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Florence Cole as a child

Darning socks
in the early 1900s

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Why there used to be so much darning

Socks always needed regular mending when I was a child because they were knitted from pure wool which wore away rapidly where it rubbed against the hard skin on people's feet. Often the soles and heals of socks were more darns than original sock.

Holes in knitted jerseys tended to be at the elbows from where people leant on tables. Or holes could be anywhere due to attacks from the clothes moth.

The holes were mended by darning, which was women's work.

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Darning tools: the darning mushroom

antique wooden darning mushroom

Wooden darning mushroom.

There was a special darning mushroom made of wood which was put inside the sock behind the hole to hold the darning area taut for working. Its 'stalk', with the rest of the sock around it, was held in one hand and the darning needle was worked with the other hand.

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Darning tools: darning needles

Darning needle: long with a large enough eye to take darning wool

Darning needle: long with a large enough eye to take wool.

Darning needles had larger eyes than regular sewing needles so that they could take the thickness of the darning wool. They were also longer than regular needles so that they could weave in and out across a reasonably sized hole in one go.

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Darning wool

Skeins of wool for darning socks etc, as sold in the early 1900s

 Darning wool, sold in small skeins. Photographed in Lincolnsfield Children's Centre.

Wool for darning which was sold in skeins which were much smaller than those for knitting. It came in the typical dull colours needed for darning socks.

Cards of coloured wool for general darning, as sold in the early 1900s

 Darning wool, sold on cards. Photographed in Eastbourne Museum of Shops.

There were also cards with darning wool wound round them which were available in a much wider range of colours, suitable for darning other woollen garments.

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How to darn the old way

Around the edges of the hole, the sock or other garment was always thin and weak. So the darning had to be taken some way beyond the hole into the sound area. Otherwise it would quickly pull away in wear.

Loops left when darning with wool to allow for shrinkage on washing

Loops left when darning socks to allow for shrinkage of the darning wool on washing.

Darning wool was not pre-shrunk. So it was crucial to remember that darns would shrink when washed. So darning was not merely a matter of criss-crossing and inter-weaving the wool. Little loops had to be left at each end of the to-ing and fro-ing, as shown in the sketch.

After the next wash, when the darning wool had shrunk, the loops would be entirely gone. If the loops were forgotten, the whole darn would shrink into a lump, puckering the sock around it, making the sock uncomfortable to wear and quickly damaging the rest of it.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.