Happy New Year from the Scenic Route Blog!
Working with Scrim can be an enjoyable experience for the kind of effect it can have when used in a show. The bad side of working with Scrim is when you get a pesky hole that ruins said effect. Mary Novodvorsky has written a detailed article (with plenty of close-up pictures) to show you how to fix a hole. She shows you her precise method which can be laborious and take some time for sure. I think we can all agree that it is better than starting over with a whole new drop because of one small snag.
How to Fix a Hole in a Scrim
It seems that Scenic Artists are jacks of all trades. We paint, draw, sculpt, carve, texture, etc. Sometimes we even sew for our craft. I took over fixing the holes in scrims to help out a favorite designer who complained about how the “fix” looked. I would go out on stage and I would find any of the following fixes:
I will then get asked to do a paint touch up which does not make the fix unnoticeable. Scrims are expensive. Depending on the size, at my theater they run anywhere from $3,000.00 to $5,000.00. This is not something you’re going to reorder and repaint when it gets a hole.
Holes in scrims are ugly and tediously difficult to correct nicely after an oopsie on stage. Part of this is due to how scrims are woven. Scrims are made with a variation on a plain weave called Leno weave. Plain weave has warp threads and weft threads. The warp threads run the length of the bolt and are parallel to the selvage or finished edge. Weft threads run the width of the fabric at a perpendicular angle to the warp. Usually warp and weft threads run in an over/under/over/under pattern. The warp threads on Leno weaves are twisted around the weft threads.
Here is a picture of a simple Leno Weave fabric called Marquisette.
On scrim, the weft threads appear as two threads and the warp threads appear braided.
A Scrim Leno weave is not like a regular warp and weft Leno fabric where the warp threads run the length of the fabric and the weft threads run across the entire width. The weft threads on a scrim are woven in a zigzag pattern into the warp threads. The weft threads cross two rows of warp threads and then follow along the warp threads for one space and then turn back across the warp threads for two rows. They continue in this zigzag pattern following the direction of the warp threads instead of weaving across the entire width of the fabric. The weft threads appear to be running the width of the fabric, but in reality, they are running in a zigzag pattern along with and crossing the warp threads. It looks like the warp direction has three threads in each row but that third thread is part of the weft yarn. You can see this in this small rip where rectangle loops are hanging loose. The zig-zagging of the weft threads is what contributes to scrim’s stretchiness. It feels somewhat like a knit but it’s not a knit. Knits utilize interlocking loops and scrim is not a looped fabric.
Filled scrims are woven the same way, but they have twice as many weft threads and the “rectangle holes” are filled in.
Thankfully, I’ve never had to repair a filled scrim.
Scrims are very strong and stretchy and it’s actually difficult to punch a hole through them without using a lot of force. Unfortunately, they do catch, snag, and rip easily.
You can’t fix a hole perfectly, but you can make it nearly invisible. And if an audience member does notice that there’s a little oddity in one little spot, the show has bigger problems than one little scrim fix. At the very least, your scrim fix won’t be shouting “hey, I’m a messed up spot right here”. This is how I fix holes and it’s laborious, but looks pretty good when I’m finished. If anyone has another technique, I’d love to compare processes, please.
First off, you will need some tools. You’ll need a sewing needle, thread, embroidery scissors, tweezers, embroidery hoop, magnifiers, and some black fabric. Buy embroidery scissors to keep for this purpose as the paint on the scrim might dull your good fabric scissors. Make sure the scissors come to a point and aren’t blunt on the end. A pointed pair is easier and more helpful to use. Don’t use a large pair of scissors. They aren’t delicate enough to clip exactly where you need to clip and will be too awkward. The tweezers are for pulling out threads that you want to trim with the scissors.
You can use any color of thread. If you don’t think you can finish before tech, preview, or whenever they need you offstage, use a thread that’s close in color to the paint or close in value. I could have used a matching thread here, but then it would not have photographed very well. I also find it helpful to use a thread that doesn’t exactly match so that I can easily tell what should be clipped and what is a thread that I’ve sewn. It’s better to use cotton thread or cotton-wrapped polyester thread. 100% polyester thread will not take paint the same as cotton.
An embroidery hoop will be necessary if you are fixing this offstage in the shop. I’ve fixed them hanging tight onstage (hopefully not high up in the air on a genie lift), or loose in the shop. The embroidery hoop keeps a loose scrim tight so that you can easily see how it needs to be fixed and it will keep tension on the scrim. You could also lower in the scrim on stage and still use the hoop if that is more comfortable. The hoop may rub off some of the paint so be prepared for an extra paint touch-up. If you are stuck on stage with very little room to set yourself, you can also fix the scrim from the backside and then touch up the paint from the front.
