To darn, or not to darn?

Hand-knit socks are satisfying to make, but  repairing them is tedious.

John Kehe

I look at the holey socks awaiting repair in my knitting basket and think: I don’t like darning.

My mother taught me to darn as a child. That’s when I inherited my grandmother’s darning egg, a dried gourd about the size of a mango. As a daughter of the Depression, Mom learned the homemaking skills required to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” that kept anything in those lean times from being chucked out before it had been completely expended. 

Even when times were better, she continued to save rubber bands, collect lengths of string from packages, and carefully unwrap gifts so she could reuse the paper. Waste not, want not. 

I contemplate the socks. I knitted them, so I’m entitled to choose whether to darn or not to darn. Yet throwing out anything that could be made useful again (but is too ragged to donate anywhere) pricks my conscience.

I began knitting at age 8 when I was given my grandmother’s knitting needles. I first made a scarf (garter stitch, dead easy) then graduated to ribbed socks, which my brother dubbed “test tubes” because they were one long knitted cylinder, open at the top and sewn together at the toe. Later I learned to “turn the heel” on a knitted sock so it had an actual sock shape, and then went on to tackle sweaters. 

At 12, I made my father a rather ugly green sweater (it didn’t seem ugly at the time), which Mom repaired several times. It was eventually banished to a boat locker, but not pitched out since it was still potentially useful – and my father knew it had been a labor of love.

Hand-knitted socks wear out much faster than sweaters. First one heel develops a hole, then the other, and the toes grow thin. The cuffs and the in-between bits usually have lots of wear left in them, though. Hence darning, which is weaving a patch directly onto the hole. 

You start with a needle threaded with strong heel-and-toe wool. Then you set up the warp in one direction by stitching it onto the solid edges of the gap and weave the woof over-under perpendicularly until you have a woven mat over the hole. 

It’s tedious, and it’s not pretty, but it’s satisfying to make something if not “new” then at least serviceable again.

But I like to knit socks. It’s fun to start a new project, and they go quickly while I watch TV in the evening. I’ve knitted heavy woolen socks for myself for winter walks, and for my husband, who tramps over frozen fields to sit for hours in goose blinds, and for our children when they were young, booted and splashing in icy puddles. In fact, I have so much sock wool stockpiled that I could just throw out these holey, once-mended-already old socks and make a new pair. 

But these socks are cashmere, which makes it a tougher call.

Years ago I bought some thread-fine cashmere wound onto spools for factory machines from a remainders table in Scotland. It took me a year to knit my first sweater from one spool; I saved what was left over to knit socks. That first pair, the color of milk chocolate and velvety-soft, was a Christmas gift for my father-in-law that I eventually darned a couple of times. Several years ago, after I knitted a sky-blue cashmere sweater for my husband (another yearlong labor of love), I made myself the pair that now awaits its fate in my knitting basket.

Each sock has two darns in the heels already. Putting in two more will mean attaching them to those earlier patches. Is it really worth the effort? When will the next holes appear? When is something completely used up and worn out? 

As I look at the old darning egg, I think of Grandmother, darning her children’s socks, and Mom, who was frugal even when she didn’t need to be. They always had enough, which I know includes appreciation for the good that remains in something, however old, worn, or imperfect. 

I look again at the socks. 

Their toes and feet are still intact. They’re soft, warm (except where the holes are), and, once mended, may have miles to go – or at least one more winter – before they’re through. Having enough (and maintaining what you have) is a kind of abundance. I slip the darning egg into place, take up the needle, and go to work.

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