What Does a Stitch in Time Saves Nine Mean?

Has someone ever told you, “A stitch in time saves nine”? Did you know what they meant? Wonder, “Saves nine what??” We’ve got you covered! Keep reading to learn all about this popular proverb.

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What Does a Stitch in Time Saves Nine Mean?

Put simply, the proverbial expression a stitch in time saves nine means that it’s better to fix a problem right away, when it’s small and manageable, than to wait until it becomes a bigger, uncontrollable issue later on. In other words, the phrase is used to encourage someone not to procrastinate, or to intentionally put something off that should be taken care of and handled in a timely fashion.

Of course, it’s a sewing reference. Think about it: A stitch made right when a piece of fabric has just ripped will keep the small tear from becoming a much larger one later on; in fact, the one stitch will keep the tear from becoming a huge hole that could need lots more stitches—say, nine more! The phrase is short and catchy on purpose (it is a proverb, after all; details below). But it can be helpful when trying to understand its meaning to think of how it could be stated in a longer form, with some punctuation here for clarity’s sake: as a stitch, in time, saves nine stitches. Interestingly, you may also hear or see an even shorter version of the phrase used: a stitch in time. (Learn more about the phrase’s origin and why the choice of nine stitches exactly in a moment.)

Here are some example sentences using the expression a stitch in time saves nine:

  • The leak around the chimney may be small now, but you know what they say: A stitch in time saves nine. If you put off getting it fixed, it will only get worse. The frame and ceiling will get wetter and wetter, and then you might have to not just fix the seal but also replace all the wood and drywall. Best to take care of it right away. 
  • My dad taught me that a stitch in time saves nine. That’s why I always get my car’s oil changed at the recommended mileage, regularly rotate its tires, and take it through the car wash to rinse off the road salt after each snow. I have to put in a little effort to take good care of it, but I’m rewarded with a car that runs like new even though it’s eight years old. 
  • My daughter always procrastinates doing her laundry. I’ve tried to explain to her that a stitch in time saves nine, but she never listens. She waits until she has piles and piles, and then there’s always a day when she doesn’t have anything clean to wear and has to stay home in her pajamas, missing her friends, doing load after load.
  • I wasn’t sure if I should sign up for the yearly maintenance service on my new HVAC unit, but my wife reminded me that a stitch in time saves nine. I’m glad I did, because now I feel confident that any small issues won’t become larger ones down the road. 

The Etymology of the Expression

Although no one knows for sure who first said this expression, and when they first said it, we do know that it was first recorded in the 18th century, in 1732, in Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia: Adagies [Adages] and Proverbs, Wise Sentences, and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British. At least, a form of the expression was: In this collection of English proverbs, Thomas Fuller recorded it as a stitch in time may save nine

He also offered a likely explanation as to why the use of the number nine in particular. Any ideas? If you thought because it rhymes with time, you’re right! As is the case with so many of the proverbs discussed here at The Word Counter, rhyme was used in the proverb’s creation to make the saying catchy and help it stick better in a listener’s or reader’s mind.

A recording by the English astronomer Francis Baily made in the late 1790s may be the first use of the proverb exactly as we know it today, with the switch from may save to saves. His journal entry uses the proverb in regards to keeping a boat afloat. Indeed, some language historians speculate the saying got its start at sea, referencing the need to sew up a sail ripped from the wind right away, before the sail was badly damaged, leaving the boat and crew in potential danger. Others believe it originated with mothers tired of mending their children’s clothes.

Recently, Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, ushered in a new era of popularity for the old saying when he used it in regards to the coronavirus pandemic. He said the expression when announcing stricter lockdown measures to help curb the spread of COVID-19, suggesting the new rules and stringent action would help prevent worse outcomes.

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

A stitch in time saves nine is both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

In the case of a stitch in time saves nine, as discussed at the start of this article, the phrase can be taken literally, but only to help understand its broader, figurative meaning. If someone tells you “a stitch in time saves nine,” they’re not telling you to actually sew up a small tear now before it becomes bigger. Rather, they’re speaking symbolically to encourage you to solve a problem of some kind (any kind) right away, as procrastinating can often lead to more trouble and difficulty.

The popular expression is also a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.

A stitch in time saves nine isn’t the only popular proverb about procrastination in particular. Other proverbial expressions meaning essentially the same thing include an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and the early bird catches the worm

Learn the meanings of many more proverbs and other common sayings here.

Summary

The expression a stitch in time saves nine encourages making a prompt, timely effort to deal with an issue in order to keep the problem from worsening. In other words, it’s saying don’t procrastinate; that taking just a small action now can keep you from having to take much bigger, and likely more difficult, action down the road.