Practical Home Mending Made Easy – Mary Brooks Picken

Published by Odhams in 1946 this is a hardback book with a grasscloth cover, measuring ten by 7 inches and printed on quite thin but good quality, silky paper. The text is well written and is liberally scattered with pen and ink diagrams, very well drawn and clearly illustrating the techniques they demonstrate.

Some of the text is amusingly obsolete – my husband and I were equally amused by the “When You Mend for Men” section which commences with the observation that “every new husband is happy about the first button that comes off. His bride will sew it on for him and he will revel in this special attention” and which later, mentioning the sense in putting a price on one’s time and keeping a notebook of time spent and money saved sets as an example the “one woman with husband and three children to sew for learned to mend, took the necessary time to learn to do it well. At the end of a year she showed her husband she had really saved enough to warrant his buying a piano for her”.

Anyone familiar with the author won’t be surprised to hear that this really is an excellent and very comprehensive book and whilst the skills taught herein are hardly exclusive, the pleasing layout of this book together with the clarity of the diagrams makes it easily one of the better books I have encountered.

It truly does start with the basics. This is certainly the first time I have seen close-up diagrams showing how to thread a needle but each of us has to start somewhere and with people less likely than ever before to have learned these skills from a relative or at school it is not inappropriate to have them mentioned here.

Indeed many of the finishings and techniques covered as standard subject matter here now find themselves promoted to the lofty status of “couture” techniques and are overlooked by many ordinary sewing books whose aim is to use the sewing machine almost exclusively. The example of factory-produced goods too frequently leads us to believe that items are “homespun” and inferior unless made entirely by machine and it is time we debunked this.

Even though this is a book specifically about mending there must necessarily be some overlap with books on dressmaking and general needlework so seams, hems, embroidery stitches, darts, gathers, tucks and ruffles, pleats, godets, neckline and sleeve finishes, plackets, fasteners and buttonholes are all covered here but often with a slightly different bias – bound buttonholes are, for example, promoted as being an excellent way to refurbish a buttonhole frayed out of shape too badly to be simply reworked in buttonhole stitch.

There is a handy section dealing with how to recognise the fibre content of cloth and also a good introduction to the sewing machine and its attachments.

In keeping with a sense of proper economy and foresight there is discussion about reinforcing areas prone to wear and tear and also the particular method used in mending each of a variety of different tears – invisible darn, slashes, reinforced darn, one-way darn, corner tear, runs in knitwear, cross-wise splits in knitwear, stocking grafting and irregular machine darn.

Patches are shown in variety; including some which are cunningly designed to look like a design detail whilst in fact hiding a stain or a tear.

Underpinnings receive a lot of coverage; the reinforcement and renewal of straps and fastenings, how to disguise minor repairs, mend frayed edges, deal with broken fagotting, seams and worn elastic, reinforce where bones and wiring pushes though.

Some things, like repairs to cuffs, collars and pockets I have seen before but others, such as gloves, ties and belts are less common as is the very comprehensive coverage given to the repair of blankets, pillowcases and sheets, including the hemstitched variety which often tears along the hemstitching.

Laundering is also mentioned: stain removal, washing, ironing, cleaning and pressing, as well as an area akin to dry cleaning referred to here as “Freshening” but  do indeed treat this with caution as the chemicals are indeed eye-watering and the reader must be responsible in his or her own research into the chemicals involved before attempting to follow any of the advice in this section.

The final part of the book deals with refashioning clothing – of refreshing worn areas, updating them and in picking them apart and reusing the cloth. It advises the seamstress to look carefully at each garment and assess its merits before deciding upon its fate: first considering whether some refurbishment, recutting or readjustment could do anything for it. Next consider whether, when done the garment would do anything for you!

If that seems hopeless, either give it away or else rip it apart at the seams and reuse the material for something different. I have to say I snorted somewhat at the part where the author advises against the home sewer attempting to draft her own patterns, opining that it “requires equipment and experience beyond the home sewer’s ken.” I do happen to have had the benefit of professional training in pattern cutting but certainly don’t agree that it is beyond a home sewer to learn the same skill.

Ideas follow as to the sorts of project which could be attempted for different garments – evening coats into skirts, jackets, even boudoir cushions! Men’s shirts are particularly prized as being a suitable basis for children’s shirts, blouses, aprons and pinafores. The author sets a pretty tight schedule, mind: to produce a pair of trousers or a dress from reclaimed fabrics will take six hours by her estimate: one for ripping and pressing, one for cutting, one or possibly two for basting, half an hour for fitting, half and hour for adjustments after fitting, one for stitching, half an hour for buttons and buttonholes and half an hour for a complete pressing. The author does concede that this represents a highly concentrated schedule, as she puts it “making every stroke count”.

Coats merit a section all their own – trimming with new fabric on pockets and revers, recutting, remodelling and relining.

Dresses also receive a chapter all their own: suggestions being made to sew in entirely new sections of fabric where areas are looking worn and to use even the smallest piece of fabric to add a cheerful touch to cuffs, pockets and other small details. Eyelet embroidery, velveteen and taffeta are all shown used in a variety of ways to liven up old items as are lace, tassels and ribbons.

When cutting down garments to be remade for children the author suggests using the following checklist:

1) Is the fabric worthy of my time?

2) Is it easy to wash and keep in repair?

3) Is it worth the expense of needed new material?

4) Is it in suitable colour and weave for a child?

5) Is it right for the child who is to wear it?

One caveat – this section advises using tie fasteners of narrow tape or ribbon or wider ties of material for baby’s first garments and tot’s dresses. Please be aware of strangulation risks when having any tie on clothing intended for babies and small children.

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