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The Threads That Bind Us

To pick up a needle and thread requires a great deal of minding. Mind the needle— it’s sharp. Mind the fabric— it shifts. Mind the thread—it tangles.

Oh reader, does it tangle. 

If you have not held that delightfully simple tool in your hands, you may be surprised at the readiness with which your awareness will open to accommodate it. Sewing is a manylayered practice, regardless of the purpose—whether for form or for function, attached is a deeply sensory and emotional element. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that to sew is a tradition that spans centuries, eons, countries, continents—and the collections of the Clements too. 

By now, it should come as no surprise to you that this humble writer is very fond of sewing. Although I will confess to not being the best at understanding directions for a number of things (including needlework), I have recently found delight in patterns for applique designs; even flat on the page, the shapes alone are pleasing to the eye.

So when I came upon a small book titled The Ladies’ Guide in Needlework (Philadelphia, 1850) on the second-floor stacks of the Clements Library, my first instinct was to take the most careful and delicate of peeks into this unassuming volume to see whether it contained any guides or illustrations for applique— and was happily surprised to find exactly what I was looking for.

The Ladies Guide emphasized the virtue of hard work when employed in stitchery—it is, after all, subtitled, A Gift for the Industrious. The author, Almira Seymour (1816–1887), often disguised her identity by the sobriquet “An American Lady”—perhaps published authorship was not as acceptable an occupation as seamstress.
Plucked straight from the care of Mother Nature, the branches of an oak tree are stylized into bold, bright shapes and clean, twisting lines. Squirrel-beloved acorns have their moment of beauty too, and are as delicately rendered as every other piece. What I like about the designs in this particular volume is that they do not offer up one whole, readymade composition; rather, the elements are separated into chewable, adjustable pieces. A small, isolated twig is next to a much more voluminous branch, and curled around them are rounded buntings for further decoration. Each can be combined or manipulated in infinite ways, encouraging the mind of the designer to be inspired and creative in making unique compositions within the bounds of whatever fabric or material they choose to work with. 

I decided to try my hand at drawing those shapes out and stitch-stitchstitching them onto my fabric—a lovely, if not plain, beige color perfect for lush green leaves and nutty-brown acorns— and happily shared my intent with the colleagues at the Clements with whom I have found community and camaraderie, built largely around the craft.

As promised in the preface to The Ladies’ Guide in Needlework, the patterns “have been selected with great care, and will be found exceedingly beautiful when worked in colours;” color and care added by the author.
How can I explain to you how much I value every conversation with those colleagues? The last thing I expected when I started working here was finding a place of safety within the hearts of those kind folk, whose love for history and sewing merge in such beautiful ways. They have shown me how to cut the fabric just so around a curve, ensuring that the integrity of the shape is not compromised—and have helped me cut through my fears about not living up to the weight of the tradition that was passed down to me through my grandmother, and the legacy of her craft. An unexpected blessing, but a blessing nonetheless.

It’s a blessing increasingly recognized by scholars and researchers, too, as the “material turn” over the past several decades in the fields of History and American Studies attends to how physical artifacts can tell us much about the past. How something was made, what it was made of, who was acting in community while it was made, are important questions in their own right. That importance is now recognized and renowned, as we see by Tiya Miles’ recent book All that She Carried (New York, 2021), which centers the sewn object as a way to build out a complicated, embodied history of love and loss, winning the National Book Award and gracing the New York Times bestseller list. So, too, has teaching picked up on the power of the physical object and its creation to help students learn. The growth of “experiential learning,” or hands-on workshops, echo the lessons seen in Material Culture Studies, and in my own experience: we can learn by doing, about the subject at hand as well as ourselves.

Sewing enables all sorts of community. Sixteen-year-old Thirza Parker created this flag for her older brother, Hilon Parker, upon his enlistment in the Civil War, connecting them during the conflict (from the Hilon Parker Papers). University of Michigan students studied the flag during a recent class visit while trying their own hand at sewing, helping them understand and appreciate the labor and meaning behind stitched pieces.
Needless to say, reader, if you make a well-timed visit to the reading room you might just see a blanket adorned with oak branches and acorns on the lap of one humble supervisor—who would be most happy to refer you to the precise book from which those designs emerged.

Meg Bossio
Reference Assistant