Our spectator columnist takes up a new skill to fight against the ravages of time - and the workings of your average British moth.
Our friend Rose came to stay, bringing with her a bag of wools and needles and a stiff sheet of embroidery canvas on which she had traced the improbable outline of a slipper, like a pair of wings. Within the outline, Rose had embroidered shells and wraiths of seaweed, evoking, at the point of a needle and in miniature, happy summers spent on Hebridean beaches.
When she’s embroidered two of them, she’ll hand over the canvas to a shoemaker to cut, sew and fit to soles, creating a pair of exquisite embroidered slippers for her youngest daughter to wear, like a Renaissance princess or Cinderella without the vulgarity of crystal.
All my life, I’ve been aware of women who stitch. My mother, for example, smocking a linen dress for my little sister in the 1970s or re-upholstering a junk-shop armchair. My stepmother, mouth full of pins, tirelessly working on costumes for theatre, films or a childhood dressing-up party at which I appeared as Henry VIII. Even my sister is a dab hand with the knitting needles and sits in meetings like a tricoteuse; I’m told that people nervously gauge her mood by the size of her purl ridges.
‘Sewing, like mending, is what sits reproachfully in the basket.’
However, apart from a few shirt buttons—I’m good at buttons—sewing has always been a noun to me, not a verb. Sewing, like mending, is what sits reproachfully in the basket. Until now. I’ve lately fallen into a sudden passion for plying the needle. Of course, I should have listened more attentively at my mother’s knee, but the kindly American lady on YouTube is much more patient than either of us would have ever been.
She takes a jumper out of a basket and smooths it flat on her worktable to show us a little hole nibbled by a moth. Clearly, New England moths are dainty and genteel, whereas ours seem to eat with their hands and spit the bones out onto the table. They’re impervious to camphor or the freezer.
The trick with darning is to fill the hole without scrunching it up and tightening the original weave. The mushroom keeps the surface of the jumper curved and slightly stretched—a lightbulb or an apple work quite as well. Then you stitch a sort of noose around the hole, which defines the area you mean to work on, and start working up and down and back and forth until, by some alchemy, the hole is filled.
It would be worthwhile work and pleasant, even if it was merely a way of mending jumpers or passing the time, but the satisfaction goes deeper than that. Darning and mending and sewing are the fight back against moth, against collapse, against the ravages of time.
They are the economy that Benjamin Franklin would extol in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, making-do and mending, for economy is the soul of creativity. They’re also manning the barricades against the great whirlwind of shops and GDPR and sale prices and grim garment factories kept out of sight.
This is cottage industry. Nobody out there owns my darning data or knows how to harvest my stitching stats.
‘No one but Rose’s daughter will ever have a pair like the ones her mother made, stitched with memories and the scents of a long-lost summer.‘
As soon as I’d written for this magazine about Skodas (Spectator, September 26), my online world was flooded with advertisements for cars. After I’d once searched Google for a flat to rent in Budapest, everyone wanted to take me there. But darning? It’s off the grid. It’s a brown jumper with curious little green spots.
There are shoes to be had out there, at bucket-shop prices, but no one but Rose’s daughter will ever have a pair like the ones her mother made, stitched with memories and the scents of a long-lost summer.
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