Darning at the Pitt Rivers Museum – Preserving What Is Valued

Currently on at the Pitt Rivers Museum is the “Preserving What Is Valued” case display and museum trail. It demonstrates how people from all parts of the world repair their material culture. Conservators study objects in great detail and part of their role is to determine at what stage a repair has been made. If the repair was made by the originating community while it was still in use this provides an additional level of information and can give the object a deeper resonance. Identifying an original repair can raise questions that make us think about the object’s history differently.

gourd vessel with visible mending using beads

Gourd vessel, decoratively repaired using beads, collection Pitt Rivers Museum

I was invited to run two darning classes as part of the events around this display. My name is Tom and I’m a self-taught textile practitioner, and one of the things I do is run the Visible Mending Programme. Through this programme I seek to highlight that the art and craftsmanship of clothes repair is particularly relevant in a world where more and more people voice their dissatisfaction with fashion’s throwaway culture. By exploring the story behind garment and repair, the programme reinforces the relationship between the wearer and garment, leading to people wearing their existing clothes for longer, with the beautiful darn worn as a badge of honour.

The Visible Mending Programme - repaired jumper

“A mother’s Work…” repair commission for private client. You can read more about it here.

The darning classes were well attended and the participants were taught two classic knitwear repair techniques: firstly Swiss darning, also known as duplicate stitching, which is a good way to reinforce thinning fabrics such as elbows on sleeves, or to cover up stains.

pitt rivers class swiss darning swatch

Swiss darning in action by one of the participants

The second technique taught was the classic stocking darn, using a darning mushroom. It creates a woven patch that is integrated with the knit fabric, and is a good way to repair holes. Of course this is best known for sock repairs.

pitt rivers class completed swatch swiss and stocking darn

A completed practice swatch, showing a stocking darn and rows of Swiss darning in bold colours

Throughout the class, I shared many hints and tips on repairing, such as what tools and materials to use for best results, examples of my work, and how to look after your woollens. Half-way through the class we had a break, and everybody was encouraged to see the display cabinet and follow the museum trail to find original repairs.

muslin handkerchief repair close-up

tortoise shell comb repaired with metal strip

The Pitt Rivers holds many repaired objects in its collection, from all over the world. Here shown a delicate muslin handkerchief with some rather crude darns, and a tortoise shell comb repaired with a riveted metal strip

I found the repairs very inspiring: an inventive use of locally available materials such as baste fibres, small decorative additions such as beads, or the neat way stitching cracks, the use of staples, or even items made in such a way that they could be easily repaired in the future. I won’t go into too much detail, as it’s fun to go and see it all for yourself!

The Preserving What is Valued case display and museum trail at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 29 June 2015 – 3 January 2016. More information here.

pitt rivers class picture

At the end of the workshop, all participants proudly show off their new skills!

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This blog post was originally published on the Education Pitt, Learning for Schools, Families, Communities and Adults blog.

10 Replies to “Darning at the Pitt Rivers Museum – Preserving What Is Valued”

  1. I’ve often bought secondhand items primarily because they were mended, and thoroughly enjoy mending things. One repaired item I could never have managed to do myself is my antique iron wheelbarrow…a hole in the bottom was so skillfully mended that it holds water!

  2. Oh repairs. I have a very large family enamel metal teapot from my grandparents that has a proper repair from a tinsmith. Do those trades even exist today? My favourite repair is an entire floor at a meeting hall on the island if Miyajima in Japan. Wooden ‘patches’ have been placed in the floor where some centuries of use have worn holes in the wood. I cannot recall how much time I spent taking photos of these patches.

  3. What an excellent match of workshop and venue!
    And I would love to hear more detail about exhibits, as it’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity “to go and see it all” for myself 🙂

  4. Please, oh please come to Portland, Oregon, US and offer your class! Or perhaps the ever-active Craftsy people would commission and make the details of your wisdom widely accessible. (At the very least, please continue to post about mindful repairs, I pore over every detail and picture.) Thank you for so generously sharing this passion.

  5. Oh Tom of Holland I love you. How do we get you to Toronto to allow us to bask in your darning mastery? It’s winter and my woolies are moth eaten and in need of some tender darning.

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