course of study

The sun sets over the mountain earlier each day, and we seem to be crossing autumn chores off our list at a decent pace. Shorter days and winter chill provide opportunities. My sights are set on a new course of action–a self-directed ‘course of study’ concentrating on the natural world around me. Over the next months, I plan to read, or have them read to me, the following books, giving me information to delve deeper and understand the wildlife, farm-life and natural world around me more fully.

  • Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in our Midst (Catherine Reid). During day light hours a few weeks ago, I spotted a lone coyote walking past my studio, marking territory, and moving off quickly into the woods. Although we hear the haunting nighttime chorus on a regular basis, seeing one led me to the first book on my list.
  • Malabar Farm (Louis Bromfield). In 1939, Bromfield and family moved to a run down farm and sought to rejuvenate the land. The book recounts his successful methods of land management and conservation—a true forerunner of the ‘back to the land movement’.
  • Our Life in Gardens (Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd). Over the course of 40 years, renowned gardeners, Eck and Winterrowd transformed a blank landscape into a functional and ornamental Vermont garden. Perusing this ‘how-to’ book provides a constant source of information to us as we seek to improve our land.
  • A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian. Artist and Scientist (Boris Friedewald). A biography of a seventeenth century woman who “collected, observed, and sketched caterpillars and butterflies and their forage plants at a time when such interests might well have led to her being suspected of witchcraft rather than admired for her intelligence.” Women that broke through the imposed educational strictures are a rarity and their stories need to be read.
  • The Maple Sugar Book Together with Remarks on Pioneering as a Way of Living in the Twentieth Century (Helen and Scott Nearing). When I happened upon this book at our local library’s book sale, it seemed a must for a winter read. We watch the local maple trees being harvested, and I’m contemplating the steps and tools needed to make use of this natural resource.
  • The Witches Salem: 1692 (Stacy Schiff). On October 27, Schiff’s newest book, a thorough examination of the Salem Witch trials, is released. Indeed, this is not related to the ‘natural world’, however, it clearly relates to the colonial era and my continued exploration of women and culture of those times that produced such terror of witches.


One of my favorite methods of learning is from books-on-tape now in CD format, as I accomplish rote work or drive around doing errands.

  • Winter World The ingenuity of animal survival (Bernd Heinrich). Heinrich, a biologist as well as illustrator, examines the Maine woods and its winter inhabitants.  Currently, I am listenting to the chapter on bird nests and have been venturing out in search.
  • The House of Owls (Tony Angell). Nightly, we hear the hooting of the owls, and like the coyotes, our ‘neighbors’, I must know more, especially since one rarely sees an owl. I’d be particularly pleased to spot a saw-whet owl.
  • The Paper Garden: An Artist (Begins her Life’s Work) at 72 (Molly Peacock). Having read and re-read this astonishing account of Mary Delany’s life as told in the most poetic way by Peacock, I was delighted to find that it is also a book on CD.
  • Silent Spring (Rachel Carson). Over the summer, I listened to the biography of Carson [On a farther shore: The life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder]. I read her factual and poetic book, The Sea Around Us and now must read the groundbreaking Silent Spring.

The die is cast. My course is set and off I go.


If you stop by the farm, most likely you will find us at the stove stirring big vats of plums or apples for jam and sauce. Our fruit trees are laden this year, and like all good homesteaders, we cannot let this bounty go to waste.


Both my grandmother and mother preserved food both by canning and freezing. Eating the summer crops in the deep mid-winter was not only a pleasure but a necessity. When we moved from the suburbs to the tiny town of Delaplane in 1972, the back to the land movement was well under way. Ironically, as an adult, I never thought to ask my Dad if he was a follower of the Nearings or a reader of the Whole Earth Catalog. He did want us to learn how to work and to know the effort of labor related to the land.

Before we actually took possession of the house that June, he negotiated with the owner for us to re-claim the garden during the spring months. On Saturdays, as my suburb friends played, we loaded up the station wagon with tools and lunch and drove the hour and a half drive from Alexandria out to the farm nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Eventually, seeds were planted and by the time we moved there in June, the garden was well underway.

