Darning socks sounds like one of those things a scullery maid in a Victorian novel would do, and it probably was. When socks were handmade and knitted stockings expensive and hard to come by, almost everybody either knew how to darn, or knew someone who knew how to darn.
Why would you want to darn a sock? Well, the most obvious answer is that you’ve learned how to knit socks, and after spending hours or days on a sock, you’re not willing to let it go just because a toe sticks through. Maybe you have a favourite pair of really cozy or expensive socks, or a pair with sentimental value. Maybe you just don’t want to have to buy more things, or throw more things out.
Maybe you’ve never wanted to darn a sock, and if that’s the case, I’m hoping to convince you to give it a try, because it’s not difficult. The easiest way to explain darning is to think of it as weaving a very small patch in place over a hole or weak spot in a knitted garment (you can also darn sweaters and stuff; socks just see a lot more abuse). You do this using a darning needle—which is a lot like a regular sewing needle, except it’s a little blunt on the end so you don’t poke yourself or split threads while you’re working—and usually, sock yarn. If you knit, save your little scraps of sock yarn for this purpose. If the socks are knitted, you may be able to get a bit by unravelling part of the sock—depending on the size of the hole you may need as little as eight inches, or as much as a couple of feet. Otherwise you’ll need to mooch some yarn from a knitting friend or hit up a craft store—small, independent yarn stores sometimes have discount boxes with odds and ends. This can save you from buying a whole ball of yarn only to use two feet of it, and if you’re nice to the salespeople they may even share some of their own yarn or let you clip a bit off a skein.
You can darn things with thicker yarn or with thread, but sock yarn is (shockingly) designed for socks and it tends to have the best match for texture and thickness, which is important for comfort. Whether you want to try to match colour or not (no one sees the bottom of your socks, and some people like adding patches of colour when they darn) is up to you. Obviously it’s easier to find yarn if you don’t care too much about colour. If the garment you’re fixing is particularly thick or thin, you might want to look at other yarn options.
The first step in darning is cleaning up the hole. Ideally you’re doing this with a laundered garment, though in a pinch that’s not entirely necessary—you can fix your hiking socks on the move, for example. In fact a lot of the particulars of darning are not entirely necessary to do exactly right. As long as you end up filling in the hole in a comfortable and durable way, it doesn’t really matter. But I’ll outline how to do it properly.
Slip your sock (or whatever) over your off-hand fist (or a “darning egg” or eggplant or whatever works for you and the size of your garment) so that the fabric is very slightly stretched, and figure out where the edges of the hole/weak spot are. Sometimes the original yarn just gets really thin and you end up with a see-through area but not a hole—depending on how bad this is it may be worth darning, or you may need to repair this sort of thing around a smaller hole to make it stable. If you stitch into a weak area, it will just make another hole.
Use a pair of small scissors to trim off any dangling bits of thread or fluffy bits that have accumulated. You only need to trim threads if they are sticking out, not if they are intact. You can work loose loops into the patch you’re making as you go and it helps stabilize the darn.
Don’t tie a knot in your darning yarn, especially if fixing a hole on the bottom of a sock. You’ll be able to feel it on the bottom of your foot when you walk and it’s annoying. Just leave a little tail (2-3 inches) of yarn when you start stitching, and work it in later. It will sort of stick to itself and won’t come undone.
Around the outside of the area you’re fixing, a least a few millimetres past the edge, stitch a basic running stich (top, bottom, top, bottom) to stabilize the edge. Don’t worry if your stitches aren’t even or pretty, it does not matter in any way and you’ll do better next time.
Once you get back to where you started, you can start weaving the patch. You do this by first creating a layer of really long, loose stitches in one direction across the hole. Stitch around the stabilizing layer you just made, go all the way to the other side of the hole, and stitch around the stabilizing line on that side. Pull the yarn through until it just crosses the hole, without pulling or hanging loose. On the same side, do the same thing in reverse, so you are going back and forth in a zigzag pattern. Try to space your stitches about as close together as the yarn is thick, but don’t worry if that doesn’t work. When in doubt, spread them a little further and you can fill in more later. If it makes sense to work in any remaining threads from the original garment while you do this, go ahead and do that. You can also do that in the next step.
Keep doing this until you’ve covered the hole in back and forth zigzags in that direction, and then rotate your work and start weaving. This is basically the same as creating the initial zigzag, except you’re working at roughly a 90-degree angle (so you have warp and weft threads like a woven fabric), and you’re moving the needle over and under the stitches you just made as you go. As you go back and forth, try to alternate which threads you’re going over and under, but as usual, it’s not a big deal if you mess up on this. You may need to pull the yarn through more carefully or more often as you do this to avoid it getting tangled or stuck. This stage is where you want to be sure you’re working in the tail of your yarn and any other threads from the garment, if you haven’t already. Just consider them part of one of the cross-threads and weave over and under as you go.
When you’d made it across the hole in this way, look at your work. Is it reasonably filled in? Then stitch back and forth a bit to secure the end, trim off extra yarn, and you’re done. Not quite filled in to the same thickness as the rest of the garment? You can simply keep going. Stitch over and under (don’t worry about alternating so much here, you’ve already done that) and back and forth across the hole some more, at a slightly different angle each time. You can go outside the border you started with if it makes sense, and you don’t have to go over everything, just the areas that look like they could use some extra support. Do this until you’re happy with your patch-up job, and then trim off the extra yarn, and you’re done. Pull your sock off of whatever you’ve put it over, stretch it out a couple times to settle things, and you’re good to go.
If you run out of yarn while you’re working, simply leave 2-3 inches as a tail and start again with a new piece of yarn, again leaving a tail. You’ll need to work these in as you go, but it is generally better to use multiple shorter pieces of yarn rather than one huge one, unless you have a small enough hole that a short piece is all you need. The longer your yarn piece, the more likely it is to get tangled up and the more time it will take to pull each stitch through, so it will be more work in the end.
So there you go! You’ve fixed a hole in something knitted! Don’t worry if it’s lumpy and wonky, it’s probably still fine and you’ll get better every time you do it. If you’re a careful, neat person, you can practice this and make really neat looking or even decorative patches, but that’s not needed. You can darn over an existing darn, go back and make it bigger later, whatever you need. So give it a try and keep those feet cozy and those knits from ending up as junk.
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