Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Wednesday's Workbox (22nd February)

Today's Wednesday's Workbox is going to focus on a skill that's fast becoming obsolete but which I personally believe deserves to be carefully preserved as a time honoured housekeeper's tradition ... DARNING!

I wonder how many of us actually know how to darn a garment properly? It may seem that nowadays, it isn't worth bothering to take the time to darn a sock or sweater, when you can buy a thrift shop or even new replacement quite cheaply, and indeed, heavily darned garments do have a certain "Cinderella" look to them which isn't necessarily what you want to aim for if well groomed is the look you're trying to achieve! But there are certainly times when you will find you are glad that you've got some basic mending techniques to turn to, when you're trying to stay on top of keeping everyone well clothed and neatly turned out without spending a fortune!

Along with darning, patching, hemming and button sewing are also mending skills worth learning, which I'll share over time. But today we'll focus on darning.

There are 2 main types of darning - "web" darns, and "hedge-tear". Web darns are the type that you're most likely to find yourself needing to use, to mend small holes in socks or knitted items. Hedge-tear darns are a little trickier as you have a darn that needs to be worked at right angles, and is best not attempted unless the garment is one you like so much you couldn't bear to see it being discarded. Larger holes are better patched, and socks, which these days tend not to be of knitted wool but of lycra and cotton, or entirely man made fabrics, are really not worth darning unless the hole is smaller than the size of a 10 pence piece. I'll be concentrating on basic web darns, in this post.

Most oftentimes, it's socks that I find myself darning, because my family seem to be particularly hardwearing on these! Especially, it seems, Little Bear, who although as dainty as her mama, seems to be very heavy on her socks! She is forever presenting me with very sorry looking, wilted little rags with great big holes in the toes or heels. And though it is tempting just to toss them and buy replacements, I do find you can prolong the life of socks quite a bit with just a simple darn, if its done quickly enough before the holes get too large.

To darn socks made of man-made fabrics, you really need to use quite a fine sewing yarn. I tend to use regular dressmaking polycotton thread. Back in the day, when everyone's socks were woollen, you could just use a skein of 4 or 3 ply wool and have a nice neat darn done in minutes (if you'd knitted the socks yourself, you had the added bonus of being able to match the colour of the wool exactly!). But wool would be too thick for today's fabrics. It's also less costly to use polycotton thread (floss) and you'll probably find you have at least a few basic colours in your sewing box already, which can be used in most cases.

Choose a sewing needle that is perhaps a little thicker than you would naturally choose for such a fine thread, and cut off a good length of the thread, as it isn't easy to start a new thread if you find you've run out in the middle of a darn (you will need to restart threads as you work, but it is better to do this after you've worked right across the hole all in one direction, than halfway through).

Take the garment and turn it inside out. Place your left (right, if you are left handed) inside the garment and using your thumb and forefinger, stretch the hole across the palm of your hand, using your fingers to elevate the fabric enough to get the needle between your palm and the garment.

Now take the needle in your right (left) hand and draw it inside the garment, so that you will be pushing it up through the right side of the fabric out into the wrong side, which is facing you. As you insert the needle from the inside of the fabric outwards, make sure you are aiming about 1/2 cm past where the hole begins (in other words, you are going to sew a few rows of thread onto fabric, before you start sewing across the hole). To start with, whilse you are sewing on the fabric, use a simple, small running stitch. Once you hit the edges of the hole, insert the needle from the underside of the fabric through and then pull it loosely across the hole, and insert into the top of the fabric on the other side, through to where your hand is (but not into your fingers!). Repeat all the way across the hole. You may then need to work back again, depending on how large the hole is. Try to keep your stitches as close together as possible, to form the foundation layer of "fabric" to cover up the hole you're mending.

Once you have worked stitches all across the hole, cast off and now rethread your needle, and insert it from the inside of the fabric outwards, as before, but crosswise to the stitches that you have already worked. Here is where it gets tricky. Instead of working one large stitch across the hole you must now weave your needle in and out of those stitches, to create your "web" (in fact, it is simply weaving, a bit like the technique you would use to weave a rag rug). Again, you may need to work back and forth more than once to get a weave that is thick enough to be durable. Try to work your stitches as small as you can. It not only looks neater, but makes the darn more hardwearing.

Now fasten off, and turn the garment back the right way around! Voila! You have just completed your first piece of darning!

A few quick hints to make your work more successful ...

Don't pull the thread too tight, especially when you are darning socks or other stretchy fabric, or you will find that the fabric rucks up when you've finished and creates a ridge. At first the threads will seem too loose and loopy, but once you start weaving in crosswise, you will find it knits together quite well. What you are really doing is weaving a small patch of fabric to cover the hole in the garment, so you need to keep the stitches as close to the shape of the original fabric as you can.

Ensure that you use long enough pieces of thread (floss) when you are sewing. It is difficult to rejoin a new piece of thread if you run out halfway across a darn. Try to rejoin new pieces of thread at the edge of the hole, when you've worked all the way across. If necessary, to prevent yourself running out before you get to the edge of the hole, cut a long piece of thread and then almost double it so only the first few centimeters nearest the needle are single thread. Then it won't run out. You can use doubled thread all the way through for extra durability, but this will give you double the amount of threads to weave when you start working crosswise and can get a bit muddly if you aren't very experienced at darning.

As mentioned above, darning is really only suitable for small holes in fabric. Larger holes are better fixed by patching, which is a bit more straightforward and can be used on a wider variety of fabrics. Darning isn't suitable for very fine, man-made fabrics such as satins, polyesters or rayons that will ladder when torn. It works best on jersey or knit style fabrics and is best used where the mend won't show.

If for ethical or financial motivations you plan to regularly mend and reuse garments rather than instantly replacing them when they show signs of wear, then I would strongly advise that you choose to acquire garments that are plain block colours, in tones that will be easy to match to suitable, robust darning threads, such as black or grey. When you come to fix these with a darn it will be much less obvious than one on a patterned fabric. I guess this is why our ancestors seemed to wear plainer clothes than we did - the mendings wouldn't have shown up so much!

Why not have a try at darning a sock next time you're presented with one that's grown a hole? At the very worse, if it isn't a success, you can at least admit defeat, and go out and buy some replacements. But you may just find that it isn't as tricky or time consuming as you'd first thought, and even if it doesn't look as if Cinderella herself has fixed it, your family will likely be very impressed at your frugal, but creative, homekeeping skills!