Of Darning and Darning Notions

Though the stitching technique of darning is no longer practiced as widely today as it was in centuries past, there are still a number of needlewomen who employ that skill in the twenty-first century. Darning has both utilitarian and decorative applications in modern times, just as it did during the Regency. However, since our favorite decade, the sewing notions used for darning have evolved and changed. Authors of tales of romance may be interested in the details of darning and the implements used to do it during the Regency, should one or more of their characters employ that skill during the course of the story.

Of darning and darning notions . . .

The creation of textiles has been very labor-intensive, making them quite expensive, for most of human history. Once those textiles had been produced, they were carefully cut and stitched, by hand, into articles of clothing. Those garments represented a significant investment of time, effort and money. Therefore, should those garments become ripped, torn or begin to show signs of wear, they were not discarded, they were mended. For centuries, mending was considered an important skill, almost an art. Many tailors and dressmakers supplemented their incomes with their skills at mending rips and tears in clothing so carefully that the repairs were nearly invisible. Most lady’s maids and valets also learned to mend nearly any fabric, since it was an important part of their responsibilities in caring for the wardrobes of their mistresses or masters. Laundry methods and techniques of centuries past were quite harsh on the expensive textiles subjected to them. Most laundresses and laundry maids also knew how to mend the linens and clothing consigned to them. They would take care that the clean laundry they returned was in the best possible repair in order to ensure continued patronage from their customers.

Mending encompasses a number of different needlework skills, including re-stitching split seams, re-attaching loose buttons or hooks, or sewing on patches. However, during the Regency, one of the most common mending methods employed was darning. Essentially, darning is a sewing technique using only needle and thread to repair holes in fabric or to strengthen worn areas in the cloth which did not run along a seam or hem. In most cases, darning was a very simple stitch, typically a running stitch which would be repeatedly woven back and forth over the area to be mended, much like needle weaving, creating a strong new portion of cloth. Thereby, the hole was repaired or the worn area strengthened in a manner which was much less intrusive that applying another layer of cloth as a patch. Similar running stitch repairs might be used on knitted fabrics, such as stockings, where a patch was impractical or would make the garment uncomfortable to wear. A few menders were able to repair small holes or worn areas in knitted fabrics by recreating the knitted stitch pattern by using their needle and thread, but it does seem that during the Regency, most darning repairs, even on knitted garments, was done with a running stitch which essentially wove a filler for the hole or weak area being mended. From at least the end of the seventeenth century, darning had become such an important mending skill that it was taught to most young girls. From the eighteenth century, many young girls included a darned section in their stitching samplers to be sure they had it available for reference in the future. The use of darning to repair tears and rips in cloth was still an important method of mending during the Regency and many budding young needlewomen acquired the skill and included it in their samplers, as had been common for at least a century.

It was important for Regency darners to find thread of the same fiber content, and ideally, the same color, as the cloth to be mended, since that would ensure the best possible and least visible repair. Threads made of linen, cotton, silk and wool were all available, so it was fairly easy to find a good fiber match. Bed linens, which were most often made of linen, were darned with linen thread, which was then readily available. Most bed linens were made of natural unbleached linen, which tended to become lighter in color with repeated washings. The natural linen thread used to mend an older sheet or pillow case was usually slightly darker, but would gradually blend into the cloth after a few washings. The cotton, silk or wool threads needed to mend garments made from those textiles was not always an exact color match. If the needed repair was in an inconspicuous or concealed area, the color of the thread used for the mend was less important. But if the tear was in an obvious location, a meticulous seamstress might resort to another option to acquire thread for the repair. Rather than simply purchasing a skein or spool of the matching fiber thead that was a close color match, they would carefully unravel lengths of thread from the hems or seam edges of that very garment. By using thread of the exact same color and fiber content, a skillful needleworker would be able to darn a hole or tear in a garment so that the repair would be nearly invisible. Many experienced needlewomen kept a selection fabric scraps in their work baskets, from which they could unravel threads as needed for making repairs.

Though darning was an important and prevalent technique for mending a wide array of fabric garments and household linens, long before the Regency, it had had decorative applications as well. Since at least the Middle Ages, that very same darning stitch had also been used to make a delicate and beautiful lace commonly known as filet lace. This elegant lace was made by working a running stitch over a fine net with a square or diagonal mesh to create a pattern. Typically, the work was done on a linen mesh, with a long blunt needle threaded with linen thread. Since it was usually made of linen, this lovely lace was also remarkably sturdy. Most filet lace was made with thread which matched the color of the netting in order to produce a monochrome lace. However, there were some instances when a colored thread was used over a white or natural colored netting to interesting effect.