During the summer months, we learned new chores—watering, weeding and finally harvesting. If I thought weeding was tedious in the hot southern sun, I certainly was not prepared for the hours spent picking produce and preparing it for canning jars. Standing over the work sink in the windowless basement seemed interminable. Then and there I swore never to have a garden. Ironically, one of the first items on our to-do list when we moved here was to establish a garden. Walking to the garden to gather sun-ripened tomatoes along with fistfuls of basil is one of life’s true pleasures. Preserving these crops is the next logical step; if not, we would squander the delicious food and waste the human effort put into growing them.

On the colonial farm, food preservation meant survival. Andrea Jones, Director of Programs and Visitor Experience at Accokeek Foundation, states that Americans living in the colonial era wouldn’t have wasted their food. “The Boltons would have valued every morsel of food, because it’s survival,” said Jones, who has seen food waste in this country increase by 50 percent in her lifetime. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how recent a problem it is.” ’

The Boltons, as historical interpreters, live on The Colonial Farm situated on the banks of the Potomac River on the grounds of the Accokeek Foundation. Visiting the Farm and Foundation is a perfect example of looking back to look forward, for one experiences the hardscrabble life of the farm family as well as the forward thinking of their Ecosystem Farm. This Saturday is a great day to visit The Colonial Farm and attend the Food for Thought Festival from noon to 5pm. The afternoon is filled with panels, demonstrations and information. Here is the link:

Andrea Jones comments from the article by Whitney Pipkin, “How will you make it through the winter?,” Bay Journal. Accessed on 9/22/15,


by the week

Last week, we harvested the bulbous bulbs of garlic in our garden, and now they are laid out on old window screens to dry before cleaning and storing. Planting garlic in the fall is one of the easiest chores—each clove is put into its own 6-inch hole and, covered, and there they sit all winter long. The shoot emerges in the spring, the scape is harvested and made into pesto, and the bulb continues to grow. Finally, around the last week of July, (give or take a week), each bulb is coaxed gently from the earth.

Week by week the garden yields new treasures from the first peas, to asparagus and then to strawberries, and ramps up as the summer proceeds. Just as one harvests, one must tend the garden as well. Leaving the ground alone for too long provides an opportunity for weeds to settle in, thus depleting the soil, and causing extra work for the gardener. As you know, dear reader, I adore weeds, but not so much in the vegetable patch.

Around the Year in the Garden by Frederick Frye Rockwell (1884-1976) provides one with weekly guidance. “July: Fifth Week” is right on target with sage advice:

“As fast as a strip of ground is cleared, even if it is a but a single row, it should be sown to a cover crop to be spaded under next spring. Besides adding humus and making conditions favorable to the development of bacteria, there are several advantages in having a growing crop on the ground throughout the winter. Such a crop forages the lower layers of the soil for food that most of the vegetable plants cannot reach, and brings it to the surface; it captures remnants of plant food that would leach away during the winter, and holds them in storage until they are required again next summer.”


He recommends both rye and vetch as green manures, as well as Essex rape and buckwheat.

“If bees are kept, or there are chickens to be fed, a small patch of buckwheat should be put in. For the honey bees, a few rows through the garden will answer. For mature grain it should be sown at once; for a winter mulch, sown with crimson clover, or for spading under this fall, it may be sown at any time during the next two or three weeks.”

Indeed, the rye seeds are in the ground along with a few rows of buckwheat for any foraging bees. Added to the chore list for the first week of August–order fall bulbs, both garlic and flowers, from Fedco.

Frederick Frye Rockwell, Around the Year in the Garden, (MacMillan Company, 1917), pgs. 189, 191.


One of my favorite pastimes is foraging, for books as well as for weeds and plants. I never pass up a library’s used book sale and when in NYC, The Strand’s outdoor bins, especially the 48-cent one, never lets me down. A favorite herb book was gathered there and more recently a copy of Weeds (A Golden Guide) by Alexander C. Martin.

