bundle up

Category : Textiles
Date : January 19, 2014

With the next polar vortex bearing down on us, it is time to gather one’s warmest clothes and prepare to bundle up for the daily chores—fire stoking, chicken feeding, wood chopping, egg gathering.  What did the women of yore wear in the bitter winter?

Recently, I saw a painting of Mrs. Richard Bache (Sarah Franklin, 1743-1808–Ben Franklin’s daughter) wearing a crisscrossed shawl and it occurred to me that shawls for women were the equivalent of waistcoats for men.


A shawl—a very large triangle—worn over the shoulders and crossed over the chest, can be tied in the back.  The shawl is now secure and one does not have to concentrate on holding it closed or worrying about it falling off.  Thus, one is able to move about freely and accomplish needed tasks.  Furthermore, the trunk of the body is warm, just as if one was wearing a modern day vest.

In the recent movie, Camille Claudel 1915, Camille (played by Juliette Binoche) wears a very large shawl, and throughout the movie, the shawl takes on many uses—as a large scarf bundled around her neck, as a shawl draped over the shoulders, and as a ‘waistcoat’ wrapped and tied around her waist.  In contrast, the character Griet, in the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring, merely drapes her shawl around her and holds it closed with her arms, thus not allowing the body freedom of movement.

After seeing Juliette wrap, drape and enfold her body with her knitted shawl, I decided to make one.  I discussed this with one of my colleagues and fellow knitters, and there was a twinkle in her eye.  The next day she brought me the perfect pattern—‘A Sensible Shawl’ by Celeste Young.  My shawl, finished just in time for the last polar vortex, has been keeping me warm as I move through the day’s chores and at night whilst I am knitting socks or stitching my Alabama Chanin DIY swing skirt.

Wrap up and keep warm.

Mrs. Richard Bache, 1793, by John Hopper (British, 1758-1810), oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

town meeting

Category : Textiles
Date : November 20, 2013

Recently, we had a special town meeting.  In the state of Massachusetts, towns having less than 6,000 citizens utilize the open town meeting format.  The warrant for our town’s first town meeting was issued on January 11, 1733.  Our annual town meeting occurs every May, where we vote on the yearly town budget and other matters in the form of articles (in modern terms, we vote on the budget line item by line item).  In this instance, the Board of Selectmen issued a special warrant that listed three articles and summoned the town to a meeting to vote.

The meeting was charged with energy, for the articles were surrounded by contentious debate.  I packed my knitting, knowing that it would be a long evening, and indeed it lasted almost four hours.  There were a few other knitters in the crowd.

my stocking, Brece Honeycutt work on paper, 2007

my stocking, Brece Honeycutt work on paper, 2007

Idle hands are the devils playground, or so it is said.  And I was happy to have my knitting to occupy mine.  My mind time travelled and I wondered what women of the past would have done at a town meeting.  Women would probably not have gone to a colonial town meeting, since they did not have the right to vote.  However, most women would have carried their handwork with them wherever they ventured for hands were never idle.  According to Larissa and Martin Brown in their book, Knitalong, everyone knitted.  “Some families had a quota that girls and boys needed to finish each day—an inch of sock or even a half a sock.”  Furthermore, women often worked together in the form of “bees” in order to get fiber chores completed.

“After I was married and the children were growing up, I was never without a pair of needles in my hands,” reminisced Elizabeth E. Miller, born in 1848 in South Ryegate, Vermont, when she was interviewed by a government folklorist at ninety years of age. “When I went out to a sociable or a farmer’s meeting in the evening I always took my knitting.  We had a spanking pair [of horses] then and when we were out in the  [wagon] I knit up the hill and down…my knitting went everywhere but to church.”

As a child, I watched my grandmother knit and stitch in the evenings after the daylight chores were completed.  I thank her for her inspiration, for her hands were never idle.

Lillian E. Preiss, Sheffield Frontier Town, (Sheffield Bicentennial Committee, 1976), pgs. 19-20.

Larissa Brown and Martin John Brown, Knitalong Celebrating the Tradition of Knitting Together, (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008), pg., 44, 45.


Category : Textiles
Date : November 13, 2013

My grandmother and mother worked with their hands and made beautiful embroideries and needlepoint textiles.  When I was a child, they encouraged me to pick up the needle, and for a time, I embroidered on my jeans but always found that the thread became tangled; I quickly became frustrated.  Perhaps I did not ‘love my thread’ enough, as Natalie Chanin instructs one to do.

This weekend, Historic Deerfield embarks on a new program “which connects careful object looking with artistic project making.”  For this, participants will examine linen textiles from the collection, learn about production, and embroider one of their own.

