Sewing, Mending and Altering Your Clothing After the Ball Drops, by Belle

My husband, children and I live in a largely off-grid community in the desert southwest.  We live on forty acres with solar power, a water well and water catchment.  We garden and live with chickens and are adding skills to our new life style all of the time.  My husband does not like for me to be too specific, but I outlined some of our lifestyle changes in an article on trash in July 2012.
This article is about clothing.  It is about sewing and mending and altering.  I know you’d rather read about AR-15’s, but IMHO, clothing is going to be a big deal in a TEOTWAWKI situation.  Before radically changing our lifestyle two years ago, I was the typical American mother.  I bought new clothing when the old became too small or too worn.  I bought when the seasons changed, and worse, I bought when the fashions changed.  Another thing I steadfastly did was to donate clothing by the tub and box full.  I worked very hard at keeping our closets clean and clutter free.  This is something that every home management book, blog, and article tell American moms to do. 

Whether you shop in charitable thrift stores or big box discount stores or big name fashion stores, the quality available to most Americans is pathetic.  But, while we still have shopping opportunities, look for quality clothing, for yourself and every member of your family.  Buy it whether you need it or not.  And once you own it, where ever you got it, you need to hang on to the quality stuff and learn to repair it.  I advocate charitable giving, but I also advocate the discontinuation of consumerist disposal of the old to make way for the new because of fashion dictates and other materialistic mindsets.
Have you taken an inventory of your closet lately?  Is it 90% professional clothing?  Do you have suits and ties for weekdays?  Is it chinos and button down Oxfords for the weekends?  Or do you have heavy duty work-type seasonal clothing that is suitable for your climate?  Do you have enough to layer in a cold climate with no household heating?  Can you protect yourself from the sun in the heat of the summer?  What about work boots?  Do you have a pair or two mixed in with your dress loafers?  Women, how many of you have heavy denim jeans?  I say this because women’s jeans are usually thin stretch denim and it is flimsy.  I know because I repair it!  Ladies, those high heels and flirty flip-flops that we all love are not going to serve you well in most TEOTWAWKI situations.  Neither are the flimsy tank tops that are so popular in summer.  Most of us do not wear them in the desert.  What is in your closet?  If you can’t imagine what you’d need, there are books, like Mr. Rawles’, that have fictionalized accounts of what a TEOTWAWKI scenario would be like.  Look around for people who work outdoors or farm; go into GEBO’s or whatever your farm supply store is.

I’d like to add one last thing before I begin my main topic.  I have no idea what I’m preparing for.  We, those of us who have a certain mindset about future possibilities, don’t know what the future holds.  We all have an opinion.  We think it may go this way or that way, but really, we don’t know.  Our job is to prepare, as best we can, for many different scenarios.  There are plenty of scenarios where we will all be blessed to just get out alive, never mind our extended wardrobe. There are others, like a long slow economic decline, where we simply have to roll up our shirtsleeves and do more with less.  There are plenty of TEOTWAWKI scenarios in the middle of those two.  If you are preparing, though, you need to prepare to have no new and maybe no new-to-you clothing options in the foreseeable future.

New clothing construction.  This usually begins with a pattern.  There are a few points to think about with patterns.  First, what kind do you want?  Well, IMHO, you want basic patterns for clothing that suits your area.  Pants, shirts, coats, jackets, hats, gloves, vests, the list could go on and on.  You can find a sewing pattern for just about everything, so if you’ve got an interest, look through the books and pick out patterns for additional items like luggage, organizers, tea cozies, etc., whatever suits your interests.  Just make sure you cover the basics first.  Also, if you are young, starting a family, think you may continue to add to your family, you need to consider the different stages of that child’s growth when looking at patterns.  Second, if I were you, after searching out the patterns that I like and want, then I would wait for a pattern sale.  Patterns can cost $10 to $15 these days, but most stores put patterns on sale regularly.  These sales used to be across the board, come in and get it sales.  These days, they have restrictions here and there.  Just educate yourself.  They all eventually go on sale.  Also, you can find many free patterns on the internet.  Granted, most of these are craft patterns, but you can find basic patterns too.

