A Stitch in Time
Tears No Terror: Mending Rents With a Herringbone
Hand‑stitching is becoming a lost art. And that’s not a good thing. A single tear in a sprayskirt or tent fly can spoil a trip, but sewing machines are few and far between in the backcountry. So it pays to master the rudiments of hand‑sewing, and this week Tamia revisits an earlier article describing one of the most useful tricks in the seamster’s (or seamstress’s) ditty bag: the basic herringbone stitch.
by Tamia Nelson | January 12, 2018
Originally published in very different form on February 25, 2003
RIP! What canoeist or kayaker hasn’t cringed when a favorite tent, pack, or jacket suffered a seemingly fatal tear? The backcountry is full of sharp ends, after all, from beaver‑gnawn alders to hawthorn branches to the spiky tangles of “spruce hells.” Of course, many of the resulting rents would be easy to repair at home — if you have a sewing machine handy and know how to use it, that is. But what happens when you’re back of beyond? Most of us don’t carry sewing machines in our boats. When a pointy poplar stub pokes through the weathered canvas of a Duluth pack, or the sawtooth edge of a kayak seam‑tape (the bit that the builder neglected to sand down) slices through the sleeve of a paddling jacket, we’re on our own. Even if the tear is small, ignoring it isn’t an option. Small tears don’t stay small for long.
Fortunately, stitching a tear closed needn’t be difficult, even in a world devoid of current bushes and Singer portables. But you’ll need to know how, and you’ll also have to have a few simple tools. If you carry a ditty bag like mine, you’ve already got everything necessary: needles, thread, patching material, and a sailmaker’s palm. Add a sharp knife and you’re ready to stitch.
But what if you don’t already have a ditty bag? Now’s the time to assemble one. Any small bag will do. And the contents don’t have to come from a sailmaker’s shop. You can probably find heavy‑duty upholstery needles at your local HyperMart. Thread’s no problem, either. Cotton or cotton‑wrapped polyester’s best. (The cotton swells when it gets wet. This helps to seal the holes.) If you add a hank of waxed cobbler’s twine, you’ll be ready for anything. Patching material? Mix and match. A scrap of sound canvas salvaged from an old duffle bag. A square of fabric torn from the tail of the poplin shirt you wore to paint the garage. A piece of denim from a discarded pair of jeans. A panel from an old tarp. Color doesn’t matter. Fashion trumps function only in the virtual world of advertising photography. Out of doors, faced with a torn tent fly, while dark clouds scud ever closer on a freshening breeze, you’ll be grateful for any scrap of fabric that you can lay your hands on.
There’s one thing in my ditty bag that you’re not likely to find in a Big Box retailer, however: the sailmaker’s palm. And a palm can be useful — very useful indeed. For one thing, it’ll save you a lot of grief if you have to sew multiple plies of heavy fabric. But unless you plan to sign articles to go round the Horn aboard a square‑rigger, you can get by without it.
OK. You’ve pulled your ditty bag out of your pack. Now choose the tools you’ll need for the job at hand. Match needle and thread to the fabric you’re mending. The lighter the fabric, the thinner the needle and finer the thread. Canvas or heavy synthetic packcloth demands a sturdy needle and stout thread — maybe even waxed twine. That said, having the right tools for the job is only half the battle. You need the right moves, too. And here there’s no substitute for practice. It’s easier to learn the art of stitching while you’re sitting at your kitchen table than when you’re squatting on a riverbank in a drizzle, being eaten alive by mosquitoes. So cut a square of denim from that old pair of jeans I mentioned earlier. If it’s already torn, you’re ahead of the game. If not, tear it. Now select a good‑sized needle and some heavy thread. You’re going to close the tear with a basic herringbone stitch. There are many variations of this classic stitch, including the sailmaker’s herringbone, but a beginning seamster can’t go wrong with the basic variant. It’s easy to master, it’s strong, and it’s simple to execute. You can’t ask for more.
Ready? Let’s go! But first things first: You need to decide how much thread to cut off the spool, and that depends on how long the tear is. This is no time to be stingy. It’s better to cut off too much than to be caught short. Ten times the length of the tear is not too much.
Orient your denim sampler as shown in the sketches above and start your stitch in sound fabric, some distance away from the tear. Push the needle down through the cloth, then bring it up again. The entry point should be even with the long axis of the tear; the exit, just above it. (Remember to leave a “tail” of thread. This tail will be oversewn to prevent it from unraveling.) Next, push the needle through the cloth below the initial entry and exit points and bring it up some distance to the left, in line with the tear. Confused? Look at Sketch 1 again. Now pull the thread tight. Don’t pucker the cloth, though. The stitch should lie flat and smooth.
Warning! Here comes the tricky bit. Make a clove hitch like the one shown in Sketch 2. If it looks like a figure eight when you’ve finished, congratulations! If not, try again. Begin by carrying the needle over the first completed stitch, then reverse the point, dip it beneath the completed stitch, and return from right to left. Now carry the point down and across, over the top of the first stitch. Push the needle under the stitch from right to left again and reverse direction once more, sliding the needle under the just‑completed diagonal, but above the first stitch. Pull tight — but not too tight. Does the result look like a figure eight? Great!
You’ve now created a secure anchor for a line of stitches. All that remains is to work your way along the tear, one stitch at a time. Here’s how:
Push the needle down through the cloth in line with the axis of the tear, bringing it up well above the centerline. Next, carry the point below the axis of the tear, push the needle in, and bring it back through the fabric, on the axis, just to the left of the new stitch. Now cross over the stitch and repeat the process. Stagger the stitches — short‑long‑short‑long — and once you reach the tear, continue the in‑out‑down‑in‑out‑over sequence as before, passing the needle through the rent at the beginning and end of each stitch. (See Sketch 3, above.) As you sew, draw each loop snug, but not too snug. You want to bring the edges of the tear together without wrinkles or puckers. When you’ve completely closed the tear, continue the line of stitches in sound fabric for a short distance, finishing the repair off with a final stitch and a second clove hitch. (Give yourself a little room to make the hitch. See Sketch 4). Lastly, work the needle under the upper loops of the long stitches, pulling the thread back toward the start. Snip off any excess. You’re done!
Does your first effort look more like a garden maze than a herringbone? Don’t be discouraged. Just grab a second square of denim and try again. Practice really does make perfect. Before long, you’ll be producing a herringbone that even an old salt would envy. Fabric tears will hold no terror for you evermore!
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