Thursday, 12 March 2015

Darn those moths: the art of mending

Sylvia Darning, Harold Gilman, 1917                                            Wikimedia

"Is it worth mending this?" asked my husband, poking a large finger through a small moth hole in his cashmere sweater. My normal sniffy response to such requests is: "But I am a textile artiste. Would you ask Picasso to paint the skirting boards?"

I will of course repair the jumper, if only because my husband is especially cuddly when he is wearing it, and inevitably I will make a bad job of it. But several textile artists are embracing the art of darning and mending as part of their practice, and doing a very good job indeed: check out these glorious pieces by Celia Pym.

Tatiana Riabouchinsk darning her ballet shoes, 1930s 

This became apparent at the Knitting and Stitching Show at Olympia last week when I was chatting over coffee with Margaret Cooter - a very prolific blogger and artist - and one of her friends. The subject, I know not how, turned to darning, and Margaret showed us the black socks she was wearing that she had darned expertly and deliberately in yellow. Which reminded me - and I have no recollection of where I saw this - of a much-loved beanie hat that had been darned so many times in so many different colours that it raised the old conundrum of whether it was still the old hat or had become an entirely new one.

Looking up darning in my copy of The Art of Needlecraft by the delightfully named R.K. Polkinghorn B.A. (Lond.) and M.I.R Polkinghorn B.A. (Lond.), undated but probably from the early 1930s, I read: "Mending is not always interesting but it is very necessary." In our era of throwaway consumerism, that phrase can be turned around to good effect. Here are two other artists, both men, who have done so:


Back in 2008, the organisers of the Knitting and Stitching Show sent out an urgent plea for darning stories and for socks with holes in them ahead of a visit by Michael Swain, who had travelled to London from San Francisco on a "mission to investigate British techniques in darning" and was at the show as part of his "Door to Door Darning Project".

"Artistic" darning shop, Broom St, New York, 1942     Wikimedia

Tom van Deijnen, aka Tomofholland, from Brighton, regards a darn as a "badge of honour". In his "Visible Mending Programme" he  uses traditional woollen repair techniques so that "creating and mending textiles are in constant conversation with each other". Look at a picture of his wonderful out-and-proud darned sweater here.

What was exciting about our darning conversation, the three of us agreed, was not just the subject but that the Knitting and Stitching Show had provided a forum in which such an enjoyable conversation was able to take place at all.

I will not be darning my husband's blue cashmere sweater with pink wool as a badge of honour, but I will now undertake the chore with more reverence.


(PS, The classic work by Therese de Dillmont, Encyclopedia of Needlework, again undated, informs the lady of the house that darning will "repair the mischief" of a small hole. Much as I love this book - there is a fab essay about it in Hand Stitch Perspectives, by Alice Kettle and Jane McKeating  - I can't find it in my heart to regard moths as mere mischief-makers. Nuclear bombs are too good for them.)