Pretty Patching: Giving Old Clothes New Life

Even though I found them on the deep discount rack at REI, my Prana cargo pants were quite a splurge.  But in the spring of 2008 I was on my way to East Africa for two months, and the pants were so light weight, had a touch of spandex that made them perfect for everything from hiking to yoga, and had that appealing Prana too-hip-for-you styling.  I bought them, and it was one of those purchases I never ever regretted.

Outside Karen Blixen's house near Nairobi.
Outside Karen Blixen's house near Nairobi.

I wore them almost every single day, exploring Kenya and Tanzania.  When we entered a village where the women were required to wear skirts, I simply tied a kanga around my waist, over the pants.  In the heat of Africa, where a daypack added a layer of heat and sweat to even the shortest walk, I gained a new respect for my pants’ cargo pockets, which until then I’d though of as an unflattering aesthetic adornment.  On short hikes, my pants could hold lunch and water for Claire and me, a notebook, and my big field guide, The Birds of East Africa.

Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Lake Manyara, Tanzania

After Africa, I still wore my Pranas several times a week, on all my Pacific Northwest adventures, both urban and natural, and then climbing the ruins of Tulum last spring.  So you can imagine my despair when, while hiking in Joshua Tree a couple of weeks ago (in the Pranas, of course), Claire chimed in with, “Hey mama, I can see your undies.”  Sho’nuff.  There was a hole sprouting on my Prana bum that could no longer be ignored.


Getting rid of the pants was not an option, so when we got home I dug through the scrap bag to find a reasonably thick, but also pretty bit of fabric that would serve as a good patch.  I chose a flowered corduroy leftover from a skirt I’d made for Claire last year.  I wanted to do something a little playful, so cut the patch in the shape of a pear.


To make an applique patch:   draw your design on paper in the size and shape you want, outline this with an extra 1/4 inch, then pin to fabric and cut out your patch.  Clip curves, and press the 1/4 inch under.  Don’t be lazy like me–take the extra 30 seconds to baste the patch in place, rather than just pinning it.  For applique, I  usually like to use a blanket stitch, but since this patch would be on my bum, I thought the extra threads from blanket stitch might get caught on things, so just used little slip stitches.  I sewed the patch on with two strands of embroidery floss in a contrasting pink, then embroidered a little leaf and stem.  If we’re going to bother to repair our clothes, why not have little fun with it?

SewLiberatedFor more inspiration on clothing reclaimation and whimsy, check out the beautiful new book Sew Liberated, by Meg McElwee .  Her emphasis is not on patching per se, but many of her ideas could be applied in the area of clothing repair.

This Christmas, everyone gathered at our house.  In a quiet moment, my mother-in-law asked my Grandmother Lyanda, who is 93 years old, to tell her about her life–an open-ended question that left the elder Lyanda a bit confused.  But finally she said, “I made all their coats.”  They were my mother and her two brothers, my uncles.  And my grandma didn’t make their coats out of wool from the store, but out of adult coats that had worn through at the elbows or elsewhere.  She took them apart, reclaimed the fabric, and made them into something beautiful and new.

Grandma Siglin this past Christmas, at age 93.
Grandma Lyanda Siglin this past Christmas, at age 93.

She sewed my coats, too, when I was little, also made over from adult coats. I remember a soft charcoal wool with covered buttons, a blue silk lining, and a fur collar that could snap on and off.  She made khaki coveralls for my sister and me, out of her sons’ army clothes.  She was a wonderful seamstress.  I wonder how we came to this day, where the first impulse when something is a bit worn is to replace it with something new?

What have you creatively rescued?  Clothes? Furniture? Fabric?  We’d love to hear about it.


  1. Karen

    While I was transforming my children’s play room from an undersea aquarium into the Griffyndor Common Room, I was in need of oversized squashy chairs to place in front of the roaring trompe l’oeil fireplace. Cosidering my budget (zero) I remembered drapery fabric from our old house. I took a platform bed I had made years before, cut it in half, mattress and all, scrounged some scrap lumber and L brackets from the garage, old pillows for backing and voila arm chairs even a House Elf would love. I find the key is never to be afraid of wrecking something in order to produce something new.

  2. Naomi lloyd

    One of my aunts was a serious seamstress. She took an old red wool coat and remade it for 7 year old me, with a real mink collar. The really cool part– the coat had been worn in a Broadway show by Jessica Tandy.

    She worked for a designer-knockoff shop. Her job was to buy the latest styles, take them apart and make a pattern from them, then SEW THEM BACK TOGETHER and return them!

  3. I am not creative at all but I do like to think that I wear and use things to their fullest capability.

    I have a pair of Patagonia hiking pants that I bought about 10 years ago and they’re still going strong. Not as cute as your Prana’s but still do the job.

    Your grandmother is lovely!

    Kimberly Aardal

  4. Great post! I worked as professional seamstress for many years and my my mother supported the two of us with her alterations and tailoring business. Neither of us enjoyed working from patterns but we both enjoyed recreating things. Pants to a skirt, long sleeve blouses to summer tanks and so on. This isn’t something I do that often anymore but I still get the itch every once in a while when I see a fabric I like in a second hand store item where the style is far from flattering. Nothing i have done though compares to a co-worker of mine’s amazing work. She was a tiny woman of southeast asian heritage who had an eye and taste for the finer things, but not the income. She would go through second hand stores searching for designer type fabrics in clothing sizes much larger. A dress would become an incredibly designed new skirt and jacket suit and she did it without pre-made patterns. Amazing. What your grandma did sounds similarly amazing. I love that this kind of thing is still happening -but wish it happened more than it does.

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  6. Karen Blixen’s house was one of the things I SO wanted to see on our trip to Africa. I imagined how it would have been to sit on that porch gazing out at the scenery. When we were there (many years ago) there was very little furniture in the house, but they were trying to raise money to acquire things to make it look more like it did when Blixen lived there. How was it furnished?

    1. lyanda

      Kathi, sorry to take so long responding–I LOVED visiting Karen Blixen’s house. And I did sit gazing from her back porch at the Ngong Hills for the longest time. The furnishings were very simple in an antiquey way, and many were originals. Lots of big game carpets and wall hangings, which sent my vegetarian-evangelist daughter out in tears. The house was quite dark, and the scale was not at all large. I guess the house for the movie was built right behind the original, with more light. Go “next time you’re in Kenya,”– I highly recommend it.

  7. KT

    Your Grandma Lyanda has the most beautiful smile!
    We have a box of old calendars, cards and invitations that we regularly cut apart to make new birthday and thank-you cards. Recently we created cards featuring “mixed beasts” (name stolen from a great kids’ book by Wallace Edwards) such as antebunnies and beareagles.

  8. Sarah

    I had a couple of old wool sweaters that I could never wear, because they were just way too warm. Over and over, I would put them in the give away box, and when it came time to donate, I would always pull them back out and try to wear them again. They were so pretty, I just couldn’t bear to part with them. My solution was to re-purpose them into throw pillow covers for the living room.

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