Saturday, March 19, 2011

National Crafts Month & National Women's HIstory Month

I’ve never used a glue-gun, nor decoupaged anything. I don’t bead, although my friends Linda and Betsy create works of art in that medium that I am delighted to wear. 8>)

But one day when I was four years old, Gramma decided it was time, with Mother’s help, to initiate me into the family women’s tradition of needle arts.

This is where the two parts of my title come together…because as Rose Wilder Lane [1] observed in The Women’s Day Book of American Needlework [2], needlework has reflected cultural times and ways throughout history. 

My brother is a specialized kind of historian, fascinated by battles and tactics and wars. One night when I was a high school junior, I knocked on his door to ask. “Who won the Battle of Gettysburg, Jeff?” because I had a P.A.D. quiz the next day and had forgotten to bring home my textbook. I emerged over an hour later, dazed; he had gotten out his old model soldiers from under his bed and enthusiastically depicted the ENTIRE three-day battle, using just about every inch of space; I remember the Devil’s Cockpit was on his pillow, and Pickett’s Charge came out from under the chair I sat on with my feet drawn up.

If I hadn't been an English major (with an undeclared minor in history), I would’ve been a social historian (unlike Jeff), because why and how people do things is what interests me. “Herstory” wasn’t a term I learned until I was in my 30s, but it’s inevitably intertwined with the crafts that women did in an effort to keep their families clothed and warm, and to beautify their homes.

My maternal grandmother, Abigail Jones Dangler, was born in 1877 in New Brunswick, NJ. When she was twelve, she left a one-room schoolhouse to go to work as a hired girl on a farm, to help out her family. She’d had to use "a glass over her letters” in school, as well as using a slate that had an abacus of red, yellow and green beads strung on wires at the top of its wooden frame (I learned to count on it when I was little). Shortly after going to work, she got the “white-throat sickness” (diphtheria) on a visit home. Her Welsh grandmother, a weaver, saved her life by putting a quill—a kind of a bobbin—down down her throat to “keep it from shutting like a box.” But somehow, before she had fully recovered, she was back out on the farm, and her mistress sent her to help with the harvest; she had a relapse in the fields and suffered permanent damage to her eyes.

For at least 250 years before her, most of the women on that side of our family had gone blind from cataracts in old age. For Gramma, with already weakened eyes, the onset began earlier; by the time my aunt Abbie, the youngest of her seven children, was born in 1916, she was losing her sight, and by the time she was 70, all light perception was gone.

How could an old blind woman teach a 4-year-old to do crewel embroidery stitches?

Answer: By using some ingenuity. After all, she’d taught me to read the year before that.

Mother bought a fairly loosely-woven, plain white kitchen towel. Getting out her black Singer sewing-machine—I vaguely recall a curved metal piece that she used with her knee instead of a foot-treadle to make it go—she stitched lines of thread down and across it, then added large cross-stitches at each corner of the grid-squares she’d created. On the top row, in each square, Gramma used a needle to make samples of each stitch she wanted to teach me. The first afternoon, I watched with interest as Mother stretched the material taut between embroidery hoops. Patiently, Gramma taught me how to knot a piece of yarn. Mother showed me how to thread the largest tapestry needle she’d been able to find, It felt as big as a telegraph pole between my fingers! With their coachingI made my very first stitch, on a slant. “Noo move the tip of your needle over here underneath,” Gramma said, her soft Hebridean burr/Welsh list coming to the fore, “and push it up through the cloth, cross over the middle of your first stitch, and go down again. What dae you see? What did you make?”

“An x! I made an x!” I cried.

“That’s ca'ed cross-stitch,” she told me.

This set the pattern of her teaching method: she’d show me the one of two for that day already stitched, then slowly demonstrate it for me a couple of times, guide my hands making the first one, feel the ones I did on my own, explain my mistakes, and then I’d practice while she stitched rapidly at what she was doing and told me a story. Sometimes after a while, Mother might join us.

I happily practiced making several before we went on to the second one for that day: back stitch. Every day I’d practice, and gradually mastered blanket, chain, feather, coral, couching, lazy daisy (which made me laugh), outline, stem (those two twist in reverse to each other), rice stitch, twilling and split stitch. By now there were several grid-towels. 

Here I must explain to you that most of the time, my grandmother was Gramma, but when she told me stories, she was my Granny. One day, when Mother had put my hair in braids, Granny said at breaksfast that she’d show me plaited stitch. When we had our afternoon lesson, she showed me witches’ stitch, and as I practiced, she told me a story about spaewives, a kind of witch who could make storms. Later Mother looked at our work and said, “Oh, you’ve learned herringbone!” I protested that there were no fishbones about it, I’d learned witches’ stitch! But what about plaited? And that’s when I found out that a stitch may have more than one or two names!

