Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fancy This

My mom, wearing one of her
mother's expertly sewn creations.
Running my pale blue satin fabric through the sewing machine in my junior high home economics class, growing increasingly exasperated through every jerk and jumble, I knew early on that I could not expect to score an "outstanding" on the gym bag project.  The champagne-colored silk cord I selected to coordinate with the blue satin body failed to distract from the cockeyed rectangle I stitched together over four miserable class periods.  My maternal grandmother, an accomplished seamstress who made many outfits for my mother and other family members (including a gold silk dress trimmed with off-white "lace" à la Martha Washington for yours truly one Easter), might have been appalled.

My paternal grandfather, who stitched canvas boating accessories while working as a longshoreman, might have been equally dismayed.  This gym bag was, after all, a rectangle.  Yet my mom, who did not develop an affinity for sewing, financed the purchase of my unconventional gym bag materials and patted me on the back for a job well attempted.  Like me, she wasn't much of a sewer and probably sympathized with my frustration (but she has told me that she made a few pieces of clothing and some curtains at one time or another).

I'm not good at making stuff, but the interest certainly runs in my family.  Perhaps there's some genetic reason why I chose to study needlework for my M.A. thesis. Either way, that interest inspired Tyler to get this little gem for me two Christmases ago.

What could be inside?

A lot, it turns out.  From labeled strips of silk ("1 1/8 yard like this") to copies of Peterson's Magazine, upon opening this sewing box, you get the impression that its last user closed up shop in the middle of a project some time in the late nineteenth century.  Among the needles, thread, receipts, and calling cards from friends and acquaintances, this sewer preserved some remnants of directions for a  pin case as well as the remnants of the case itself.  This kind of needlework, known as fancy work, was made using a variety of items that could be found around the house or at the store for nominal amounts of money in nineteenth-century America. (The term plain sewing, which typically refers to sewing completed for utilitarian purposes such as sewing garments, table linens, etc., is different from fancy work.)  Fancy work encompassed objects ranging from dolls to wedding halos...
Wedding wreath, feathers, silk, and wire, Hampshire, England, 1854, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, T.6-2008 baskets made from rice and shells...

"BASKET IN RICE SHELL WORK," Godey's Lady's Book, March 1854 Berlin needlework, a topic I have covered a number of times on this blog (here, for example).

Berlin work slippers, wool and cotton canvas, 1830-1850, London, England
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, T.587 to A-1913

Scholars suggest that some nineteenth-century women executed fancy work as a way to personalize their increasingly impersonal material worlds.  In many cases, these needleworkers gave these pieces of fancy work to friends and family.  Whatever the reason the former owner of this box took up the needle, she was well-equipped to participate in the rich world of nineteenth-century plain sewing and fancy work.  But without this needle worker's finished products at hand, we can only hope that her creations turned out better than my blue silk gym bag.

Now if only I could find it in myself to finish the curtains I've been sewing for the office.  Two rectangles down, two to go.

Further Reading

Kenneth L. Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (1992).

Nicole Belolan, “From the Collection: ‘The Blood of Murdered Time,’ Ann Warder’s Berlin Wool Work, 1840-165,” Winterthur Portfolio 45, 4 (Winter 2011): 321-352.

Nancy Dunlap Bercaw, "Solid Objects/Mutable Meanings: Fancywork and the Construction of Bourgeois Culture, 1840-1880," Winterthur Portfolio 26, 4 (Winter 1991): 321-352.

Katherine C. Grier, Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and the Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930 (1997).

Mark Laid & Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, eds., Mrs. Delany & Her Circle (2009).

Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt, eds., ‘Twixt Art and Nature: English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700 (2009).

Peabody Essex Museum, Painted with Thread: The Arts of American Embroidery (2000).

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