Want to hear more from Ramstad? Check out a video interview here.
During February 2016, Emmett Ramstad offered lessons in sock darning, an experiential art project he called “Mend With Me.” One student at a time, every Tuesday in the period rooms at Mia. They mended socks, they got to talking. Here’s what Emmett said about the experience.
I grew up in Minneapolis. And on weekends, at least once a month, my dad would take the family to historic homes. When you visit these homes—sometimes empty, sometimes merely uninhabited—there’s so much room for the imagination. You fill in the details of how people lived, the minutia of their daily lives.
This led to my interest in the things that people touch and use all the time, and what they say about us. Those intimate domestic moments, those routines, like how your soap gets worn down, what you do with your tube of toothpaste, your toilet-paper folding technique. Things that seem so minute but actually comprise the track we take all the time.
Darning socks is one of these unheralded activities. My dad taught me to use a sewing machine. He was by no means a sewer, but he was very practical and wanted to fix things—darning socks is also a simple way of maintaining the life of things. You’re maintaining something of value.
No one darns socks anymore because at some point socks lost their value; they became so cheap that no one bothers to mend them. If you’re still darning socks today, that says something about you. It suggests you care about something or someone.
Sock-darning also touches on some large, complex concepts. The labor of the home. The intimate details of normal life. Globalization. Because the reason we don’t darn socks anymore is that most socks are made very cheaply in China. I figured that if I could teach this skill it would give me an opportunity to have a conversation about all of this.
I taught sock-darning in a handful of period rooms. I brought chairs and thread and white socks with holes in them, and we just sat there, facing each other. Working and talking.
I’d always wanted to do something in the period rooms. They’re voyeuristic in a way, like you’re visiting a home, but it’s a different kind of voyeurism because no one is there—you’re never going to be caught looking at people’s stuff. It’s allowed.
The period rooms are a step away from normal life, including the normal life of the museum. It’s kind of a treasure hunt to find the rooms, so they become a destination. They’re a place where people are already thinking about how things were and how they are now, and that’s the same way we can think about darning—that contrast of past and present.
The McFarlane Room, with its Chinese wallpaper, offered a good tie-in to talk about globalization and the fact that most socks now come from China—one of the reasons we don’t darn socks anymore.
The Providence Parlor is simply a nice grand space. The Connecticut room, which is a bit humbler, seemed the most authentic for this project in the sense that people might actually have darned socks in a room like that.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Hallway felt very different because it was so open. We ended up trying to face each other more, trying to make it more intimate.
My lessons were in the afternoon, so I tended to get either retirees over 60 or people in their 30s who were piecing jobs together. The older people usually had a story about their mom darning socks, and how they’ve had the choice not to do that task. A tour group came through, on their way to see the Jane Austen exhibit, and the youngest among them was probably 65. A lot of them said something like Sock darning? Omigosh, I’m never going to do that again. There’s a pleasure in not having to do it.
A woman I darned with in the Frank Lloyd Wright Hallway had really fond memories of her grandmother, who taught her to darn. But she hadn’t done it in awhile—she had come mostly for technical help. Where to get the thread and very specific details. I’m not an expert—you could look on the internet and find people doing very beautiful darning. So when someone like that came in, it kind of freaked me out.
One time an Amish man joined me. If I thought about who is still darning socks, I would have figured the Amish would be among them. But he said he doesn’t do it—he’s a man—and neither does his wife. He buys his socks just like I do, in packs from China.
I’ve done this sock-darning workshop in other places, at the Walker Art Center and the Nash gallery at the University of Minnesota. But at Mia, because it includes antiquities, people are already thinking about how things were and how they are now, which is an ideal mindset for thinking about darning.
I didn’t anticipate how doing it in the period rooms would take us out of daily life—for that one hour we were together, everything else stopped. Not that it took us back in time, because our conversations didn’t always go there, but it took us out of this time—like a matinee.
The sock-darning work did what I hoped it would—most people shared an anecdote about their intimate domestic life with me. Without this kind of work to do together, that sharing is not going to happen, you’re not going to just sit there and tell me about your home life.
The show also inspired me to think about the modern-day equivalent of sock darning, something we do today that attends to or mends something, a domestic act not on display. What is that for today? Do we even still have something like that? And does thinking about that help us connect to other people when we’re in their homes or their spaces?
Anyone who did the workshop with me, when they get a hole in their sock, will think about this experience. They’ll now think, I could keep it, toss it, or…I could darn it.
I’ve changed, too: I’ve spent my entire life wearing white socks and after this show, I’m not sure I can. I have no desire. Maybe I should branch into colored socks but now I’ve fixed all these white ones, and I feel I should wear through them.
Interview conducted by Tim Gihring. It has been condensed and edited.