The same running stitch used for darning also had other decorative embroidery applications. These included the filling stitches used in black and white work embroidery, drawn thread work and pattern darning. All of these techniques could be accomplished with the simple running stitch, often in conjunction with colored threads on a white or natural ground. Thus, even a novice embroiderer would be able to create an attractive piece of embroidery with little or no assistance, so long as they had a good eye for color and pattern. Of course, for those who felt uncomfortable with color, a running stitch could be used to create various patterns on black fabric, using white thread. The running stitch was a simple but wonderfully flexible stitch which could be used by both novice and experienced needlewomen alike to create a wide array of pleasing and charming embroidered items.

In addition to the simplicity of the stitch, there were only a few simple notions or implements needed for darning. Most darning needles tended to be longer and thicker than the needles used for regular stitching so that they could be used to weave the thread across a reasonably sized open area in a piece of cloth. Darning needles also had a blunt point so that they would not catch on any of the other threads as the needle was carefully woven over and under them. The eyes of those needles tended to be larger than regular needles so that they could accommodate thicker threads than those used for basic utility stitching. Most darners would have needed a pair of scissors and many would also have used a thimble as they worked.

When the running stitch was used for embroidery, the cloth to be stitched was often kept taut by an embroidery hoop or frame. However, it was often not possible to use an embroidery hoop when a repair was to be made in a small or closed area of a garment, such as a sleeve or a stocking. Rather, most darners found it much easier to place a firm surface beneath the area to be darned to help maintain the correct tension on the repair. By the last half of the nineteenth century, darning eggs and darning mushrooms were machine-made in large volume and were sold at reasonable prices. However, during the Regency, such was not the case. Nevertheless, our Regency foremothers were quite creative in finding tools to meet their needs. Some did their darning over an egg or ball shape, which might have been made from wood, glass, ceramic, stone, or a similar hard material. Others used a smooth sea shell, often a cowrie shell, or a firm, dried gourd. Some needlewomen preferred to use a fresh lemon or orange, which had the add advantage of releasing a pleasant fragrance as they worked.

[Author’s Note:   During the Victorian era, a few creative darners used a disconnected door knob as a darning egg. However, it must be noted that the door knob was not introduced until the 1870s, so there were no door knobs available to Regency needlewomen. In the early twentieth century, quite a number of needlewomen used a burned-out light bulb as a darning egg. Again, this particular item was not available during the Regency. But should any of you find an old light bulb or a door knob in grandma’s sewing basket, you now know why she kept it there.]

In the twenty-first century, clothing is mainly mass-produced and it is considered a consumable item. Garments today are generally not considered worth the time and effort needed to repair them. Such was not the case in centuries past, including during the Regency. During our favorite decade, cloth and the clothing made from it, was all made by hand and was considered very valuable. If a garment was damaged during that era, every effort would have been made to repair it, since that expense would be significantly less than the cost of a new garment. Most young girls were taught darning as part of their education in stitchery and they would have employed their skill to ensure the longest possible life for their clothing and linens, an important economical measure in most families. Though the darning eggs and mushrooms which were ubiquitous in our grandmother’s day had not yet been introduced, many stitchers in the Regency found some object which would serve the same purpose. Some may have used the same implement used by their mothers. However, a special new notion, like a hand-carved and polished wooden egg or ball might have been made for a young lady by a handy or crafty father, brother, or even a devoted suitor.

Dear Regency Authors, might the skill of darning, or some of the notions and implements used to accomplish it, have a place in an upcoming romance? I must admit that I love darning eggs and mushrooms, particularly the tiny darning eggs intended for use in the fingers of gloves. I was very disappointed to learn they are all from the Victorian period and therefore cannot be shared with the characters in a Regency romance. Then I realized that the creative alternatives which Regency needlewomen found to serve the purpose might be even more interesting. Mayhap the hero gives the heroine a lovely cowrie shell to use as a darning egg, perhaps before departing with his regiment to the Continent? Will he have hidden a love note and/or some other special item inside it, just for his love? Perhaps the heroine is working as a governess in a country home where the young lady for whom she is responsible refuses to learn darning, or any other mending skill, because she believes she is too good to wear mended clothing. Will the hero, the young lady’s brother, set his willful little sister straight and earn the respect of the heroine, who has previously rebuffed him? Then again, perhaps an imperious lady takes her abigail to task when she finds her unraveling threads from one of her favorite gowns, not realizing the young woman is preparing to mend that very gown? How else might darning work or the notions used to do it, fill a hole in a story of romance during the Regency?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Of Darning and Darning Notions