Imagine my shock when I opened the book and looked at the Table of Contents, including, “The Harm Weeds Cause, Cost to farmers; additional losses in control of lawn and garden pests, respiratory ailments; interference with waterways and outdoor recreation.” Published in 1972, I wonder if this mindset laid the ground work for the pervasive use of harmful neonicotinoids, now in use on many fields and farms, engineered to kill weeds and terribly harmful to insects, pollinators and wildlife. To be fair, Martin does include a mention of the benefits of weeds—“Many kinds of weeds are sources of drugs, medicines and dyes. Songbirds, gamebirds, and other kinds of wildlife depend to a very large extent on weed seeds for their existence.” However, the overall emphasis of the book remains on identification and subsequent elimination of these so-called pesky plants.

blog photo

As you are aware, dear reader, weeds are some of my favorite things, to be encouraged and relished, in the kitchen, the dye pot and the remedy jar. Thankfully, many moons ago, Euell Gibbons’ groundbreaking foraging book, published in 1962, Stalking the Wild Asparagus found its way into my hands from my library’s yearly sale. Gibbons (1911-1975) began his foraging as a child.

Gibbons recounts, to the writer John McPhee:

“Wild food was our calendar—a signal of the time of year. In the spring, we had wild asparagus and poke and all the early greens. Lamb’s-quarters came in the late spring and strawberries in the early summer, then mulberries and blackberries. In the late summer, we had purslane, wild plums, maypops—that’s a kind of hard-shell passion fruit—and in the fall there were plenty of muscadines, wild pecans, hickory nuts, black walnuts. As it got a little colder, there were persimmons, hackberries and black haws. Wherever we went, I asked what the Indians ate. We considered all these things delicacies, and we would not have not gathered them, anymore than we would have let things in the garden go to waste.”

Sometimes one has to take the good with the bad, or filter it. While I won’t eliminate the weeds, all ‘good’ to me, I will use the pocket sized Weeds book, as I walk the fields, for positive plant identification. Gibbons’ books, filled with ‘good’ writing—descriptions, stories and uses– will continue to inspire me. Perhaps, it is time to make that ‘weed’ calendar/chart, reminding me when to look for and harvest them.

Alexander C. Martin illustrations by Jean Zallinger A Golden Guide Weeds, (Golden Press, 1972), 6-7, 8-9.

John McPhee, The New Yorker April 6, 1968 (pgs. 45-104), accessed on line June 2, 2015, pgs. 50. If you are a subscriber to The New Yorker (access to their archives is free), this article by McPhee recounts a camping trip that he and Gibbons took and the 16 foraged meals they ate together.

poetry month

Textile terms are often linked to writing, and in particular, works of women’s words.

Theodore Roethke sets the stage for his glowing review of the poet Louise Bogan (1897-1970) by starting with a contrast, stating that women poets are often accused of ‘lack of range” exhibited by “the spinning out; the embroidering of trivial themes.” He concludes his review by noting: “Her poems create their own reality, and demand not just attention, but the emotional and spiritual response to the whole man. Such a poet will never be popular, but can and should be a true model for the young. And the best work will stay in the language as long as the language survives.”

Perhaps Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the first poet of the Colonies, set the standard and bar for women poets in her poem, The Prologue:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

Who says my hand a needle better fits.

A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong;

For such despite they cast on female wits,

If what I do prove well, it won’t advance—–

They’ll say it stolen, or else by chance.

Indeed, needle and thread did function as a stylus for many a young girl on the canvas of her sampler as evidenced in the recent exhibition, Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlwork 1726-1860 held at the Morven Museum and Garden. Over 150 samplers lined the galleries, almost overwhelming to the eye, but reassuring and fortifying for both the scholar and stitcher alike.

Young Anne Rickey (1783-1846) stitched/wrote on her sampler:

Hail specimen of female art

The needle’s magic power to show

To canvas various hues impart

And make a mimic world to grow

A sampler then with care peruse

An emblem sage you there may find

The canvas takes what forms you choose

So education forms the mind.


The poet Dara Mandle links weaving, writing , technology and preservation in her poem, Looking at Burden Baskets in the Smithsonian:

Was the weaver’s art so different

from my picking apart?


She peeled cedar shoots for her daily tools,

I recorded the music of bracken fern


and sumac. On the page, I threaded

wild rye with river cane, she used


a loom to coil deer grass around yucca

Why did I stare? I didn’t imagine her


in a museum inspecting my laptop,

its plastic mouse holy as a scarab.


