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? Continue reading