My sister wrote: "I wonder what it is about your life, or who you are, that makes preservation of the past so particularly important to you... It's not as though we were uprooted from our homeland, or lost everything in a house fire, or had some great mystery about our origins... except, of course, as females, whose personal and collective history is never as well-preserved as that of men. Or maybe it's just having lived through the rather sudden transition from handing-down and re-using everything to disposable-everything. Remember our grandfather's tools for re-soling shoes? I don't think any footwear today could be re-soled."
She's right: preserving the past, honoring it, feels like the most important thing that I can possibly do. I don't know why. Years ago, I was reading a book, Poland, by James Michener. In it, he describes the slaughter of a pig in the Middle Ages - how the landowner got the choicest cuts, and the peasants - my ancestors - got the scraps. They used these scraps to make Polish sausage called kilbasi (made by stuffing scraps into intestinal casings and smoking them in the chimney). Given our history, I thought my mom would be interested. I told her about the sausage. She said "yeah. That's how your grandmother made it in Bayonne (NJ) except she smoked it in the stovepipe".
I was flabbergasted: here was something that had been handed down, mother to daughter, since at least the Middle Ages, and now it was lost. I didn't want to learn how to stuff fatty scraps into casings.......but what else had been lost? What else had my ancestors known that my school didn't teach and I didn't know? I hated memorizing dates in history class - I wanted information, facts - not about royal decrees or national treaties, but facts about the people who came before me. My grandmothers and their grandmothers.
So I started asking questions, and reading and found that some of the answers were stitched. Look at these 2 pieces. I photographed them in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The one on the left is a Coptic Egyptian textile from the early Christian era. The one on the right is from 1800's Hungary. Although the styles are different, the content is the same: a woman, in a plant coming out of a vase, with birds/animals mirrored on either side.
Compare this ancient stone carving with an embroidery from 1800's Russia. A female, arms raised, with horses on both sides. I found many of these images. To me, these embroideries said that while men were carving there names into stone, women were teaching their daughters the patterns of their own story. Here's 2 really good books that show how women have held their histories in their stitches:
Women’s Work: The First 20,00 Years by Elizabeth W. Barber (a wonderful book on the history of textiles. If her scholarly details are difficult to plow through, just take it in small doses – it’s worth reading!)
Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts by Maude Southwell Wahlman (please read this book: it gives a different perspective on quilts, an understanding of the how-and-why of quilts)
I started this post with an email response from my sister Claire. This is my email to her which generated that response:
"Writing this blog is helping me organize my thoughts – there’s nothing like having to put thoughts in words to figure out what you’re actually thinking. My writing is about a month ahead of what I’m posting – currently writing about boro and that Mending =Art show that I curated. Meanwhile, I was at the paleo lab, helping to scrape and clean some of the fossils that we dug out of the pit. And this overlap of fossil and mending makes me ask what they have in common, and both are means of preserving, of saving. We mend something because it’s worth the effort. We did up fossils because we want to learn more.
As I drive 2 hrs home from the lab, my brain starts picturing a big, Rosetta-stone piece, with elements of mending & fossils, and I see scissors (upholstered in white damask) as bones emerging from the surface. Translations on the stone from ‘ancient’ pins/buttons to various darning stitches to ....printed directions on mending? Not sure.
I want to stop all this obsessive embroidery on my tablets and go dye some cloth for this new idea. BUT: While I was working on the baby quilt, stitching in late-afternoons and evenings, when my hands are better, and planning these tablets on the computer in the mornings, I realized that taking all that time to fully plan ahead was a good move. So now I’m going to be disciplined and stick with the tablets (I still have about 6 that are all dyed and ready to sew) while I plan ahead for this stone.