The process of looking at older objects and gaining inspiration from them is not new to Deerfield.  In her book Poetry to the Earth: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Deerfield, Suzanne L. Flynt documents the founding of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework, by Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller, in 1896.  Whiting and Miller established a village industry and “employed up to thirty local women to stitch embroideries that were inspired by colonial New England embroideries found in the local historical society.”   Patterns from the colonial women flourished on the new textiles—Lucy’s acanthus leaf, Aunt Beck’s fantastical flowers, vines and pears, Polly Wright’s Parrot, and Ruth Culver Coleman’s carnations, for example.  The embroideries produced by Society of Blue and White were prized not only for the materials used (fine linen cloth and hand dyed linen floss) and the interpreted designs, but also for the quality of the stitches executed by the women.

Whiting and Miller also collected stories about the women who made the colonial embroideries and included both the name and a story with each newly embroidered piece.  The bed hangings of Lucy Lane (1752-1803) were the first embroideries to provide inspiration: “Part of a set of linen tent Bed Curtains and Counterpane carded, spun, woven and bleached by Lucy Lane.  She also made and dyed the floss and embroidered the whole in 1760-1765.”

The Society of Blue and White Needlework strikes me as similar to the contemporary cottage industry of Alabama Chanin, previously described in my blog post ‘duds’ of September 19, 2013.

My thanks to the stitchers of the past and present for their continued inspiration to me as I seek to stitch without tangled threads.


Suzanne L. Flynt, foreword by Wendy Kaplan, Poetry to the Earth The Arts and Crafts Movement in Deerfield, (Hard Press Editions, 2012), pgs 11, 85, 84, 90, 88.

Historic Deerfield’s Art and Craft : Embroidered Linen, November 15, 11am-1pm. For information contact their website.

Note:  For an in depth view of the life of Aunt Beck aka Rebecca Dickinson, read the newly published book by  Marla R. Miller , Rebecca Dickinson: independence for a New England woman, Westview Press, 2014.

ursula cutt

Category : Textiles
Date : September 27, 2013

Set your sails for Portsmouth, NH this weekend and plan to be in attendance at the historic John Paul Jones house for the 11am talk– When a Bed Sheet Cost More than a Cow:  Textiles in the Inventory of Urusla Cutt.

How in the world, one wonders, could a bed sheet (not even a set of sheets)  ‘cost more than a cow’?  Today one can find an entire set of sheets starting at  $19.99, and a milking cow might cost upwards of $1,200.00.

Madame Ursula Cutt, the former wife of John Cutt, President of the Province of New Hampshire, was murdered on her Portsmouth farm by the Abenaki Indians in 1694.  The customary probate inventory “allows us to rummage among her belongings, at least in imagination” reports Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her book Good Wives.   Ulrich surmises that Cutt was a ‘gentlewoman’ due to the list of items she owned, including:  “fine wrought Coverings for Cushions not made up,” “wearing linen,” and “remnants of old silk and several small swatches of silver lace.”  The Saturday talk will “examine the types of household linens and clothing she owned, addressing which were imported and which were made in New Hampshire.”

detail of cotton 'Palampore' made in India, first quarter of 18th century

detail of cotton ‘Palampore’ made in India, first quarter of 18th century

Perhaps your next port of call will be ‘New Amsterdam’ to view Interwoven Globe:  The Worldwide Textile Trade 1500-1800 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until January 5, 2014).  The fascinating and breathtaking exhibition of over 150 textiles traces the ‘cloth’ trade around the globe via maritime routes.  Splendors of cross-pollination are evident in the tendrils that are intertwined on the gallery walls on numerous Palampores (large pieces of cloth typically used for either a wall hanging or bed/table cover).  The last gallery is filled with examples of cloth imported into the Colonies from the East India Company.  The wall text states, “Readily available in both large city shops and small country stores, these so-called East India Goods also served as an important source of inspiration for decorative textiles made in North America.” Perhaps Cutt purchased some intricate East Indian cotton and placed it in her chest of drawers, later to be inventoried and left for us to “rummage”.

For a thorough examination of the murder of Cutt, reference the recent article by the historian and author J. Dennis Robinson:


Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: image and reality in the lives of women in northern New England, 1650-1750, (Vintage Books, 1982), pg. 72.


Category : Textiles
Date : September 19, 2013

Alabama Chanin makes garments and each piece is stitched by hand by “artisans working in their own homes and businesses using a modern cottage industry method of manufacturing.”  Much care is taken with each piece and the details are stunning–the stitching, the beading, the embroidery.  In a recent workshop, Natalie Chanin stated they were “making garments for generations.  When someone buys one today, her granddaughter will wear it and will want to wear it.”

