Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Stitch in Time Preserves Women's Lives

When I am working on a cross stitch, the thing I love to do more than anything is to run my fingers over that stitches that I have already made. My fingertips lightly distinguish between full and half stitches, the cloth versus the thread, and in the end when I have stitched the details, the tiny back stitches that illuminate the figures and details. I frequently turn my cross-stitch over and note each stitch on the back. I strive to make my backs as neat as the front, being told that a neat back was a sign of a master stitcher, though I never stopped to ask myself why I would care to be considered a master stitcher. Once my work is finished, I iron and frame my cross-stitch, therefore the only person who knows that the back is neat is myself. But ever since I was told the secret to knowing who was a master stitcher and who was not, I have prided myself on having a neat back.
For me, cross-stitching has never been about my identity. Sure, I know that sometimes I am identified as the weird girl who sits in the library with a hoop on her lap, thread in her mouth trying the find the eye of her needle. But I never considered that it could be something that preserved my identity. All I know is that I never grow tired of pausing when I finish a particular section to inspect my work and try to picture the parts that are still left and how they correspond to whatever I just knotted off, whether it is the background, a face, or a flower. It can be ever so small, but I know that when I pull the picture of the finished product out of my giant zip lock baggy, and compare the advertiser’s work to mine own, that the smallest detail that I just stitched is important to the overall picture.
And yet, to women around the world, cross-stitching, or any kind of needlework and embroidery was not a way to kill time. It went deeper than that. Just as the cloth and thread work together to create picture or a saying, so too do women use this skill to create a picture or a saying that reflects who they are. In today’s world, I can go to any arts and crafts store and purchase a cross-stitch kit that contains everything that I would need to create a masterpiece. And even though there are specific instructions that are supposed to be followed in order to replicate the picture on the front, I often find myself not always following the instructions to the letter. I may switch colors or add and delete stitches as I see fit. I never really thought that much about it, but I can see that these tiny changes can tell a person a lot about myself, such as I may not be able to completely throw away the rules in life, but I often change or ignore them to a small degree to suit myself. And I think that for many women, they can find ways to express themselves and their personalities through their craft as well, especially women in early to mid America where their voices were never fully allowed to transcend the public or private sphere. Even though the private sphere has always been described as the women’s realm, I believe that even there their voices could be stifled by husbands or fathers. And because of that, I really believe that women not only found themselves in their needlework, but that others around and after them found these women within the needlework as well.
For this project, as I looked through the catalog of available textiles near the end of the book, I was delighted to find a sampler from the 1820s. From the picture, it was easy to see that this was definitely not a cross-stitch that I was used to making, but I was still intrigued with the notion that I would be able to examine a piece of needlework by a woman that had lived a century before me.
Once I arrived at the museum, I quickly selected a pair of gloves and looked around for the area where this sampler was sitting. Once I had found it, I sat my purse down and pulled a chair up to the table where the sampler laid. My first notion was the sheer size of it. It was longer than me, and even though I am a short person, the fact that this thing was longer than five and a half feet made me wonder what it would be like to work on it. My cross-stitches have never been any bigger than an 8 by 12 picture frame, and yet, this would have been worked on as it fell out of her lap onto the surface or floor where she was working. I could picture her maybe sighing as she shifted it either by onto her lap or away from her as she worked on different sections.
Across the middle of this piece are the words “Saravin, G.S.T. Crown C” and across the top are the letters, “BENSWELLI”. The shapes and designs covering the cloth are reminiscence of snowflakes and small trees all stitched in pink and blue cotton thread. As I sat and looked at it, I have to say that it was not the designs or the words that caught my eye, but instead, what I really wanted to see, was the back of this sampler. I wanted to see what kind of stitcher this woman was. My fingers itched to flip it over, but first, I needed to look at the front and get an idea of what it was this woman was sewing. As with my cross-stitches, I ran my fingertips over the mixture of thread and cloth, smiling at the feel of familiar textures.
