"The Women Have Leaped from Their Spheres" (thank goodness!)

Confusion has seized us, and all things go wrong,
The women have leaped from "their spheres,"

And instead of fixed stars, shoot as comets along,
And are setting the world by the ears.

Maria Weston Chapman

The above photo was taken at Yosemite National Park, California, ca. 1895. The caption reads, "'In a Spirit of freedom,' -- posed daringly in an improbable setting, these two women symbolize the spirit of the "new woman," free to explore all of life's opportunities."

All of life's opportunities ca. 1895, that is.

I love this photo and quote. They come from another one of my favorite books:

"Artists in Aprons", C. Kurt Dewhurst, Betty MacDowell, Marsha MacDowell

I purchased it some years ago at a second-hand shop.
On the inside cover, it says:

The women . . . this book illustrates had to wrest their art from a workaday life that gave them little or no relief from life-sustaining chores, or leisure for reflection. . . . It shows conclusively the importance placed by American women on the creation of art not for fame and fortune, but art created to bring aesthetic and spiritual sustenance to themselves, their families, and friends."

And isn't that why, in 2009,
we continue to create?

I've long collected vintage household linens (embroidered dishtowels and such) because they hold tremendous fascination for me.

In fact, I have quite a few in frames on my walls.

Aside from being cute and colorful, there is something so wistful about many of them -- it's almost as if their creators were embroidering themselves (the things they couldn't do or say, a longing for creative fulfillment or for beauty) on the only acceptable or available canvas:
the textiles of domesticity.

I believe this also explains part of my attraction to old magazines. Sure they're kitschy and fun, but they also provide a window to a world so foreign -- yet so recent -- that I continually shake my head in wonder.

It seems to me that for many, many years, necessity (and social norms) dictated that a woman's "sphere" was about the size of a silverware drawer --

she was:

indispensable at mealtime,

polished up only for company,

and when not busy cooking or feeding or serving . . .

up to her armpits in hot soapy water.

See? Silverware.

I'm thankful every single day I have the freedom to vote and own property and big things like that, but I'm equally thankful I have the freedom (from life-sustaining chores and social stigma)
to create!

And my work doesn't have to keep anyone from freezing or even decorate the parlor -- the things I make can just BE.

My mom and dad recently purchased a large painting for their kitchen -- it's about 4 feet by 6 feet I guess -- the bulk of it painted almost entirely in greys. It's a neighborhood scene in an English milltown. A woman is standing behind a clothesline that zig-zags across the painting, and fluttering from the clothesline are . . .
bright white doilies and colorful embroidered linens!

The artist told my mom that the woman in the painting was her mother, who had a somewhat bleak life working in the textile mills, but that each of the linens depicted is a specific one that she remembers her mother making for their home.

Exactly what I'm talking about.

That's why when I opened this birthday present from my mother, I was so delighted:

Days-of-the-Week Dishtowels!
Embroidered by my own mother!
For me!

I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to use them. My mom insists she intended them to be used, but --

for now, I guess I'm just savoring them.
Somehow I feel like there's a lot in those stitches.

But there always is.


luanne said...

your mom's gift made me misty-eyed. you must have been so thrilled when you opened those! the embroidery is lovely and the images are so sweet. i'd be hard pressed to use them for anything except display.

you're so right about how much is contained in the stitches. and how lucky we are to be able to express ourselves creatively without the need for our art to be a functional household item.

my grandma taught me to embroider when i was little, even though i rarely saw her doing so. she was too busy replacing buttons, mending shirts, darning socks, patching pants, making aprons and curtains and no-frills teatowels.

it makes me sad now to think of all the pure creativity within her that may have gone unexpressed and unsatisfied for her whole lifetime.

compliments to your mom, and thanks for all the food for thought! a great post.

VO said...

My mom (a professional seamstress in Japan) taught me to sew I had no idea I'd do it for the rest of my life.

When I was a kid I used to go to TG&Y and get those exact kinds of patterns to embroider. I loved it. Enough that by the time I was in 6th grade I was selling my ability to embroider everyones jeans with flowers and such.

It gives me great pleasure to see other families who have that same legacy.

Decorating by sewing/embroidery is an expression of love and an act of service. I'm wanting to give your mom and every woman (and man) who sews a big hug for decorating my life.

VO said...

ummmm, start my comments with the word: When...my mom

susan m hinckley said...

Thanks for sharing your embroidery stories with me -- my Aunt Lillie (of course) taught me to embroider when I was quite young. I made a set of doilies with pansies on them. I have no idea where they went. Aunt Lillie's lessons are the reason I learned to sew with my right hand (and cut and crochet and iron) even though I'm actually left handed.

I don't really remember my Mom embroidering a lot (she did tons of crochet), although I was always amazed that she seemed to know all the decorative stitches when we would do a little project together like make a doll or doll dress. But she was sort of raised by Aunt Lillie, so it shouldn't have surprised me. Anyway, I'm delighted that she's returned to embroidery now!

As for me, I promptly forgot Aunt Lillie's embroidery lessons and have been re-teaching myself with books and figuring it out as I go along since I started my wool works. I wish I could embroider as well as my mom does.

And somewhere Aunt Lillie is probably rolling her eyes when she looks at my makeshift methods!

luanne said...

susan, you're way too modest!

aunt lillie must be absolutely beaming (and sometimes chuckling) when she sees your work now. you're a credit to her and your mother!

Marjorie said...

Oh, what an absolutely perfect gift--you're mom is a peach! My first embroidery (which I have no memory at all of doing), was a pink apron with a printed pattern carefully cross stitched, made for my grandmother. I was sad she never wore it. Use your towels. Let them add joy to every day.

april said...

well, i'm back and all caught up on reading your posts that i missed. (serves me right to miss giveaway month since your writing is so fantastic - there's no excuse for not reading it right away!).

anyhoo, so glad you avoided the swine flu earlier, you could've seen me spitting nails when i read that quesiton about "wouldn't you rather be doing art?" - so relieved when i scrolled down after the picture and saw what the lady meant & finally i certainly some fabulous editor reads your blog because you need to be published someday. your writing really touches me, susan.

susan m hinckley said...

Thanks, April -- I'm sorry you missed giveaway month, too. But I'm glad you've back now! Your kind words always mean so much to me.

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