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A History of Women’s Needlework – From the Stone Age to My Age

By Kathryn Pritchett
March 25, 2024

There’s a family story about my great-grandmother sending her husband to town over and over to get the right color of thread for her sewing projects. At one point, he got so fed up with her requests, he bought every spool of thread at the local mercantile to bring back to the farm. I imagine him dumping a rainbow of spools on the pine table he’d crafted with his own hands and saying “there, satisfied?!” Despite his frustration, I bet Grandma Hattie was pleased as Punch with that gift of creative empowerment.

SEWING

Historically, sewing predated the invention of spinning and weaving. Paleolithic seamstresses used a needle and thread to create clothing from skin, fur, or bark. Their needles were made of bones and their thread came from animal tendons or veins. All the work was done by hand, until a widely available sewing machine was invented in the 19th century–a needlework advancement 20,000 years in the making.

Grandma Hattie probably owned one of those first sewing machines, eventually trading in a treadle version for an electric one—likely from Singer & Company. My mother didn’t sew much, but when she did, she used a little black Singer sewing machine that she passed down to me. When I took up quilting, I learned it was a sought-after model for quilters because it was so simple to run and easy to take to workshops.


Until then, I’d only used it to hem my new husband’s Levi 501s and stitch a bridesmaid dress the color of spring lilacs for a college roommate’s wedding–skills that built on my childhood 4-H training where I’d learned to make a red gingham apron trimmed with pom-poms. I used the Christmas bonus from my first job out of college to upgrade to a more advanced sewing machine—a heavy German-made Pfaff that allowed me to add buttonholes to my sewing repertoire.

As a young mother, I not only learned to quilt, but I picked up one sewing task from my mother—making Halloween costumes (a pink-and-white majorette uniform with a particularly twirly skirt had been a childhood favorite). Trips to the fabric store every October with my own children to pick out patterns and fabric were a highly anticipated tradition. Perhaps some costuming skills were passed down from my great-great-grandmother Miranda who once sewed costumes for famous Gilded Age actress Maude Adams. Miranda is the inspiration for one of my protagonists—along with Miss Adams—in my second novel To See the Love-Light.

KNITTING

The oldest knitted artifacts in history are a pair of 11th century Egyptian socks. Scholars think knitting began in the Middle East, then spread to Europe by Mediterranean trade routes and later to the Americas with European colonization. Because it doesn’t require a loom or other large equipment, knitting was readily practiced by nomadic and non-agrarian people.

My mother was a modern farmwife who didn’t need to know how to knit—the Sears catalog provided her family’s knitwear. So, I learned knitting from a taciturn Swiss immigrant who taught the young girls at church how to wield clickety-clack metal needles that produced irregular stitches we regularly dropped. It wasn’t until a chain-smoking phone operator who worked next door to me at another early job taught me how to knit all over again that I produced anything worth wearing or gifting.

I suspect the love of knitting also jumped a few generations. My great-great-grandmother Elisabeth (the inspiration for Ana in my first novel, The Casket Maker’s Other Wife) was herself a Swiss immigrant and a prolific knitter. A brief life history mentions that she could knit faster than anyone her unnamed descendent biographer ever knew. With twelve children to care for, she probably had to knit fast to keep them all in socks and sweaters! A small woman, she spun yarn on a large walking wheel that dwarfed her as she operated it outside her log cabin. (I have yet to take up spinning, but those genes are probably lurking somewhere in my much taller frame.) Her grandson married my Grandma Katie–who was an accomplished tatter and embroiderer.


Now I use my Pfaff sewing machine only for the occasional baby quilt or grandchild’s doll dress. But my propensity for knitting grows. I love the rhythm of the work, the portability necessary for a 21st century non-agrarian nomad. Grandma Elisabeth knit as she rode in a wagon. You’ll find me knitting in the car, on a plane, in the back of lecture room and in front of any Zoom screen—I concentrate better if I have a knitting project in hand. I also love the appearance of industry that justifies my creative practice.

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

And though I can order any color of thread (or yarn, a bone needle, even a tall spinning wheel) and have it delivered to my door the same day without sending anyone to town, I share the same satisfaction in needlework as did my foremothers.The rhythm of working with my hands soothes; the materials inspire; and the sense of creating something altogether new by stitching, knitting, or weaving disparate things together is a bit of magic gifted to every needleworker.

Do you practice any type of needlework? Did your female ancestors? If so, what did they create and did they leave any artifacts behind?

Kathryn Pritchett

Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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2 Comments

  1. Anne M Beggs

    Thank you so much for this highly informative and personal history on sewing, spinning, knitting and such crafts. My great mother crocheted – magnificent tablecloths, doilies and chair covers. What to do with with treasures? <3

    Reply
    • Kathryn Pritchett

      Hard to both preserve and honor needlework–especially if it’s no longer in fashion!

      Reply

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