  1. gordon759 says:

    A group of men who could also darn were sailors. Clothes needed to be repaired at sea just as much as on land, perhaps more so as there was not usually the option of replacing the garment. An heroic young naval officer might surprise a lady with his knowledge of darning, a skill he picked up in the midshipman’s berth on a voyage to the East Indie.

  2. I think I am one of the last few people alive who darns, and I would point out that there is a good practical reason for using ravelled yarn from the garment to be darned as well as colour matching. A good mender knows that you never use a new piece of cloth to patch an old garment, and a good mender who has studied stress mechanics to a reasonable level will be able to tell you that this is because new cloth, being sturdier, sets up stresses in the part of the old cloth to which it is joined, and therefore there are more likely to be rips around the mend. This is why you take off pockets, or use side pockets and replace them with some other material or sew them up to patch something taking hard wear like trousers. Similarly, with darning, new thread can be too hard-wearing, and cause the garment to go into holes around the darn when subsequently laundered. And may I say I hate darning brocade.
    I have seen hussifs which were essentially etui boxes in form with rounded ends, were they used for darning gloves?
    I am picturing some young fool getting involved in smuggling, like Richmond in Heyer’s ‘Unknown Ajax’, and the excise men turning up to see his sisters and mother and the companion whose idea it was [thus impressing the hero, the young fool’s brother] all darning stockings, and what they don’t see is that they are darning over bottles of ‘run’ brandy.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If it matters, you are not the only one who still darns. I do, too, particularly on things I really like. When raveling a few threads is not an option, the thread issue on this side of the pond is a real challenge. It is becoming increasingly difficult to purchase cotton thread locally. Many of the quilt and needlework shops in my area have closed, and the few more general fabric shops typically only carry polyester or cotton-wrapped polyester thread, both of which, as you noted, are actually too strong for many darning projects. I have found a few places online where I can buy 100% cotton thread. However, the snags with buying online are the higher cost and the fact that it is very hard to get a good color match. 😦

      BTW – The stress mechanics you mentioned also holds true for mending brick buildings. Though Portland cement is extremely strong, historic preservation experts do not use it to re-point walls of old bricks. They use a weaker mortar that will give way as the old bricks expand and contract with the changes in the weather. Mortar made with Portland cement acts like a iron band around the old bricks, and as they expand, they will crack and split. Better to use a weak mortar than lose the old bricks.

      When it comes to brocade, or any satin-finished cloth, I draw the line at darning. Though, in a few cases, I have been able to repair a tear in such fabrics using fusible interfacing on the back side, with a few stitches to anchor down any loose threads. Not perfect, but extends the life of the garment.

      I have never seen an etui such as you describe, but they may well have been used for darning gloves. The best evidence would be if the little knob or egg is set on the end of a post or stick which enables the egg to be pushed into the tip of a glove finger. Though I imagine that small, loose eggs could have been dropped into the finger with the hole and simply held in place by hand as the hole was darned. Most of the purpose-made glove darning eggs that I have seen are Victoria, but people wore, and probably darned, gloves long before that.

      I love the idea of the ladies doing their darning over brandy bottles! That is perfectly ingenious!!! I do hope that scenario will make an appearance in an upcoming story.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I have a very good friend and neighbour who has brocade upholstry in a much loved set, and it’s an act of love because he is good to us to darn his ruddy furniture. Otherwise I shouldn’t bother!
        I buy up old reels of thread at house sales so I have cotton, linen and darning wool of vintage periods to make sure to have what I want. I confess, though, I buy French sewing cotton for the machine,
        I think the etuis may be later, but were carved in the shape of an acorn; the cup unscrewed, revealing an internal space, with a spike for a spool in the acorn cup, and room for needles, pins and a tiny folding knife in the body of the acorn. they were certainly being made later, but we had a family one which was, by family tradition of who it belonged to, supposed to be 1830s. Of course, family tradition can be wrong, and that one pushed on rather than screwing down.

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