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Allison Dey Malacaria from the SweaterDoll shop and blog designs toy and doll sewing patterns. She is a multi-talented sewist who loves upcycling, fixing and the “magical landscape of play.” Allison shows you how to make a Pattern Darning Sampler so you can learn this important skill and art. As Allison notes in the history discussion below, darning can be for repair or embellishment, or both! You also may have heard of the trend of “Visible Mending” as a modern take on darning skills.
Don’t miss Allison’s introduction, and her research on the history of darning below the sampler instructions. So many of us love the history of sewing as a functional household contribution, and the idea that there is art in the extension of the life and wear of quality sewn items. Here’s to utility, art and the lasting power of stitching!
We also have a giveaway… Comment below to share how you learned the tradition of stitchery )and feel free to add what it has meant to you) for a chance to win two PDF patterns in the SweaterDoll shop (winner’s choice).
Make a Pattern Darning Sampler
Though normally we think of darning as something relegated to the heels and toes of woolen socks, pattern darning has a fairly long recorded (and probably longer unrecorded) history for being not only functional but highly decorative. Surviving samplers exhibit the range of designs used to embellish petticoats and bed valances or to repair textiles.
Pattern darning uses a running stitch to create geometric designs. The running stitch is accomplished by inserting a threaded needle into fabric and running it over and under the fabric threads. The threads are counted in each stitch according to a pattern. Types of threads vary and depend on what kind of fabric is being mended or embellished. Regardless, the thread should look pleasing within the weave of the fabric.
For this tutorial, I chose a basic mending patch (worked in plum) and a decorative block (worked in ecru) to fit within a 5″ x 7″ border. The pattern chart provided for this sampler shows how many threads to count per stitch for the block, and which direction to use when stitching. Rows of stitching are worked back and forth from side to side. I have included an additional cross-stitch rose pattern to add to the sampler. Roses and small flowers add a decorative quality to even the most utilitarian of historical mending samplers.
The sampler shown is worked on 100% linen and uses embroidery floss. Use any color you like, creating something with seasonal or favorite colored threads. You can also use just one color of thread. White thread on blue linen, for example, would be stunning, as would black on cream.
Stitches are usually not longer than six fabric threads to avoid loose stitching. However, because this may be your first foray into pattern darning, I doubled the stitch length for the decorative block so you could become accustomed to counting the threads to create a pattern. The mending patch is worked traditionally with the stitch length of two threads: under two threads, over two threads, and repeat.
There will be mistakes. If I miscount a thread, I usually correct it, but I left quite a few miscounts in the work to bring out the old-fashioned quality of a handmade sampler and to illustrate the beauty of imperfection. The one mistake I made on purpose is in the decorative block. The top row of Xs has only one middle stitch and the others have two. This is a common act of humility I learned as a child at the feet of old-time quilters who said only God could make something perfect so they added an intentional “mistake” in their quilts. The instructions given here do not contain this “mistake.”
- Linen or cotton fabric, about 12″ square
- Embroidery floss (your choice of colors)
- Darning needle
- Sewing thread
- Embroidery hoop (optional: 10″ hoop for the entire piece or a smaller one to work the blocks)
- Magnifying glass (optional)
- Crochet hook (optional: for hiding loose thread ends at the back of the work)
- Patience (required)
Prep the Sampler:
A square of 12″ square will enable you to use a 10″ embroidery hoop easily. If you don’t have such a large hoop, you can use a smaller one for the blocks or use none at all.
To begin, baste a 5″ x 7″ border in the center of the fabric using a doubled length of sewing thread.
Thread the darning needle with a six strand length of embroidery floss.
Begin the top row of stitches about 1 5/8″ from one side edge and about 1/2″ under the top basted edge. Insert the needle from the back of the fabric at the top right corner of the block and pull through leaving a 2-3″ tail. The tail will be woven into the stitches at the back later. Stitch over and under the following number of threads to produce the design.
Row 1: From right to left, over 12 threads, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 12, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 12
Row 2: Bring the floss to the front from the back again two threads below where row 1 ended. From left to right, stitch Over 12, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 12, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 4, under 4, over 12.
