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Finding Women in History Through Sewing

GREAT WOMEN KNOWN FOR THEIR SEWING SKILLS!

Of late, I have become fascinated with historical fiction novels that accurately depict the story of little known women in the midivil ages up through the American Civil War.  I love the ways that they work the everyday details of their lives into the stories and how you get to see how much the little things like their sewing and tapestry work influenced their households and even nations.  So much of women’s history is recorded in the sewing, knitting and the other household tasks that they did, even and perhaps especially that done by women of royal and noble households whose work was much better recorded.  It is a great shame that for much of the history of humanity, women have not had the opportunities afforded them to read or write that their male counterparts did, but more & more historians and writers are piecing together the lives of these great women through the work of their hands, noble and common.

In a number of posts here, I will share some research that I have done on one sewing technique or another that I have been introduced to in these historical novels (all categorized under HISTORY OF QUILTING).  Today it’s BLACKWORK EMBROIDERY- also known as SPANISH EMBROIDERY because it was brought to England by Cathrine of Aragon, the first wife of the infamous King Henry VIII.

Blackwork embroidery was something that I first became aware of when reading Philippa Gregory’s novel, “The Constant Princess,” which is the very sad, but absolutely entrancing tale of Cathrine of Aragon. (Note: this is an affiliate link.  If you purchase the book through Amazon, I may get a small commission from the sale.)

“The Constant Princess” begins by diving into some of the conquests of Cathrine of Aragon’s parents, King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella of Spain during Cathrine’s childhood.  I was fascinated by the description of how they took the palace at Alhambra from the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada (Arabs/Turks to my understanding) in what is now known as the Reconquista- (translated re-conquest).  I never knew much detail of the Christian Pilgrimages to take back land in or around the Middle East that had fallen to non-believers, being Jews and Arabs, but this telling gives the reader a some idea of what they were like & why they were fought.

The battles that Cathrine- the Infanta of Spain- saw her mother take part in and plan as a child shaped her for her role as Queen of England.  This book paints a picture of the warmth of the Spanish/Arab lands as well as the intelligence of the native people- their knowledge of mathematics & medicine- of cleanliness & regular bathing, which she finds rather lacking when she goes to England!  It also shows how her mother, Queen Isabella was every inch the ruler that her father King Ferdinand was, & how she had just as much to do with the conquests of their reign as he did.  Gregory’s book paints Isabella as a strong and decisive woman who prepared her daughters to be, not only queens, but rulers & even conquerers!

SEWING IS FOR THE SOFT & THE STRONG

The story interweaves the strength of decisive women born to lead with the ability to still be associated with those things which we think of as soft & feminine, such as sewing & fine embroidery.  Queen Cathrine lead an army to victory & ruled a country in her husband’s absence (covered in the book).  She was the rod that kept him straight & on an even course for nearly 2 decades.  He only falters when he veers away from her.  She could do all of that- & influence a sewing style that would grace nearly every fabric surface in England & beyond for 200 years.

In our modern world, we tend to separate the strong women built for leadership roles from traditional crafts, like sewing and quilting, that are considered “soft & feminine.”  We have decided that any traditional art represents the weakness & subjugation of women, but they don’t have to.  Strong women can quilt.  Women who lead can sew.  One does not deter the other…

QUILTING MAKES US STRONG

This is a bit of a soapbox for me, I suppose.  There was a video going around Facebook recently of a female Astronaut who was quilting in space.  (Awesome, right?!?)  I was dismayed & quite angry to find that she was utterly & completely ATTACKED by other women online for it!  Quilting was something she loved, something she was good at- & something she was scientifically testing to see how her hobby was different in space as opposed to on earth with gravity- and there were women there beating her down for it because it was a traditional craft.  Fortunately, there were many more women from a worldwide quilting family who were happy to jump in & try to help problem solve + offer encouragement & support.  They poured out a myriad of solutions & ideas for the road blocks she was running into with plenty of encouragement & admiration.  That’s what I love about quilting- everyone trades ideas & encourages one another.  That’s what women should do.  Quilting & sewing doesn’t make us weak- it makes us strong.

Back to the book!

The author often describes the daily activities of the women in Queen Catherine’s household- the sewing they did for the Church & for charity, as well as for babies to be born & family.  It is interesting to note that making things- particularly beautiful & highly skilled sleeves, embellishments & tapestries was the work of queens & noblewomen.  It was the work of women in leadership positions!  I also loved how the author noted the way these things were received when given as gifts & the difference a handmade gift could make in someone’s life- even someone as rough as King Henry.

Greggory notes that one of Henry’s favorite gifts from Catherine was a shirt with blackwork embroidery.  It was unusual to the English court, but quite beautiful & prized- a gift of culture as well as labor & love.

If we look at the history books, we can see that Henry was not the only person impressed with her native embroidery patterns & skills.  Blackwork embroidery spread quickly throughout the English court, decorating sleeves, hems, caps, shirts, and even cushions.  It was comprised of geometric stitches sometimes filling in floral outlines.  It can now be seen in more colors than just black- hence the name has shifted to reference the stitching style & not just the black thread on white cotton or linen design that it began as.

