Collecting Mania: Darners

There was a time when no proper household would be without at least one. As common as sadirons and buttonhooks, they were regularly used by women, often by children, occasionally by men. And, although they came in a seemingly infinite number of shapes, sizes, and materials, every one had the same function - to hold fabric taut while being darned.

They are stocking darners (or darning eggs, balls, bells, spools, mushrooms), once highly esteemed in the days of the "use it up, wear it out - make do, or do without" society that has been shunted aside in today's disposable one. Yet this humble tool is emerging again as a fascinating, attractive, and highly sought after collectible.

Apparently almost everyone who used a darner had his or her own idea of what the perfect darner should look like. The U.S. Patent Office, for example, issued more than 100 patents for this humble tool between 1865 and 1956. The 1920's marked the height of patented darners, when 17 distinct models were recognized. The resulting diversity makes this a rich field for collectors.

While some glass darners were commercially produced, many of them were intended not to actually be used but to showcase glassblowers' artistic talents.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was taught to darn by her nurse at the age of six. According to a placard at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, in Hyde Park, N.Y., "If she made a mistake, the nurse would cut out the yarn, thus making the hole larger, and have her start again."

Darners were made from nearly every conceivable material, most commonly wood, as well as champlevé, stag horn, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, ceramic, celluloid, plastic, Bakelite, papier-mâché, ivory, brass, aluminum, and tin. Darners ranged in size from 1/4-inch miniatures to nine-inch-long mushrooms with 4 1/2-inch-wide caps.

One design goal was to make darners out of substances that would not dull needles, which were relatively expensive instruments. So some darners were created out of wax, soap, and rubber, while others had long-pile fabric faces. Another objective was to keep the stocking from slipping as it was mended, resulting in the addition of metal bands, spiral springs, elastic or rubber bands, and sometimes plastic or wire bristles. A further consideration was to avoid stretching or misshaping the stocking. Rows of pins were consequently applied to the darner, to impale the fabric as one worked. Darner designers also tried to make it easier to work by using contrasting and bright colors. Eventually the ultimate in visual darning aids: illuminated darners, both battery- and electric-powered were developed.

By and large, the practice of darning has fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, reminders can readily be found. Common wooden darners often appear at flea markets for less than $10. And some of the more unique pieces now command much higher prices: An art-glass piece, for example, recently sold at auction for around $1,000. Thousands of darners have found their way to contemporary collections. Since millions were manufactured, there are undoubtedly thousands more tucked away in sewing boxes and trunks, just waiting to be discovered. So why not check around your house and start your own collection? Darners don't take up much room, are relatively inexpensive, make for interesting conversation, and add a unique and colorful touch to your home.

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