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Demystifying Darning with Monica Leo

"I have been known to darn the darns."
- Monica Leo, director of the Owl Glass Puppetry Center

My friend Monica Leo loves hand-knit socks and knitters love to knit them for her. A puppeteer and doll maker, she understands the handmade. She's a good guardian of the socks she receives. Monica doesn't mind hand-washing the wool ones her German cousins send her, and what touches me and inspires me to knit for her feet is that when needed, she will darn her socks.

I have always wanted to be a darner. But I didn't know how. Darning, I was convinced, was a formidable task to master. Someday I would take the time to learn. Till then, my worn-out socks would convalesce in the intensive care section of my sock drawer.

For a long time, I avoided darning by some taking very strong preventive measures. I knit my socks at the tightest possible gauge. I knit my heel flap in a slip stitch, adding in a strand of wooly nylon. Many of these socks are still going strong after more than a decade of wear.

Over the last few years however, I have had a shift in my sock aesthetic. Those steel sock heels felt too weighty, like foot armor. So I threw my precautions to the winds and what may. I prefer the feel of my newer socks, but they do have a shorter life span. The injured among them has steadily grown, reaching the half dozen mark last year. One of my 2011 Knitter's New Year''s Resolutions was to finally learn to darn. Needing a break from knitting shawls and sweaters, this hot July seemed a perfect time to accomplish that goal.

After studying knitting books and watching YouTube videos, I realized darning was best leaned from someone sitting right next to you. Like my friend Monica Leo. So last Friday I headed over to her Owl Glass Puppetry Center in West Liberty, Iowa, for a lesson.

Photo credit: Michael KreiserHuge parade-size puppets greeted me. It was the end of an open studio at Owl Glass, preparation for their float in the Muscatine County Fair Parade on Sunday. I was immediately recruited to help one puppet receive a pink boa, and another one, a cardboard accordion. After the puppets were completed, Monica and I sat down. I showed her the neediest sock in my basket with holes in several places, two several inches in diameter.

"Do you think it’s salvageable?" I asked her.

"Of course."

Rejecting the yarn I brought, Monica rummaged around her puppet making supplies, found a skein of yellow sock yarn, and proceeded to thread her needle with it.

"Do you want a darning egg?" I asked. I had brought mine.

"Oh, I don’t need one."

A child of German refugees on a tight budget, Monica had darned as a child. Her mother taught her and her older sister Anne. Back then, Anne explained when I called later that night, "we darned all our socks, whether we loved them or not."

"Did you use a darning egg?" I asked.

"Never heard of one. We used the air."

And so did Monica. She slipped her hand inside the sock, opening it up. Stitching an outline around the largest hole, she secured the perimeter. Then she set up a warp by threading through the live stitches on the top and bottom of the gap. Next poking through the secure stitches on the upper right side, she wove the woof (also called "weft"), horizontally though the vertical strains she had just created. Under and over, she continued on, row by row until the entire area was a loosely woven fabric.

"The next part is crucial," said Monica. Again from the right she wove, this time diagonally from top to bottom, bottom to top, in and out in several places, tightening the weave.

"There," said Monica. We took turns trying the sock on and walking about the studio. No bumps or uncomfortable spots.

"Have I demystified darning for you?"

She had. In a matter of minutes she repaired the largest hole. Watching her darn with deft and ease, I felt confident to tackle my basket of wounded socks.

"Now you can tell everyone how easy it is," she said. "And don’t forget to show up for the parade."

That Friday night I pulled out the sock Monica had worked on. There were still several holes. In my stash, I found a close match to the original yarn. I outlined the first hole, then I wove the darn just the way Monica had showed me. By Sunday afternoon, all the patients in my sock infirmary were restored to robust health. I was ready to celebrate. Ready to cheer for the puppets in the parade.

Check out the website of Owl Glass Puppetry Center.
Photo credit: Michael Kreiser

Darning Knowledge


  • When laundering your socks, every now and then inspect the heels and toes. Darn the transparent spots as they develop. It's much easier to repair what's worn thin than a hole that must be rebuilt.
  • When darning check where your socks are most vulnerable, and note improvements that might be made in future socks.
  • If a sock in the pile beyond repair, save the cuffs and start a new pair of socks, or wristers.
  • Always darn a clean sock.
  • Whenever possible, save some leftover sock yarn for repairs. With each new pair, Monica's cousin Doro sends her a small amount of the sock's yarn for future darning.

Other darning options:

  • Darning can also be done with the duplicate stitch. Check for instructions in the knitting classic, Mary Thomas's Knitting Book.

Darning Tools
Although Monica and her sister Anne use their outstretched hand inside the sock, some folks find tools designed for darning helpful: darning mushroom, a traditional style light bulb, a small ball. I used a small ball on the larger holes.

Authored by

Michelle Edwards is the author/illustrator of A KNITTER'S HOME COMPANION and many award-winning children's books including CHICKEN MAN and STINKY STERN FOREVER. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys talking about books in schools throughout the US and beyond. Her newest book, Room for the Baby, will be available from Random House in Fall 2012. Visit Michelle Edwards at her website or on Facebook.
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