Japan rose to the top of my travel list after I couldn’t help but feel the stereotypical envy of a friend’s Facebook photos, taken while sitting in a hot spring looking out over beautiful green mountains. I want to go to there.
But recently I’ve become totally enamored of Japanese traditional arts, which seem to perfectly marry beauty and practicality regardless of the medium.
It was the beauty aspect that inspired me to sign up for a Sashiko embroidery class at the Textile Arts Center here in New York. Sashiko is a traditional Japanese embroidery, and its geometric and linear patterns are beautiful yet misleading in their complexity. The trick is that for even the most detailed design, the maker can find the longest linear route for her stitches and rarely begin a new thread.
By the end of the three-hour class, I had half of a potholder embroidered. And a few weeks later, I had a completed potholder with a very obvious untied stitch that I am convinced will fall out if someone was to even breathe on it.
But while my beginner’s potholder might be fragile, the real beauty of Sashiko is that it was meant to be tough. The style of embroidery began as a way to mend and reinforce elbows and knees and other clothing spots prone to uneven wear. But like all Japanese arts, someone along the line realized that it might as well be beautiful too, and Sashiko is a perfect example of combining utility and beauty. As the craft matured, it evolved from just a mending technique into its own art form.
One of the most popular uses of Sashiko is to repair worn knees in denim. Instead of trying to hide the mending process to make them look brand new again, the jeans evolve into something new that shows both their age and their rebirth. It is not unlike the Japanese art of Kintsugi, when broken pottery is pieced back together with gold. The repaired item becomes more valuable than when it was brand new.
Mending can be an art. It can tell the stories of a garment’s life. It can increase value, even if often just emotionally. It can turn something that even we did not appreciate into something treasured. And perhaps it can even help us see the “flaws” of our clothing as exactly why we love them most.
In this series, I’ll be featuring a new topic every few weeks on how to make better choices when shopping and how to take care of your favorite items once they find a home in your closet.
How do we shop? Each of us has different priorities, but I imagine that for the average shopper, it goes something like this: (1) a fabric or style catches your eye, (2) you look over the whole garment for cut, (3) you check the price tag, and if it has passed the test so far, (4) you try it on. For those of us without extensive garment construction knowledge, we just want it to feel good and fit our budget. But there are actually a few things you can look for in a garment to make sure you are heading home with something that will last, whether it is from the Gap or Bergdorf’s.
I’ve recruited our resident sewing guru, Lisa, to teach us how to look under the hood of a garment before we commit. So find your garment’s care label and follow Lisa’s tips:
1. The Fabric
Look for breathable long-lasting natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool, linen, and silk. Synthetic fabrics—polyester, nylon, acrylic, Spandex, and more—are less breathable. Often these fabrics simulate a natural fabric counterpart, but the quality and enjoyment of wearing is rarely the same. While Spandex is the necessary evil to getting my skinny jeans on, it can change the fabric’s overall quality and wear. Designer labels do slip in synthetic fabrics in some form in their collections, though I could argue that these synthetics are better quality that what you would find at a mass-market store. You as the consumer can tell by touch: the hand (meaning how it feels when you touch the fabric) is usually of higher quality. If you are still unsure, think about when you will be wearing the item. If you’re headed to an outdoor summer event, opt for cotton or linen rather than polyester to keep you cool. When purchasing a winter coat, an investment in 100% wool over acrylic is wise—wool is naturally water (and snow) resistant, great at regulating heat, and very durable.
2. The Details
What we don’t see is often more important than what we do see. The stitch length, thread quality, hem type, and seam finishing all come together to create a better garment. The better the details, the longer the manufacturer spent on that garment, raising its quality.
Stitches should be tight and close together for maximum durability; larger stitches are reserved for topstitching (the stitching you see on the outside of the garment). Thread should not be too thin or too shiny. Too shiny indicates 100% polyester or nylon thread, which can melt when ironed, particularly when the garment’s main content requires a higher iron heat than the synthetic thread.
Hem style depends on the type of garment. Casual pants usually have topstitched hems, but nicer pants and skirts should have invisible hems, which means you should not be able to see the stitching on the outside of the garment.
Look for shirts that have flat-felled or French seams. These seam finishes not only take longer to create, but they are also sewn 2 to 3 times, so that the seam is more highly reinforced. Check out A Fashionable Stitch for additional styles.
Finishing details are one of the simplest indicators. “X”-shaped tacks that keep slits in place show care for the garment. Same with stitches that hold pockets together. The manufacturer took the time to add these temporary stitches, so that pockets don’t stretch and slits don’t rip before they get to the consumer. Just make sure to remove these stitches when you get home! Using scissors to remove just the first stitch should make it easy to pull the remainder of the thread out by hand.
3. The Fit
Fit is vital to how we look and feel in our clothes. Many people go through life with ill-fitting clothing, not realizing that small alterations or trying a different brand that fits their body shape better could make a big difference in comfort and style. While sizing seems universal, every brand has its own exact size measurements, and this can vary by style. A woman’s size 6 in one store could be a size 4 or 8 in another. Use sizes as a starting point, but don’t rely on them to determine fit. Instead, look for key construction aspects to indicate fit:
Women should pay special attention to where darts (fabric tucks to shape the garment to the body’s curves) hit on their bodies: a bust dart should end close to, but not at, the apex of the bust.
Shoulder seams should hit at your shoulder, not below or above. (Note: I do confine that to traditional button front shirts and T-shirts, as different fashions of shirts may alter the shoulder seam placement.)
Utilizing the services of a tailor can also help with fit. If you find something you love but the fit is off, consider having it altered. I will say, having performed my fair share of surgery on garments, tailors are not miracle workers. There are things they cannot resolve, and good ones will tell you that before they accept your money. Better to return the item than to have a garment you can’t wear and have paid for twice. Quick tip—Tailoring doesn’t have to be expensive: the Japanese brand Uniqlo hems all pants bought in store for free, even for a cheap pair of jeans. Nordstrom offers free alterations on select full-priced merchandise. Make sure to ask about tailoring services when you’re shopping, especially if it is an investment piece.
Tweet your sewing questions to Lisa directly @lisammagee #themonthlymend. Photos by Lisa Magee.