You will want some magnifiers so that you can see what the heck you are trying to fix. You’ll go bonkers trying to fix a scrim without magnifiers. I’ve had these magnifiers for years and you can get all kinds of versions from headbands to glasses, with or without lights. The pair I have ranged in price from $45.00 to $70.00 depending on where you look and which version you want. There are cheaper options, but check the magnification to make sure they will be strong enough. Mine have a 2 ¾ magnification and a 6-inch focal point and they have a lens that can be changed out. The lenses run from 1 ½ magnification with a 20-inch focal range to 3 ½ magnification with a 4-inch range. You get greater magnification with shorter focal lengths and a smaller field of view. I prefer to work closer and have higher magnification.
And lastly, get a piece of black fabric. You don’t want to see anything behind the scrim when you are peering at it. I usually use a remnant of velveteen or velour. For this demonstration, I’m using a leftover piece of black crepe that I had at home. If you’re on stage, you’ll want no lights on upstage, or you want some fabric blocking anything upstage. If you’re working on a black scrim, a white piece of fabric or muslin might work better. I’ve lucked out and never had to fix any of our black scrims.
The first thing to do is prepare your needle with thread. If you are not a sewer, I’ve put some pictures at the end with some ways to tie knots easily and quickly which will save you time. You will first stabilize the rip and secure its outer edges. The small hole pictured earlier has some outer edges that are about to unravel with handling, so you want to make sure the hole doesn’t get any bigger. The fix will go faster if you prepare your needle with a double thread, but it won’t look as clean as a single thread treatment. If you choose to use a double thread, you’ll get a pretty big knot. If you don’t like it you can snip it off at the end after a paint touch-up or a drop of glue attaches it. I just leave the knots. If someone notices that, again the problem is with the show. You can also do some of the first steps with a single thread and switch to a double thread when you begin to actually rebuild missing sections. I’ve done this first sample with a double thread so that you can see a difference from the second example which was done with a single thread.
Depending on how crazy the rip is, I usually do not snip away any loose threads until I’m really frustrated with them being in the way. If you snip too much too soon, more edges will unravel or pull out as you work. I’ve started with a small hole to show you the process. I’ll show a larger rip later.
You can see that all I’m actually doing here is wrapping my sewing thread around the existing threads to hold them in place. Plus, I’m grabbing some really small tear areas that need reinforcement. I’ve started by pulling my thread through an intersection to anchor the knot and then just looping it behind the next intersection. Once I’ve gone all the way around, I will usually start by rebuilding the easiest portion first and working my way into the big gaping hole where everything is missing. Also, notice I’ve started further out than I needed to so that the sewing will overlap existing threads. Don’t start where the raveling starts. It will just get messy and confusing, and it won’t be as stable if you don’t approach from “off-stage” of your hole. Plus, it gets the knot out of your way. The overlapping thickness is unavoidable and why it will not be perfect.
The weft sides are a little awkward here because I took the thread through the intersections instead of around them. Going through the intersections will help to keep the thread from slipping loose after you’ve pulled the wrapped threads tight. It would look neater with a single thread. I don’t usually do this because it’s very bulky and the yarns don’t lie together very nicely. The rip will be a little stretched and you will need to pull the scrim into place and tighten it up. You can also sew in a half knot so that the thread stays tight and doesn’t slip loose. Some awkward-looking stuff can be beautified later. I’m also showing one mistake here. I went back over a warp thread I had already wrapped to get to a point at which to go up a weft thread. You can see in the lower right corner where it is really thick there now. I should have tied a knot and started anew at a different point.
I went up a weft row that was not raveling to get to the upper missing warp row. I could have just gone to the lower missing warp row, but I felt it would be stronger if I reinforced this weft line. Tie a half hitch and go across and make sure you put your needle through all of the loops that belong with that row. You’ll have to untwist some of them so watch out for that. Do not worry about not being able to square them up yet, that will happen when you rebuild the weft columns. I went down an outside weft line to get to the lower warp line and I skipped the middle row because it will be easier to figure out the outer rows first. I could have tied a knot and started the bottom row new, but the more times you stop to do knots the longer it takes to finish. If you’re not crunched for time, go ahead and tie more knots and start anew on the next line.
At this point, you could do some of the outer weft edges, but I have decided it might help me to put in that middle warp row and catch the rest of the loose loops.
It’s kind of a mess and I’ve missed two of the loops, so I have snipped off some of the loose threads so I can see what’s going on better. Snip off threads judiciously. Leave threads that you’d like to get out of the way but if cut they will unravel.