The two hardest ones were padded satin and French knots. I had trouble doing them evenly. But it was so nice, sitting together at a regular time every day, talking and stitching. I listened more than I talked, trying to wrap the thread around my needle, or remember which side to keep it on, while Gramma quickly did rows of Scottish stitches, and Mother made Renaissance stitches faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. One day they competed in doing spiderweb stitches! I despaired at ever being able to make such complicated things, but that winter for the first time in my life, I made a Christmas present: a “picture” of a house, with flowers lining the front walk, using all the different stitches I’d learned to send to her. Daddy said we should frame it under glass, but I explained to him that no, Gramma would want to feel it so she could tell I hadn’t made any mistakes. “It’s a sampler. Little girls made them in the olden days,” I told him.

Mother had had me do another picture for Daddy, all in cross-stitch. By the time I was eight, I was heartily sick of that particular stitch, and the mere thought of doing counted cross-stitch even now makes me want to scream very loudly and run in the opposite direction, fast!

Sometimes we'd go to Shirley's Yarn Barn out High Street, across from the M&M plant on the right, turning into a driveway that led past a red brick house. Unlike most driveways in Hackettstown at the time, it was U-shaped, curving to go behind the house and under a sort of little white clapboard bridge that connected the house on the right with a red brick barn on the left. Inside the barn were wooden shelves and bins overflowing with more colors than a sky full of rainbows. I'd feel very superior to any ladies buying floral needlepoint with the flowers in the center already done; all they had to do was the beige backgrounds, while my mother did all of hers, and sometimes changed the design on the canvas herself, to boot!

I never got the point of why anyone would buy something with all the interesting bits already done. It seemed to me at the time like cheating. Did they let anyone who saw the finished product think they'd done the whole thing themselves?

When we left, we'd drive past a mysterious overgrown garden with two owl stone gateposts. I wondered what happened to them years later, when M&M bought and redid the property; the grounds became very manicured (and ordinary, if easier to maintain).

The first time we went there, after I'd crossly declared my rebellion against cross [3], Mother showed me a pair of canvas pictures of a Dutch girl and boy on blue backgrounds. "It's half-cross tapestry," she explained. "The yarn comes with each one, in a kit. Would you like to try one?" I was so relieved not to have to do anything beige that I said yes, and once she'd shown me how to tape the edges with masking tape (this was long before we used stretcher bars), I found it very pleasurable to do. It was a wintertime activity. I could see that it'd be too hot to deal with the strands of wool in the hot summertime in our house, which had no AC. So I learned a couple of tapestry stitches--I like basketweave--and when I finished each one, Mother had them blocked to even out where my grubby little hands had unevenly stretched the edges. For a while they hung in my room.

Now, that word tapestry is a bit of a misnomer. Historically, a tapestry referred to a piece woven on looms, a highly skilled craft. The tapestry weaver was very specialized, and he would work from a design called a cartoon. Originally, that word referred to a preparatory drawing or sketch. That it is humorous is a secondary, later definition [4], even though that's the one people think of first now. Last winter, John and I went to The Carnegie to see an exhibit of tapestries, and we saw and chatted with a woman who was making a small one. She had her cartoon pinned up on an edge of the loom.

Woven tapestries--the arras Shakespeare has Polonius hide behind in Hamlet--served an important purpose in medieval times. If your European castle was made of stone walls, with wooden shutters or leaded glass (if you were scandalously wealthy) in the windows, and heated by a fire in a hearth-pit in the middle of the room or later by a fireplace (with most of the heat going up the chimney), in the winter it was COLD. It must have been a lot like camping in a lodge, only draftier--yet still luxurious compared to the hovels the commoners lived in. That's why they had rushes strewn on the floor, and hung up tapestries on the walls, to help insulate a little. If you've ever lived in an old uninsulated house, you know how cold to the touch an outside wall can get.

Tapestries were a status symbol (all those square yards of fabric cost money), so naturally nobles were willing to pay for them to be decorative, and commission special ones to brag about. Like any other home decor item, there were fashions in them. You could get classical or Biblical heroes, or the Seven Virtues, or unicorns, or a hunting scene, or an illustration of a popular legend or myth or life of a saint.

