The Useful And The Beautiful: Darning And Repair

In today’s post, Debra takes a closer look at darning, and how repairing and reusing textiles is not only good for the environment, but has a myriad of other benefits.

Mending and sustainability


A few months ago my mother gave me a darning mushroom she has had for many years, which belonged to my paternal grandmother. A darning mushroom is traditionally used for repairing socks, clothing and household textiles. Both my parents were born in the 1940’s, and due to necessity always had a strong ‘make do and mend’ mentality.

Mending and making clothes, knitting, crochet, and dressmaking are a vivid part of my childhood. I have memories of socks being darned, jeans being patched; hand-knitted cardigans, colourful crochet blankets, and wearing handed down clothes from older siblings and cousins. The skill and art of darning and repair is no longer as commonplace as it once was, due largely to the cheapness of clothes and ‘fast fashion’. However, our over consumption of fashion is creating a great deal of harm to the environment, because it is one of the largest contributors to the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and a major polluter of air and water.

A recent government report revealed the UK throws away over a million tons of clothes every year, and we buy more clothes than any other European country. But there has been a craft revolution in recent years, which has grown alongside a more conscious movement towards thinking sustainably because of our throw away culture and mass consumerism. As part of a Sustainable and Slow movement, crafters have been using the art of visible and decorative mending to extend the life of well-loved clothes and textiles, and pass on these skills through workshops and blogging. Inspired by this I have been trying to be more mindful with my own clothing habits and learn how to darn and repair, and so my grandmother’s humble darning mushroom has been very useful.


Examples of Linen Darning


                           Plain darning


                             Satin or Twill darning                           Diagonal darning


The Whitworth has many inspirational historical textiles in its collection that have been darned and repaired; darning involves repairing a hole with a needle and thread and interweaving the thread over the hole or tear. This can be done simply or more decoratively with a fancy pattern effect as above.

Examples of needlework where darning has been used in a decorative way include: Dutch samplers from the 18th century, a sampler from Belgium from the 19th century, and simple utilitarian pieces from the UK from the early 1900’s, all showing amazing skill and precision.


Image 6
Square darning sampler worked in coloured silks on a cotton ground. Three edges are folded and hemmed and the fourth consists of a selvedge. There is a pictorial centrepiece made of ten squares, which include a peacock and a tree with birds. Darning sampler
Elisabeth Iohanna Cornelia Vandenberg
1821. Source




image 7
Darning sampler Netherlands, 1800-1899. Source



image 8
Darning Sampler, Belgium 1822. Source


image 9
Plain sewing darning sampler, linen and cotton, England UK, 1912. Source



image 10
Folder covered with brown cotton satin and lined with pale blue cotton, and embroidered with the worker’s name. Inside are examination pieces of plain sewing, for example small pairs of white cotton drawers, and samplers of darning and sewing, marked with the student’s name on paper, and marks and comments by the examiner.Sampler 1912-1914, Ripon Yorkshire, Cotton and wool. Source


The oldest examples of darning in the collection are Egyptian and include this child’s tunic, dated from 600-799AD. It has been darned with wool and linen, and the repair work is so extensive it covers the entire front of the tunic creating a beautiful patterned effect.


image 11
Child’s wool tunic made from a single length of cloth folded in two and seamed at the sides in blue and red wool sewing thread. A gore is added on each side made from two triangular pieces of cloth and a vent is left at the lower edge. The neck opening is cut from the cloth. Applied bands are sewn at the neck and arms made from red wool with geometric patterning in white linen thread. The tunic is heavily darned all over in at least ten different threads of various colours – brown, red, pink, blue, mauve, yellow and undyed. Egyptian tunic. Source.


Ruskin and Needlework

The process began – beautiful even to my uninformed eyes – in the likeness of herring-bone masonry, crimson on white, but it seemed to me marvellous that anything should yet be discoverable in needle process, and that of so utilitarian character – Ruskin

In Britain throughout the 19th century, needlework increasingly was seen as an important part of a girl’s formal education, although there were differences in what skills children were taught based on their class backgrounds. When state education was extended for working class children from the 1830’s, girls from poor backgrounds were expected to produce plain samplers to specific, strict criteria, where the focus was on more functional and practical stitches of a utilitarian nature rather than decorative images such as flowers. Darning skills were very important and letters and numbers also feature to help with literacy and mark making. These skills, as well as being practical to use in the home or if they were to work in domestic service, were also believed to be inherent to important desirable feminine qualities because of the discipline, patience, and obedience required.

