Monday 24 February 2014

Oh Darn

If you've got a favourite pair of socks or sweater that have tragically acquired a hole or two, you may want to acquire the homely accomplishment of darning. I've gotten extra years out of a beloved sweater this way, and was once even able to save a sweater I'd made for my father that had had an unfortunate encounter with a table saw. If you made the sweater or socks yourself, you'll be at an advantage because you're very likely to have at least a small amount of the same yarn left over.

This image and the one above are from government-issued pamphlets that probably date from World War II, when the populace was being encouraged to "make do and mend" in order to conserve resources for the war effort. If you'd like a more modern tutorial on how to darn, Twist Collective has a good one.

If you're the sort of learner who likes to have something demonstrated for you, this video clearly demonstrates the process of darning.

Darning is definitely a low-cost option. Besides the matching or near matching yarn that you need and may well already have on hand, you will need only a needle with a sharp point and an eye big enough for whatever fibre you are using, and a darning egg. A plain wooden egg or mushroom such as those above will do.

Though there's no reason the wooden egg has to be plain. The eggs above were made by my father. As you can see, that sweater of his did not meet that table saw in vain.

You might also treat yourself to a covetable antique darning egg such as the Victorian-era sterling silver-handled and hand-painted darning eggs above.

If you find you really love darning, it's possible to take the technique to a higher level, as has been done in the case of this 1841 sampler, which features silk, wool and cotton threads embroidered in running and cross stitches on a plain weave foundation. A hole in a prominent place can become an opportunity to really break out your imagination and fancy stitchwork so that the darn becomes an adornment.

Researching this post led me down a rabbit hole of truly fascinating information on and examples of how to take mending and making do to a whole new level, to the point where it's an art and a source of pleasure rather than drearily frugal. I have a passion for salvage and thrifting and hate waste, so the topic is as catnip to me. I especially loved blogger Susannah's account of her year's experience in shopping and sewing within the limits of the British wartime clothing ration of 1941 on her blog Cargo Craft Cult. She tells us that before this experiment, her wardrobe consisted of vintage costume-type outfits that she had lovingly made but had little chance to wear, and the boring nondescript clothes that she actually wore. The discipline of shopping and sewing according to strict guidelines forced her to make vintage clothes she could actually wear every day, and to make her purchases more carefully as she would need to wear them often. The result was a wardrobe that was not only more practical but more interesting and attractive, and that she got much more real enjoyment from. And I'm not surprised to hear it.

Working within restrictions is actually good for creativity. If you gave me limited materials and set me a specific task to achieve with them, I would do better and more creative work more quickly than I would if you were to turn me loose in a large room full of varied craft materials and just told me to make something. The human psyche seems to need limits to kick against.

And then too, getting the most out of your belongings by mending and making do has a number of other rewards and benefits. It's environmentally responsible. It'll save you money, and possibly also time, since you might be able to mend or alter something faster than you could go to the store and shop for a replacement. And it's so satisfying. Anyone can slap down a credit card and buy something new; it takes skill, creativity and intelligence to figure out how to turn an item that seems bound for a landfill into a useable, attractive piece.

Researching and writing this post generated lots of ideas for future mending and making do posts, so look for more posts on how to get the most out of your knitwear.


  1. I have dropped all pretence of matching sock darns - contrast yarn is easier for ageing eyes! Also prefer to 'catch' my hand knitted socks at the thinning stage and use duplicate stitch. Lets face it. most sock repairs are nicely hidden inside the shoe, so the contrast yarn is no problem.

  2. This is a wonderful post--thank you!
    I have my mom's old darning egg, and I've used it a few times.
    Now I think I'll use it with more pride. I really liked how you said, "The human psyche seems to need limits to kick against."--Good stuff!!

  3. You can use a plastic Easter egg as a darning egg in a pinch. I tried it once and it worked OK. I'm sure it would have worked better if I'd had any idea what I was doing. :-)

  4. I have, I. The past, taken the sleeves out of a jumper, darned the holes in the elbows, then sewn them back into the opposite armhole. Result - darns on the inside of the arms. We were saving for a house, so extending the wear of a jumper was good for the budget. I also turned sheets - cut them down the thin middle and sewed them together with the unworn sides in the centre. Not so good for single beds, as yiu slept on the join!

  5. There is a movement towards deliberately choosing contrast yarns for darning so that your repairs are shouting out to the world about how much you love your clothes and refuse to buy new, a sort of protest against the wasteful ness of the modern textile industry. Everyone should learn to mend their clothes. It’s fun and very creative.