You know it wasn’t really that long ago in history where our ancestors repaired their socks. Many of us may recall a strange looking tool used by our grandparents called a darning egg. Many of these were wooden.
Original Use of the Darning Stitch
The repair of clothing has been an important skill throughout history. Clothing was expensive and the laundry conditions were harsh. The repair of clothing was necessary and became a skill taught to young girls. There is evidence of darning samplers dating back to the 1700’s. These were elaborate productions showing methods for the repair of many fabric types including plaids, silks, and even knitted items. Some of the samplers even had holes cut into the fabric so the stitcher could perfect her technique of repairing an actual hole rather than surface stitching. Different thread types and colors were used when available and the samplers became a work of art in various designs. Depending on the region, some samplers had motifs incorporated into the project while others were embellished with embroidery stitches. The darning samplers were very popular in Europe; however, they didn’t catch on here in America. If you are a collector of old needlework magazines, there is a wonderful Darning Sampler in the June 1996 issue of Cross Stitch and Needlework. Piecework showcased a piece on the cover of their September/October 2000 issue along with the pattern for a table runner.
Since the original purpose was to reinforce weakened fabric or replace areas where the fabric had been ripped or disintegrated it was important to match the repair threads as closely to the fabric as possible. Sometimes the stitcher was able to use threads pulled from hems or seams. If the fabric had a pattern, it was necessary to find suitable replacements for all the colors which could be quite a task. Many sewing baskets contained scraps of fabric that could be unraveled and threads used. The repair was worked from the topside where fabric remained and rewoven where it was completely gone. The use of a darning egg was helpful for items that had dimension to them such as socks. Sometimes it was necessary to use an egg for flat items that you could not get into a hoop such as a child’s sleeve. People found creative ways to use what they had to survive.
Sashiko, Japanese Darning/Quilting
Sashiko has been used in Japan for centuries to reuse old clothing. Starting with a couple of layers of old cloth, a new layer of fabric was added on top using tiny stitches. Sashiko means "little stabs" and resemble grains of rice. Traditionally the thread was white and the fabric indigo blue. Several styles of sashiko developed over time. The most basic pattern is called moyozashi. This pattern is very geometric with lines that could be straight or curved. The main difference with this type is that the lines DO NOT CROSS. There should be a tiny bit of fabric showing between the stitches. If the geometric design does meet AND CROSS, then the style is called Hitomezashi if done in traditional colors. The more colorful version is Nanbu. Kogin is also a derivative of hiteomezashi but it follows the weave of the fabric and the stitch extends up to five threads in length with fabric threads showing between the stitches.
At one time Avery Hill (who supplies some of our Swedish weaving books and kits) had a coaster kit teaching the kogin style of sashiko. Here are two of the coasters made using the heart design. The blue heart is stitched using 12 strands of floss as provided in the kit. Traditional sashiko thread is available, but embroidery floss and size 5 pearl cotton can be used instead. The pink heart is done with DMC Pearl Cotton #5 in color 326.
One interesting note is when stitching sashiko the needle does not move. Instead you are to move the fabric on to the needle to make the stitch, which makes this technique require the use of very long and sturdy needles, as well as a unique type of thimble.
Nyzynka, Ukrainian Pattern Darning
This technique originated in the Carpathian Mountains and is described as "double layered pattern darning" by Phyllis Maurer in her book Techniques of Ukrainian Nyzynka. This technique was used on native costumes and has remained almost unchanged over time. Therefore, you can trace the patterns and colors back to specific regions. For example, the Hutsul region in the Mountains produce very colorful patterns, while the Eastern Podilia region mainly stitches in black and red.
Ukrainian pattern darning is unique in that it is stitched in two layers. The first layer is stitched from the underneath of the fabric, which is what nyzynka means. Traditionally the underneath layer is stitched on white linen with black thread. The second layer is added on the top of the fabric with colored threads. The All Things Ukrainian website has towels with this type of stitching. In addition the Embroiderer’s Guild of South Australia is teaching a class in May on nyzynka and here is their class project.
Additional Darning Resources
When you realize that the darning stitch is basically a running stitch often following the weave of fabric, you will begin to see it everywhere. The darning stitch is often used as a filling stitch for Blackwork designs. Ilse Altherr included a section on darning including patterns in Blackwork & Holbein Embroidery Book 2.
The darning stitch can be used in canvas work for shading and works wonderful for creating water and sunsets. As you can tell, pattern darning has a long history extending over many centuries and cultures. An excellent series of articles including photographs of original examples plus charts was published in the Fall 2006 Filum Aureum newsletter published by the Needleworkers Guild in the Kingdom of the West (SCA). It is worth taking a few minutes to read even if you are not a history buff. As you look at the examples, you may see other ways to use the darning stitch in your own projects.
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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