I’ve started wrapping the weft threads on the left side. Make sure that you grab the loose threads or loops from the correct corresponding lines top to bottom. I have made the mistake of getting off a row or column on larger holes, so sometimes you have to count very carefully. It’s a pain to remove a mistake. Usually, it’s better to work your way into the middle from the outside if the rows or columns are confusing. When you’ve finished connecting or rebuilding all of the columns, tie a knot and switch to a single thread. It’s now time to try and finesse it to make it tighter and not look thick or loose. Go through and rewrap everything that looks too thick or messy.
You’ve finished sewing and can now touch it up with paint. You can see there are some wriggly bits that I didn’t quite get to look nice and there are knobs from the ends of loose threads that make it look untidy. Most of the untidiness is due to using a double thread. It’s been a tedious two hours to get to this point.
Painted and backlit. You can see how it does look heavier where there is overlap on the old and new threads. You have to sew into existing areas so that it stays put. That can’t be avoided and the double thread is making it more obvious. This would look better had I used a single thread to start it off. It’s not going to be perfect. Go back and look again at the first four pictures so that you can be happy about how it does look now.
Fixing a Larger Hole
What I have here is actually two nasty holes next to each other. I’ve taken a single thread and gone all the way around to make sure it doesn’t unravel further. I’ve wrapped the weft on the left side, but I went through the intersections on the right side weft. Going through the intersections on the right weft column looks much neater with a single thread.
Some of the upper warp threads aren’t broken, so I’ve secured the top three warp lines and caught as many of the loose loops as I can see. It’s very tedious because the loops are all twisted and I will have a mess if I don’t untwist them before catching them with the thread. I’ve also counted carefully and attached the two hanging centerpieces so that I can keep them aligned. I also snipped a few threads because they kept getting caught up in my sewing thread.
I’m now into this project for about 45 minutes, so it’s time to stand up, take a stretching break, and give your eyes a rest.
The bottom left looks like the easiest area to attempt next. I did two passes with the thread to recreate the missing warp lines. First pass to the left to pick up the loops pointing up and then a pass to the right to pick up the loops hanging down. Picking them up in separate passes helps to keep them aligned and is less confusing since the upper and lower loops fit in together every other column. I’ve wound my second pass thread around the first to get a beefier line to follow and so that I don’t get confused with two threads that might not stay together.
At this point, I need the satisfaction of seeing an area finished, so I’m working on the weft lines in the lower-left area. And I need to get it straightened out because I almost got off a row which is easy to do when you’ve only picked up the loops in one place. I’ll also get more stability in the hole if I finish a section.
Now I’m going back to adding in more warp lines so that I can figure out where the loose loops should go. I’ve also snipped a little more of the mess away so that I can see what needs to be done. It’s been another hour, so time for a stretching break.
I’ve decided to complete the right side and then add in the rest of the missing warp lines and clip more loose threads away.
As I add in the missing weft lines in the big gaping black hole, my first thread goes over/under/over/under the warp lines in a plain weave to help hold the thread in place. Then I go back over the line and wind the thread around just as I’ve been doing on the earlier warp sections. I don’t go through the two threads of the warp line. I might want to adjust the spacing of the squares and if I sew between the two threads of the warp line I might not be able to push or adjust the line spacing. I also did three passes where there isn’t any of the original scrim left. I’m starting to pull it too tight, so it’s time to switch over to the left side and work from the outside into the middle. And it’s been another 1 ½ hours, so I’ll take another break.
There’s a full grid now, but it’s a little wobbly. The middle portion also looks thinner and too sparse. So now it’s time to go back in, add threads, and tighten things up.
I’ve gone through and rewrapped and tightened up everything that seemed loose. In the center section, I’ve gone through and wrapped the sides of each rectangle with three wraps to give it more bulk to match the rest of the scrim. It’s looking much better and I could quit here and it would probably be acceptable. When I hold it up to some light, the center still seems a bit thin. If the fix is located in an obvious spot on the scrim like right where a soloist will be highlighted, you might want to work it a little more. And I’m into this project now 5 hours. Did I mention it’s tedious? However, there is a little bit of Zen to it after a while.
Here is the mend backlit. There are a few areas that are a little thick, but overall the fix looks pretty good. It took almost 6 hours, and it almost totally disappears. The fixed area won’t match in texture from the front, but you won’t really see that from a distance. It will also be stiffer and not as pliable. I’ve fixed scrims that had to drop into a trap and the stiffness wasn’t a problem. What’s really important is making sure the bleed-through effect looks good.