April is poetry month, and seems only fitting for one to venture forth and hear words read from pages of books by their writers. Dara Mandle will be reading from her newly published chapbook, Tobacco Hour (art by Brece Honeycutt), along with writer John Talbird (art by Lesley Kerby) on Sunday April 19 at Luhring Augustine Bushwick from 4-6pm. This event marks the 10th & 11th writer/artist/poet collaborations initiated and produced by Norte Maar.

Psyche The Feminine Poetic Consciousness An Anthology of Modern American Women Poets, edited by Barbara Segnitz and Carol Rainey (Dell Publishing, 1973), pgs. 11, 12 (Both Roethke and Bradstreet from the introduction).

Theodore Roetheke, “A Memorable American Poet, The Poetry of Louise Bogan,” reprinted from the Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review, December 3, 1960, Vol. LXVII, No. 10, accessed online April 15, 2015,

Linda Arntzenius, “Hail Morven’s Latest (Landmark) Exhibition”, Princeton Magazine, February 2015, accessed on line April 14, 2015,

Elaine Showalter, A Jury of her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, (Virago Press, 2009), pgs. 99-100.

Dara Mandle, Tobacco Hour, (Norte Maar, 2015).

one year

Imagine my delight at happening upon Fiona J. Houston’s book, The Cottage Diaries My Year in the Eighteenth Century. Why would someone choose to live for a year in a small house without running water, electricity, heat or any of the comforts that we are accustomed to? Ironically, the present led her back to the past. While investigating the history of Scottish food for an exhibition, she read Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate, and was shocked by the lack of nutrients found in industrialized food. She posited that people ate better in late eighteenth century Scotland and decided to take on the challenge of living and eating for a year as a dominie’s wife (a dominie is a Scottish schoolmaster).

Houston writes:

“One of my reasons for trying to go back in time was my anger at our throw-away society. It’s not just the wastefulness of buying goods, using them for a short time and then chucking them out that upsets me. It is the whole swathe of human activity and endeavour that is negated by this cycle. In the past, people had fewer resources. They had to use their skills and ingenuity to obtain the things that they needed for daily life. They had to make, mend, improvise and invent. I like all of that. I may not have all of the skills, but I have the inclination. In deciding to live simply for a year, I was setting myself a challenge to let the practical side of my nature come to the fore.”

Houston sets herself up in a small house and kits it to an eighteenth century standard with a simple table and chair, bed, a few candlesticks, pots and pans, and a range dating from 1860 (women of the prior century would have cooked on an open hearth, but the structure of Houston’s cottage did not allow for this). She wears clothing of the time (skirts and cloaks, both become soaked in the rain, for not waterproof), gardens and forages in order to cook seasonally, writes with a quill pen using homemade ink, and walks to the local village when necessary.


Her diary begins in January 2005 and chronicles her monthly chores and activities. She provides recipes, and I have yet to make her oatcakes, but soon nettle soup will be on our table. She kept a careful accounting of the her food categorized by season, purchased or foraged, as well as “What it all Cost.” She works incredibly hard at daily living, keeping warm or cool, gathering firewood, making candles and other chores. At the end of her day, she tries to sit down and read books of the time, but finds that it is difficult to read by the rushlights. Houston confirms my suspicion that working by candlelight was extremely difficult, for I often wonder how much was accomplished by such dim lights.

I have the utmost admiration for Fiona Houston, for mastering the skills needed to survive an eighteenth century year. Her book provides one with both the expertise to follow in her footsteps and the ability to see what one can do in the twenty-first century to live a more considered, ‘greener’ life.

NOTE: It seems only fitting to mark the completion of a second year of ‘on a colonial farm’ after reading of Houston’s eighteenth century life. Thank you, dear readers for joining me.

Fiona J. Houston, The Cottage Diaries My Year in the Eighteenth Century, illustrations by Claire Melinsky, (Saraband, 2009), pgs. 9-10, 44, 71, 214

past & present

Yet another snowstorm looms in our local future, as it does for many on the east coast. The weather continues to be a topic of much talk and, in some cases, despair, as it ever was.

Noah Webster (1748-1853) kept a “diary of weather” and thus was able to put both past and present into perspective. He wrote:

“The snow in January of 1805 was about 3 feet deep. This was the severest winter since 1780. But the snow left the earth in March in good season & spring was early. I cut asparagus on the 14th of April, 9 days earlier than last year.”

