I'm A Sock Darner
From Way Back

Dateline: 13 January 2017 a.d.

I have a special fondness for wool socks in the winter. A pair of wool socks over a pair of cotton socks is my preferred footwear around the house. I even sleep with the cotton-wool-sock combination on my feet.

The wool socks in the picture above are kind of special because they came from my mother. As I recall, she picked them up at a yard sale. They were new and from L.L. Bean. They fit me right nice... all the way up to my knees!

I'm pretty sure they are made to go with knickers. I think there was a span of time in the 1970s when these socks, with knickers, were popular with some cross-country skiers.

Whatever the case, though I have a couple other pairs of special wool socks, that pair is my favorite, and I was surprised to see they had a hole in them recently. It wasn't a wear hole, like is common around the heel with wool socks. It was a big, gaping hole on the top, and I don't know what happened.

Before the hole got worse, I needed to darn it back together. You can see my repair in that picture.

I haven't darned a pair of socks in decades, but I was once an avid sock darner. I recall darning grey ragwool socks when I was around 18 to 21. I spent more time outdoors and wore out more socks, and had the time to darn them myself. It's a pleasant task to sit by the woodstove on a cold winter night and darn your wool socks. That's how I remember it. Of course, I didn't have the internet and an iPhone to keep me from such tasks back in those days (I still don't have a cell phone).

But Marlene recently brought to my attention that I've been handy with a needle and thread going back much further than 18 years old. In fact, going back to before I can remember!

She was cleaning and organizing some old papers and gave me a letter from my grandmother, Gertrude Philbrick, that she sent me back in 1983. 

My grandmother was born in Perham, Maine in 1902. She was the granddaughter of Josephine Jordan

My grandmother Philbrick was a potato farmer's wife. She lived to be 97 years old. She was, like so many farm women of her era, good at sewing. In her later years, she sewed and sold (and gave away) Teddy Bears and Raggedy Ann dolls. 

People who have worked hard all their life, tend to keep on working, though on a lesser scale, at some productive task for as long into their old age as they possibly can. Work is an ingrained habit. Productivity is important. That was the case with my grandmother Philbrick. It will be the case with me.

So, back to my story... Marlene gave me the letter my grandmother wrote us in 1983, and here is the excerpt that gave me pause...

I don't know how well that scan will show up, so here is what it says:

"I feel I should stop doing the dolls and bears because my heart is giving me a warning with racing and fast pulsing when I feel tired. (I'm 81) I think of you when you were 3-1/2, I think. You'd see me with a needle and thread and you'd want to sew too. You'd do a pretty good job too. Even then, you had the talent for carpenter work. You helped Grampie with the barrels also?"

Yes, I certainly did help my grandfather, Percy Philbrick, when he was past his farming years, and worked at repairing potato barrels for local farmers. I remember it very well. I wrote about in my Deliberate Agrarian Blogazine post for July 2010.

There isn't a doubt in my mind that introducing children to productive handiwork is an important part of proper human development. My grandparents grew grown up in a culture that, as a rule, introduced children to useful manual skills and encouraged the development of those skills starting at a very young age.

My Grandmother Kimball grew up in the same sort of hard-working farm culture in Northern Maine. She was always working with her hands, creating things. And when I visited her, she made a point to get me involved in various craft projects.

I'm thankful that my grandmother gave me a needle and thread when I was 3-1/2 years old. I'm thankful that she told me about it in her letter. And I'm thankful for wool socks. I could go on.

The older I get, the more thankful I get for things like that.


Does anyone besides me remember when you could buy cards of darning yarn in any department store in America?  Here's what it looked like...


  1. What is a Department Store, what is this America you speak of? and more importantly, "How did you get both legs in one leg of your pants? Isn't it kind of hard to walk around like that? LOL

    1. That's funny. A good photographer would have caught that optical illusion and reconfigured the set.

      The department stores I remember had wood floors that creaked when you walked on them.

