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An Education in Needle Work

In eighteenth-century America, a girl was expected to grow up, get married, have children, and take care of a home. Because of the limits of her sphere, a girl received a very different education from that available to a boy. In fact, before the advent of widespread public education, in order to receive any education at all a boy or a girl had to be born into the middle or upper classes and have parents who valued education enough to pay for it.
In the first half of the 19th century, boys in the middle and upper classes were taught traditional academic subjects while girls were “schooled” in what was considered “female accomplishments” -music, watercolor painting, comportment, manners, and sewing. For these girls, sewing, or ‘fancy work’ was a required skill and refined art, whereas for girls in the lower classes, knowing how to sew was a basic necessity and a way to gain employment. This made sewing the great leveler. It was a skill shared, although to varying degrees, by women of all economic backgrounds and social classes.
Most young girls learned their needle and thread work at home at a very young age, most probably from their mother and or grandmother, and by five or six might have completed a ‘marking sampler’ to showcase their work and talent. It is called a “marking sampler” because the knowledge gained enabled a needle worker to “mark” such things as clothing and household linens. In addition to improving a student’s embroidery techniques, these samplers, which often contained letters of the alphabet and numerals, were also a way to teach young girls how to form words essential for reading and therefore necessary to the management and operation of her future household.
Depending on a woman’s social class and skill set, sewing was a chore, hobby, or a refined skill, but by the mid-19th century, technology in the form of Isaac Singer’s sewing machine eased the burden for women all over the country, especially for those who depended on sewing for their livelihood and to clothe their families. From 1846 to 1896 the sewing machine went from a circus attraction to a necessity for every household, as you will learn in Alex Askaroff’s article, “The History of the Sewing Machine,” in this month’s issue.
With the mechanization of the sewing process, needle work became a refined skill in the form of decorative showpieces, high-end fashion, and handiwork hobbies such as quilting. embroidery, and knitting, while the basic skill of sewing was relegated to repair work and alterations as more and more of the family’s clothing was purchased ready-made.
The life skills education that young girls once received at home at the feet of their mothers and grandmothers was institutionally turned over to the public school system in the 1900s, when Home Economics was added to the curriculum for young girls while the boys went to Shop Class. The Home Economics curriculum was designed to teach young girls to be good housekeepers and wives, and provide them with life skills deemed appropriate for the times: cooking, sewing, baking, cleaning, and an understanding of household management. It was also designed to help young women gain useful employment and live independently as a 20th century industrialized nation welcomed young women into the workforce for office, retail, and factory work.
This gender-based option remained a requirement and the norm in public education until the 1960s and the Feminist Movement. Today, these basic skills are part of the curriculum of classes more aptly labeled Family Studies, Food and Nutrition, Health and Safety, Family and Consumer Science, and Household Science.
While the basics of sewing were provided through the public education system through the first half of the 20th century, such needle work skills as embroidery, knitting, and quilting as an inter-generational hobby, form of artistic expression, and craft continued on a path of its own as a past-time, trade, skill and cultural art form; however, by the mid-1950s, access to skilled educators of traditional execution was limited to a new generation of crafters and long-time needle workers looking to learn new skills. And then along came Erica Wilson, “the Julia Child of Embroidery.” If you have not heard of Erica Wilson before, you soon will as Winterthur Museum gears up for a new book and exhibition on her life and work. Start your education with Linda Eaton’s article, “Erica Wilson: A Life in Stitches,” in our August issue.
While the importance and perception of all women learning at least basic sewing skills has changed over time, there is no doubt that needle work as an art form and craft continue to attract new crafters, fans, and now collectors to the hobby. In this issue we look back on two centuries of needle work, and the stories, makers, and technology behind collectible objects made of needle and thread.
Maxine Carter-Lome,