Survival sewing – complete guide to sewing and repair in the wilderness
Possessing the knowledge and ability to sew is an essential toolset if you are to survive in the wild for any extended period of time. Clothing, shelter, shoes, and tools may need to be repaired and often those repairs require basic sewing technique.
Starting and Ending a Stitch
To sew anything, begin by knotting the thread. First, make a slipknot and then run the thread through a section of the fabric and back through the slipknot hole. Pull tight.
To end a stitch, you “tie off” your thread. Create a loop (a small, loose stitch or use your last stitch as the “loop”) in the thread by running the thread up through the material and back down through the material. Construct the loop on the underside of the sewing material to keep the knot out of sight. Run the thread through the loop and pull tight. Before pulling tight, you may want to run the thread back through the second loop to create an even more secure terminating stitch.
Types of stitches and the advantages of each
Running Stitch – The needle is passed alternately up and down through the fabric with each pass moving a few threads distance. The shorter the distance between the stitches the stronger the seam will be.
Back Stitch – Similar to the Running Stitch but you back up slightly after each stitch in a “two steps forward, one step backward” pattern. This results in a stronger seam than you would get with a Running Stitch. Push the needle through the garment and make a normal Running Stitch. Then, rather than bringing the needle up through the garment a several threads further, run the needle back through the garment and few threads back. Then execute another normal Running Stitch. The pattern would be something like six threads forward, three threads back, six threads forward, and so on. Back Stitch patterns work best on even-weave fabric.
Zigzag stitch – This is a back and forth stitch that is useful for reinforcing buttonholes, stitching flexible fabrics, temporarily joining two fabrics, or to fasten down the trimmed edge of fabric to keep it from unraveling. Moving from right to left, move diagonally to the left taking a small stitch, then move diagonally to the right with another small stitch.
Blind Stitch – This stitch is ideal for sewing along folds of fabric as it creates a nearly invisible hem because only the zigzags (which are separated by several straight stitches) penetrate to the visible side of the material. Start by pulling the needle through the edge of the folded fabric so that the knot is inside the fold and near the crease. Move over only a couple of threads and push the needle back inside the fold. Run the needle along the fold (on the inside) for about six threads and then repeat the pattern.
Whip stitch – This stitch is also known as a Blanket Stitch or Crochet Stitch. It is good for reinforcing the edge of the material by tacking down the edge of the fabric. Start by pulling the needle through the edge of the folded fabric so that the knot is inside the fold. Stitch just a few threads near the folded edge. Then stitch several threads down (straight or diagonal) and back up to the edge. Then stitch a few threads over and repeat the pattern.
Sewing a knot – Take a tiny stitch through the surface of the fabric about 1/8 of an inch away from your last stitch. Pull the needle and thread through, leaving a small loop. Turn the needle around and pass it through the loop, pulling snugly. Clip the thread.
Basic repairs in a wilderness survival situation
Repairing a ripped seam in a shoe
When repairing a ripped shoe seam, you choose the needle based on the work space available. If you can get your hand behind the seam, use a straight needle. If the seam is near the toe of the shoe, use a curved needle. Use one thick or two thin threads in your stitches to create a stronger stitch.
Try to follow the same holes as the original stitch if possible. Once the repair is made, you can coat the thread with wax or thick tree sap to make it more water resistant.
Step 1 – First, pry the seam apart until you feel some resistance. Stop and remove the old threads up to the point where the resistance starts.
Step 2 – Follow the original holes running the thread through the holes to pull the seam back together.
Step 3 – Sew the last stitch two or three times (no knot is needed at the end).
Sewing new soles onto shoes
If the existing leather can be used then use it. If not, use your survival skills to find suitable material (such as animal hide).
Step 1 – Soften the leather in a pan of water for a few minutes. This will make it easier to cut and sew the leather.
Step 2 – Wrap the leather in newspaper or cloth and blot up the excess water.
Step 3 – Remove the old sole by lifting it and making small, controlled cuts on the thread to pull and detach it.
Step 4 – Trace around the sole of the shoe and cut out the required leather piece.
Step 5 – Using several nails slightly longer than the combined thickness of the shoe and new sole, nail the sole to the shoe.