To our throwaway culture, this is very much a radical idea–passing along garments for generations.  However, during the colonial times articles of clothing were listed in probate records.  In her book, Two Centuries of Costume in America, Alice Morse Earle traces the lineage of clothes:

“Many persons preferred to keep their property in the form of what they quaintly called “duds.”  The fashion did not wear out more apparel than the man; for clothing, no matter what the cut, was worn as long as it lasted, doing service frequently through generations.  For instance, we find Mrs. Epes, of Ipswich, Massachusetts, when she was over fifty years old, receiving this bequest by will: “If she desire to have the suit of damask which was the Lady Cheynies her grandmother, let her have it upon appraisement.”  I have traced a certain flowered satin gown and “manto” in four wills; a dame to her daughter; she to her sister; then to the child of the last-named who was a granddaughter of the first owner. And it was a proud possession to the last.  The fashions and shapes did not change yearly.”

Not only was a garment expensive to make, but the cloth itself was a dear commodity.  People often did not own many garments.  Marla R. Miller inventories the colonial wardrobe of Rebecca Dickinson (1738-1815):

“The wardrobe of a woman whose family’s economic status, like Rebecca’s, might be called “middling”–that is, neither especially well off nor especially poor–contained perhaps three to six shifts (the long, light gown that served as the century’s foundation garment); two or three petticoats; three under petticoats or skirts, sometimes quilted in silk or wool or made of linen and wool blends (such as linsey-woolsey); a number of “short gowns” (more akin to today’s blouse than a gown, this was the everyday working shirt of the era); a cloak or cloaks; and assorted caps, kerchiefs, and aprons.”

Storage units across America are filled to the brim with unworn unused clothing, and countless factory workers in developing countries are frantically working to keep chain stores filled with the latest fad.  The time is ripe for us to take up our needle and thread and begin to make garments that last, and to mend those that may be showing signs of wear and tear.  As I stitch my DIY skirt, I will think of Rebecca Dickinson and other revolutionaries that forged the path for us.

Alabama Chanin website, http://alabamachanin.com/women, (September 2013)

Alice Morse Earle, Two Centuries of Costume in America MDCXX-MDCCCXX Volume 1 (The MacMillan Company, 1903), pgs 10-11.

Marla R. Miller, Rebecca Dickinson: independence for a New England Woman (Westview Press, 2014), pgs. 25-26.


Category : Textiles
Date : September 16, 2013

It is back-to-school season, and off I traveled to Woodstock, NY for a one-day workshop with Natalie Chanin.  Even though Natalie’s three books generously give one the needed information to make her garments, it was daunting to me to make a piece of clothing from scratch.  Now, after a day spent receiving instructions from the Alabama Chanin team – Natalie and Oliva – as well as the exchange of information from fellow stitchers, I am confident that I can move forward with constructing the four-panel skirt.

all hands at work

all hands at work

We sat around a long table in a beautifully renovated barn structure, listened, stitched, and scribed notes.  Natalie talked of quilters and artisans that have sewn clothing for hundreds of years.  My grandmother taught me both to embroider and to sew by machine.  Regrettably, I let these skills go by the wayside and am now working to regain them.

work kit provided by Alabama Chanin

my Alabama Chanin DIY kit with all needed tools

Had I been born in 1738 like Rebecca Dickinson, sewing would have been second nature, and in fact might even have provided me with a livelihood as it did for her as a gownmaker.  Thankfully, Dickinson left a diary and Marla Miller uses this primary source for her newly published book, Rebecca Dickinson: independence for a New England woman.

Here Miller discusses education, both book learning and practical knowledge, for Dickinson and other young girls:

“Able to both read and write with ease, she was part of a longer-term trend that would encompass ever-larger numbers of women in eighteenth-century Massachusetts.  She appears to have been at the forefront of it and likely possessed greater skill than many of her female neighbors.”

“The curriculum made available to girls was only part of the training that prepared them for adulthood.  Women worked at all manner of occupations, generally following a course set out on larger family lines.  The daughter of a midwife might well become a midwife; a girl who was raised in her parent’s tavern might find herself running a tavern as an adult……Women in colonial cities had a wider range of options than those in rural places, but women everywhere found work in the clothing trades (as tailors, gownmakers, seamstresses, or milliners), healing occupations (as midwives or nurses), cloth production (as weavers, spinners, or fullers), and in other areas of the economy.“

I imagine that if Dickinson had taken her writing skills one step further and written books like Natalie Chanin, we would have the exact patterns for the gowns that she made.  In the meantime, we can be thankful that Dickinson left us with her considered words, that Miller has made them accessible to us, and that Chanin is helping spark renewed interest in the handmade garment.

Alabama Chanin handstitched fabric swatches

Alabama Chanin handstitched fabric swatches

NOTE:  Alabama Chanin is located in Florence, AL and has an online shop. However, if you live in the northeast and  want to purchase the organic cotton fabric and other tools needed in person, visit the incredibly beautiful new store Sew Woodstock located in Bearsville, NY.

