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Nineteen years ago, Lu Zihao, 39, saw a TV program lamenting the dying trade of darning. He had just moved to Shanghai with his family from Fujian Province and needed a job. “Why not darning?” he asked himself.|
Now, almost two decades on, he is considered a master of the trade in Shanghai, where he is now deputy manager of the dry cleaning store, an outlet of Zheng Zhang Industry Co, at the crossing of Huaihai and Ruijin roads.
He is also a master in ironing, stain removal and leather polishing, and has won prizes for his skills in national competitions. He has been honored as an outstanding worker in Shanghai.
Zheng Zhang Industry Co, established in 1925, was the first laundry shop in China to use machines. When he started out in what was a low-paid job, Lu was recruited as an apprentice at Laorisheng, the last shop in Shanghai specializing in darning, which is the art of mending torn or worn fabrics.
Having had some experience helping his mother with tailoring work, Lu picked up basic darning skills in only three months, whereas it took most apprentices three years. The apprentices were trained to weave threads on pieces of white cloth, according to the different structures of overlaying threads.
“The aim was to get us to quickly discern fabric structure and stay focused on it,” Lu says. “We weren’t supposed to be distracted by colors and patterns.”
Lu Zihao works on a garment at his workshop.
Instead of unraveling a fabric structure, a darning master tries to assemble one. Extreme care is needed in doing the work. It takes six to eight hours to darn a hole the size of a fingernail. Lu estimates that 120 to 180 thin threads are used in the process.
The darning process might be compared with a skin transplant. Threads or yarn are taken from other parts of a garment, such as its interior, and woven to cover the damaged spot. The darning extends slightly beyond the place to be mended to make it blend in with the rest of the fabric.
Lu says his basic tools are a wooden “bracelet,” cotton string, yarn needles and scissors. He places the bracelet under the part of the fabric to be mended and secures it with the string.
The thinnest needle in his toolkit is no wider than several strands of hair. Lu says such needles are very hard to come by. So, too, the special scissors he uses.
He keeps his fingernails long to use in fixing the threads on the fabric.
“Darning really can’t be done to perfection with a machine,” Lu says.
Lu's basic darning tools
It takes the experienced judgment of a seasoned master to assess the resilience of fabrics so that the right amount of pressure is exerted in the stitching.
Of course, not every torn or worn fabric can be mended. Lu has to turn away customers who come asking him to mend thin transparent silk or very fine cotton because no needle is thin enough to weave threads without leaving a hole.
Some mending is harder than others, for example, fabrics chewed by rodents or worn by abrasion.
Despite his years of devotion to his trade, Lu admits that the art of darning is still dying. Demand has dropped, and his company’s order book now numbers only in the dozens instead of the hundreds as in the past.
Rising living standards mean that most people simply throw away damaged clothing instead of seeking to have it mended. The thrifty era that required darning skills is gone.
Lu has had some apprentices, but few remain on the job. One of his current students is a hearing-impaired girl.
In 2015, Lu wrote a training textbook for darning, hoping it might attract more people to the business.
A coat before (left) and after Lu's mending