| Quick side note.  While tissue paper patterns have been around for a long time, they haven’t always been available. So what was the process before tissue patterns?  You can use newspaper, butcher paper, freezer paper (smaller items), muslin, or light colored sheets to make a pattern.  It is always easier to have a deconstructed item of clothing for this, but simpler garments can be traced without deconstructing.  You lay the garment pieces out on the fabric you are using and you trace around it.  You need to make sure that you leave enough for a seam allowance, usually 5/8 inch.  A basic understanding of clothing construction is helpful here.  Let me admit right here that the only time I’ve done this was in college.  Several of us in the dorm made matching sleep pants.  Two hours and lots of giggling later, we were done.  We used shoe strings for the waist, so I’m pretty sure that experience doesn’t qualify as “making my own pattern”.  So, I haven’t done this before.  If it interests you, research it.  However, one of my roommates could draw a basic dress on the fabric, cut it out and sew it up.  Many people can do this and they don’t all live in large cities.  Maybe you can find someone with this skill who is like minded enough to join your group.  Wouldn’t that be a great asset? 

Back to store bought patterns.  Patterns come in a range of sizes.  For example, women’s pants can include sizes 8, 10, 12, and 14.  You simply cut the pattern along the line that corresponds to your measurements.  And you need to have accurate measurements.  Sewing patterns do not always correspond to store sizes.  This is mostly a problem with women’s clothing, not men’s.  And, IMHO, you should buy a range of sizes from the smallest through at least extra-large in a range of patterns.  Example: my youngest son was tiny until the age of 14.  He is now the size of The Hulk.  Many women are different sizes from top to bottom.  A range of sizes is good. If you don’t want to have that many patterns, then just get the most basic clothing patterns in the widest variety of sizes.  For the more specialized patterns, you can be more size specific.  You might be able to barter with extra patterns, though, you never know.  Patterns are meant to be cut.  I don’t cut mine.  I trace them onto paper.  Besides having an aversion to cutting that pristine pattern, I don’t cut mine because I can be different sizes at different times.  I gain, I lose, I add pockets.  If you cut the pattern, it is cut.  I don’t cut mine. 
If you are going to sew new clothing, then fabric is the next step.  Useful fabric is probably another article all together.  I came from a small city of just over 200,000 and if you want to make a prom dress, no problem.  Most fabric stores sell craft fabric, home decoration fabric, and fabric for special occasion clothing.  Professional suiting (for women), fabric for Sunday dresses can be had, but the everyday hard wearing fabric is harder to find.  You can find home dec denim or denim for dressy skirts, but not hard wearing, “play outside” denim.  Since I haven’t lived in a really large city, I can’t speak to what is available there, but I don’t think it could be too different.  If I’m wrong and you live in a large city and can find good thick denim, canvas, thick flannels, strong thick cottons, then stock up and learn to sew.  Let’s not forget all of the other necessary sewing notions, either.  Thread, buttons, zippers, slacks closures, hooks and eyes, the list could be long, but it doesn’t have to be.  Stock the basics.  Now, here is the kicker, after four paragraphs, I say to you that, right now, new clothing construction is not cost effective.  I think in some scenarios, it could be…again, but right now, it isn’t.  There are just too many lower cost and more efficient ways to find clothing, such as thrift shopping.  I still stand behind what I just wrote, though.

So what were the previous paragraphs for?  You’ve got store bought patterns and sewing notions, now what?  Well, I haven’t sent you down the rabbit hole; I simply do not know what role clothing manufacturers or cloth manufactures will have in certain end times scenarios.  So you take those patterns and you read them.  This is how you learn about basic clothing construction and then, in turn, you learn about alterations and repair.  I find these two topics to be more useful for my continued efforts in prepping.  If what is ahead is a severe, deep depression similar to the 30’s, then it could be that fabric is affordable and store bought is not.  Sewing in any form will be a fundamental and much needed skill.

As I’ve stated before, I live in a small community.  I often work in a small quilting shop.  The owner will take in repairs and small, easy alterations.  We repair a lot of clothing here.  We sew up pockets, we hem new jeans, and we repair rips, tears, and wears.  For many in our community, they have no concern whatsoever about how a repaired item “looks”.  We can repair holes with a patch and the heavy and liberal use of the zigzag stitch.  If a pocket is ripped, most don’t mind if we put on a different colored pocket.  In my family of men, there are so many tiny holes in underwear and socks that can be easily repaired with a darning stitch or a zigzag stitch on the machine.  My daughter’s things have to be handled more carefully, but all in all, she’s not that picky.  My point is, when you find a rip, or a tear, fix it right then.  Don’t wait for it to get worse.  Sew it together with a strong stitch and be as neat as you can with it.  Don’t throw it away if the main part of the garment is still useful.  If you cannot wear it in public, then wear it at home or store it.  If the repair is major, get out a pattern and cut a new sleeve, or a new collar.  Use the patterns to fashion new pockets or cuffs.  I don’t know about you, but I cannot just wing something like that on the fly.  I need a pattern. 

