The stitches I’m leaving behind

“Handcrafts belong to an earlier world, the slower pace of preindustrial life where one had the leisure to sink deeply and profoundly into the rhythms of nature within and without and to feel a connection with the earth as a living spiritual entity.[…]

“Self-expression, whether individual or tribal, religious or secular, is to my mind one of the most beautiful impulses that we humans possess. We look at our brief time here on earth; we perceive our inconsequentiality in a vast universe of planets and stars; we know our connectedness to our ancestors and descendants and feel our mortality as we pass along the eternal continuum of time; and yet we still want others to know who we were, how we lived, that we were here and saw and felt and knew beauty.The pioneer women with lives of endless work, half buried underground in sod houses on the prairies, often without trees or neighbors for company, fashioned quilts out of pieces of cloth, which might have been the only color they saw for months on end.[…]

“And now, when, with each piece of handwork I do, I connect with the centuries of women who cultivated their inner lives and expressed them through the humble works of their hands.” The Knitting Sutra—Craft as a Spiritual Practice by Susan Gordon Lydon.

Circa 1975

As I went on my search for the stitch work of my fore mothers, I was happy to find out that there were quilters in my family.  I am sad to think that I may not find any examples of their work.

Not knowing I had this heritage, when I was a young adult I became interested in making quilts.  The first quilt I ever made I gave away to my boyfriend to take to college the summer after my senior year in high school.  I made it from fabric scraps left over from articles of clothing that I or my mother had made for me during high school.  There was a shiny light blue piece from the dress my mother made for a dance my junior year.  A pastel yellow fabric with tiny pink rosebuds that was made into my senior prom dress was also in the quilt.  In many ways it was a quilt of memories.

I cut little 4-inch squares out of the fabrics and created 3 by 3 larger panels with a loose repeated design (the four corners and the center square within the nine-square panels matched, the remaining four squares in the panel were somewhat random).  I backed the quilt with a soft flannel and tied the layers together with yarn knots at the large panels’ corners.  I remember sitting in my parents’ family room and sewing it together.

My boyfriend loved the quilt, used it at school, and really cherished it for a while, until we broke up at the end of our junior year in college.  The quilt, if it still exists, is probably stained and crumpled in the corner of a garage or basement somewhere.  I should have kept it.

The second quilt I made, I also gave away.  When I found out that my boyfriend’s older brother and his wife were expecting a baby, I bought yellow gingham and while muslin and fashioned it into a quilt.  I think the squares were probably about 6 inches.  I drew little designs on the white muslin: an alphabet block, a teddy bear, a duck, among others.  I embroidered the designs onto the fabric.  My boyfriend and I broke up before the quilt was finished or the baby was born, but I finished it anyway and delivered it.  It was the first and only time I saw the child, and the last time I saw the quilt.

Mark, me, and Michael - 1983

The third quilt that I made was more functional than sentimental or aesthetic.  I had just moved to Cincinnati and started a job and I decided I wanted a blanket for picnics.  So I bought four pieces of fabric:  a floral pattern, and three solids in the colors of cream, rust, and brown.  I made large panels out of the pieces of fabrics and just sewed them together.  Thirty-three years later, it is now torn and stained in the back of Mark’s truck.  It has been used for romantic picnics early in my relationship with Mark; for small family picnics when I’d take our firstborn son to meet Mark for lunch; for baseball games, Fourth-of July fireworks, and days at the beach.

Dragon quilt - 2007

I’ve always thought I would like to make a “real” quilt from a pattern. I don’t know if that will ever happen. I would also like to make a crazy quilt, which may be more likely to happen. A couple of years ago my daughter Anna helped me make a quilt for my new grandson. Several years earlier I had found a picture of a dragon quilt pattern online and bookmarked the page, anticipating I might want to make it when my oldest son, who loves dragons, had a child. When I tried to go back and buy the pattern, it was gone, offline, kaput. But I still had a small picture of it I had saved. So using Adobe Illustrator, I traced the picture, enlarged it, and printed patterns from it. Anna helped me shop for fabrics and sew it.

I have embroidered pictures hanging on my walls, although again, most of what I made I’ve given away.  I have simple crocheted shawls in the closet.  I sewed outfits for myself, and my children, including many costumes. I have dresses I made for Anna and boxes of scraps of fabric and bits of ribbons and lace that I can’t bear to part with.  And like my Grandma Smith, I have unfinished needlework projects stuffed into cupboards.

2010

I’ve made things because I needed them, and I’ve made things because I wanted to create something beautiful or meaningful.  I have my mothers before me to thank for my ability to do this.  I am proud of the simple, big-hearted, talented and creative women who came before me, and those who may follow.

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Mary Katherine Lemmon Smith—my mother

“I take the vest out of the storage box that I keep under my bed and I am transported.  […] I knitted the vest during one week of our vacation in the Adirondacks. Funny how seeing it, touching it, brings back the  time and place. This vest holds the Adirondack Mountains, the lake, and my young children for me,” The Knitting Way — A Guide to Spiritual Self-Discovery by Linda Skolink & Janice MacDaniels

Mary Katherine Lemmon Smith

My mother, Mary Katherine Lemmon Smith, taught me most of what I know about needlework.  And if she didn’t teach me how to do it, she helped me untangle it—from bungled articles of clothing to early knitting attempts.  When we were younger she sewed a lot of our clothes,  including formal gowns.

