Nowadays, are there any city dwellers wearing patched clothes? No! Now, people have enough food and clothing. Clothes, if used or outmoded, will be discarded without hesitation. However, they are reluctant to throw away some clothes, such as fancy woolen suits, hand-embroidered cheongsams, and old unlined upper garments, skirts, trousers, and gowns that have commemorative significance. If holes are burned in them or they are torn, or have some wormholes, their owners will have them mended or restored by a darner.
Darners do not need to open shops. Instead, they just set up temporary stalls beside the entrances of department stores or on crowded streets and squares. In ancient times, darning was done by poor middle-aged or older women to make a living. They sewed and mended shabby clothes for bachelors who had neither a wife nor children. By patching clothes, they eked out a bare existence.
Now days, darners mend tiny holes with stitches that are of the same color and model as the original cloth. They are so skillful that no trace of darning can be found. If the breakage is large, they prepare cloth of the same color and model, cut off a proper sized piece, and seamlessly sew it onto the breakage. This way, the mended clothing looks exactly as the original. So, darning is a marvelous skill that requires fine workmanship and meticulous care, just like repairing calligraphic works and paintings.
At the Zhuzhou Department Store, there was a darner named Zhen Fajia who set up his stall on the right side of the main gate. He was not middle-aged or elderly, but an unmarried young man! With a crew cut and good features, he was tall and thin, with slim, soft fingers. He graduated from a technical secondary school specializing in fashion design. In fact, Zhen was competent enough to work in a large costume manufacturing enterprise, but he chose to be a freelance darner. His parents were tailors in the countryside. Imperceptibly influenced by what he had seen and heard, he was fond of sewing, like a girl, from childhood.
His father asked him: “Why do you choose to be a darner?”
Zhen replied: “This course was available in my school, and I studied it hard.”
His father continued: “Don’t you feel embarrassed when your schoolmates see you?”
“I make a living using my skill. So, I don’t think it is a disgrace,” replied Zhen.
Zhen Fajia’s tools were quite simple: A small stool, a portable toolkit (containing needles, thread, cloth, and a wooden tambour), and a foldable advertising paperboard. On top of the board was written “Darner Zhen Fajia.” On each side of the board was written a phrase that said “Mending holes” and “Leaving no regrets.” In the middle was a pricelist based on the fabric texture. For each darn, a plain weave cost RMB 30, twill weave cost RMB 40, and inversive weave RMB 55. In cases involving special materials or technical processes, prices were discussed separately. In addition, Zhen guaranteed that darns would not tear within one year.
In the blink of an eye, Zhen had worked as a darner for three years. He did quite well in his business because he was skillful, courteous, and charged reasonable prices. After paying rent and daily expenses, he would have a small surplus each month. His stall was frequented by customers. Some watched him work, while others gave him their materials to be mended and left. Several days later, they would return to pick up the materials. However, some were not customers. They just felt curious about a young man who used a wooden tambour to darn breakages with a needle and thread. Squatting by his side, they watched Zhen busily patch and asked questions from time to time. He kept working while patiently answering the questions, looking radiant.
Zhen Fajia met a short-haired, middle-aged woman who came to his stall from time to time. He was so curious about her that he asked: “Elder sister, may I have your surname, please?”
“I am surnamed Liu. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“Not at all. Your advice is most welcome.”
“I want to ask you whether you can darn a textile like silk tapestry with cut designs.”
“Yes, I think I can.”
“I have a cheongsam with embroidered patterns. It has some holes. How will you deal with them?”
“First, I will mend the holes with a material of the same color. Then, I will embroider the patterns the way they were originally done.”
“Are you good at embroidery?”
“Excuse my poor skill. My embroidery workmanship is just so-so.”
Sister Liu nodded her head and said: “My grandma left behind a cheongsam with Suzhou embroidery. It is a shame that it has been damaged by worms and there are now a dozen small holes in it. I will bring it here tomorrow for you to darn. Grandma is gone, but I want to keep it as a souvenir.”
“Thank you, Sister Liu!”
This cheongsam, made of purple satin produced in Hangzhou, was embroidered with simple and elegant patterns of magnolia flowers. Sister Liu handed it to Zhen Fajia and intended to pay him RMB 2,000 in advance. It was mutually agreed that she would pick up the well-mended cheongsam in five days. To her surprise, Zhen Fajia refused to receive advance payment. He said: “As usual, payment is not made until the customer is satisfied with my repair work. You’re no exception.”
Five days later, the darning was finished, but Sister Liu did not come to pick up the cheongsam.
Another five days passed, but she still did not show up.
One day, Zhen Fajia’s father called: “Fajia, your mother is ill. She misses you very much. Hurry back!”
“Dad. I will be back as soon as possible. However, a customer will come to get her cheongsam. I must wait for her and can’t break my promise. Otherwise, she will be very worried.”
Ten days later, Sister Liu finally returned.
After carefully examining the cheongsam, Liu smiled, admiringly: “Your name is Zhen Fajia. It sounds like zhen fa jia (excellent needlework). Truly, your reputation is well supported by facts.” With these words, she paid Zhen RMB 2,000. She gave him RMB 100 more as a reward.
Zhen insisted on returning the RMB 100, saying: “Never could I accept more than one cent!”
Sister Liu said: “You are honest in business.” Then, she took out her work permit and showed it to Zhen, saying: “I work for the Ancient Textile Museum. Many ancient clothes, caps, robes, gowns, and curtains are in the museum’s collection, but some are broken or damaged. I have examined your skill, and the facts tell me that you are not only skillful, but also honest. I want to invite you to join our museum. The job will last a long time. If you agree, you can go to our museum now.”
“Director Liu, you failed to get your cheongsam back on time. This is, I believe, also something you examined.”
Liu blushed and did not know how to reply.
“Director Liu, 15 days ago, I should have gone back to look after my sick mother. I did not leave because I had to keep my promise to wait for you. Now, the matter of primary importance for me is to go back home and look after my mother.”
Hearing this, the director was surprised and said: “I am so sorry! It was I who kept you waiting here. I apologize and please forgive me!”
Zhen Fajia smiled and said: “Director Liu, don’t mention it!”
“Xiao Zhen, don’t worry. Just go home first. No matter how long it is, my colleagues and I will wait for you at our museum!”
Many days passed, but Zhen Fajia did not report his arrival to the museum and his booth did not appear at the department store.
It is said that he continued his job in another city.