Aunt Mae’s mittens, and the needlework of other women

IMG_8715Last weekend, when I brought Lydia and her belongings to college and helped her with some initial unpacking, I came across a thrift-store dress I had altered for her last summer. As I handed it to her, I remarked with some wistfulness, “I’m just realizing that I didn’t do any sewing or mending this summer.” Perhaps that’s what led me, a few days later, to tackle the cleaning and mending of some old crewel work pillows I saved from the trash bag at a friend’s deceased mother’s house.

In graduate school at Simmons College (2001 – 2004), I encountered a poem by Adrienne Rich — one of her first, promising poems that brought her to the attention of a wide audience — that was characterized by the professor as a statement of strong feminist ideology. Called “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” it explores the power, the agency, in a woman’s needlework while at the same time commenting on her fixed position in conventional, patriarchal marriage. Read it here: link.

I could sense, in the context of the seminar, that I was supposed to love this poem. I didn’t. In fact, it angered me, and I wondered if Adrienne Rich, of whose work I am a serious fan, had ever picked up a needle or crochet hook herself, if she knew what it felt like to be inside the work of stitching those “bright topaz denizens,” stitch after stitch, pricked finger after pricked finger, and squinted eyes under a poor light.

I thought of my Aunt Mae, a celebrated knitter of mittens, who made new pairs every year for all the grand nieces and nephews, and some for charity too. Although she did more than this — she was also a talented, self-taught piano player — in my mind and heart I imagined her knitting as the production of nervous energy, sadness, and even fear of what couldn’t be done.

In needlework, we do what can be done.

I can become bitter about this, even though I myself have spent plenty of time with sewing and knitting needles and machines made by Singer and Kenmore, and I have stood for long minutes in the Notions aisle in fabric stores. (I also love that it is called the Notions aisle, and I love the notions: thread, bias tape, ribbon, snaps, hooks, and needles of all sizes and uses.) And this week, I took apart, cleaned, mended, and reassembled the needlework of a woman I never knew and gave it back to a family that is not mine.

three pillows (before)

three pillows (before)

Why not burn these things, cast off our burden as makers of tiny stitches and declare that our skills and industriousness can accomplish more useful things than sofa pillows?

But I saved these from the trash or the charity box; I wanted them preserved — the artifact of a woman’s labor — and I also wanted the pleasure of the work.

hand wash and lay flat to dry

hand wash and lay flat to dry

I don’t think Adrienne Rich’s poem conveys that, what pleasure her Aunt Jennifer might have found in the work. The aunt’s finger is “fluttering through her wool,” as though it lacks substance or deliberate action. If you sew or knit or crochet, you know the mind it takes to become immersed in the work and do it carefully.

the worn frog pillow, inside out

the worn frog pillow, inside out

To what end, though? Certainly, the process is engrossing, and I love the concentrated effort, the specificity of small motor skills in play, and the freedom of the mind to think other thoughts once the needle is on its path to fill the leaf shape or trace the long line of a flower stalk.

In mending, there is the pleasure of the effort to understand how something is constructed and then reconstructing it with the available tools and ability. Restoring something feels like an expression of power and ingenuity.

the inner pillow, refilled and closed back up

the inner pillow, refilled and closed back up


the pillow covering, clean though still stained and fragile with age

the pillow covering, clean though still stained and fragile with age

I love handwork and yet as I do it I wonder if it’s even necessary any more. No one needs a handwoven tapestry; machines do the same work efficiently and cheaply. Just because the manufacture of a pillow or shirt or wool rug is automated doesn’t mean the product is inherently bad or without a soul.

Things don’t actually have souls, do they.

And yet maybe that’s why we make them, and why some of us preserve and restore them. Pragmatic though I am, I may believe that the objects of my work have traces of my soul, and that I add a flavor of my soul to the work of others when I care for it or restore it to use.

temporary work area, on kitchen table

temporary work area, on kitchen table

I am torn, though certainly not torn up. My worry may come from a capitalist value system — if I cannot monetize my work, it has no value. Wouldn’t my four hours restoring these pillows, freshening them up for another 10 years on the couch, have been better spent in labor that is paid or labor that will add to my credentials?

The work I did on these pillows may change only me, only my inner landscape. They sat on my couch for a few minutes to have their portrait taken. I put them gently in a plastic bag; I returned them to the adult children of the deceased woman who had made them. There are two sisters, women in their 60s who live together and have no spouses and no children, who may like having these artifacts of their mother around them. But, after them, no one.

together, for as long as it lasts

together, for as long as it lasts

And my Aunt Mae, who died in her 90s, what of all the mittens she made? There may be some still out in the world, at the bottom of the hats-and-mittens basket in someone’s mudroom. I don’t have any. Perhaps my own mother, Mae’s niece, has some still. I do have one of her ponchos, not worn for more than 40 years, folded at the bottom of my cedar chest, where such things go. It’s hard to get rid of it.

6 thoughts on “Aunt Mae’s mittens, and the needlework of other women

  1. Needlework and “handiwork” is coming back into fashion. I may be a minority in my circle of friends because I don’t knit or sew or crochet. (I do mend, repaid, and McGyver items however.) Interestingly, I know more about their crafts then I do about their careers now.

    I may have some of Aunt Mae’s Mittens (now there is a children’s book title if I ever heard one), but if not they are forever in my memory – inexpensive acrylic yarn, wet, soggy, and tasting delicious when sucked upon 🙂 .

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