I almost felt guilty about what I was about to do, but I had to, I had to see it. I flipped the sampler over and smoothed it out. I was impressed. I found one of the snowflake designs from the front, and ran my fingers over the neat grouping of threads. It was so fluid from the back. I pulled it closer to my face, wondering if I could figure out the starting point and trace her work all the way around the design. I was excited when I found what I assumed was the beginning. It was a piece of thread looped around and underneath a few others without a significant knot. It was how my starting points looks when I run my thread underneath the first cross and secure it. I was delighted seeing that a woman from the 1820s started her stitch the same way I started mine. From this point, it was surprisingly easy to work my way from one stem of the snowflake, to the middle, to the next stem, back to the middle, and so on. I noticed that she ran out of thread in some spots. There would be a small, neat knot next to another piece of thread looped under and around that knot which would then be stitched into the next part of the design. I kept working my way around the snowflake, picturing this woman sitting in a chair by the fire or window with her hoop in place and her needle flashing in the light. Her hand would have that steady up and down motion, rhythmic to something inside of her. I like to imagine her hand diving down, her needle grasped between her strong fingertips that have done this thousands of times before. She would have plunged her needle halfway through the cloth, and quick as a flash, her hand would go from holding the needle to appear underneath her hoop, to grab it from underneath, pulling it through. She would watch her thread being pulled tighter and shorter through the hole, crossing the thread she had already stitched into place. She would continue like this until the snowflake was finished, until the light was gone, until her neck and back slightly ached from sitting straight and looking down at her lap.
I would be lying if I said I knew this woman’s name, or her family history. I looked, but I would also be lying if I said I looked really hard. For some reason, I did not feel that this woman would have wanted me to look so extensively for her name. If she wanted it to be remembered, I would assume that she would have stitched it plainly into the sampler. I know that according to Ulrich that women used their needlework to leave a legacy of themselves, but I wondered if perhaps this women’s talent was her legacy. I feel that all she wanted to be known about herself would and could be found in this sampler. Perhaps she wanted her work admired and not her self as a person. Perhaps this sampler was a celebration of the art and not of herself. If that was the reason, I would have to say that I could understand that. In my cross-stitches, I never put my name. I never include anything that tells who I am, but I would hope that within my stitching, someone could have an idea of who I am.
So what does my cross-stitches say about me? For starters, I never work on anything that big. My pieces are barely longer than a cubit if I may be Biblical about it. And I think one of the first things someone would notice about my pieces is that they are all geishas. One may conclude that I love Japanese history and culture, but that would be a lie as well. It’s not that I like Japanese culture, but I love geisha culture and tradition, especially the art and skill of wearing kimono. I find kimonos beautiful and elegant, and hence I find the women who wear them beautiful and elegant. These women always look so delicate in stature and graceful in action, with their hair piled on the tops of their heads, and their hands so demure in the simple act of holding a fan or an umbrella. I hope that people would look beyond the geisha and see that my stitches are even and neat, and connect that to the neatness I try to keep in my own life. I hope that they would see that I have been stitching for awhile, and that my backs are neat, though far from perfect, showing that I still have a way to go. I wonder what all someone would gather simply by looking at my pieces. I stood in my room and looked at the two framed stitches above my television. I wondered what someone from about 150 years looking at these would think of me. Would they do like I did and imagine me sitting somewhere peaceful working on completing the kimono? Would they think about the kind of person I was? Would they connect my work to perhaps something they were working on as well?
Studying textiles is a glimpse into the very lives of women who have gone before us. So much has changed since primitive women figured out how to spin fibers into thread and take that thread to make a covering, even if what that covering covered was questionable. And then learning that women perfected that primitive weaving to make large pieces of cloth to cover, drape, and wrap themselves in. And from those primitive drapings, fashion comes into play. Now people just don’t make clothes, they design them, and compete for best dressed. And from those early court fashions, industry springs up and keeps moving forward until present day when I, a girl who cannot figure out how to recreate a regency dress to save her life can still appreciate the work and the progress that went in it to create that dress. And then I can take it a step forward and connect it to my own cross-stitching.
At this point, I realize now that what was once a simple hobby to help me relieve my stress is also a way preserve a part of my identity. It may not be my name, Bible verse, favorite color, or a popular saying. It goes deeper than that. Needlework takes all the different threads of your life and allows them to be weave and sewed together to make a picture of something great and beautiful, something that can be used to decorate and make better. This is what I have gained from my museum project and this class. I have learned that simple textiles are not just simple textiles; they are the very identities and ingenuity of the women that have walked this earth before us. It reminds of a saying that I once read, “In order to understand any woman, you must understand the woman that came before her.”This saying has impacted my life more than I ever thought. When I look at a textile, be it a string skirt, a regency dress, or a sampler, I’m looking at the art and skill of a woman before me. To understand their textile is to understand a part of them, to understand a part of them is to preserve a part of them, and to preserve a part of them is make them live another day. This is not just the significance of textile or women’s study, but the significance of us a people, to remember those who came before us and enrich our lives with the lessons and memories that they have left behind. This is what I have learned not just from this project, but from this class.