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Darn it all! My new Speedweve

March 7, 2010

People talk a lot about traditional skills and oh what a shame it is that they’re dying out, but to be honest, I think there are some skills we should rejoice are no longer essential. Take darning, for instance. I’m all in favor of mending serviceable items instead of just throwing them away, but there’s a reason why darning socks belongs to the long list of chores that, for most of human history, men wouldn’t touch.

Darning socks, like many other things it’s much nicer to have done for you than to do yourself, is shrouded in unwarranted romanticism. The equation of sock-darning with feminine nurture was so sentimentally ingrained in western culture for so long that as late as 1967, Luis Buñuel could still use holey socks as cinematic shorthand for “motherless man-child” in Belle de Jour . The romance of darning conveniently obscures the fact that, as anyone who’s attempted it will have discovered, it’s classic women’s work — fiddly, prosaic and time-consuming.

Darning only makes sense in an economy where a pair of socks is worth more than the time it takes to mend them. In the late 1940s, after the privations of war began to ease — and, more importantly, after women had had a taste of earning decent wages for their work — a lot of wives, mothers, daughters and girlfriends must have found it hard to return to darning other people’s socks for nothing. That, presumably, is one reason why the Speedweve was invented.

I stumbled across this little gizmo from the ’40s on eBay and was instantly charmed by it. The Speedweve darner, “Lancashire’s smallest loom”, has all the hallmarks of the “as seen on TV” invention — a domestic gadget dreamed up in a garden shed by somebody hoping it would make his fortune. It even got a mention in Popular Science.

Darning, as Zoe’s post illustrates, is basically just filling in a hole by using a needle and thread to weave a small patch in the fabric. This can be a very slow and imperfect process, as well as being hard on the eyes if you’re using fine threads or darning black on black. The Speedweve works as a miniature loom, raising and lowering alternate warp threads of the darn, so all you have to do is pass the needle and thread between them like a shuttle:

Speedweve instructions

I tested the Speedweve last night on a pair of much-loved but holey wool tights, and found to my delight that using it really was as easy as following the instructions. After less than an hour I ended up with a not-terribly-tidy but perfectly adequate 2″x2″ patch.

If I’d had a bit more experience with the Speedweve and mended the tights before the hole got so big — or, better yet, before it became a hole at all — it would have taken me still less time. Even if I weren’t counting coupons, that’s still an acceptable trade-off by my math, since a pair of merino tights costs about the same as an hour of my time as a freelancer (my default “is it worth the bother?” yardstick).

What a pleasing little device! The fact that technological and market changes would render it totally obsolete within a couple of decades of its invention only increases its whimsical appeal.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2014 9:29 pm

    You know where I could buy something like that? I would love to have one!

  2. kenblackwood permalink
    November 21, 2013 9:30 am

    You can use any knitting wool Im 79 and agree that darning is tedious but kilt socks are just too dear to dump and Ive darned socks since I left my mother

  3. Nina Lockley permalink
    October 13, 2013 8:50 pm

    Nina,when I was at boarding school in N.Ireland ( 1949 – 1959 ) we had to mend our clothes every Saturday morning,mainly our lyle stockings.My mother bought me one of these darning gadgets ! So needless to say,I got lots of practice and could work a very good darn every time.As we had to take our finished work to the Nun in charge for inspection ( no cobbling together was allowed ,otherwise it had to be unpicked, and redone again ) .i would be singled out by the Nun for my excellent repairs,so I was not always so popular with my classmates !!

  4. Janet permalink
    August 24, 2013 2:23 am

    I just found one in my mothers sewing gear. Had no idea what it was – and now I know. Thanks for the info.

  5. Tessa Robbins permalink
    October 17, 2012 11:51 am

    Just found one in my mothers sewing box

  6. Sweetvintage permalink
    June 30, 2011 5:20 pm

    That’s a great job! How delightful! I bought one too but am a little intimidated by the vintagey thing. I suppose it really takes jumping-in and just do it to get the feel of success with this nifty little gadget, ya? May be able to adapt this for swiss darning knits, you think?

  7. mia theodoratus permalink
    March 6, 2011 6:05 am

    i just bought one on ebay and darned a hole-y cashmere sweater and LOVE it!

  8. September 20, 2010 12:22 pm

    I too have purchased one of these little looms, I am looking into what I can do with it other than the darning of socks. So at the moment I am experimenting with it with different materials. Will get back to you when I have succeeded.

  9. Janis permalink
    March 18, 2010 8:52 pm

    As a manic sock knitter these devices are invaluable, my hubby now only wears socks which I have knitted for him and have purchased one of these and other little gizmos for darning heels and it is fantastic

  10. Melis permalink
    March 9, 2010 6:02 pm

    I know there’s been a big to-do in the last couple of years for people to learn to knit socks and so forth– wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Speedweve also came back into fashion? One of my biggest hesitations about knitting socks is the price of the yarn, but if I had a way to easily fix them, I think I would be more inclined to splurging for the nicer sets.

  11. March 9, 2010 4:54 am

    How clever! I’ve darned my socks for years, as a perpetually-impoverished archaeologist with awesome knitterina friends, and I loathe the process, though it made my once-upon-a-time 18th-cen reenactor boyfriend look remarkably authentic when I darned his stockings.

  12. March 8, 2010 5:32 am

    Oh my! I have to have one! My husband is out of a job and I am now reduced to darning all our socks. Do you know what headaches this has caused me?

  13. Colleen permalink
    March 8, 2010 1:59 am

    That is SO COOL! I want a Spedweve.

    And I agree with your comments about darning. I only do it if I think the socks/whatever are really worth saving. Past a certain point, it’s not worth the work.

    With my hand-knit socks, I plan to eithe re-knit the heels, toes, or if bad enough, the entire foot. Yes, I hate darning that much.

    • July 10, 2010 7:35 am

      I have just listed one of these on the above site.

  14. March 8, 2010 1:10 am

    While at my very sartorially sophisticated friend’s house, I borrowed his sewing kit to repair a button. The kit was his grandmother’s round tin filled with threads and such. When I spied a wooden darning egg, I was amazed and challenged him to tell me what it was. Shame on me for thinking a guy wouldn’t know but then he shamed me by saying that he uses it. Huh? I don’t even know how to use one and I sew.
    “Well, when you spend $75 on cashmere wool socks, you learn to darn.”
    I had been schooled.

  15. March 7, 2010 11:43 pm

    As a weaver on big looms, I am totally in love with that little devise!

  16. March 7, 2010 11:10 pm

    Darning’s only obsolete so long as we’re wearing cotton socks that come in packs of six. If everyone came to their senses and started wearing proper socks like your merino tights, we’d be more likely to darn the feet than throw out $35 of perfectly good top.

    That said I won’t be darning my latest batch of socks, good as they were, I think three years is enough to ask of them!

  17. Kitty permalink
    March 7, 2010 9:23 pm

    I’m jealous

  18. March 7, 2010 6:24 pm

    I need one of these, NOW! but I have a question. What did you use for mending wool? or where did you find mending wool?

    • Susannah permalink*
      March 7, 2010 6:35 pm

      Hi Amy! I used Coats cotton darning thread — it’s sold in 20-metre cards at my local haberdashery (notions) shop. They don’t have a great selection — cotton only, and you can buy any color you want as long as it’s black.

      Honestly, I think your best bet for darning thread lies in going vintage — I see from a quick search on Etsy that this pretty box of darning silks is going for only $6!

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