so well as she might

Posted by on January 22, 2007


While in Chattanooga I picked up three used how-to books on embroidery. I’m inspired to learn this old-timey art since I’m now officially a stay-at-home mom (please don’t call me that) with a lot more time for hobbies. I was attracted to the book pictured above because I wanted to make the owl on the cover and another very nice set of embroidered birds pictured in the middle. Unfortunately there are no specific instructions on how to make any of the cool things circa 1969 (its year of publication) pictured. It was only two dollars, and now I know why. Apparently, 1969 was an era when how-to books were more likely to instruct via long-winded explanations rather than illustrations. Somewhere along the way publishers realized that the public might need to see a needle being inserted from left to right and then under the loop rather than just read it. I’m thinking specifically of DK publishers, in particular, whose books cram in as many illustrations per page as can possibly fit. But, to get back to the 1969 owl book, the author’s tone is instructional to the point of being pedantic, and she charmingly violates political correctness left and right.

The introduction on the inside cover flap says that the books is for “the inexperienced needlewoman,” and here’s a sample passage: “No one works a stitch so well as she might the first time she tries it, and you should always do a little practicing first…just to get your hand in.” And then: “Perhaps you will never learn all the sixty-four stitches described in this chaper. If you do, you will be able to work practically any type of embroidery…. Even if you master only twenty or thirty of them, you will be able to embroider a very wide variety of things for your home, and to decorate your own and your children’s clothes.” I love the assumption that only women with children would be reading a book on how to embroider, but I also have to admit that the assumption pegs me at this juncture. I’ve always had inclinations toward craftiness, but now that I have a daughter, I am ready to get down to business. I can’t explain why that is. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t get more training at a young age. If only I had grown up in colonial New England, I would have already made my first embroidery sampler by the age of ten. Now I’m struggling through embroidery terminology like clip-clop, climbing roses, and the lazy-daisy stitch.

Fortunately I did pick up a smattering of lessons in needlecraft at various points in my life. In the fifth grade my public school had a special program in which once a week we broke off into groups to learn an extracirricular skill of our choice. I remember that cheerleading was one of the popular options, but what did I choose? Quilting. It was me and all of two other girls and someone’s volunteer mom teaching us. I made a tiny 4×4″ pillow with hearts on the front, and I still remember the process of making it– adding the batting underneath and all of that. Later on my dad, probably operating from the framework of someone who grew up in rural, poor Savannah in the 1930s and 40s, felt it was appropriate for my sister and me to know something about sewing, so he arranged a one-time sewing lesson at an old lady’s trailer home for the day. She was one of his patients and I don’t know how the arrangement came about. My dad is a chiropracter and it was not uncommon for him to barter with his patients. There was a mechanic who worked on our car in exchange for adjustments, and so forth.

In any case, Lucy and I each climbed out of her trailer at the end of the day with a throw cushion in hand (pillows must be the ultimate beginner’s project), and mine was pink with white eyelet lace around the border. The main thing I remember from that lesson was how tricky it was going around the corner of the pillow with the lace, and how the old lady showed us how to gather the fabric and pin it with great attention to detail. I probably ran home and proceeded to throw a softball with my neighbor friend, but I still learned some things, which I also still remember. Then there was a short crochet lesson from a lady at church when I was in highschool. Then, during one summer home from college, another elderly female patient of my dad’s taught me how to machine sew. She lived in a sky rise apartment in downtown Orlando and got around on a motorized scooter. Her name (or nickname?) was Birdie, and she also told me about her sad life while teaching me to sew, which involved being married to a man who confessed, thirty years into the marriage, that he was in fact gay. “We didn’t know about those things back then,” she said. She passed away two years ago, but I remember her, the sunny apartment, and the sewing sessions pretty well.

I asked for a basic sewing machine for Christmas from my in-laws, and happily got one. The confusing instructions on how to thread it, combined with my straining to remember what Birdie taught me, actually worked. I got the machine fired up and made a few fancy burp clothes for the new Cohen baby with some new cloth diapers and pretty fabric scraps and ribbons.

So…what can I say? I’m not as advanced as I could be at age twenty-nine, but I’m so grateful for the little shreds of learning I stumbled upon at various points so that I’m not building from below the ground. When I think about competency in home economics and the art of needlecrafts, I think about someone like Ann Hopko, who was sitting next to me during a Lenten service at the seminary once when Proverbs 31 was about to be read. “Listen to this,” she said, matter-of-factly. Oh, I’d heard it and read it for myself many times before. It has that line about her [the woman in the Proverb] children being clothed in scarlet and something about considering fabric at the marketplace, and buying it, or maybe I made that part up. I grew up constantly regretting that my mom was not one of those women; I so wanted her to be one. Whenever a friend told me that her mom was making her Halloween costume, I pined. Maybe that’s why I want to learn now, so I can be that kind of mom for Esme. Probably every parent is driven to react against what they felt was lacking in their childhood. Women who had the crafty mother probably want a high-powered business career, for all I know. But that’s another story for another day. I’m going to go pick out the thread for my first sampler today and if and when I become a more experience needlewoman, I’ll post my work for all to see.

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  1. Anonymous
    January 22, 2007

    Good luck with the embroidery. Stay at home mom, is that a derogatory term like Soccer mom?