The recent Ruskin exhibition ‘Joy for Ever’ at the Whitworth links in quite interestingly. Ruskin was a strong proponent of needlework as being more than mere embellishment and decoration, as it served a purpose of the potential of being ‘useful as well as beautiful’. He was Patron and a great admirer of the needlework taught by Kate Stanley at Whitelands teacher training college for working class girls, who was head governess there from 1877 until 1902. He was fascinated by the practical, utilitarian, yet beautiful nature of the stitches used to mend clothes, which he saw being accomplished by the students. Kate Stanley believed that skills in repair work was a vital skill which every girl and woman should learn “If they wish to be thrifty useful, respectable and respected members of society’. She published a needlework book in 1883, which she dedicated to Ruskin:

To Professor Ruskin, LL.D., who writes, “While the plough of the husbandman goes well in the field, and the plough (needle) of the woman goes well at home, the nation will be happy,” by kind permission, this little book is affectionately and respectfully dedicated, by the author.

Ruskin is also complimentary about her needlework in Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Labourers and Workmen of Great Britain, a series of 96 public letters published in pamphlet form over a period of 14 years. This work continues the themes in ‘Unto the Last,’ which proposes a different kind of political economy. The increasing industrialisation, mass production and societal ills of the Victorian period, and the dehumanising and demeaning nature of modern work and its consequences had led Ruskin to believe that there was dignity to be found in certain forms of ‘work’ and manual labour, and needlework and embroidery was part of his vision, which could benefit everyone in society.

He used needlework metaphorically, and also its function, beauty and usefulness as a series of lessons on the economy; gender, values and morals, to propose a noble agrarian neo-medievalism where all classes of people could live healthier and better lives.


Psychological mending



image 12
Matthew Harris No. III, 2008. Source


The process of darning and repair also allows us to be more mindful not just about the values we place on what we buy and own, but also to focus in the moment through the slow art of hand stitch. By slowing down and valuing what we have, we can also draw from it a metaphor about life and learning. Darning and repair can also be seen as a beautiful metaphor in terms of healing, and taking a positive philosophical outlook to life; to accept the imperfections of things and seeing beauty in that which is not perfect, through that which is thoughtfully stitched, repaired, darned, and patched.

The exhibition, Facing Out: life after treatment for facial cancer, that was displayed in the Collection Centre, featured a wonderful piece by Matthew Harris which was selected by Nigel, one of the patients who was part of the exhibition. It is made up of a patchwork of fabrics which have been dyed, cut, and handstitched. It is reminiscent to me of Japanese Boro cloth, which is a traditional garment or blanket of the rural poor. Normally made from scraps of indigo dyed hemp or cotton, they were repaired many times over and stitched together like a patchwork quilt; and because of their intrinsic value they were passed down through the generations.  The piece also has a ‘wabi sabi’ aesthetic, which is a Japanese term for seeing beauty in imperfection and accepting life is transient and impermanent.  In Japanese culture they believe that broken things can be made more beautiful and unique through repair.  So Nigel’s choice of work and words was very inspiring to conclude with.

“The Artist (Matthew Harris) was inspired by Japanese Lanterns, how they are not discarded, but repaired and put together. If you look closely you can see the clever stitching. The fact that stitches come into it are very relevant to my operations; and the number of stitches I have had to reconstruct my nose both internally and externally. This relates to the philosophy of Wabi Sabi, the Japanese philosophy of ‘just because it’s broken, you don’t throw it away.’ It has a value in itself. You can repair it and put it back together and it has a different quality about it. It’s still vibrant, useful and beautiful”. – Nigel



Further Reading

A Remedy for Rents, Darning Samplers and Other Needlework from the Whitelands College Collection, Constance Howard Gallery Goldsmiths, University of London

Clothing Culture: Dress in Egypt in the First Millennium AD, Francis Prichard, 2006

Needlework And John Ruskin’s “Acicular Art Of Nations” Rachel M. W. Dickinson

The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Rozsika Parker, 1984

Wabi Sabi, For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, Leonard Koren, 1994

Women and the material culture of needlework and textiles, 1750-1950 / edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin, 2009







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