One of my long-time students emailed me to ask if I would write about repairing knits, and I thought that would make a great subject for this month's blog. (Thanks Frances!)
We invest our time, money and effort into creating special clothing, garments with meaning. These clothes are worth the effort necessary to prolong wearing life. In repairing our handwork, lovingly worn and lovingly worn out, we build stronger connections to those in times past who repaired their work without a second thought. It was all in a day's work.
Darning is a skill that was taken for granted not so very long ago. It was one of the assumed chores of any housewife to repair those precious socks she had knitted for her family. With store-bought socks now the norm rather than the exception, knowledge of darning has fallen by the wayside. With some simple tools and a little practice, though, darning can be added back in to the body of knowledge any knitter possesses. Darning is fun (especially if you don't HAVE to darn all the time) and the only thing more satisfying than repairing a sock is perhaps making the sock in the first place! It's helpful to keep a collection of yarns of every project you make so that when the time comes to repair, you have the perfect match!
Darning is actually a weaving technique. Essentially, a patch of woven fabric is created over the hole. The main drawback to this technique is that woven material has little give compared to knitted fabric. So the repaired area will be more rigid and may in fact contribute to further holes elsewhere by causing some stress to the garment. Also, the darned area can be bulky, so a choice must be made between splitting the plies of the yarn to darn with (which will be less bulky, but also less strong), working with the yarn as it is (strong, but bulky), or working with a different material which is thinner, but sound (the darn will then be very obvious). Use as fine a yarn as is possible when repairing socks. Bulky repairs are uncomfortable.
There are three steps in darning a hole in a sock, or any knitted garment, for that matter. They are: creating the foundation, making a warp, and weaving the weft. A darning egg is quite helpful for darning socks. This tool provides a solid, rounded surface on which to work, by inserting the egg (or a light bulb) into the sock and positioning it under the hole to be repaired. Don't stretch the sock too much over the egg, or annoying, uncomfortable wrinkles will develop around the darned area once the sock is relaxed. The bottom part of the egg, the handle, is useful in repairing fingers of gloves. If you are repairing an area which has no contour to it, such as the leg or heel flap, or a sweater, insert something small and flat in the sock so you'll have a hard surface to work against. Some darners have such a flat surface on one side of the egg. Or, use foam core to pin the area down for stability, so you can work more easily.
Create the foundation
Assess the hole in your knitting. Try to envision it squared off. Using a tapestry needle (preferably one that has a sharp point), sew a rectangle
around the hole. You must pierce at least one half of each st that borders the hole. Piercing the yarns will ensure that no further unraveling occurs. If you enlarge your rectangle far enough away from the hole, you can safely go under each half st with your needle, rather than pierce it. But, I recommend piercing the yarns. Many people (and directions) skip this step, and create perfectly acceptable repair jobs despite the omission. But the foundation row will enable the repair to last longer by reinforcing the stable edge stitches and giving a solid base to the darning. Two foundation rows can be worked 1/8" apart all the way around the hole for a truly solid base. This would be preferable for knitting that is of a very fine gauge.
Make a warp
Now, sew your yarn back and forth across two sides of the rectangle,
making certain that your warp travels around (under, then over) the foundation yarn. I work across the sides which are stitches at either end and save the sides of the hole which are rows for the weft. It is possible to make too many warp threads for the darn, yielding a hard, uncomfortable patch. Try to go under each stitch in the foundation row once. I find a blunt tapestry needle helps from this point on. It is easier to avoid splitting the yarns with a blunt needle, and very tricky to pack down your darning if there are split yarns.
Weave the weft
Now, turn your work 90 degrees, and move your blunt tapestry needle over and under the warp yarns, going around the foundation yarn, then
turning back and weaving over and under in the opposite direction. Be sure that you go under
yarns that were gone over
in the last pass, and vice versa.
With the first few rows of weaving back and forth, you'll find it's difficult to pack down the weft, especially if you are using a soft yarn, rather than a highly twisted, harder yarn. Every few rows, use the tapestry needle to push down the rows of weft. Don't pack it too hard, or your darned area will feel like a board.
Sew in your ends on the wrong side. You're done!
This technique uses the stable stitches around the hole as a foundation for the repair. Square up the hole as much as possible. To do this, you may have to rip out and make the hole bigger, but that's OK. These stitches are picked up on a double pointed needle at least two sizes smaller than what the garment was knitted on. Rows are worked for the length of the hole, then grafted back into the garment fabric.