Step 6 – Cut a slight depression or channel where the stitches will go on the bottom of the new sole. This will protect the stitches from wearing off.
Step 7 – Using the original holes in the shoe as a guide, make holes in the sole from the topside.
Step 8 – Wax a piece of thread about 3 feet long and thread a needle on each end of the thread.
Step 9 – Start with the hole nearest the arch. Pass one of the needles through the shoe hole and through the sole. Pass the other needle through the sole hole and through the shoe hole. Both needles go through the same hole but one needle goes through one way and the other needle goes through the other way.
Step 10 – Continue stitching all the way around the sole.
Step 11 – Repeat the last stitch three or four times and cut off any excess thread.
Step 12 – Remove the nails.
Step 13 – Apply wax to the needle holes and along the stitches.
Stitching up a seam
First, identify whether you are repairing a regular seam or a flat-felled seam. A flat-felled seam is one where the edges have been rolled under each other to cover the raw edges. Flat-felled seams more common in garments that get washed frequently (such as shirts).
Step 1 – Pull the edges of the garment flat, matching the “raw” seam edges to each other. Starting at a point where the stitching is still solid (slightly before the beginning of the tear), take back stitches along the seam line. You should be able to follow the pricks and the fold of the earlier stitching; if not, eyeball it so that you’re going in a straight line.
Step 2 – Continue the stitching until you are slightly past the point where the stitching is missing; for the last section, be sure to keep to the existing stitching line.
Step 3 – When you have finished the stitching, secure your thread by sewing a knot.
Intact Flat-Felled Seam
If the actual seam is intact (you can’t poke your finger through the hole), you’ll just need to stitch down the folds.
Step 1 – Tuck the seam extensions securely into their pre-existing folds – this is usually just a matter of tucking the folds that are already there a little more tightly. If you are working with natural fibers, you probably will not need pins to hold the folds in the fabric. Pinch them down with your fingers; dampening your fingers will help hold the creases even better.
Step 2 – Starting at a point where the stitching is still solid (slightly before the beginning of the tear), whip stitch along the seam line.
Step 3 – Continue stitching until you are past the point where the felling is loose, and secure your thread by sewing a knot.
Not Intact Flat-Felled Seam
Step 1 – Fold the seam allowance to one side. If one side is narrower than the other, fold them so that the narrow one is under the wider one. If they’re the same width, fold them towards the ridge formed by the existing portions of the seam. If there are creases in the seam allowance from its former folds, they should stick up.
Step 2 – Fold the upper seam allowance around the lower one (if the lower one is narrower) or, if they’re the same width, fold both seam allowances under.
Step 3 – Proceed as directed for repairing the folds of a flat-felled seam.
Repairing a Hem
Hems involve a double fold to protect the raw edge of the fabric; repairing a hem is very similar to repairing the fold of a flat-felled seam as described above.
Step 1 – Fold the hem into place, following the creases that probably exist in the garment. If it’s gone so long between repairs that you can no longer find the creases, eyeball the folds based on the edges next to the missing stitches. Again, natural fibers hold a crease very well. Pinch the folds well with your fingers and you should be able to continue without using pins.
Step 2 – Starting at a point where the stitching is still solid, blind stitch or whip stitch along the fold just catching a thread or two of the garment fabric.
Step 3 – Continue stitching until you are slightly past the point where the hem is torn, and secure your thread by sewing a knot.
Reattaching a Button
First, determine what kind of button you’re replacing. In general, you will be dealing with a shank button (like a uniform button or a thread button, with a loop underneath it) or sometimes a flat button (two or four holes in the button, no loop). Next, look to see if your garment has a “button stand.” In general, you will find one on a woolen garment (coat, waistcoat, breeches). This is a strip of linen that is sewn along the long edges below where the buttons are attached. When you are replacing a button, you need to be sure to stitch into this strip, otherwise your button will be prone to ripping off again.
Step 1 – Wax your sewing thread by passing it several times over a chunk of beeswax, and thread your needle with a double thickness.
Step 2 – Take several stiches through the loop and cloth, making sure to catch through to the button stand, which will keep the buttons from tearing the cloth.