His article ‘Meteorological’ in The Connecticut Herald seeks to make sense of the reported severest winters of 1780 and 1805. Webster was eagerly tracking the climatic changes through his strenuous data gathering, and thereby challenged the attestations of Thomas Jefferson and others that the “American winters were becoming milder.” Intriguingly, biographer Joshua Kendall links this controversy between scholarly gentlemen to what we now call climate change. Jefferson claimed that the deforestation in some states was the cause of this warming trend; Webster noted that variability in weather patterns was increasing, and he kept data and analyzed the statistics to prove it. Both of these wise individuals pointed to the plight that we are dealing with, or need to tackle, today.

Looking back at these winters and writers gives one a bit of perspective on the recent bout of record setting weather, which must needs give one pause about what we humans are doing each day as we shape the future of our globe.


Wendell Berry asks us to remain in the present with our actions in regards to climate change and land abuse. He posits that if we are only thinking of what can be accomplished in the future, we are missing the opportunity for what we can do right now. He invites us to ‘save energy now for the future’ by beginning with small acts today. Berry states,

“We are always ready to set aside our present life, even our present happiness, to peruse the menu of future exterminations. If the future is threatened by the present, which it undoubtedly is, then the present is more threatened, and often is annihilated, by the future.”

He continues:

“….so few as just one of us can save energy right now by self-control, careful thought, and remembering the lost virtue of frugality. Spending less, burning less, traveling less may be relief. A cooler, slower life may make us happier, more present to ourselves, and to others who need us to be present.”

Time, right now, to start a list of small actions for today.



Joshua Kendall, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, (Berkley Books, 2012), pgs. 273-274.

Wendell Berry, Our Only World Ten Essays, (Counterpoint, 2015), pgs. 174, 175.



I stand at my worktable, pierce holes in paper, thread a needle with waxed linen and bind the pages together forming a hand bound book. My actions are not revolutionary, but they are meditative, and ones that fellow bookbinders have done for centuries.

As I line up the pages within the eco-dyed covers, and rhythmically slip the needle through the holes, my mind wanders to images of leaves of books, of books within books. Often books are about just that – other books – and with more regularity now, images of archival manuscripts are reproduced therein. Thankfully so, for these manuscripts are hidden from view, tucked away in special (often secure) rooms in libraries for safe-keeping.

eco-dyed covers ready for binding

Scholars, poets, artists and authors search out these handmade objects, for the energy and information that they hold within. A tactile experience described by Jill Lepore:

“…sitting in that archive, holding those sheets of foolscap stitched together with the coarsest of threads, I began to think that Benjamin Franklin’s sister had something to say after all, something true, something new. Very delicately, I once more turned the brittle pages of the Book of Ages, and in them I saw an unwritten story: a history of books and papers, a history of reading and writing, a history from reformation to revolution, a history of history. This, then, is Jane Franklin’s story: a book of ages about ages of books.”

Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s sister) revolves around this manuscript housed in the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Franklin “…stitched four sheets of foolscap between two covers to make sixteen pages. On its first page, she wrote, “Jane Franklin Born on Monday March 27 1712″. She called it her Book of Ages.” Lepore charts the course of her biography using Franklin’s book as the route; the strokes of Franklin’s quill pen in her handmade book provide the coordinates.

Step back. Examine the pen strokes, their placement on the page, the materiality of the paper, as Susan Howe wisely advises in her recent book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, when examining Jonathan Edwards’ papers at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

“Three of Edwards’ manuscript books I particularly love are titled Efficacious Grace. Two of them he constructed from discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters used for making fans. If you open these small oval volumes and just look—without trying to decipher the minister’s spidery script, pen strokes begin to resemble textile thread-text. Surface and meaning co-operate to keep alive in one process mastery in service, service in mastery.”