The "side seams" can then be sewn down. If you are really intent on as much invisibility as possible for your repair, join a new yarn at the beg of each row, leaving 4 to 6 inch tails of yarn at either side of the hole. These will be sewn in on the wrong side of the work after the knitting is completed. Sew them in, following the path of the stitches on the wrong side of the work.
The beauty of this technique is that you can attempt to duplicate color or textural patterning to make the repair even less obvious. Count rows and sts carefully to be sure the work corresponds to the surrounding patterning. Duplicate stitch (also known as "Swiss Darning") can be used if repairing with two colors at once seems too much to handle.
• Ravel back around the hole to square it up.
• Pick up sts at the base of the rectangle, extending past the edges of the hole by at least one stitch, if not two. (If you are working in a color or texture pattern, be sure you are reknitting in the same direction as the original knitting.)
• Work back and forth duplicating the fabric of the garment for the number of rows necessary to hide the hole. Count the rows in the undamaged area to assess how long you must knit. Work one row less than the adjacent area, because the subsequent grafting will take up one row. You can either work with one continuous yarn or break it off after every row, leaving long enough tails to weave in later.
• Graft the sts on the needle to the first stable row of knitting above the hole, keeping the tails clear of the grafting. (See below.)
• Poke the tails through to the right side of the work, readjust the tension of the edge stitches. Then one by one, thread the tails onto a tapestry needle, poking them through to the back of the work.
• Weave in the ends on the wrong side, or sew the sides down with a whip stitch.
Grafting is a technique which joins two pieces of knitted fabric together (which have been knitted in the same direction) by duplicating the path
which the yarn would normally take in a row. This is easiest to visualize and to work if both sets of sts to be joined are off the needle. If that is uncomfortable for you, put the sts on a piece of thin, slick crochet thread so they won't unravel as you work.
Grafting may be the only answer for a garment too damaged in one area to salvage, such as the cuff of a sweater, knitted from the bottom up. Just make a new cuff (provided you have enough of the original yarn left) and graft it on. This is easiest with Stockinette Stitch, but is possible to do in many textural and color patterns. For garments knitted from the top down, merely ravel back to the point where there is no damage, slip the sts on needles, and knit down. (One type of grafting is known as Kitchener stitch. This is a method of sewing together two pieces of knitting of opposing
direction by duplicating the appearance and structure of the stitches.)
Here is an alternative to darning. By knitting a patch, and sewing it over the hole, a garment can be repaired and still maintain some of the elasticity of knitted fabric, owing to the knitted patch. First a few sts must be cast on, and a square or circle knitted, depending on the shape of the hole to be repaired. Leave a long tail of yarn at the beginning and end of your patch to use for sewing it on.
(for a square-ish hole): Cast on the number of sts that the hole is wide plus 4 more. Work as many rows as is necessary to cover the hole plus 2 or 3 more rows. Bind off. Block the patch so it will be easier to sew down.
(for a round hole): Cast on enough stitches to cover the base of the hole plus a few extra. Increase one st to each side of the patch until the desired width is achieved. Work even until the dimension of the hole begins to taper in again. Begin decreasing, one stitch to each side until the desired top width is met. Bind off. Block the patch so it will be easier to sew down.
An example circular patch:
Cast on 4 sts.
Odd numbered rows: Purl
Row 2: K1, inc 1, k2, inc 1, k1.
Row 4: K1, inc 1, k4, inc 1, k1.
Rows 6 and 8: Knit.
Row 10: Ssk, k4, k2 tog.
Row 12: Ssk, k2, k2 tog.
Row 13: Bind off in purl.
Sewing the patch on: Whip stitch the patch down to the right side of the garment, or use a combination of whip stitch and grafting.
From top, clockwise: darning, patching, reknitting
For repairing garments where the integrity of the fabric is still intact, but worn, Swiss darning is the ideal technique. By following the path of the knitted yarn (as above for grafting) with a blunt tapestry needle, threaded with yarn, the fabric is reinforced invisibly. Using a blunt needle enables you to move in and out of the stitches more easily.
An Old and Time Honored Way of Repair
Many different cultures, from Mennonites to Norwegians and Swedes, would cut the worn foot off of a good sock and knit a new foot from the remaining loops! I have seen many examples in museums where the color and the thickness of the repair yarn had nothing in common with the original yarn! But tucked inside a boot, no one but the wearer would be the wiser.