Step 3 – Draw the thread to the inside and take a couple of stitches to finish.
Step 1 – Wax your sewing thread by passing it several times over a chunk of beeswax, and thread your needle with a double thickness.
Step 2 – Place the needle into the fabric, starting at the back side of the garment, bringing it up through the garment.
Step 3 – Make two or three stitches in the fabric where the button will be placed, without the button, to anchor your thread.
Step 4 – Place the button over the anchor stitches and bring the needle up through the button.
Step 5 – Lay a straight pin or another needle over the button, between the pair(s) of holes.
Bring your needle down through the button and fabric, allowing the thread to trap the pin.
Repeat two or three times. If you have a 4-hole button, do one pair of holes first, then repeat these steps with the second pair of holes.
Step 6 – When you have taken two or three stitches through each pair of holes, remove the straight pin.
Step 7 – Bring the needle up through the fabric and wrap it around the threads a couple of times just underneath the button to form a thread shank.
Step 8 – Bring the needle back to the underside of the fabric and take a couple of stitches to finish.
First, find thread or yarn that matches the fabric in color, fiber content, and texture; you can use linen or cotton thread for most applications, while wool yarn is best for wool stockings. Choose a darning needle – look for a large eye. A tapestry needle may also be used for stockings, although it won’t work as well for other garments.
Darns go on the wrong side of the garment; if you’re darning a stocking, turn it inside-out.
If darning a stocking, place a darning egg inside it and position the hole over the egg. Your needle will glide smoothly over the egg’s surface, making your stitching go faster. If there is no darning egg available, any hard rounded object (such as a smooth rock) will work. If darning a flat garment, work against a table or other hard flat surface.
Thread the needle with the yarn or thread and leave the end unknotted. The darning process should create a tight weave that makes knots unnecessary.
Step 1 – Start your work on either side of the hole. Take several small vertical running stitches in the intact fabric of the garment, about 1/2 inch to the left or right of the hole. Turn the garment upside down and make another row of stitches next to the first. Keep your stitches even – try to pick up a single thread per stitch, if possible. This will make the darn sturdier and more even.
Step 2 – When you reach the point at which the hole begins, your stitching line should extend from 1/2 inch above the hole to 1/2 inch below it. Think of drawing a rectangle around the hole with your darn, and keep the sides of the rectangle relatively equidistant from it.
Step 3 – Continue making vertical running stitches. When your stitching reaches the hole, take your thread or yarn over the hole and into the fabric on the other side, forming what resembles a vertical bridge over the hole. Stitching should extend 1/2 inch beyond the hole at both the top and bottom edges.
Step 4 – Once you have covered the hole with vertical threads and extended the stitching 1/2 inch past it so that both sides of the hole look identical, take a tiny stitch across the corner of the rectangle of stitches you have just created.
Step 5 – Take the threaded needle and weave it under and over the vertical threads that cover the hole (as well as the vertical threads that lie within 1/2 inch of the hole).
Step 6 – Turn the garment upside down once you reach the opposite end of the hole, and weave another thread next to the first, making sure you go under the threads you formerly went over, and vice-versa. You are, in effect, re-weaving the fabric that is missing. Make these rows very tight together – use your fingers to pack them closely, if necessary.
Step 7 – Continue stitching back and forth until you’ve completely filled the hole. Trim excess thread. No knots are necessary if you work the stitching correctly.
Patches are applied to the inside of the garment. Ideally a patch will very closely match the garment; the goal is for the patch to be as unobtrusive as possible.
Step 1 – Cut a patch that is sufficiently large to extend beyond the damage and permit it to be sewn to sound cloth.
Step 2 – Fold under the cut edges of the patch and pin it to the inside of the garment, allowing it to overlap beyond the edges of the damage.
Step 3 – Stitch down the patch with a whip stitch or blind stitch.
Step 4 – Turn the garment to the outside and secure the edges of the damage to the patch with a zigzag stitch.
If you prefer, you may cut back the damaged area close to the edges of the patch, turn the edges under, and whip stitch them to the patch. This finish gives the appearance of a flat-felled seam.