still life image by georgia hilmer
through darning fiber, artist rachel meade smith returns something to the world. utilizing this method of visibly mending she restores torn knits, reinforcing them and making them more unique and beautiful. this sustainable practice emerges as art and glorifies the value of a piece to it's greatest extent.
much of your work features darning, a mending technique. can you tell us a little more about it?
darning is a traditional technique for repairing (mending) holes or damage in knit fabric. to darn a hole, you weave a piece of yarn or thick thread through a few stitches surrounding the hole and across the hole itself, passing back and forth until the hole is covered by parallel threads. then you weave the thread up and down, through those parallel threads, creating a dense weave that fills the hole. the nice thing about darning is that (if done well) it can both fix the existing damage and strengthen the surrounding area to prevent or delay future damage.
when clothing was harder to come by, most or many people knew how to mend what they owned. mending skills became less necessary and less popular as clothing became cheaper and more disposable.
while mending didn't traditionally aim to call attention to itself, visible mending has become pretty popular over the last decade, almost definitely as the crafty conscious consumer's attempt to combat fast fashion and its destructive cycles of production and consumption and waste. i prefer visible mending to invisible because it visualizes the garment's history of wear and repair, it doesn't erase it. it also suits me, since i find hyper-precise work to be tedious, and a lot of joy in playing with color, texture, and shape through darning.
darning feels different from my other fiber work, like weaving or knitting, which births new things to the world. repair restores what already exists—so a finished piece doesn't hold the same kind of burden for me. i worry less about what will become of what i just made, i don't ask myself why i made it, or what purpose it serves. repair is less about me and what my creative will can produce, and more about returning something to the world.
where did you learn to weave, knit, and darn?
i got into weaving after exploring different types of fiber art for a while; i’d avoided it because it seemed really hard. but i kept falling in love with works made by weavers. so i dipped a toe in by finding an old picture frame in my house and warping it (i.e. wrapping fiber around it to create a weaving surface) with some mercerized cotton leftover from when i used to make jewelry, making the frame into a loom. i did some very poor weaving on it, over and over for days and weeks. every time i sat down to weave i’d learn something about doing it better. and actually, i think this is still true, for my weaving, knitting, and mending. as long as i’m paying attention, i’ll learn something.
along with just doing the thing over and over with different materials, trying different densities and scales, i gathered as much information as i could online and through books. i plan very little and tend to improvise my way towards a vague idea using information i’ve gathered from various sources. this is how i learn best, by fumbling my way through and messing up a lot and writing down what works, then doing that thing again and again. it does mean i lack a lot of technical knowledge that a properly schooled craftsperson would have. i used to get insecure about this. i took a floor loom weaving course a couple of years into my practice to round out my knowledge a bit, and i love supplementing my self-led learning in this way. but i’m also no longer attached to the idea of having some encyclopedic technical knowledge of my craft right this minute. if i want to make something, i can typically figure out how, and do. this means my knowledge builds slowly but reliably over time.
darning i learned much the same way. i was and remain deeply inspired by the work of celia pym, which i was introduced to by a group of fiber nerds at a wonderful basket-making course i attended. i looked at a lot of pictures of darns up close, and diagrams in old sewing manuals. then i found a pair of socks with holes and tried to recreate what i’d seen. i’ve darned every hole i could find since then. i think because darning is essentially very small-scale tapestry weaving, i took to it quickly. many of the qualities of a good darn — correct tension, getting the density right — are fundamental to weaving. i also already knew what i like (a very dense plain weave) and had a pretty strong palette (red, blue, yellow, brown, black, cream), and that carried into my darning as well.
knitting i learned first as a child but always hated it because it was so easy to mess up. now i understand the value and necessity (and pleasure) of patience while learning a craft, and am not bored by doing one thing over and over again. i re-learned to knit when a mentor and friend, susan yelavich, taught me in exchange for darning lessons. i wasn’t even interested in knitting at the time, but she insisted. i lost myself in it, knitting basically every day for a year.
do you find darning nostalgic?
sometimes. i enjoy darning for other people, especially if the garment holds special meaning to them. in that case, mending takes on a particular significance—it can extend the memories attached to a garment, or if it's an heirloom, memories of whoever originally owned or made it.
and i do find mending things for people i love to be intimate. the piece usually smells like them. it may hold the shape of their body a bit, or some hair. you spend a lot of time with a garment when repairing it, so you get up close to this stuff...mending clothes for someone you love can be a very nice (and different) way to connect to them.
but other times, darning feels like a very future-facing activity. i don't always mend things for people i know, or things with significance. i’m always happy to restore a sweater filled with holes, regardless of whether i know anything of its past. it means giving years back to something otherwise destined for the trash heap (and likely the landfill), and in that way, it's almost the opposite of nostalgia.