Kate Davies, whose writing is always most interesting and informative, has sparked some lively debate with her blog posts of September 21 and September 23. Her discussion makes mention of “women with multiple demands on their time” and reminded me of a particular chore which women of previous generations were expected to include in their daily household tasks. The maintaining of clothing and domestic linens in good condition, pretty much a never-ending task, required various forms of mending, among which the darning of holes played a large part. Along with the iron (my blog post Iron Age) a household would have its darner. This would be dropped into the sock, or held at the back of the damaged piece of fabric to highlight the hole and provide a backing for the repair work. My mother’s olive wood darning egg fascinated me as a child, though to be honest I do not recall her ever using it, and is no doubt the reason I collect darners.
The variety of darners is endless. This humble tool was made in many societies, in all manner of materials, both for local use and as souvenir items, often reflecting some aspect of the country or region of manufacture. Some were designed so that the tops unscrewed, allowing needles to be stored in the handles.
They could be egg shaped; the most common appear to be eggs-on-a-stick. Plain wood was usual; indigenous woods might used on souvenir darners; painting in colours or designs made the darner more cheerful, perhaps relieving some of the tedium of the task, or at least catching the eye of the buyer. Mushroom shapes were always popular and lent themselves to decorative painting whilst there’s a touch of whimsy in these darners, rather reminiscent as they are of a foot.
Glove darners were tiny, and essential if a lady was to maintain her gloves in good condition, while much larger darners would have been used in the repair of trousers and jackets.
Trousers and Jackets
This patented gadget was intended for the repair of stockings; the handle unscrews to reveal a tiny latchhook. By contrast, an advert in The Modern Priscilla of January 1911 urges those who “want to quit darning” to purchase their stockings instead, which, mind you, were guaranteed only for four months. After that, I suppose you either bought new ones or reverted to the hated task!
I found this bundle of handknitting samples in a fleamarket in Texas. All are made of cotton; some of them have name labels attached. Are they from a school? And if so, during what year of schooling were the girls (for it most certainly would have been girls) expected to learn these skills? The work is well done, in fine gauge, and must have been quite time-consuming. There are samplers of beautifully worked stitch patterns, while four of the swatches show examples of darning. All necessary skills for a young woman back in the day.
So important were needlework skills that cheerful scenes of domestic bliss, and particularly mother/daughter learning activities were frequently depicted on the packaging though I have my doubts as to the eagerness on the part of daughters. Sons of course were spared!
The foreword to The Sunlight Book of Knitting and Crocheting published in Chicago in 1912, trills:
“A woman is never quite so captivating and utterly feminine as when her lap is filled with a fleecy cloud of yarn, and from beneath her darting needles falls away some soft, pretty knitted affair.”
Several years ago I was discussing knitting with an elderly village woman, now long gone to her rest. She rummaged about in a chest and produced this perfectly round sea-washed pebble, which she gave me. “What use have I for it now? I don’t want to remember those days.” She’d always kept an eye out for suitable stones, she told me, to use for darning her late husband’s socks. He’d been a shepherd, constantly wearing holes into the many socks she’d knitted him. She made it quite clear that sock knitting was a chore: preparing the fleece, spinning the yarn on her drop spindle, knitting the socks, and then the never-ending darning. All done mostly by lamp and candlelight, and after the hard work of the day. Knitting was not for her the pleasure it is for so many of us today.
In addition to her mending, the housewife of yesteryear frequently had to “make do and mend”. Every scrap of fabric and clothing was precious, particularly during and after the two Great Wars of the 20th Century. Women’s magazines carried regular articles on ways to remake clothes, such as cutting a man’s shirt down into baby clothes, or unravelling a damaged sweater in order to salvage the yarn for another project.
Many of us repurpose fabrics today, though for the most part more from a sense of using a wonderful textile, or having something unique, such as this bag made from a thriftstore vest, which in turn was sewn from patches of ethnic Indonesian cloth.
My darners are no longer used, but what stories they could tell!