“Spidery,” and “lavish, calligraphic…slender, artful”, are adjectives used to describe the styles of Edwards and Franklin, respectively. Paper made from rags (Franklin) and silk (Edwards) bound by their hands and holding the words written in their hands. These manuscripts are more than books; they are also a portal into an historic figure and a corresponding era.

bound copies of Tobacco Hour

Objects. A few weeks ago, the poet Susan Howe delivered her lecture (from which the above referenced book is based) at The Hotchkiss School in conjunction with the exhibition, “Hotchkiss in 50 Objects” at the Tremaine Art Gallery. The exhibition traced, defined and referenced Hotchkiss’ history by way of fifty items from the school’s archives. Before she began her lecture, Howe told us that while giving her talk, a series of images would be shown, but she would not stop to tell us what each was, rather they would roll forward as a “collage”. Images of documents, book pages and fragments floated by on the screen, and we connected the dots by way of her multi-faceted details. Howe states:

“In research libraries and collections, we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant visual and verbal textualities and textiles. In material details. In twill fabrics, bead-work pieces, pricked patterns, four-ringed knots, tiny spangles, sharp-toothed stencil wheels; in quotations, thought-fragments, rhymes, syllables, anagrams, graphemes, endangered phonemes, in soils and cross-outs.”

Find some paper and thread, make a book, and begin writing down details.


Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, (Alfred Knopf, 2013), pgs. XIII-XIV, XII, 49.

Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, ( Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2014), pgs. 46, 21.

Note: Tobacco Hour a collaboration between poet/Dara Mandle, artist/Brece Honeycutt, and publisher/Jason Andrew/Norte Maar will be published in April 2015. Special thanks to Barbara Mauriello for her encouragement and consultation on the project.

sneak peak of Tobacco Hour cover


needlework tools

This coming Sunday marks the Hari-Kuyo broken needle ceremony–a 400 year-old Buddhist tradition originating in Japan that honors the implements used by needleworkers. For this event, attendees are invited to bring their broken or bent needles and plunge them into blocks of tofu. In this action, they send their tools off to the next world in happiness and for success. The blocks of tofu, laden with needles, will be blessed by Buddhist priests as part of the ceremony.

As I look around my studio, there are many types of needles–darning, bookbinding, sewing machine, knitting, crewel, embroidery–as well as books about techniques and histories of needleworkers and stitchers.

Therese de Dilmont states in her introduction to The Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework that “Furthermore, in whatever circumstances of fortune one may be placed, the ability to sew well will always be useful. On the other [sic] hand, a practical knowledge of plain sewing enables one to appreciate other people’s work at its true value, and on the other hand, it enables one to produce strong and lasting work should the need arise.”

one of the 'scrap' quilts made by Nannie

one of the ‘scrap’ quilts made by Nannie

Over the past week, my beloved aunt and I have been reminiscing about sewing, for she along with my mother and grandmother were keen sewers. As a young girl, I adored going to the fabric store and looking at not only the patterns, but also the fabric and notions. The sewing store in Hickory, NC was a wood building with proper screen doors and the interior was clad in wood paneling. Hung high adorning the walls were posters of current fashions alongside sewing ephemera. Bolts of fabric were stacked around the room and there were large cutting tables, racks of thread and buttons, pattern books on large slanted tables, and women eager to help you with your project.

My aunt tells me that she made her children’s clothes but did not use patterns. Instead, she designed the dresses in her mind, purchased the fabric and notions, and went home and made them. This is awe-inspiring to me, and as de Dilmont says, it makes me appreciate my aunt’s skills; in order to sew successfully, one must not only understand the physical nature of the cloth, but how it will work with the design. These are skills that I am now learning with some difficulty, so I wish that I had paid more attention to the sewers in my family.

a pink quilt that was on my bed as a child made by Nannie

a pink quilt that was on my bed as a child made by Nannie

The numerous garments that my aunt made as well as the ones made for me are long gone, given to other children or donated to church jumble sales. Fortunately, my grandmother also made quilts from scraps and remainders of sewing projects, and on one treasured quilt there are squares made from my school dresses. When I crawl under this quilt, I am reminded of walking into school on an early September day proudly wearing my blue dress with patterns of flowers and birds, sewn for my by the hands of my grandmother.

Therese de Dilmont, The Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework, (Running Press, 1996, Third Edition), pg. 11.