    2. Hi Everett; Good eye! I had to go back and look again. I was looking at what I thought was a "white bleach spot" on Herrick's sock, until I read the story. Really enjoy reading your comments and like your sense of humor! Thank you

      Hi Herrick; Yes! The department stores all seemed to have creaky wood floors. They also seemed to have everything a person needed and a lot more one wanted! I miss them... There was one in Monett, Missouri, but I don't know if it is still there, doubt it. I last saw it in the 1990's. There was one here in NE Oklahoma, until maybe around 200_?? The owner was in her 90's and ran it until very shortly before she died. Then everything was auctioned. Also, I'm positive your handmade net bags are MUCH better than the flimsy ones we see today. Did you say a PDF tutorial is in the works? ;)

  2. I was going to add--- I didn't do darning although my Mom did. My forte was mending fishing nets with a shuttle and about a mile of string!

    1. That's neat. I tried netting once a long time ago. I made some net bags and hung onions in them. I'd like to try that again someday.

      And, while we're on the subject, I made a rope-making machine when I went to school in Vermont. Got the plans out of Mother Earth News magazine. My friend Ed Bais and I made some impressive lengths of rope with old baling twine.

      I imagine all the fishermen on Block Island still mend their nets on the beach, and that it is very picturesque. :-)

    2. You never know where the skill will be helpful....my daughter sewed or did crosstitch profusely in middle school....when she was in school to become a physician's assistant, her fist task in her ER rotation was to stitch up a person who had fallen into a fire extinguisher and required 50+ stitches. The ER was so busy they left her alone, and she had never actually sewn up a person by herself before......when she was done ( after she stopped shaking and sweated off 10 lbs...)the doctor came in and asked her who taught her to stitch like that? It was perfect. The only recommendation was that she learn to do that 5X faster. She works in an orthopedic practice now and her hands are so good they have her close the operations.....

  3. I have been a sock darner for 30 years now. I tend to walk with my big toes sticking up and wear holes in the top while the rest of the sock is still nice and thick. I was never properly "trained". I use the lightbulb/ball method. It certainly comes in handy during Little League season since my three seem to wear holes in their socks after one game!

  4. I well remember sitting under the big dining room table with mother sewing endlessly with the faithful old Singer above. I would have be about 6 or 7. All the material and cotton off cuts on the floor were mine to 'play' with. I distinctly remember making an outfit for 'teddy bear' under the table and sewing it all up by hand, then popping up to show my mother who was astounded at what I had done. Father was far less impressed (ha ha).

  5. Time to invest in some moth balls. This last summer the moths tried to move into our home. They are very good at crawling into drawers, under trunks and even into closed trunks. I recycled a bunch of plastic pill bottles by drilling holes in them and putting in moth balls. Some I wired to hang in the closets next to wool coats and vests. Those moths were crawling up into our clothes. I hate the smell but cedar bags & blocks were not working.

  6. I remember well my mother darning socks for all of us when we were younger. She never bought darning year though but used the string saved from feed bags.

    1. That's impressive. And a wonderful example of an economical mindset that is mostly lost these days.

      "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."

  7. Hello Herrick,
    I too love wool socks for winter use. I have tried a few brands, and at this point like some called "Omni-Wool" the best of what I have tried so far. they get pretty faded and fuzzy/ball looking, but have not put a hole in one yet -even after a few years of wearing. Being able to fix them myself would seem to be a valuable skill.

  8. Yes I remember the darning thread. I worked in a yard goods department. I also remember we used to sell white sheeting by the yard to make your own sheets. Women often did a hem stitch them just below the big hem at the top. We also sold linen and white toweling like feed sack weight for t-towels. Also the yardage for the t-towels with the stripes down each side. Most of the girls that took home ec. had to buy some of that a for their first project. It seemed funny when I saw your post ...I just darned a sox tonight. ...Those were the days my friend..We thought they'd never end... Sarah