DARN: to mend, as torn clothing, with rows of stitches

By | December 4, 2020

We live in a disposable society. I first realized this one day several decades ago when someone referred to us being a “Bic Society.”I thought they were saying “Big Society” until it clicked with me. They were describing Bic Lighterswhich are disposable, throw-away lighters. When the fuel in them is gone, instead of refilling the fluid you simple throw them away and buy a new one. They are cheap.

The point is that in our modern American society, it is easier and almost as cheap to simply throw something away rather than fixing it, mending it, or repairing it. It’s true, unfortunately. That’s why we have an ocean full of plastic waste and the sides of highways littered with throw-away trash.

That’s a wordy way of getting around to the point of this posting. I want to discuss darn. No, it’s not a more decent way of saying “damn.” It could be, but that’s not where I want to go. I want to talk about the verb “to darn.”

It’s a sixteenth century word from the Middle English which is taken from dernen, meaning “hidden from view.” It’s not hard to figure out how we got from there to contemporary American English.

When I was a kid my grandmother used to sit in the swing on our porch for hours darning. She had a pile of clean socks, a darning needle and a darning egg. The needle was larger than a regular sewing needle. It had a bigger eye in it, making it easier to thread. And the “egg” was a wooden device which looked like an egg on the end of a sturdy stick. She would pick up a holey sock, put the egg into the sock so that it filled the toe or the heel area like a foot, and begin darning.

She stitched the hole without pulling it tight enough to close the hole. Then she came back the opposite way with the stitch, and repeated the process numerous times until the hole was somewhat covered with the stitches. Then she turned the sock and did the same thing the other way, but always moving the tip of the needle over and under the existing threads to form a patch. When she was done, the sock was almost as good as new.

We throw the sock with a hole in it away. In those days the socks were somewhat precious, having cost enough in the post-war economy that we couldn’t afford to dispose of them. Purchasing a new pair of socks was an expense we didn’t need to endure. (That’s how we measured things in those days.) It was, after all, not only post-war, but it was post-depression when Americans discovered the value of things when there was not sufficient money to go shopping whenever the desire hit us. So the socks endured two or three darnings before being rendered expendable. And then they didn’t get thrown away. They became dust rags, or…better yet…shoe shining rags.

If men’s socks were expensive, women’s stockings were even more so. They were much more difficult to darn, and the result was not as hidden much of the time. My wife describes a teacher in her school who used to darn her sheer stockings with black darning thread. The result was legs with black spots all over them. The kids laughed at it, and she developed some clever nicknames.

I suspect there are some left-over people who darn socks today. But for the most part, we throw the damaged sock away and head for the store to replace them. Given the economy, a pair of socks is a bargain. But when I remember the peace my Grandmother felt when she sat on our porch darning socks I suspect something has gone missing. And it isn’t that sock that gotten eaten up by the clothes dryer.