more patience. You may be able to steal beads from the seam allowance or hem or an older garment in poor condition.

Most of the time, the losses will be on Victorian/Edwardian dresses or 1920s gowns. You must tie off the ends of the existing beads, or stitch these beads down at least an 1” back from the missing area. The difficulty is the on the older garments, the thread holding the beads on is rotting. If the more you handle it, the worse it gets – best left alone.

On 1920s dresses, the beads were usually machine stitched on with a chain stitch and can all come off with a slight tug, so handle these gently. You must match the shape, size and color of the bead and the spacing of the beads. If you aren’t sure where they were sewn on, lift the fabric to the light and you will almost always be able to see the old needle holes.

As you may note, I haven’t mentioned Fusibles, such as Stitchwitchery, Wonder Under or Iron On Tape etc. Some people use these to stabilize weak areas. Some use this stuff to iron on fabric behind holes. It’s only my opinion, but I hate them. To me, they are a detriment to the garment and devalue it. They stiffen the area where they are used, they aren’t removable and so are a permanent change, and They Show, leaving a ghost around the edges. Iron on tape is the worst. I have removed this by steaming the garment and gently working the stuff off. But it is a dicey deal. Better to keep the hole intact than use this stuff.

Regarding machine sewing on older textiles. I generally prefer hand sewing as it is gentler on the fibers and much easier to remove. If you are re-stitching seams on newer and post-1920s garments, machine sewing may be alright.

Several things you can do – instead of machine back-stitching each end, take a hand needle and thread the bobbin thread through to the same side as the needle thread and hand tie this off. Use the longest length stitch you can that will lay well. Then if there is a need to take the stitching out, it can be with a lot less strain to the fabric.

If a garment was originally hand sewn, you really must hand sew any repairs. I purchased an 1837 silk gown where the skirt seams had all been re-stitched by machine. I felt duty bound to take it all out and resew by hand. I must say, at least the stitches were long and easy to remove.

Shortened hems. If the garment is older, say pre-1930s, be careful. Don’t pull the hemstitching, but cut the threads and remove very short segments at a time. You can tear old taffetas and silks by pulling the thread.

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by Hollis Jenkins-Evans