Anyway, it's thought that modern needlepoint looks back thousands of years to the stitch people used in making tents, which is why the first needlepoint stitch I learned on my Dutch girl was called tent stitch. Did you know that when Howard Carter, the archaeologist later famous for finding King Tut's tomb, excavated a cave tomb of a lesser-known pharaoh (not all of them had pyramids) before 1900, he found some needlepoint that was from 1,500 years B.C.? 

Women were doing needlepoint in Europe in the 16th Century, and Flame Stitch, as Gramma called one variety (otherwise known as bargello or Hungarian or Florentine), was very popular 100 years later--call it by whatever name you prefer, this type is done in geometric designs, very mathematically based...which is why I don't do it. With the advent of upholstered furniture in France in the 18th Century, the fabric covering the padding had to be durable (unless you were able to afford to recover those silk chairs every time someone spilled food or wine on them, or snagged them with the end of a rapier or something)--and needlepoint filled the bill. Somewhere in Louisa May Alcott's novels and short stories, there's at least one reference to Berlin work; that was a needlepoint craze in the mid-1800s. There are references to it in the novels of  George Eliot, Mary Gaskell, the Brontës, DickensTrollope, and probably a few others I'm forgetting. Back then, of course, if someone mentioned a woman's work, they meant some form of needle arts--sewing, mending, embroidery, needlepoint (whatever type she was doing), knitting, tatting, crocheting, lacemaking, quilling, or latch-hooking, etc.,and that work could range from clothing, pillows, pictures, throws, bell-pulls, Church vestments, linens, tablecloths, dresser scarves, rugs....You can see where that old proverb about "A man's work lasts from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done" came from. It wasn't ever done, either.

If you go to Chawton, a charming little village in England (you can get a bus from Winchester), you can visit the Jane Austen Cottage that she lived in for several years before her final illness. There you will see the small side table she wrote four novels on, one ear cocked for the squeak of a door, her signal  to whisk her manuscript out of sight before a guest walked in. That table is slightly smaller than the gorgeous, elaborate workbag (on legs, with many silk compartments inside its lacquered, inlaid lid) that one of her Naval brothers sent her from Japan. After all, it was proper for a lady to do work--but not to be an author.  Her writing isn't even mentioned on her gravestone in a side aisle of Winchester Cathedral or on the stained glass window in her memory above it.

There's something very meditative about needlepointing, and yet it is an exercise of contrasts: the lines of the open-weave canvas which is going to be covered by the stitches; the fluidity of the yarn following the blunt-ended metal needle; the movements of your hands. My mind is free to range from what I'm actually doing--do I need to anchor the end, or can I take a few more stitches? What color shall I select next? Where did I put my scissors? They are crane ones, a gift from Mother, and the only needle arts tool I have worthy of Jane's workbox. More questions to contemplate: How do I keep the cat(s) out of my lap/the bag of yarn/my workbag?--interspersed with memories of stitching with Mother and Gramma, remembering some of Granny's stories (Will I tell that one at my next gig? And what book is it that has a variant on it?), getting an insight into a plot problem on a story I'm writing, thinking about a piece of music I'm learning, or actually tuning into a TV program John is watching.

And in the background is the contented continuity of being part of that tradition, that I am one of thousands of women, some of them my foremothers, seated in a favorite chair and using these familiar skills, tools and materials, to create something new, something of mine. Because even if it's a kit (lacking my mother's artistic talent and verve), still I am free to change a color choice, and at the very least, add in my own initials and the date as a silent proclamation:

       I did this.  It bears the impress of my personality.
                          It is the work of my hands.

There is a peace in that. It is a gift I give myself.

[1] Rose (1886-1968) was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter. A fine novelist in her own right, she encouraged her mother to write the Little House books. She wrote a series of articles on needlework for Women’s Day magazine in the 1960s.
[2] Published in book form by Simon & Shuster: New York, 1963. Mother and I read this first in the magazine articles, and later I found the book. I can’t cite the exact page—I’m paraphrasing—because my copy is in a box at the back of our storage bin and I haven’t looked at it in years. Need to add to the To-Do List to get it out and re-read.
[3] There you are: an example of a carrawidget. (See the description of what this blog is about at the top of the page.) A pun. When I was in college, I found a dictionary of Tudor English (mistitled as Old English), but full of wonderful, little-used words that are satisfyingly mouth-filling and fun to say, and I particularly liked that one.
[4] I should ask Joe Wos if there are any tapestry cartoons in the ToonSeum. He  is a marvelous storyteller who illustrates his stories with cartoons, and often gives them away to children in his audiences.



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