Row 3: Bring the floss to the front two threads below the end of Row 2. Over 12, under 8, over 4, under 8, over 12, under 8, over 4, under 8, over 12.
Continue on this way following the pattern guide to make a decorative block as shown in the sampler photo. At the end of the block, cut the thread to leave a 2″ tail hanging.
Now that you have some practice counting threads for stitching, you can work smaller stitches across the linen. Using a long two strand length of embroidery floss, start at the top right corner of this patch about 1″ below the lower edge of the block and 1″ in from the side edge.
Bring the thread from the back to the front leaving a 2-3″ tail hanging. Work across along the same thread line going over 2, under 2, over 2, under 2, ending this pattern of stitching about 1″ in from the other side edge.
Bring the needle to the front again two threads below the end of the first row and two threads in so the stitches are staggered in each row. Work over 2, under 2 again to the end of the row.
Continue stitching side to side, staggering the stitched rows to create a patch-like darned design about 5/8″ to 1″ tall.
I placed the rose a bit below and to the right on my sampler. I plan to put the date on the other side and my name centered below. You can stitch the rose wherever you like or none at all.
Stitch the rose according to the pattern provided using one color of two strand embroidery floss for the rose and another color of two strand embroidery floss for the stem and leaf. The crosses are worked over two threads side to side and up and down. I made just a part of the rose pattern as you can see.
Use the basting at the edges as a guide for stitching a border. Use a six strand length of embroidery floss and stitch straight edges around the sampler. I used the pattern of over 5, under 2, over 5, under 2 as my border. You could certainly embroider something more decorative if you like. Pull out the basting threads when you are finished.
Hiding the “Tails”:
Weave the loose ends of the embroidery floss in and out of the stitches on the back of the work. Use a small crochet hook if you need to.
Making the Sampler Your Own:
The additional space at the bottom of the sampler is for your name and the date. Use cross-stitch or any favorite embroidery stitch to make the sampler undeniably your own!
The fabric square is large enough so you can display the sampler in a 10″ hoop or an 8″ x 10″ picture frame.
The Story of Pattern Darning
Our knowledge of pattern darning originates from textiles from Egypt dating to the 11th century. Ancient decorative designs using the counted running stitch appear on clothing and household linens primarily as decorative geometric design elements. Over the next 400 years, surviving samples with a decidedly folk style span the entire Mediterranean area, including Greece, Turkey, Spain and Morocco. Samplers were most often worked in silk thread on linen fabric but pieces might also use cotton or linen thread.
Designs for pattern darning seem to be carried generation to generation as evidenced in a 15th century German piece which is remarkably similar to a much older Egyptian design. The skill is believed to have moved north along trade routes. Pattern darning, called skakkaglit in Iceland, appears on altar cloths, bed linens and curtains. In this stitching, we start to see wool thread being used on linen. Church inventories mention skakkaglit as an adornment.
Japanese sashiko stitching includes one version, called kogin stitch, which was originally worked over even- or odd-numbered groups of threads to reinforce work clothing and make it more durable for agricultural work or other outdoor labor.
Darning as a method of repair is used to prolong the life of a garment out of necessity or economic reasons, sentimental reasons, or beliefs in frugality and thrift as a way of life. Though the skill and technique of darning and pattern darning are essentially the same, the line between them holds significance in the intention of the maker. Is this pattern being used to repair and extend the life of the garment or is it meant to enhance and embellish the piece or is it both?
Modern stitchers, fascinated by both skill and art in textile history and household management, have been taking this craft into the 21st century under the name “Visible Mending” which combines techniques and philosophies of garment repair and maintenance immortalized in WWII frugality pamphlets and books and the many available designs seen throughout pattern darning sampler history. A small hole in a sweater might be darned with a matching yarn for practical purposes. But Visible Mending brings the decorative into the utilitarian by choosing a contrasting color and perhaps a different weight of yarn, maybe adding pattern and picture to the work. This visible mend brings frugality, design and frivolity into one place, literally stitching history into our daily lives as clothing and household linens sprout small testaments to a lineage of stitching as an essential skill in the human story.