Things NOT to do
Don’t be tempted to clip everything out of the way right at the start. And don’t clip out chunks of scrim that could be useful. If you clip, you’ll have to try and make sure that it doesn’t pull out and unravel where you’ve cut it. Usually, this will be at the sides where the warp threads are cut and want to untwist. Even if you tie some knots at each intersection of warp and weft when you put in the first stabilizing stitches and wraps, it will work its way loose. Plus, adding the knots adds time to the process and bulk to the area you are reinforcing. Here I have a pretty large hole that I’ve gone all the way around with a single thread and I’ve put an extra stitch and half-knot at all of the warp lines at the sides in an attempt to keep it from unraveling further.
Don’t sew your first stabilizing thread right on an edge that doesn’t have much to grab or is missing too much to neatly grab. The action of trying to sew on an unstable edge will just make it pull out more and add to the mess. As I was trying to secure the warp and weft threads in the upper left, it would just pull out and now this area is messy.
In the lower-left area, the sewing wouldn’t stay in place when I tried to add in some stitches and knots so I ended up just wrapping it. It’s not really anchored and pulls out very easily.
To demonstrate. I’ve trimmed the left side all the way up to the stitching, cutting off the excess intact scrim. On the right side, I’ve trimmed it but left a little bit of the scrim in place.
It’s hard to pull the scrim into position when I’ve trimmed so close to the square corner sections. The edge that’s already thick on the left is also too bulky to grab nicely and I’m having trouble keeping the tension of the threads the same between the rows.
It’s a little bit easier on the bottom where I left a little bit more scrim in place on the right side. But the left side is very fragile.
This is how far I’ve gotten after 2 ½ hours. I had to beef up the upper “finished” area just to keep the threads separated and establish the grid. I’m not looking forward to putting in the rest of the grid. If the smaller area was this difficult, that long empty expanse will be worse. This is where leaving that extra scrim fabric in place on the left side would have helped to keep more stability in the whole area. Leaving that section of scrim intact and not cutting it out makes the open areas smaller and easier to handle. Don’t make a hole bigger by cutting out intact sections of scrim thinking that you are cleaning it up. You’re just going to be fighting the edges wanting to unravel further. On the right side, leaving that one extra row hasn’t really helped much at all. It would have been better to just trim out a little bit of the really loose middle threads and leave as much of the intact scrim as possible.
Tying a knot with a needle
Thread your needle and cut off your desired length from the spool. Take the end of the thread that you cut at the spool and place it between your forefinger and the needle (in other words, not the end that you threaded through the needle eye). Thread has a “nap” to its twist, and the thread will tangle less if you always tie the knot at the cut-off end. With a double thread, you just have to straighten it while you are using it to keep it from tangling. Try not to have any or much thread sticking out on the other side of the needle. If you have some thread sticking out, you will have a tail to cut off after the knot is tied. If you are choosing to use a double thread, put both thread ends under the needle.
Take your thread and wrap it around the needle three times. You could also do two wraps for a smaller knot, but it might be too small and pull through when you sew or come untied.
Grasp the coiled portion with your thumb and pull it down to the end of the thread. It will automatically make a knot for you at the end of the thread. If you get a small tail, just trim it off. I taught this method to our 5 carpenters when we were frantically trying to make our own Austrian curtain before a preview. It went much faster when they learned a quicker way to tie their knots.
Ending and tying a knot with a needle
Take a small stitch with your needle and pull the thread almost all the way through. Leave a small circle of thread.
Take your needle and go through the backside of this circle. Pull your thread through this circle and leave another second loop. I usually grab the thread and pull the first loop tight to the fabric. Otherwise, you might get a knot that isn’t situated right at the fabric.
After you’ve pulled the first circle tight leave the second small circle. Take your needle and go behind and through that second circle. This picture is showing the second loop after the first loop has been pulled tight to the fabric. That first loop made half of your knot.
Pull the thread tight. You have now made a knot and you can clip your thread. I usually take another small stitch to pull the knot into the fabric and then I clip the thread. This sets the knot so that it doesn’t pull out or come untied.
Check out Mary Novodvorsky’s other article on the Scenic Route Blog!
The Children’s Theatre Company
Mary started painting as a scenic artist in 1988 and has been the Charge Artist at the Children’s Theatre Company since 1990. She also worked as an electrician, lighting designer, stage manager, and costumer before becoming a full-time Charge Artist. Occasionally, when time permits, she freelances and does some design work. When not painting, she’s usually working in her gardens trying to create an urban pollinator oasis for birds, bees, and butterflies. The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the largest children’s theatre in the United States and was the recipient of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater.Tags: Holes Scrim Sewing Thread