‘Sewist’ repairs clothing in artful way
By NORA EDINGER
For The Times Leader
GLEN DALE — Becky Cochran spends many of her workdays making wedding gowns fit just so. Not so much a seamstress as a sewist — a new term for those who sew in an artful way — she rips apart seams, re-contours each dress and puts it back together in a way that suggests it fit that well from the beginning.
She said she loves her work and her tiny shop that overlooks much of Marshall County from her ridgeline property, but it’s a nice break when someone shows up with a teddy bear in need of repair or a routine clothing rescue.
“I wanted to hug this guy who came with a pair of pants to hem,” joked Cochran, who said she has some breathing room at Becky’s Custom Sewing & Alterations now that the nuptial season has slowed. ” ‘Thank you for not bringing a wedding dress.'”
STITCH IN TIME
Now is the time of year, in fact, when Cochran starts to tinker.
In one corner of her shop, she’s gone mechanical — restoring a 100-year-old boot-patching machine and its multi-directional sewing capability to treadle (foot-powered) operation. She plans to use the vintage Singer for tight-space repairs like pockets and sleeves so that she doesn’t have to de-construct garments first.
She’s also investigating an overall love of mending with a new gizmo. Purchased from a German maker, the tiny darning loom can be used to make colorful, intentionally obvious patches over tears in jeans or other favorite clothing.
The woven patches are a newish incarnation among forms of mending that are for all to see, Cochran said.
A Japanese technique called sashiko is also trending at the moment. Sometimes, sashiko involves covering a damaged surface with a web of white stitches intended to beautifully stabilize the area.
Other times, Cochran noted, the mending is done with colorful or even metallic threads that embellish a worn spot or hole rather than hiding it.
Such techniques might sound cutting edge — especially to an American culture prone to throwing away any garment with a bit of actual wear, as opposed to denim purposefully purchased in a pre-shredded state — but Cochran said similar hand-stitched repairs were common in the U.S as recently as the 1950s.
While not every would-be sewist — such as those who picked up a sewing machine during the COVID mask-making blitz — can accomplish this kind of fancy work right off the bat, Cochran said utilitarian sewing makes sense for anyone to pursue.
“Mending is a great place to start, especially if you have kids,” Cochran said. “It will save you so much money.”
CAN SHE FIX IT?
Cochran added that home mending is sometimes the only way to go for everyday clothing. “It’s not financially feasible to take your stuff to someone like me and say, ‘I need to get a button sewn on.’ “
Knowing how to sew on a button — and having the needle, scissors and few colors of thread to do it — is probably the core of basic family mending, she added. “If you even learn like three stitches you’re good. You don’t need a sewing machine. You don’t need anything else.”
In addition to button reattachment, she said whip stitching (which joins edges) and back stitching (a durable hand stitch that joins surfaces) should do the trick for most repairs and even minor alterations such as hemming pant legs.
As an example, she pulled out some denim with the kind of tear found frequently on the knee of children’s clothing. Sliding a piece of Disney princess fabric underneath, she explained basic stitches could turn the tear into a colorful patch that’s visible to the point of being fun.
“You’d leave the little fuzzies hanging,” she said of the unraveled weave of denim already surrounding the tear, “and just sew around the edge.”
She recommended that newbie menders be happy with simple repairs at the start and not compare themselves to sashiko experts and other professionals or near pros seen on YouTube. “It’s more of a matter of, ‘Does my button stay on? Does my shirt stay closed?’ “
Cochran knows about that kind of learning curve. She’s still tweaking techniques on skills first learned in childhood.
“I started in junior high, in home ec class. I made my first sweatshirt,” she said. “That’s when they had home ec. I wish they still did.”
She later started watching the late seamstress Nancy Zieman, a pioneer of how-to television. “I guess you could say she taught me how to sew. I used to watch her every Sunday morning and I had all of her books.”
Eventually, Cochran herself could do just about anything, including sewing her own business card holder from a sheet of cork or maneuvering slippery taffetas and silks through the 1953 Singer she uses for most of her work. (The vintage machine offers a quality of stitching her newer machines don’t have, she explained.)
Since leaving work in a law office in 2018 to start her own business, she’s been one of only a handful of full-time seamstresses in the Ohio Valley, she noted of how far sewing skills can take a person.
“I don’t think that people understand the skill level that it takes to do some of this stuff,” she said, motioning to a shop filled with machines and fabric and a computer screen blocking out times for fittings and specific sewing projects. “Even with the repairs, you have to take everything apart. It’s easier to make a dress than to alter it.”