Marla Miller, Rebecca Dickinson Independence for a New England Woman, edited by Carol Berkin (Westview Press, 2014), pgs. 22-23.


Category : Textiles
Date : June 7, 2013

Detective work: that is the process used by savvy historians Dan and Marty Campanelli to trace the young girls that embroidered each sampler in their recently published book, “A Sampling of Hunterdon County Needlework: The Motifs, the Makers & Their Stories”  (Hunterdon County Historical Society).

Girls were taught the skills of stitching and also learned alphabets and words through their needlework.  They would sign and date their samplers by stitching their names, often cleverly placed amongst the architectural elements, hymn verses, lacy landscapes, flourishes of flowers, prancing animals and poems.

Elisabeth Day Hall (1772-1858) Needlework Sampler, courtesy Stan & Carol Huber

Elisabeth Day Hall (1772-1858) Needlework Sampler, courtesy Stan & Carol Huber

Now is the time for me to do my own detective work and search the local historical societies for samplers yielding the names of the women and their daughters that lived here– Taphenes Cande, Abigail Andrews, Lucretia E. Tuller, Mary A. Tuller, Sarah L Gordon, Elizabeth M. Noxon & Eleanora T. Hayes.


Category : Textiles
Date : May 11, 2013

My grandmother stored her extra quilts in the attic, folded, with the plain side facing out, stacked almost to the ceiling on top of an old trunk.  As a child, I sneaked upstairs and unfolded each quilt, reveling in the combination of  the vibrant textiles and intricate designs. I have always thought that I “leanrt” color theory and patterning from staring at her exquisitely stitched quilts. We slept underneath starbursts, double wedding rings and simple ladder patterns.

basket quilt circa 1860

basket quilt circa 1860

So, it was a lucky happenstance that I found “Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts at the Brooklyn Museum.  The wall text states:

The divisive Civil War (1861-1865), followed by the country’s Centennial and rapid changes introduced by emancipation and industrialization produced a nostalgic longing in the late nineteenth century for all things “olde tyme.”  The resulting Colonial Revival lasted from the 1860 through the early twentieth century and celebrated the founding fathers’ ways of life   ……Quilts were embraced by women as emblematic of this simpler, bygone era, and of their idealized colonial foremothers creating beauty from the wilderness.

Contemporary scholarship, however, has found that colonial period quilts are rare and were generally owned by elite families and stitched from expensive imported fabric.  It was the Colonial Revival itself that first made quilts a popular, quintessentially American endeavor, encouraging middle-class women to take it up as a hobby.


touching stars quilt circa 1850

touching stars quilt circa 1850

Ironically, my grandmother hung her quilt frame from the kitchen ceiling and lowered it when she needed to work, and upon it she pieced irresistible patchworks to keep her family warm.  I am lucky to have a few of her works and use them, continually amazed by patterns, forms and colors.


Category : Textiles
Date : April 9, 2013

Yesterday, I took a pair of shoes to the cobbler for repair. Today, I mended a pair of trousers and took two typewriters to see if they could be fixed.

Mend, fix, repair.

The cobbler’s shop was over flowing with pairs of shoes needing work.  And Gramercy Typewriter’s office was stacked with typewriters in their cases awaiting cleaning, tune-ups, new rollers and ribbons.  I wonder if there are stacks of clothes in people’s closets just waiting for the sewing needle?

Abigail May Alcott felt strongly that women should be able to wield the tool of the needle.  We finally are able to read the diary entries and letters of Alcott thanks to the new publication by Eve LaPlante, My Heart is Boundless:  Writings of Abigail May Alcott Louisa’s Mother.  Luckily, one can either listen to Abigail’s words on CD or read them in book form. Either format, the solid foreward thoughts of Alcott ring true. Here is an excerpt from “Fragments of Reports While Visitor to the Poor, 1849-1850.”  She was constantly thinking of ways for women to earn an income.

I am desirous of suggesting also a sewing class to meet Wednesday afternoon.  Our public schools overlook this part of the female education or they leave it wholly unprovided for. Many a girl can wield a pen or calculate a sum, who can do nothing with a needle , that little instrument, so important to a woman through her life, indeed almost the only tool vouchsafed to her, but which she can obtain a subsistence. The free and skillful use of that leads to habits of patient industry, to order and neatness.  They might be taught to mend the garments and sew for the charity basket.  Teach them to hem-gauge, hem, make buttonholes, and darn stockings.

Reading and writing are important to every human being but sewing is an indispensible art.

Text from My Heart is Boundless:  Writings of Abigail May Alcott Louisa’s Mother, edited by Eve LaPlante, (Free Press, NY, 2012), p 173.

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