Note: One may attend a Hari-Kuyo Ceremony this Sunday February 8th at 4:30 at the BF+DA, Brooklyn, NY. For further information,


For further reading about needlework:

Marla R. Miller, The Needle’s Eye Women and Work in the Age of Revolution, (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 2006).

Jane Brocket, The Gentle Art of Stitching 40 Projects Inspired by Everyday Beauty, (Collins and Brown, London, 2006).

Roderick Kiracofe, Unconventional and Unexpected American Quilts Below the Radar 1950-2000, (STC Craft, New York, 2014).

Cassandra Ellis, Cloth 30 + Projects to Sew from Linen, Cotton, Silk, Wool and Hide, (STC Craft, New York 2014).

Natalie Chanin, Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns (STC Craft, published in 2015).

busy hands

On a recent subway ride, I watched a woman crochet a colorful hat surrounded by riders tapping away at their ‘smart’ phones. Busy hands. All hands were indeed busy, but sometimes juxtaposition says it all. The woman will have an actual useful object to show for her time, but what can be said of the others?

Are we truly busy when scrolling through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram? Does one’s mind settle down as it does whilst knitting, as Cat Bordhi revealed in her essay, “A Guide for Bringing Knitting and Spinning into Elementary through High School Classrooms.” Secretly, she had her students knit and spin during her humanities class without first obtaining permission from the administration. When the district superintendent stopped by unannounced, her students’ hands were busy knitting, spinning or winding wool, whilst listening to an audio-tape. She feared repercussions, but the superintendent later reported “that what struck him first as he came through our door was that every single student was productively and positively engaged as a member of a thriving community of learners, and that he had rarely seen a classroom so attentive on so many levels: listening, working with the hands and helping one another.”

Working with one’s hands yields compound results. Monica Moses’ editorial in the February/March 2015 issue of American Craft cites multiple studies equating using one’s hands as a tool to combat depression. The actual ‘act’ of making not only brings happiness, it also fosters the human spirit. Stephen S. Ilardi notes “that people whose lifestyles more closely resemble those of our ancestors–for example, the Amish, who make their own furniture, sew their own clothes, and drive handheld plows–experience significantly less depression.”

Jean-Francois Millet, Shepherdess Seated on a Rock, 1856 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Jean-Francois Millet, Shepherdess Seated on a Rock, 1856 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Knitting was a skill that both boys and girls learned in earlier centuries. Larissa and Martin John Brown report that in the late 1700s, villagers from Dentdale, England, men women and children, came together at the end of the work day for a “sitting.” They posit:

“It’s tough to imagine that world now, when you can buy a ten-pack of factory-made socks for a few dollars, but this was a time when the vast majority of socks, stockings, and gloves in the Western world were not just knitted, but knitted by hand. They were knitted because knitted fabric has properties of stretch, shapability, and seamlessness that make it superior to woven and sewn work for those garments. They were knitted by hand because knitting machines, though in existence from 1600s, took centuries to overtake hand production.”

My first major knitting project was a pair of socks on four DPNs (double pointed needles). I had no idea how to construct the heel flap and then turn the heel, but then found helpful resources and fellow knitters to guide me along. I had almost finished one sock and slipped it on. It was huge, so off I ventured to my local yarn store for a consult. Deb, the owner, confirmed that the sock was too big for me and too small for my husband. So as I gulped, we ripped it out and I started again on a circular needle. Now, thanks to her, I knit two socks at once and enjoy wearing my hand knit pairs.

Maybe someday, I will board a subway car and there will be a “sitting” going on — many of those in the car knitting or crocheting. What if more people started knitting their own socks, hats and gloves, not only to quiet the mind, but also to connect, with making and with others? Trust me, tucking a ball of sock yarn and a pair of circular needles in one’s bag is easy.

Cat Bordhi, “A Guide for Brining Knitting and Spinning into Elementary through High School Classrooms,” accessed in July 2011. Her essay as well as a lesson plans may be found on her website. The lesson plans are a history of civilization told via fiber.

Monica Moses, “Making it Better,” American Craft, February/March 2015, pg. 10. Moses cites the research of Stepehn S. Ilaridi in her editorial.

Brown, Larissa and Martin John Brown, Knitalong: celebrating the tradition of knitting together, (Stewart, Tabori &Chang, 2008), 42.