When and How to Use the Idiom: “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”

New words and phrases get introduced to English continually. Not all of them become widely used or etched in the minds of the people. The expression “a stitch in time saves nine” arguably is one of the most famous idioms the language has ever had, but still quite mysterious.

“A stitch in time saves nine” means “if a problem is addressed or sorted out immediately, it will most likely save additional work later”. The idiom is used in texts to stress the importance of getting work done right away and not procrastinating. It can be shortened as “a stitch in time” in text.

As mentioned before, the phrase “a stitch in time saves nine” is relatively well-known but not easily deciphered. If you were ever left to scratch your head when someone used the phrase in their text or speech, continue reading.

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“A Stitch in Time Saves Nine” – An Introduction

As mentioned above, “a stitch in time saves nine” denotes “it’s better or advisable to address an issue immediately than letting it take shape and become a bigger problem”. In short, it means “to not postpone”.

The phrase stems from the thought that sewing up a minor rip right away will ensure the tear doesn’t get bigger. When left unattended, the fabric tear will grow larger and require multiple stitches.

Does the Phrase Denote “Precaution”?

Though precautionary in intent, it’s not necessarily so – at least not in action, as the idiom implies waiting for a “sign” of damage to the surface before prompting action. On the other hand, a precautionary measure is springing into action as a preventive measure, or even when there are no signs of an apparent malaise.

For example, when coronavirus started to spread, countries worldwide began shutting down as soon as cases of the virus were reported in regions nearby. That’s a “precautionary” measure.

However, some states chose to close their movie theaters, malls, restaurants, etc., only after the infection cases were reported in their regions so that the virus didn’t spread further and infect more people. The slightly delayed yet not-too-late approach is a perfect real-world example indicating “a stitch in time saves nine”.

In regions where infections were rising and the state continued with business as usual, the damage to the economy and the populace would have gone up.

Phrases Similar to “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”

“A stitch in time saves nine” isn’t the only phrase to stress the importance of time and/or acting quickly. A few other idioms that could mean the same or similar thing include “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and “there’s no time like the present”.

The Origin of “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”

Contrary to general perception or even logic, the idiom has nothing to do with “sewing”, “stitching”, “fabric rips”, etc. – at least, there’s no clear evidence to prove the link.

But theories are going around that the phrase is rooted in “sewing”. Some people who believe in the backstory posit that women weary of their kids’ patching clothes may have been the idiom’s inspiration.

The phrase has been used in texts for centuries. It was first used in 1723 in a book by Thomas Fuller. It’s, however, not clear whether Thomas Fuller coined the phrase. He could have borrowed or referenced it from another source, which may not have been published or documented.

The author, however, was known for using proverbs in his works. In the particular book mentioned above, he includes an explanatory preamble highlighting the use of proverbs in the book and why they were structured the way they were.

False rhymes were used in most of his sayings so that they clicked with the people and were catchy enough for the readers to remember and recollect. In the phrase, “a stitch in time saves nine”, the words “time” and “nine” rhyme with each other.

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Phrases Similar to “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”

“A stitch in time saves nine” isn’t the only English phrase/expression to use numbers to foster instant action or communicate why immediate effort is much better than putting things on the backburner.

A few other idioms that employ numbers to denote immediate action or the significance of not wasting time include:

  • One year’s seeds, seven year’s weeds
  • The early bird catches the worm.
  • Procrastination is the thief of time.

Why Use “Nine” in the Phrase?

In the phrase “a stitch in time saves nine”, the number “nine” has no specific purpose or background. It certainly doesn’t denote that stitching a cloth with just one rip could save the need to sew nine more tears in the future. Instead, the numeric expression is employed to convey the savings that could be had through “swift action”. It’s used as an incentive or push.

But why “nine”? “Nine” could have been “seven”, “twenty”, or even “hundred” if the stress was primarily on the “incentive” aspect of the phrase. The idiom’s intended meaning or message would not have changed anyway, and a greater number would have only implied a much larger incentive.

The term “nine” was chosen because it rhymed with “time”, which made the phrase sound catchy and easy to remember as a result. Such poem-like rhyming has been incorporated into quite a few other terms, such as “many a little will make a mickle”, “nearest and dearest”, “shop till you drop”, etc.

Ways to Incorporate the Phrase in Your Texts

The idiom “a stitch in time saves nine” is long and can be tricky to incorporate into sentences as it is. Though there are several instances of the idiom getting included in texts untouched, not using the phrase is also quite common. In other words, the phrase’s meaning alone is taken into consideration, and the phrase may not be included in the text.

Another option is to use related or synonymous words, such as “instantly”, “instantaneously”, “swiftly”, etc. Alternate idioms that may fit within texts a lot more easily could also be included, such as:

  • Waste no time
  • Off the bat
  • Then and there
  • In/at one fell swoop
  • No sooner said than done

Like other idioms, it’s possible to truncate the phrase or use its shorter term. But since the expression is relatively long, writers may get confused about which part to cut and which portion to keep. “A stitch in time” is an acceptable smaller version. 

As a standalone phrase, this compact version may not mean anything. But people who are familiar with the original idiom will recognize the shortened saying or relate it to its parent term.

Example Sentences with “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”

It’s not common to see idioms, particularly “a stitch in time saves nine”, get used in texts or standard speeches. However, the phrase could get used in communications to assert or bring to notice the seriousness of an issue to the concerned in a light-hearted way.

Here are a few sentences that correctly employ the phrase:

  • Tom said to his friend, “Drive the car to the mechanic while you can still drive it. Do not wait for it to completely breakdown and tow the vehicle, as a stitch in time saves nine.”
  • The prompt inspection helped us identify the issue in its beginning stages. Had we waited for a few days, it could have turned into a significant repair. A stitch in time saves nine!
  • It looks like there is some issue with my bike. I shall get it checked right away because a stitch in time saves nine.
  • Get compromised with your neighbor before you end up meeting each other in court. A stitch in time saves nine!
  • We should spring into action right away because a stitch in time saves nine.
  • We inflated the tire when it was slightly low in air pressure because a stitch in time saves nine. In other words, we did not want to wait for the tire to lose more air and go flat, causing us more headaches eventually.

As the sentences above make it clear, it’s not that easy to incorporate the phrase “a stitch in time saves nine” seamlessly into texts. Quite often, it’s a standalone sentence used to emphasize the significance of the actions initiated. 

The following is a sentence that does not incorporate the phrase but conveys its meaning or uses the idiom in spirit: 

  • Resolving the issue when it was relatively small prevented the almost-impending big scare. 

Also, the idiom perfectly suits contexts or sentences discussing road repairs. For example, the maintenance expenses of a relatively decent road cost $5. If the administration doesn’t continue maintaining the street, the costs will only go up. Putting in efforts to ensure the road is maintained while still in a good state will help save money on its upkeep.

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Conclusion

As popular or cliched as it may seem, not everybody knows the meaning of “a stitch in time saves nine”. Unlike most other phrases, it’s hard to discern the idiom’s purpose just by reading it. A bit of decoding might be needed, which this article hopefully did for you. The next time anyone uses this phrase in their texts or speech, you’ll know what they meant. 

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By Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.