A few years ago, it was simple: if you had a hole in your t-shirt, jeans or socks, you simply threw them away! Or at least, many did. But there was, and is still, a movement to artistically mend or repair them–to make a feature and statement about a darned, patched or laced tear or hole. What would people have thought about creative or visible mending, two hundred years ago? Technically speaking, there are three different terms to use when repairing textiles. Mending is when a tear is repaired using a line of stitching. Patching is when a piece of cloth is used to repair a hole in the ground material by covering it. Darning is characterised by the use of yarn to replicate the structure of the ground. However, many people use these terms with a wide degree of fluidity, making no difference, for example, between mending and repairing.
All of these techniques can be found in samples and samplers dating back to at least the 18th century. A sampler was intended to show the sewing skills of a girl or young woman in needlework, namely structural sewing, mending, patchwork, and embroidery. Samples were intended for practicing a particular technique, so small pieces of cloth were often used. Both samples and samplers were used to learn and show mending, darning and patching skills. There is an early darning sampler in the collection at the Textile Research Centre in Leiden that dates to 1763. This early sampler is made out of linen and worked using silk threads in various colours, in cross stitch and darning stitch. The darning blocks imitate the different strutures of woven fabric, while other examples include blocks that imitate knitting. The darning blocks with weave structures were designed to show that the girl could repair a variety of different weaves, namely plain weave, twills and damasks, as well as effects such as stripes and checks. These were textile forms often used for clothing as well as household objects, such as tablecloths, napkins and bedding. These samplers were generally worked in a variety of colours, especially blue, green, red and yellow yarns. This was not done as a sign of creativity, but to prove to the teacher or mother that the girl really understood the basic weave structures and could reproduce them. Then, in order to show that girl could take it one step further, an ‘invisible’ darn was worked in the same colour and yarn type as the ground material. Sometimes the only way in which such a repair can be seen is by holding the cloth to the light. Pride did not come in being creative but in being skilled, that the mend was invisible and the girl had the necessary range of skills to enable her to run, or at least help run, a household. A very different way of thinking from modern practitioners of creative or visual mending and darning that is deliberately designed to be colourful, fun and seen from a distance!
Samples and samplers with knitting mends are more unusual than the weave forms. They were used to teach how to mend knitted items such as garments, shawls, and of course, silk and woollen stockings. The latter were worn by both men and women in the 17th and 18th centuries, and mainly by women and girls in the 19th century. They could also be very expensive, especially the hand knitted forms in silk that could take months to knit, meaning that they were often repaired.
Knitted samples can take the form of small pieces of knitting with darned blocks. They can also take the form of hand knitted socks in which the girl deliberately made one or more holes. She was then required to repair the sock using both a coloured yarn to show understanding of the technique and the same coloured yarn as the sock itself to show her skills and neatness.
Darning samples and samplers continued to be made well into the first half of the 20th century. This type of ‘life’ skill was taught at home and in schools for literally hundreds of years. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s when creativity became more important than skill, and at the same time fast and often cheap fashion started to rule that skills began to decline. Now with the current ‘sea change’ in favour of slow fashion, sustainability and bringing back industry to Europe (with the inevitable increases in prices), it will be interesting to see if mending and darning become invisible again or if there will be a compromise between a functional and an ‘artistic’ repair. Coming back to the original question: what would a late Georgian girl have thought of creative and visible mending? I suspect not much! Textiles were expensive and sustainability a normal way of life for the vast majority of people. To spend time and materials on ‘fun’ mending would have seemed very strange, and yet, there would have been some who would have understood and loved it.
This article was previously published on issue 102 Mend, available for purchase on our website. Text by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood.
The Textile Research Centre, Leiden, Netherlands, is an independent research institute working in the field of textiles and dress.