Patterns will be very useful when altering clothing.  In any end-time scenario where people actually survive, you can pretty much count on losing weight.  Regardless of how much food you’ve stored, your supply is limited. You’ll ration your food.  Pair that with the absence of processed foods and you’ve probably got a significant loss of excess pounds.  What you also have is a closet full of clothing sized for your pre-TEOTWAWKI self.  Now, you can prep for weight loss and buy clothing in smaller sizes and store it.  You could go ahead and lose the weight now and that way you’d only have minor changes to make.  Still, your clothing is going to need alteration at some point.

I’ve thought about this portion of this article for a while now.  There is no way that I can write, describe, or illustrate all of the ways to alter clothing in this article.  So, what follows is a simple start to a much larger learned skill. 

The very best way to alter clothing because of weight loss is to deconstruct the item, cut them down and reconstruct them.  This is where those sewing patterns come in handy. Not many people will to want to do that. I wouldn’t do it unless the item of clothing needed to be severely cut down. 
So, if we are not going to deconstruct the item, then what?  Starting at the top, most shirts can be altered by simply taking in the side seams.  If the shirt has sleeves, then you probably will need to take in the seam of the sleeve as well. The seam is usually on the underside of the sleeve.  You can use pattern pieces to keep the shape of your garment.  Pattern pieces also will have the seam allowance already marked.  If you are a complete novice, break out the patterns.  Or, if you have some basic knowledge of sewing, then put the shirt on inside out and have a friend or family member pin (straight pins) the seams to the contour of your body.  You don’t want to do this too tightly.  Most clothing seams have a 5/8” seam allowance, meaning you sew your seam 5/8” from the edge.  You’ll need to consider that allowance as you pin.  If you need to take in the sleeves, pin the sleeve as well.  Take the time to mark it.  Any writing instrument will do, it doesn’t have to be a sewing marker.  These two seams will meet at the sleeve hole and will have taken up the necessary excess fabric in the sleeve hole.  Sew it up with a straight stitch.  I would suggest you try the garment on before you cut away the excess fabric.  If it isn’t right, that is okay. A straight stitch is easy to rip out.  Rip the seam and make any corrections needed.  Once you are satisfied, then I suggest you use a narrow zigzag stitch just inside the straight stitch to make the whole seam stronger.  Then you cut away the excess fabric.  It probably took me longer to type and edit this paragraph than the process actually takes, so don’t be intimidated. 

To make a small shirt larger, say for children who are growing, you could cut the side seams and add fabric to each side to the seam. Sew it up with a narrow zigzag stitch or a straight stitch.  Add fabric to the bottom of the shirt; add more fabric to the underside of the sleeve and you have a larger shirt that can see some more wear.  You can probably get at least another season of wear out of a shirt by using this technique.  Actually, since adding fabric at the seams is a style statement at the moment, you can find examples of this on the internet if you look.

Sleeves deserve a little extra attention.  Shortening sleeves? Not a problem. Most people can easily cut sleeves off and hem either what is left of the sleeve or hem the sleeve hole.  Pretty obvious and pretty easy.  Can you lengthen sleeves?  Well, if you don’t mind fabric that doesn’t match, then sure, you can lengthen sleeves.  You can add extra material at the shoulder seam or at the wrist.  Here is another time you can use the patterns that you’ve stored.  You can make a whole new sleeve by using the sleeve from a shirt pattern similar to what you are altering. If it needs to be lengthened, most patterns have a line where you can cut the pattern to lengthen it or fold it to shorten it.  Cut it out and sew it up.  Or, at the shoulder, use the upper part of the sleeve to make a pattern for the sleeve hole.  I’d use an inch or so in addition to your seam allowance of complimentary fabric and not even try to match the fabric of the sleeve.  Use a straight seam to sew the sleeve on to the new fabric. Pin your whole sleeve into the sleeve hole. If you have a pattern, follow those instructions. If you don’t have pattern instructions, then find the side seam of the shirt and pin to the seam on the underside of the sleeve. Do the same with the top of the sleeve. Once those two pins are in place, ease the rest of the fabric in on the curve.

You could also take the cuff off, if there is a cuff, and add fabric there.  Same procedure, you simply make a pattern from the end of the sleeve with the cuff off.  Sew the new fabric on and then reattach the cuff.   If there is no cuff, add one for extra length.  This is probably something that you would only do in a TEOTWAWKI situation.

