An aggressive stomach bug interrupted my other projects this week. In that impatient time between too sick to care and well enough to get up, I decided that it was time to fix the holes in my blanket. All I needed was sharp scissors, a blunt needle and some scraps of yarn. Best of all, I could do the job lying down. In this post I’ll show you how I did it, and how you can darn things too.
First we’ll look at factors I considered when deciding if this technique was suitable for my project. Then we’ll cover what tools and supplies are needed, and how to actually do the repair. I’ll finish with some tips on making the repair job look good. After all, there’s no point fixing something if you don’t want to use it afterwards.
Should I darn it?
Darning is a way to reinforce fabric or fill a hole without adding the kind of bulk you get with patching. It usually looks the same on both sides of the fabric when you’re done which is important for something like a blanket. Most of the time, the darned spot is clearly visible when finished, although it can blend in on some fabrics, especially if they are fairly textured or if you have a small hole to fill and very fine threads to fill it with. Darning is strong and, when carefully done, the transition between original cloth and the darned portion is virtually impossible to feel.
That smooth transition between original and darned is what made it so popular for socks. A patched sock would cause blisters but a well-darned sock would be comfortable to wear. Darning was also done to reinforce high-friction areas (eg the heel of a sock) before they wore through.
Darning is also often used to repair hidden parts of a garment, like behind a lapel or within the fold of a pleat where there is no concern about it being visible. If the repair is going to be visible or if the hole was large, a patch is usually the preferred solution.
I chose to darn my blanket instead of patching it because I didn’t want the extra bulk and ridges I would get with patches. I would have to patch both sides of each hole so the bulk would be even more noticeable. It is also a coarsely woven fabric so there weren’t that many missing threads to replace. I knew the repaired spots would be visible but that was okay.
Tools and supplies
Darning by hand is a very low-tech task, requiring only scissors, a support device, needle, and thread.
The scissors should be sharp and fine enough to snip individual threads right at the fabric’s surface.
The support device is something to support the fabric while you’re working on it so that you don’t change the shape of the hole, or accidentally stitch through other layers of the fabric. A darning egg (traditionally a wooden or stone egg) is used for sock heels. Some people like to use an embroidery hoop but that can be awkward to fit into place. A clean piece of cardboard or folded paper works for most flat spots. Ideally it would be a few centimeters larger than the hole but it often comes down to what will fit behind the fabric while you are working on it.
The needle should be blunt and just large enough to hold a single strand of the darning thread.
The thread (or in the case of my blanket, yarn), should be similar in weight to the fabric’s threads. My blanket is 100% cotton and very soft. I have cotton embroidery floss, and several different weights of crochet cotton but those are all too smooth and shiny to be a good match even if the colour were perfect. There was some “dishcloth” yarn and a lighter weight soft cotton cord that I thought might work. I preferred the look of the dishcloth yarn but it was definitely too heavy so I pulled it apart and used it half-thickness at a time.
Sometimes you can pull threads out of other parts of the piece you are trying to repair. You don’t need a lot for darning so if there is an especially generous seam allowance or wide hem, you may be able to harvest some perfectly matching thread from it. With some fabrics, the threads are too soft for this to work, but it’s worth a try.
Preparing the hole
Darning is detailed work and you need to be able to see what you’re doing. So the first step is to trim away all the loose thread ends. Snip just a few at a time and try to trim them flush with the surface of the fabric. Sometimes you will have a few isolated threads still intact across the hole. Don’t cut them! It’s just the whiskery loose ends you want to get out of the way. Check and trim from both sides of the fabric if you can. Don’t be concerned if some ends are much farther from the edge of the hole than others.
Once the threads are trimmed, you can stabilize the hole. Good darning adds threads to a hole and its surrounding area without distorting the fabric. If the hole is very tiny and/or already backed by other layers of fabric (eg the underside of a collar), you shouldn’t need anything extra to stabilize it. If it’s in a wide open area and you can snap an embroidery hoop over it, that’s a simple solution. Basting (or even stapling, if it won’t mark the fabric) your piece to a few thicknesses of paper is another way to secure it. You will need to keep your basting stitches (or staples) 5-10 cm (2-4″) away from the edges of the hole so they don’t get in the way. Now you’re ready to stitch.
Darning is sort of weaving, sort of sewing. You will be going over, under, over, under the individual threads of the intact fabric around the hole. You will also be laying down threads across the hole, and then weaving across them to create new fabric. It’s rhythmic work, done in a grid. Are you ready? Thread your needle.
Find your starting point about 10 threads outside the edge of the hole. Chose an intact thread to follow. Working alongside that thread, stitch over, under, over, under the individual threads you cross as you work your way to the opposite side of the hole and into the fabric on the other side.
Step across a few threads, one at a time, and then work your way back, parallel to the first thread you put in. Keep going back and forth like this until you have covered the full width of the hole with some extra on either side. Your ground threads are now in place.
I did it a little differently on my blanket. I stitched well beyond the edges of the hole and I cut my threads instead of turning and stepping to the next one. That’s because I wanted to merge the new colours into the old and I knew I could count on the fuzzy texture of the yarn to keep all those individual strands in place. Aside from that, the principle is the same. I went over, under, over, under through the intact fabric and straight across the hole, using existing threads as guides.
The second layer of threads is put in like the first but at right angles to it. Use an existing thread as a guide, just as you did before. When you get to the hole, instead of being empty, it now has all those threads from the first layer strung across it. Weave over, under, over, under them as you work your way back and forth across the hole. You are weaving a loose piece of cloth inside the hole. Keep going until the entire hole is covered, along with some fabric on either side.
Third layer (filler)
The ground work is done but right now the brand new cloth where the hole was is still thinner than the main fabric. We need to fill that in without jamming too much extra thread in the main fabric around the hole. The way to do that is to continue stitching/weaving but only in the thinner new area, not back into the main fabric.
If you insert two new threads between every pair of threads from the first two layers, you will keep your over, under pattern intact, while firming up the new cloth. If that is still noticeably thinner than the main fabric, add more filler, but do this gradually so that you don’t end up with a thick stiff wad.
When you’re satisfied with your work, just trim your thread close to the fabric surface. You’re done!
Most of the time, it’s hard to darn something invisibly, so how do you make it look good?
With my blanket, I’m making my darned spots deliberately large and blotchy. The contrasting threads run well into intact fabric in all directions. Once all the holes are darned, I want to stitch some smaller patches of colour and even some random lines of colour. So the holes govern the placement of the original colour blocks but the whole blanket will get an infusion of colour splash.
I also considered turning each darned spot into a specific shape, like a flower or a circle or a butterfly. I could use a template to draw that shape as a frame around each hole and then darn the area to fill it. (That was more planning than I was up to for this project.)
The darns could have embroidery or fabric painting around them to make them look like deliberate parts of a design. Alternatively, the design could be complex or textured enough that the darns get lost in its richness.
There are many, many ways to use darning on textiles, both decoratively and for repairs. Like most simple techniques, there’s a lot you can do with it once you get comfortable with the basics. I’m sure I’ll have more posts about it as time goes on. In the meantime, I hope this has been enough to get you started.