TO MEND OR, NOT TO MEND...A Simple Guide

You've just purchased an exquisite Edwardian ball gown and you're over the moon!  You savor every inch of this beautiful creation until, oh no!  You find a tear in the hem of the skirt and notice the lace is stained, and worse yet, the silk is shattering at the armpits!  What to do?  Read further for a simple guide to help you in your decision to mend, or not to mend, your antique/vintage garments.

Identify the Purpose
This scenario, in varying degrees, is quite common and whether or not you elect to make any mends will depend on your reason for purchasing the garment in the first place.  For serious collectors, the answer may be to do nothing at all.  For sellers, the option to make minimal repairs is generally a good investment of time and talent, because ostensibly, the garment should be in wearable condition and will result in a better price.  Consider alternative solutions for a garment that has no hope for a successful mending, such as selling it for pattern only or for display purposes.  For now though, let's assume that your garment can be mended and that you are able to sew the basics.  Keep in mind there are professionals who can assist you if, you believe the cost will add enough value to warrant the expense.  (Be advised that if your silk garment is shattered, no amount of mending is going to fix that.)

Where Should You Begin?
As a collector or a seller, it's helpful to keep a notebook handy while making a thorough examination of the garment, to note down the location of any damage, describing it as best as you can, and giving any recommendations for repair.  Once you've completed that task, Hollis Jenkins-Evans for the Vintage Fashion Guild recommends:

Do No Harm
When in Doubt , Don’t.

Absolutely reasonable, sound advise.  Many of us have made the mistake of taking on more than we are actually capable of successfully achieving.  Going just a bit too far on a leap of faith is often met with dire consequences.  So just to be clear, we are not discussing any methods for laundering/dry cleaning of antique and vintage garments, nor are we tackling big, complicated repairs.  We are only discussing mending opportunities and simple techniques that can be achieved with reasonable success.  When you are certain that your mending efforts will be beneficial, then it's time to get to work.

Having said that, I will add this tiny cleaning tip (because I always get the urge to try to clean my merchandise):  I have found that the best method for cleaning surface soil (not stains) is to gently use a clean and dry clothing brush.  You will be surprised how much dust and dirt you can remove just by giving a gentle brushing, but please, don't try to brush laces, beading or other decorations, netting or any fine, filmy silks because you run the risk of destroying your precious finds!

Ready, Steady, GO!
Remember that notebook?  That will help you start by getting everything set up in advance.  Have all your mending/sewing tools at hand and use a large work surface to lay the garment out flat.  Work should be done in the light of day, with beneficial overhead and task lighting for maximum clarity.  Those are the ideal conditions but you have to work with what you already own.  When you don't have the ideal situation, working slowly is best:  Try to be patient and exercise caution.

Do the basic, obvious (and usually small) repairs first.  It doesn't hurt to fix a pulled hem, stitch small holes, or replace any hooks/eyes or buttons.  It should go without saying but...  Try to match existing thread, by fiber and color where possible.  In the case of replacing any metal hardware or buttons, try to match existing size and color here as well.  When that isn't possible, get something as close to the original as you can.  Plenty of antique and vintage sewing supplies are available on the internet - ebay and Etsy usually have great selections to choose from.  Mend any seams that have split or popped.  For a refresher, Martha Stewart gives easy, step-by-step instructions on her website.

Once you've finished tidying up the loose ends, move on to the larger issues if you are comfortable doing so and, remember to take a break first.  Get a bit of a stretch before you begin any lengthy repairs.  It's good for your mind as well as your body, and, your garments will be the better for it when it's all said and done.  It's always good to stretch!

Moving Ahead
Time invested is your ally, not your enemy.  Trying to do things quickly will only result in poor workmanship and will, in all probability, cause more damage.  To achieve the most professional look for your mending, make your repairs as invisible as possible.  Use an appropriate backing fabric for mending delicate fabrics, like silk or lawn, as this will help stabilize the repair.  Some details of a garment may be able to be removed for cleaning or replacing, such as lace collars and lace pockets, but keep in mind that freshly cleaned lace will stand out against the rest of the garment, and may produce less than desirable results.  Replacing the lace may be the best option so long as you use authentic antique lace.  Throughout history, old laces were, in many instances, removed from the original garments and sewn onto newer garments.  This thrifty method of recycling and getting a "new" look was very common for women who had little time or money to create or purchase new lace.  Now is a good time to point out that using a nylon or polyester lace, or any other kind of plastic lace, on an antique dress (up to and including the 1920s now), is simply not appropriate.  I once purchased a lovely net lace wedding dress from the 1930s only to discover too late that the previous owner had replaced a large section of the skirt with nylon netting.  Oh, the horrors of plastic clothing!

There is a wonderful resource that offers a wealth of information for those who wish to know more about historical clothing and period sewing at  La Couturière Parisienne.  I encourage you to take a look and learn something new, or old.  Um, you know what I mean.

The Debut
Now that you've completed your repairs, it's time to photograph and list your garment.  As the seller, you have an ethical obligation to disclose this information in your listing.  Should you mention replacing a lost hook/eye or a button?  Fixing the hem?  I'm no legal expert but I do think that honesty is the best policy.  I believe that most people buying antique and vintage garments are well aware of the nature of used clothing - it isn't perfect and it comes with a certain amount of fragility.  Probably most consumers aren't going to be concerned that you replaced a button or tightened up any seams but again, disclosing what you know about your garments will build trust with your clientele.  When you deal with rare clothing and accessories, you want to get the best price that you can.  So, do what you can, tell everyone what you did and provide photos whenever possible to fully inform any potential buyer.  Buyers would rather not have to deal with the hassle of replacing any closures, or mending a fallen hemline - they want to buy clothing that is ready to wear so they can make their own debut in a smashing, antique/vintage way!

In our next post, we'll take a look at several ways to identify clothing by era.