She is a very creative individual in all aspects of her life.  If she doesn’t know how to do something, she figures it out.  In addition to practical items, she also enjoys making beautiful things like crocheted afghans, fabric album covers, and decorative flags.  She worked for a while as a decorator’s seamstress and sewed many custom-made draperies, comforters and other items.  One year at Christmas she made a set of custom drapes for my living room.

Mom and Dad circa 1953

Mom was born May 15, 1934 in Piqua, Ohio.  She was a straight-A student.  She worked in a department store after high-school graduation and married my father when she was 19.

Mom at her 60th birthday party.

She primarily stayed home to raise the five children she eventually had, which include my sister Annie who was severely handicapped with brain damage.

Mom, Dad, and Annie

Because she was basically house-bound with the care of my sister, my mom put her energies into doing those kinds of things that could be done at home, and sewing became a source of income and pride.

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Cecelia Pearl Bryant and her Singer treadle sewing machine

This is the third in my 10-part series about women ancestors and needlework called The Stitches We Leave Behind.

Cecelia Pearl Bryant 1887 - 1971

The real story of sewing in my father’s family starts with Mary Katherine’s oldest daughter, Cecelia Pearl Bryant, who was a quilter and kept  a quilting frame in her dining room, folded up and pushed against the wall when it wasn’t in use.

Cecelia Pearl Bryant was born October 6, 1887 in Kentucky. Her family moved to the Salina, Ohio area when she was six years old. She was the oldest of nine children.  Her name was Ora Pearl originally, but she changed it to Cecelia when she converted to Catholicism.  Her family and friends called her Pearl.

When she was 22 years old, Cecelia Pearl had a son out of wedlock.  She had worked for a family named Hall.  According to my great aunt Agnes, Mrs. Hall was either pregnant, was in the hospital, or was deceased.  Cecelia later went to court to prove paternity.  She named her son Louis Hall.  But according to my great uncle Ben, she never talked about Louie’s father.

Cecelia Pearl Bryant and William Wirrig 1913

Cecelia moved to the city of Piqua and got a job in the mills, sewing, to support herself and her son.  Later she worked at an underwear factory, the Hosiery.  Cecelia met William Wirrig who was from a farming family north of Piqua.  They were married on November 6, 1913.   My father’s mother, my grandmother, was their first child.

Times were difficult when Cecelia and William were raising their family.  But although money was scarce, Cecelia always tried to give the children a nice Christmas.  She would make doll dresses for the girls.   A car accident and arthritis eventually prevented Cecelia from being able to walk later in life.

Cecelia with her pet bird Toby sitting on her head.

My father remembers, “She used to sew and sew and sew.  And talk to her bird.”

I never knew my great-grandmother Cecelia quilted until recently.  I don’t have anything that she made.  I hope to locate one of her quilts some day.

I do have the treadle sewing machine that my great-grandmother  Cecelia Pearl Bryant Wirrig used at home.  My sister and I used to sew doll clothes, that we designed ourselves, on it when we were young. Too bad I didn’t save some of those gems.

See The Stitches We Leave Behind under the Series tab above for more links in this 10-part series.

The Stitches We Leave Behind — Introduction

When I was in college the second time, this time earning an English degree, I took a concentration of Women’s Studies classes. This is the first in a multi-part series from a project I wrote while taking a Women’s Studies/English class called “Reading between the stitches.” You can find other series I’ve written, or am writing, about on my “Series” tab above.

Hand-stitched album cover for "The Stitches We Leave Behind" project

THE STITCHES WE LEAVE BEHIND

By Christine Grote February 20, 2006


 Introduction

I have humble roots.  Many of my ancestors were farmers, with a few craftsmen and women thrown in.  Although a few of my ancestors came to this country in the mid-1800s with the great German migration, many of them had been in this country since pioneering days.  Much of the needlework the women in my family did reflects a simple, utilitarian purpose, typical of the pioneering mindset, as opposed to elaborate and fancy quilts and needlework.

From a genealogical perspective, women in families are difficult to trace, but logic tells us that if there was a male ancestor here in this country, he had a female mate, although she may be unknown to me.  When I think about my women ancestors, I realize I may never know much about them, but I may have a connection to them even so.

I know how to do many kinds of needlework.  I sew, embroider, knit, and crochet.  Without exception, I learned these crafts from a female member of my family.  My mother taught me most, but my grandmother on my father’s side of the family taught me a few things as well. Reason stands to offer that the women who taught me were likely taught by their mothers and/or grandmothers.  This passing down of a talent or craft probably occurred from early times.  My needlework abilities have come to me through a curious, unidentifiable, circuitous path through the women in my family for generations.  It is my connection to them.

See The Stitches We Leave Behind under the Series tab above for more links in this 10-part series.