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Our clothes take a beating each time we wear them. Just buttoning a shirt puts a strain on the threads that hold the buttons in place. And once a button finally falls off, it's all too easy to put off replacing it -- especially if it means a trip to the tailor.

Don't procrastinate when it comes to mending clothes. As soon as you notice a split seam or frayed lining, fix it. If you keep wearing the item, the split will worsen or the lining will tear, affecting the garment's shape. The more damage that's done, the harder it is to get your clothes back into good condition.

A little mending may not faze an accomplished seamstress, but if you don't sew at all, just threading the needle can seem daunting. Here are some basic techniques that will give you the skills -- and the confidence -- to tackle these tasks yourself.

The sewing kit

Keep the essential tools well-organized and accessible in a sewing basket, toolbox or even a cigar box. Start with the following, and add specialized supplies as needed.

All-purpose thread lives up to its name for most mending. But you'll need heavy-duty thread for heavyweight fabrics and extra-thin thread for the finest, most delicate fabrics. Instead of stocking up on every color of the rainbow, make sure you have black, white, gray, beige and a few colors that are common in your wardrobe.

Buy a packet of assorted hand needles; use thicker ones for thicker fabric, thinner ones for thinner fabric.

Eight-inch dressmaker's shears are indispensable for fabric work. You should be able to find an excellent pair in forged steel for less than $30. Use them exclusively for cutting fabric, as paper dulls the blades. I tie a ribbon around the handle to remind myself -- and borrowers -- that these are my good sewing scissors. I also use little embroidery scissors for small jobs such as snipping threads.

Other basics include a seam ripper, tape measure, ruler, buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, elastic, seam binding, tailor's chalk, needle threader, straight pins and pincushion.

Sewing on a button

If you can do just one thing with needle and thread, this should be it.

A button shouldn't be so snug against the fabric that easing it through the buttonhole is a struggle. Sew it on with a thread shank and it will be secure, with just the right amount of space between the fabric and the button.

Here's how: Hold the button in place, and send the needle from the back up through one of the holes. Place a toothpick over the button between the holes; stitch down over it, into the next hole. Continue, stitching over the toothpick until each set of holes has been bound five or six times. With the needle and thread between the button and the fabric, remove the toothpick. Lift the button, and wrap the thread around the exposed threads between the button and fabric several times. Tie off the thread under the button.

Sewing seams

A split seam is easy to fix on the sewing machine, or you can use the backstitch, which simulates a machine's straight stitch.

With right sides of fabric together, bring a threaded needle through the two layers of fabric. Insert the needle back down through the fabric about an eighth of an inch to the right; bring it back up just to the left of where you started; continue.

Mending a lining

Most linings are a little bigger than the garment, so you can make a new seam close to the original without making the lining too small.

Always pin the lining first along the torn seam (if the seam is just frayed, pull it a little tighter to make a new seam), then hang the garment and make sure the lining and outer fabric fall as they should.

Starting about 1/2 inch beyond the end of the tear, insert the needle into the lining (the needle should be almost perpendicular to the seam you're making) and bring it out opposite, on the other side of the seam. Continue, making diagonal stitches to mend the tear.

Finishing up

When you finish any hand sewing, here's how to tie off the thread so your work doesn't come undone: Take a tiny stitch on the wrong (back) side of the fabric; before you pull the thread all the way through, send the needle through the loop of thread. Pull the needle until a second small loop forms, send the needle through that, then pull the thread taut.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail: Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

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