Learning to back-stitch

In the notebook I carry around (in my JEM bag), I’m keeping a growing list of experimental treatments we are trying out at the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative.  So far the list includes:

  • mending
  • altering
  • transforming
  • re-skilling
  • describing
  • storytelling
  • building community

This list also serves as a sketch for future blog topics; it’s worth exploring in-depth and out loud how and why we at the Initiative see these treatments as a way to support the vivacity and the tensile strength of human-textile rapports.

One of the items on the list that’s been on my mind a lot lately is re-skilling. As part of Deep Wearing and the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative, I’m undertaking my own informal re-skilling.  My academic education is not in fashion or design; it’s in critical theory and American Studies.  Although I spent a year when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation learning how to machine and pattern sew, my previous experience with needle and thread consisted of some classes I urged my mom to let me take at the YMCA in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1980s.  (I recall making a floral print elastic skirt and half of a pillow shaped like a heart.)  In the last couple of years I’ve been learning how to hand sew from Natalie Chanin, Diane Hall, and Olivia Sherif at Alabama Chanin.  I first met these incredible women when I brought a group of my NYU students to Alabama Chanin’s studio in Florence, Alabama, in conjunction with a yearlong course I was teaching on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  Since then, Natalie has supported Deep Wearing and the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative in all sorts of ways, including allowing me to attend the inspiring sewing workshops she offers.

At the last workshop, I spent a lot of time with Faythe Levine, driving around western Alabama, staying up all night talking, and sewing.  In one of our conversations (I was working on my back-stitch, and Faythe on reverse appliqueing a poncho), Faythe asked me if I’d learned to sew from my mother.

My mother does know how to sew, at least a little.  I remember her tender support of my endless adventures in dress-up, helping me create things out of the bright, spangled fabrics I favored. My sister and I joke about the time she somewhat distractedly repaired my sister’s favorite stuffed animal by re-sewing its ear onto its tail. But–as my mother and I have often spoken of since I began this project–it was a badge of pride in her family that she didn’t have to sew.

My great-grandmother, my mother’s maternal grandmother, Dora Olitsky (Dora Rosenberg before she was married), arrived on a boat from Russia in 1911. Like many young women participating in the massive wave of migration from Eastern Europe to the US during that time, she found work in one of the sweatshops in Greenwich Village.  After she married my great-grandfather Isaac, they moved to Ozone Park, Queens where they eventually bought a laundry.  A lot of the stories my mother’s mother told were about the washing and mending jobs she did as a child and teenager as part of the family business.  Or about the child care she provided to her younger brother while her parents worked in the laundry.

As is true for many immigrant families, the goal was to get the next generation out of the laundry and into the university.  My grandmother graduated from Brooklyn College and became a teacher, but it was really my mom who fulfilled the family’s educational dreams. One measure of the success of those dreams, at least for my family, was that no woman in the family should ever have to pick up a sewing needle again.

All of this has gotten me thinking about the politics of re-skilling.  One of the ways we narrate the Iron Age of Materiality, as I’ve come to think of the “disenchantment tale” we tell ourselves about our relationships to materiality today, is by decrying our loss of basic sewing skills.  We can’t patch a pair of jeans, we say, or hem a pair of pants, or mend a hole, or sew a button.  Our lack of skills adds one more heavy stitch to the leaden, ill-fitting coat of shame most of us wear when it comes to our relationship to materiality.

Part of the work of the Human-Textile Wellness Center is to teach people these skills, or let people exercise them, if this is part of how they feel they can best practice vibrant materiality in their human-textile relationships.  But I think it’s worth remembering that for many of us it doesn’t take too many back stitches before we find ourselves sewing through complex family histories of race, class, gender, ethnicity, migration, and work.  In other words, de-skilling isn’t just some vague story of decline, it’s often connected to important familial and political histories.

As part of the intake forms and ethnographies I’m collecting for Deep Wearing through the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative, I’ve started to ask people about their sewing histories.  This is one of the ways I’m trying to get a more finely detailed, densely woven picture of what’s going on with our relationships to materiality, and how the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative might become most meaningful to the people who visit us.  Here’s my mom, writing about her sewing history in her own words:

The talent for sewing skipped a couple of generations. My mother really didn’t want to sew though she embroidered nicely and knit some things.Those were the crafts she taught me just a bit though, since she was left-handed, to this day I apparently knit oddly for a right-handed person. Truly I don’t know how to sew beyond replacing a button. In Junior High School (Shallow JHS, aptly named) I had to take a home economics class in which I was required to sew one skirt which I attempted to do with a rather garish fabric. In the midst of its first wearing, the skirt split down the seam–which was entirely emblematic of not having my grandmother’s talent for sewing. I think there was a way in which my mother, most particularly, having heard the horror stories from my grandmother about the sweat shops, eschewed learning how to sew and didn’t encourage me in that regard either. She said as much. You are really the next person in that family line who learned how to sew…

The warmest memories I have of my grandmother Dora are connected with the exquisite doll clothes she made for me when I was a young girl. In particular I remember a robin blue, satin, lace-trimmed coat with silk lining that she made for my favorite doll Elyse (to whom I gave a very long last name in French that I don’t know how to spell). The doll was sent to me from a family my father befriended in Lyons, France during his army days.

Do you have a family sewing history you are willing to share?  Please leave a comment below.

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