Those Darned Sleeves

Remember that scene in Cool Runnings when they arrive in Calgary and Sanka rushes back into the terminal to put on everything in his bag, followed by the bag? Thirteen years ago, that would have been me arriving in New Zealand, had my grandmother not met us at the airport with a better bag: a bag full of woollies, knitted with her own two hands.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-E0127-0091-003, LPG Schenkenberg, Mitglied der LPGThat bag included a grass-green guernsey for me, a garment which I immediately put on and have worn for large parts of every year since. When it was two years old, I wore it to said grandmother’s funeral, along with some of my similarly guernseyed cousins (she was a very productive woman, my gran). I have done many wardrobe clear-outs over the years, of varying levels of drasticitude, but I have never considered getting rid of my guernsey.

So you can imagine my distress on noticing that the cuff was wearing thin at the fold. But we were in the middle of moving house, packing everything up and so on; hardly a good time to settle down to some mending. I did manage to go through the box of ancestral happiness which contained all the odds and ends of wool left behind by this same knitting grandmother, looking for matching wool to mend with. Alas, there was not so much as a scrap of the original yarn, but I pulled out a few greens and packed them separately, so as to have them to hand.

Imagine my horror, on one of our first mornings in this house, when I pulled the guernsey on and my finger went through a hole.

This is what our camera thinks grass-green looks like.

There was no time to be lost. I found the assortment of green yarns and compared them with the original to decide which was closest. There was one that was Close Enough to Do, I decided; no need to hit the shops before a mend could be undertaken. The next question was one of method. It may be “sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,” but for raveled sleave of guernsey you need some kind of a darn.

Results having finally come through (or rather worn through) from the sock-darning experiment, I thought I would go with the classic back-and-forth darn. One of my vintage handwork books recommends a sort of Swiss darning for holes in knitted things (there’s a tutorial here if you dare), but I quailed at the thought. I was by no means sure of my ability to execute it correctly – and the idea of taking scissors to the beloved garment brought me out in a cold sweat. This was no mere sock, after all. This was the last garment my gran ever made for me, and while there may be knitting where she has gone (I sure hope there is), they don’t allow for forwarding to the bereaved descendants.

The stakes were high. I gathered my materials from the various locations to which a state of partial unpackedness had spread them.

Darning flat: no egg required.

The actual darning wasn’t too much trouble, once I’d figured out a way to weave the needle in which didn’t leave long strands on the wrong side – or right side, if the cuff is folded back, though I doubt there is a right side for long unattached strands. There was more to do than I’d realized, however: the hole was small, but the eight-ply-worn-almost-to-lace section ran about halfway round the cuff. It took a while.

The problem with darning, as identified by Miss Mary Grant, is that it is not exactly mentally invigorating – but it does require you to keep your eyes on what you are doing. Happily, however, ears are not a necessary part of the darning equipage, and you can listen to music, download an audiobook from Librivox, or, like me, get your nearest and dearest to read aloud to you while you work. It tends to take longer than you think. Just when you reach the end of the patch with your up-and-downs, you realize now you have to do all the back-and-forths (or vice versa).

At least the camera’s odd rendition of colour makes the mend easier to see.

But at last it is finished. I am happy to say that the sleeve was saved: the darning not only captured any thread that was thinking of unravelling, but reinforced the whole worn area. It’s thick and sturdy now, I think it will survive.

Wikipedia describes the guernsey as “a particularly hardy item of clothing” and notes that “It is not uncommon for a guernsey to last several decades and be passed down in families.” I don’t know if my guernsey will last that long (though it is well into its second decade now), but I intend to give it every opportunity to do so.

Who knows? Maybe one day I will even have the guts to try Swiss darning. It’s certainly more beautiful than plain darning. Still, while my mend may not be pretty, it’s practical, and that’s what guernseys are all about. And I am glad that my practical skills can keep the guernsey together while it keeps me warm.

The mended cuff.

Today’s bit of Old-Fashioned wisdom is brought to you by the guernsey: Keep Warm and Carry On.

Making it Happen

Ten years ago I had a dream: a dream of making a beautiful quilt for a friend. Something warm and cosy; something to curl up under while watching classic movies and sipping cocoa on a winter afternoon.

Crazy Quilt, 1884

I went for it.
Did I make a perfect little lap quilt? I did not. Did I make a comfortably-sized one-person wrap quilt? I did not. Did I make a freakishly over-ambitious monster crazy quilt with emphasis on the crazy?
Well, no. I started one.

I chugged away at it, but it was not long before I realized it was not going to be finished in time for the intended birthday. It’s been bundled in and out of boxes and bags and wardrobes ever since, worked on here and there, added to in fits and starts, but mostly just taking up space and making me feel guilty.

If I’m honest, this one project was a big part of my decision to make 2015 my Year of Finishing Things. Over the years it had become symbolic of my lack of self-discipline, my good intentions never followed through, and my failure to finish anything I started.


Not surprisingly, all the feelings bundled up with this UFO (Unfinished Fabric Object) made me reluctant to go near the thing, let alone commit to the many, many hours it would take to finish it. But it was still there, a big fat purple plug between me and moving on. So this year, I decided, I was going to get it out of the way. I was going to finish it, and thus become a Person Who Finishes Things.

I had the best of intentions, and when those failed, I made a rough plan. That made a bit of progress, which then fizzled out, so I made a more detailed plan. Which I didn’t keep. Then I made an even more detailed plan, which led to more progress, which also fizzled out. I even made a place for it in my schedule.

What I didn’t make was a commitment. If I was already doing something else, if I didn’t feel up to it, if I just didn’t want to, I didn’t. I still wanted it done, I just didn’t want to do it. No – that’s not quite right. I wished it were done – but I didn’t want to do it.

I did do bits here and there, but the small amount of progress I made was swallowed up by the magnitude of the undertaking. The quilt top is 155cm wide and 200cm long (about 5ft by 6 1/2), and has perhaps a hundred pieces, each with multiple edges to sew, embroider and embellish. Not quite big enough for the Great Bed of Ware, but it’s felt like it at times.

Bed of Ware

But the only way out is through, and there were some things I did that helped.

First, I sat down and asked myself what the obstacles were that prevented me working on it. A big one was the amount of time and effort involved just to get it out, spread it out, figure out where to work next, and put it away again at the end – if I could only find half an hour at a time, just handling it would eat most of that.

So I found somewhere where I could leave it folded and rolled, with the active part spread out in the middle. I made it easy for myself to just sit down and do a bit. I worked on one area at a time, so I could see and gauge my progress. I also borrowed and downloaded audiobooks (legally) to listen to as I stitched away.

I haven’t finished it yet – there’s still the centre section to embellish, as well as the attaching of the backing fabric to the front. I may not finish it by the end of the liturgical year (28th November, this year) but I will have it finished by the end of the calendar year.


I don’t know if the intended recipient will even want it – or indeed if she ever wanted it – but I’m not doing it just for her any more, I’m doing it for me. She can use it, regift it, or donate it to the SPCA for dog bedding; I won’t mind.

It will be finished, and I will be a person who finishes things. It has long been a failing of mine to launch straight into an over-ambitious project without working my way up via smaller, more manageable projects.
I think I’m cured now.