How to Mend Rips and Tears

Often a towel, a sheet, or a garment can be saved from discard by a skillful mending job, and usually the job requires only a few minutes' work.

Tools: steam iron and ironing board, sharp scissors, sewing needles in a variety of sizes, sewing machine, tailors' chalk or pencil, sponge.

Materials: iron-on mending tape, thread in appropriate colors, patching materials, heavy brown paper, tissue paper.

Time: 15 minutes or more, depending on damage.

The mending technique you use should depend on whether it matters how much the mend shows, and whether the piece is worth spending much time on. For mending denim pants, children's play clothes, everyday sheets, and so on, the easiest and most effective method is making the repair with iron-on mending tape, or with the sewing machine's straight or zigzag stitch.

Most tears are either straight or L-shaped, because they tend to follow the grain of the fabric. If the fabric is medium-weight or slightly heavier, use mending tape. Cut a piece of tape about 1 inch wider and 1 inch longer than the tear, and round off the corners.

Lay the piece to be mended on an ironing board so that the torn portion faces up, wrong side up. If it's hard to lay out the item so that the edges of the tear stay together, make a large temporary patch of either fabric or heavy brown paper, and baste it lightly to the side of the fabric opposite the side where the mending tape will be attached. Be sure the basting threads are far enough from the tear so they won't be caught by the mending tape.

Lay the mending tape, adhesive side down, over the tear. Position it carefully; then use tailors' chalk or a pencil to mark around it at several points. Take it off temporarily and preheat the torn area by ironing it briefly.

Replace the mending tape over the tear inside your markings. Iron it down according to the directions on the mending tape package; make sure the tape is completely bonded to the fabric. Let the patch cool completely before moving the mended item. If you used a basted fabric or paper holding patch, remove it when the item is completely cool.

Sometimes the edges of a tear can't be brought together neatly because some of the fabric is missing or is so badly damaged it has to be cut away. When this happens, use iron-on or fabric patches, or hide the damage with decorative appliqués or patch pockets. Zigzag machine stitching is ideal for either patching or appliqué.

When a lightweight fabric needs mending -- a torn curtain, for example -- iron-on tape is sometimes too stiff or heavy. For such light fabrics, hand or machine stitching makes a more flexible mend.

To repair a straight or L-shaped tear by machine, set the machine for a straight stitch, with about 10 to 12 stitches to the inch. Lay the piece under the presser foot so that the tear runs crosswise in front of you and the left-hand end of it is 1/2 inch to the right of the presser foot. Put the needle and the presser foot down on the fabric and sew in a zigzag pattern back and forth across the tear, switching the machine from forward to reverse and back again, pull the fabric gently with your left hand to keep it moving slowly from right to left under the presser foot. The mended tear should be held together by even zigzag rows of straight stitching, making a very strong but usually conspicuous mend.

Where the mend can't be obvious, hand stitching can be made much less visible. Use a fine sewing needle (size 8 or 9) and fine thread; make tiny stitches back and forth across the tear. If the tear is very long or the fabric difficult to hold, you may need to keep the edges in place while you work by basting the fabric to a piece of white tissue paper. Work back-and-forth rows of stitching through both fabric and tissue; sponge the tissue lightly to soften it, if necessary. Then carefully tear the paper away and remove the basting thread.

Repairing a sweater is a bit different from mending other types of clothing. For the lowdown on sweater repairs, read on.