Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stitching in Time: In Step with Minnie

Crafted by Minnie Estelle (Wicker) Ruston 1890-1964.
One of my favorite childhood books was Halfway Down Paddy Lane by Jean Marzollo, the story of a 15 year old girl who takes a bad fall and wakes to find herself in 1850s America, in the home of an Irish immigrant family, all of whom work at the local cotton mill (who she later discovers are her ancestors). One scene in particular has always stayed with me. One night, after working a long day in the factory, the matriarch sits out on the porch with her daughters, making lace. Not darning it, but making it. It was the first time I realized in my childhood that even the things I thought were complicated to make were, in fact, once crafted by human hands.
I am reminded of that book when I take sewing work into my lap at night. I love to hand-stitch. I enjoy the discipline of learning to sew in a straight line without a guide, and the body memory I learned that ensures my stitches will be of even size and space between them.
In the bin of my father’s family belongings, I pulled out a small quilt sampler. Based on the other mail-order patterns addressed to her, my best guess is that the sampler was made by my Great-Grandmother Minnie Estelle (Wicker) Ruston. It was loose in the bin and has some color-bleed from basement water damage over the years, but besides suffering two pinprick moth holes, it is otherwise perfect and the stitches are unmarred.
I turned the sampler over in my hands to see how it was sewn. Such tiny stitches stared up at me and I was momentarily overwhelmed. I was holding a piece of family history that spoke to something I do to calm my thoughts, something I enjoy in my time. To better reach out and connect to Great-Grandma Minnie, I set out to recreate the pattern she made, to walk in step with her.
I tried to keep to her pattern without undoing her piece, imagining that her fabric choices were probably made up of leftover scraps she had from other projects. The small pattern I drafted was made up of a circle in the center, 12 inner petals and 12 outer petals. Ten of the inner petals were paired, two of the same with two extra individual ones. I kept the same pattern for mine, with scraps I had in a drawer. Minnie’s color scheme was more white, linen and brown, while mine was white, purple and green.
There were 25 pieces in total. As I worked them together, stitch by stitch, I quickly grasped that there is artistry to this kind of piece-work. After sewing, my pieces seemed smaller than Minnie’s and it is far from a perfect replica. But the spirit of the design holds true and the intention of sharing her work ended in creating a thing of beauty I might not have endeavored to make otherwise and might never have learned how capable I was to undertake it.

Crafted by me, February 2012.

What was more wonderful was finding that the areas I had to fudge due to my inexperience were almost twin to her own sampler, ways of pulling the fabric in when there is a tad too much. And my center piece was smaller than I intended it to be, but in the making of it, I remembered how a dear friend used to make quilt circles during our U.U. services and once that memory bloomed, I figured out how to make it work (and that I should have cut it much larger).
Hand-sewing is a meditation I love, folding fabric, like time, and binding it together in the shape you desire. Hands have been stitching longer than we can remember, where men at sea and soldiers were often more capable darners and menders than wives and mothers, before sewing was ascribed a gender role. These meditations through time layer the past onto the present. I am sewing a pattern that my Great-Grandmother sewed. I can feel her hand over mine, more sure, more used to the rhythm of it.

Minnie (left) and me (right), folding time in one pattern.

To create my sampler, I used the same stitch that my Great-Grandmother used. That her Great-Grandmother used. That all those who have come before and taken a needle into their hand have used. The needle separates the edges of threads and weaves in, through the threading, the fabric, and weaves out to take breath on the other side, before diving back down again, into the earth. I am sewing and weaving the earth and sky together. I am creating.
Working on my family tree, I realized that I was meditating on the backstitch in my head. Emma Whitcher was born and died. I slid the needle into the fabric at her birth, and moved it to the left, slipping out at her point of death, life’s beginning and end. But then I move the needle back to the right, halfway, to the place where Minnie, Emma’s daughter, was born, sliding the needle in at her birth, and then all the way to the left to Minnie’s death, coming back out of the fabric. And then halfway to the right, when her daughter Ruth was born, then out to the left, where Ruth died and halfway back to where my dad was born. The rhythm repeats, through those still living and those who are yet to be, so that someday a descendant- though not mine- might find my sampler and wonder at the stitches and endeavor to step into my shoes and take a needle into their hands.

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