The next obvious item of clothing that might need altering is pants or slacks.  If the waist needs to come in just a bit, then add darts.  Basically, to make a dart, you put your index finger in the back waist band and then using your thumb and third finger, press excess material to the front of your index finger.  You’ve done this a million times, so you know how to do it.  Pin it.  Once you have the clothing off again, pull the material together and smooth it into a long triangle on the wrong side of the fabric.  This is a dart.  Pin it and sew it up.  Make another dart on the opposite side in a similar place.  If you have a lot of material to take in, you may have to take the waistband off, take in the extra from the center seam in the butt. You’d also have to take in the waistband and that will involve removing a belt loop or two and the pockets as well.  This may be worth it if you have nothing else to wear, but it is a pain otherwise.  For general resizing in the hips and thighs use the inseam. If you are sizing jeans and the inseam is a double hem, then I’d just cut that off and make a flat seam.

After all of that, hemming the length of the pant leg is a breeze. Get a friend or a family member to pin them and sew with a straight stitch. If you need to hem more than an inch, consider cutting the material off leaving enough for a 5/8” seam.  You’ll want to turn the raw edge and then turn it again for the best results.

That is a very basic description of alteration for basic clothing. I didn’t cover altering a suit or a prom dress or any other kind of dress for that matter.  I don’t really consider those items important after the ball drops. I don’t think any of the readers on this site would either. If the world is truly gone, then I’d cut up those wool suits and make quilts out of them (you can’t wash them, but they are WARM). I’d use the softer prom dress type material for sleepwear or underwear for women or children.  You also may need to cut adult clothing down to child size.  Another good reason to have patterns on hand.
I have a final observation about Americans and clothing.  I said above that I do believe in charity and I do not advocate discontinuing that practice.  I don’t know about you, though, but the images of the mountains of clothing dumped on Sri Lanka and other areas affected by the Christmas tsunami in 2004 was eye-opening for me.  As Americans we have SO MUCH that we sent it to those people by the container full.  I think it was a wonderful testament to the giving hearts of most American people.  But!  Most of it was not usable in their tropical climate.  I read that much of it was destroyed.  The people there could not use it and they could not deal with the onslaught of all of that clothing.  So, I urge you to look at clothing that you might give away with a more discerning eye.  Absolutely donate your professional clothing!  If an item is in pristine condition, someone will be thankful to receive it.  But I know that in our little church clothing room, I receive far more articles of clothing that are stained and ripped than those that are pristine.  Many organizations will not put these clothes out at all.  They destroy them.  But, if you do not donate them; if you mine those clothes for zippers, buttons, collars, cuffs and any number of embellishments that clothing companies use, then that clothing won’t be wasted.  You can either deconstruct the garment completely and keep the pieces organized, or just store the shirt.  You can also use the deconstructed garment to make a pattern if you missed those pattern sales that I told you about.  You’ll be tempted to say that you cannot possibly store one more thing.  I agree.  Storage is a problem for all of us, but buttons and zippers don’t take that much room.  Find a way to store at least some items because you will need them.  And before you throw away the body of the garment, could you use it for a blanket or quilt?  Could you use it for cleaning rags or even bandages if it comes to that?
So, my suggestions are:

  • Learn about sewing or better yet, learn to sew.
  • Stock up on patterns, material, and sewing notions that will be useful in a survival situation.
  • Learn to keep your basic wardrobe in good repair.  Learn to alter clothing.
  • When going through your closet, keep in mind emergency/survival scenarios.  Do you have the clothing necessary to keep you covered, cool and/or warm enough in any type of situation?
  • If the clothing that you seek to remove from your closet would be useful in a survival situation, do not throw it out or donate it.  If it is too small, it won’t be after the ball drops.  It may be something that you could barter with.   Good, heavy duty clothing will be a gold mine.  If it is not in good repair, repair it yourself or have it repaired while you still have professionals who can and will repair and alter.
  • Lose the bulk of the extra weight now.  It is just easier that way.
  • By all means, donate your professional clothing to charitable organizations, but the items that are too ripped, or worn, or stained to donate should be mined for usable parts.
  • On February 8th, 2013 Mr. Rawles posted an article to Survivalblog called “Industrial Sewing Machines for Prepared Families”, by Lockstich.  This is really an excellent article.  Obviously, if you don’t have a sewing machine, then that article is the place to start.  Get a good machine.  And then learn to use it!