The Practical Paddler
A Stitch in Time
By Tamia Nelson
February 25, 2003
Rip! That's one sound no
canoeist or kayaker wants to hear. But sooner or later, all of us will.
Paddling and camping are hard on tents, packs, and clothing. At home, it's
no big deal to mend a tearif you have a sewing machine handy and
know how to use it, that is, or if you know someone who does. But what
happens when you're back of beyond? Most of us don't carry sewing machines
in our boats. When a beaver-gnawed poplar pokes into a Duluth pack, or an
edge of seam-tape that the builder forgot to sand slices through the
sleeve of a paddling jacket, we're on our own. Ignoring the damage isn't
an option. Small tears don't stay small for long.
Fortunately, stitching up a tear isn't difficult. But you need to know
how, and you need a few simple tools. If you carry a ditty
bag like mine, you've already got everything you'll want: needles,
thread, patching material, and a sailmaker's palm. Add a sharp knife and
you're ready to roll.
But what if you don't already have a ditty bag? Now's the time to make
one up. Any small bag will do. And the contents don't have to come from a
sailmaker's shop. You can probably find heavy-duty upholstery needles at
your local HyperMart. Thread's no problem, either. Cotton or
cotton-wrapped polyester's best. (The cotton swells when it gets wet. This
helps to seal the holes.) If you add a hank of waxed cobbler's twine,
you'll be ready for anything. Patching material? Mix and match. A scrap of
sound canvas salvaged from an old tarp. A square of fabric torn from the
tail of the poplin shirt you wore to paint the garage. A piece of denim
cut from a discarded pair of jeans. Color doesn't matter. Once you leave
the put-in, fashion takes second place to function.
Of course, you probably won't find a sailmaker's palm in the HyperMart.
Don't worry. Sure, a palm can be useful, make no mistake. It'll save you a
lot of grief if you have to sew multiple plies of heavy fabric. But unless
you plan to ship aboard a square-rigger, it's almost never really
OK. You've got your tools. Now pick the ones you'll need for the job in
hand. Match needle and thread to the fabric you're mending. The lighter
the fabric, the thinner the needle and finer the thread. Canvas or heavy
synthetic packcloth demands a sturdy needle and stout threadmaybe
even waxed twine.
It's not enough to have all the right tools, though, is it? You need
the right moves, too. And practice makes perfect. It's easier to learn the
art of stitching while you're sitting at the kitchen table than when
you're squatting on a riverbank in a drizzle, swatting mosquitoes. So grab
a piece of denim, a good-sized needle, and some heavy thread. We're going
to do a basic herringbone stitch. The herringbone's a classic, and there
are many variations. This one's mine. Why? It's easy to remember once
you've done it a few times, it's strong, and it's simple to sew. Who could
ask for more?
Ready? Let's go! But first things first. How much thread should you
cut off the spool? That depends on how big the tear is. This is no time to
be stingy. It's better to cut too much than to be caught short. Since I'll
be doubling the thread through the eye of the needle, I measure out a
length that's at least four times the size of the tearand I cross my