darn it!

by bam

unsuspecting, i pulled back the doors to the linen closet the other afternoon. a closet that holds, besides pillow cases and old quilts and sheets, a stash of bandages and alongside those the means for mending holes in tattered clothes.

piled just to the north of the so-called sewing basket, an ancient relic, practically, i spied what could only be a not-so-subtle hint that perhaps i ought to resuscitate the ol’ relic.

there, waiting, suggesting thread make way through eye of needle, a turtleneck with cuff in shreds, a pair of jeans with missing knee, a pair of socks with holey toes. seems my mother, who on grammy tuesdays makes it her job to deliver undelivered laundry, eyed the clothes en route to drawers and ruled them unfit for wear.

without a stop at the sewing basket, that is.

and so, there i found them. there i got the message.

in the same way i once got lessons in how to iron, i long ago sat at mother’s knee and took in tutorials on how to do the sewing basics. darn it, i know how to darn. or at least i did. it’s not a skill i claim to exercise with any regularity.

it is the humblest of the needle works, nothing showy, not at all. to darn is to weave back and forth, and then to stuff what once was torn but now is whole down the mouth of some old shoe. or, just as hidden, just as shy, tucked out of sight, in the shadow of a folded hem. it is, by intent, done best when undetectable. it is, by design, yet another invisible art–or labor, you decide.

but is it lost, the darning needle?

stumbling on the shameful pile made me grab for sewing basket. i rummaged through. found gingham squares and corduroy, a quarter yard; indeed i found, in bits and pieces, more material for our now running series: the care and tending of our cloth, laundry art reconsidered.

installment one: the iron. door-stop versus zen.

installment two: the sewing basket. what’s the darn thing destined to these days?

it can only be considered quaint, the basket modestly equipped. it holds the essentials (and mind you, the one who stocked it is one and the same as one who long ago was known to safety pin her schoolgirl hems when threads on the loose threatened to make a scallop of a crisp clean line).

there is the see-through sleeve of needles, a progression from insanely tiny to industrial strength that reminds me of pipe organ pipes. spools of thread in basic colors, and the occasional odd shock from some weird-colored frock that simply had to be hemmed (in matching thread, for once). teeny scissors for snipping threads. and a small round tin that holds a living catalog of all the clothes i must have buttoned over the last, hmm, 30 years.

there’s the laura ashley calico-covered button from my first, best-loved maternity dress. there are button placards with names like villager, and talbots, liz claiborne and j. jill. the other j.– j. peterman, remember him? from not so long ago, ann taylor. the litany of my dressing-up years, the years now pretty much behind me. there’s the little golden coin of a button from my faux chanel. but there is not a button from my audrey hepburn wedding gown, nor a single one from prom, oh, 100 years ago. there is, though, a snap from baby gap, and a little teddy bear from when i found collecting for my unborn teddy rather irresistible.

they are relics i might riffle through, if i ever did what the basket’s begging: sew holes in socks, return a blouse’s missing closure, how ‘bout a patch on that sweater’s elbow?

where went the art of darning? why in this age of disposability have we done away with means of mending? at what exit on the high-speed highway of these modern times did thread and needle pull off, park themselves in some rest station?

i remember sitting at my mother’s side, and my grandmother’s too, watching thread be spun by fingers, looping through, ending, bravo, in a knot.

i remember piercing eye of needle with the serpent head of thread. (back when i could see close-up, and not be stabbing, literally, in the dark of blurry, might-as-well-be-blindness…)

i remember sewing hems, cinching holes in toes of socks.

i remember what it was to repair, to fix, to mend, to darn, gosh darn it.

once upon a time an educated girl embarked upon a course of sewing. once upon a time it was a woman’s plight to sew, to tend the cloth, to keep the apron, the stockings, the overalls in working order. the patch was not some affectation but pragmatic in its very nature.

as wagons rolled across this country, thread and needle were chief among the armaments of pioneers who barred cold winds or blazing sun by keeping holes in check. and farm women, north and south, could give you chapter and verse on how to make a tablecloth, or a sensible set of napkins, from emptied sacks of flour.

now, though, it is nearly revolutionary to pluck hole-pocked sock from dryer, pierce toe with thread, put reconnected cloth back in play. now, though, is it waste of time, or time of waste?

not so many years ago, i discovered a charming set of books, the mary frances series, written by jane eayre fryer, first published in 1913 as “instructional/story books,” so the frontispiece tells us. from cooking, to housekeeping, to gardening, to sewing, the post-victorian-era books were designed to teach “useful things in an entertaining way.”

one of the books, “the mary frances sewing book: adventures among the thimble people,” was reprinted by berkeley, california-based lacis publications (a fine textile arts publishing house) in 1997, “with the hope of capturing the imagination of every little girl who discovers the pleasures and rewards of working with fabric and thread.”

it stars a sewing bird, mr. silver thimble, tomato pin cushion, and a fairy lady, among the storied cast. all intent on teaching mary frances how to make her way through the sewing room.

and so, the heirloom pages, all 280 plus 10 fold-out patterns, brought back instructions, lessons and exercises of another age, beginning with how to “outfit a work basket,” moving on to “making a knot,” merrily dashing through basting, running stitch, french seam, whipped ruffle, and finally, the spider’s web, that ornamental lace stitch (or so the sewing bird says). there are two separate darning lessons: darning stockings, and darning woolen goods.

so quaint, i grabbed a copy. that was back before i knew i would be the mother only of boys. not that i don’t think a boy should thread a needle. just that the boys i’ve got barely know how to make their way to the laundry chute. (yes yes, it was the first thing i loved about this old house; it has a sheet-metal drop straight from upstairs to basement floor, complete with little elfin door, just like the one my grandma had, just like the one we used to use–still do–for dropping the occasional something besides the clothes.)

all this makes me wonder just how it is that we’ve decided we don’t need to tend our clothes. got a hole in your sock? toss it. at best, make it into a cleaning rag.

need a hem in your pants? take ‘em to the cleaner.

why the lost art of self-sufficiency? of making something last? i don’t have answers. only questions.

and the questions prick me. just like the pins in the porcupine cushion up above. one given to me, ages ago, by my grandma lucille, a woman who knew her way around a thread and needle. a woman who would shake her head at the sorry basket on my shelf, the one that rarely sees the light of day, barely ever gets an honest stab at exercise…

your thoughts?