The painter Hans Holbein the younger- famous in King Henry VIII’s court at the end of Queen Cathrine’s reign & into that of Anne Boleyn’s- apparently also influenced the craft as the Holbein stitch (often used in blackwork) is named after him.

(Blackwork Embroidery Holbein Stitch on Shirt of Hans Holbein)

Blackwork embroidery seems to have reached its height of fashion during Queen Elizabeth’s reign a generation later.  It can be seen in paintings on dresses covering the sleeves, skirt, & bodice of many upperclass women as well as the queen herself.  When I look at pictures like that & think of how many hours it would take to stitch such intricate designs into a huge skirt or sleeve I can understand why it was a symbol of wealth.  Hans Holbein, the painter that one of the blackwork stitches is known for, by comparison only has blackwork stitching on his collar!

EXAMPLES:

Queen Elizabeth Blackwork Dress

Mary Cornwallis Blackwork Dress

PRE-CATHRINEIAN BLACKWORK

I wonder, but haven’t yet found examples of what Blackwork embroidery looked like before Cathrine of Aragon brought it to England.  I suspect that it has some Arab origins or influence because “The Constant Princess” references the geometry & mathematical knowledge of the natives of her country.  Many of the native patterns that were there prior to the Spanish Conquests were geometric in nature & Greggory’s book paints Catherine as one who LOVED the native culture of her land- including the geometric designs of the palace at Alhambra.

YOSAIC™ APPLICATIONS

After having fallen in love with “The Constant Princess” & being entirely entranced with how the quiet work of Queen Cathrine’s hands influenced a nation & is still popular in many countries today (her military conquests aside!), I am determined to try mixing some blackwork stitching into my Yosaic™ designs.  Stay tuned for pictures!

PATTERN BOOKS

If you’re interested in learning more about Blackwork Embroidery, here are a few books on Amazon to get started with. (Affiliate links)


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Quilting is a Language

*This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase the referenced book, I will receive a small commission.  Thanks for reading.  Enjoy!

THE QUILTING BRAIN

The Quilting Brain is an amazing thing.  I think most of us take it for granted.  Common traits among quilters, crafters, and artisans include the ability to “steal” an idea- to see how something is put together & pull an idea from it.  You might not go home & make the exact same thing, but you take something from it & make it your own.

I had a boyfriend who worked in a professional setting & loved to collect unique ties.  He was crazy about them.  He was also the first one to introduce me to the theatre.  We went to see Les Miserables.  One day at our annual Fall Foliage Festival in Bedford County, PA (if you’ve never been- it’s well worth the trip- people travel from all over the US!), I saw a vender selling homemade men’s ties.  I decided that if she could make them, I could make them!  I went home, asked my dad for an old tie that I could take apart to make a pattern out of & went to work.  On the first run through, I did not know to cut it out diagonally on the fabric & ended up with a tie that twisted like a corkscrew!  Hilarious!  Thank goodness for moms who can come along & tell you what you’re doing wrong… I got the cutting problem straightened out & started major tie production.  Eventually, I started to embroidery them as well.  He really flipped out when I presented him with a stocking full of homemade ties at Christmas.  But that’s a quilters brain for you.  I want it- therefore I will make it!

Les Miserables hand drawn & hand stitched on a handmade tie.

Creativity like that can’t always be taught, but I think it can be learned.  It comes from thousands of hours of labor & experience.  When I began learning Spanish, the first thing I learned was to read the words & recognize them in print.  It was surprising to realize that I also had to learn to hear the words & that hearing was separate from reading.  It was the 2nd step.  The final step in fluency was being able to speak because you have to be able to both hear the language, think in it & respond in a very short amount of time.  (I was actually shocked when I first learned that I would one day think in Spanish & not just always translate English to Spanish & vice versa.  I didn’t realize that it would become a part of me.) It takes more practice than you can imagine.  You practice reading.  You practice writing.  You practice hearing.  And, you practice speaking.  If you practice enough, you begin to think in the language; it becomes a part of you.

THINKING IN THE LANGUAGE OF ART

People who are artisans- whether they quilt or sew or paint- don’t realize that they are learning a language- that they can think in quilting, but it becomes a part of them as much as any language.  It took me nearly 40 years to recognize that the reason that I see & react to the world so differently, so incredibly uniquely is because I am completely immersed in the creative process- I think in quilting- I think in art.

How do you think in quilting or art though?  One way is by approaching many facets of life using the design process.

The design process broken down simply is this:

  • Gather up all of your options (materials/patterns/etc.) & survey possibilities (like free writing in creative writing class)
  • Eliminate what doesn’t fit & begin to focus
  • Choose pattern/design/fabric/etc.
  • Begin project
  • Problem solve throughout the project

I follow this process at work.  In sales, I gather up leads for potential clients to work with.  I keep a large file (several boxes actually- kind of like a fabric stash!!!) & when I’m running low on appointments, I go through the box & pull out all of the ones that I might want to work with.  Then I eliminate the ones that can’t afford my services, followed by the ones that aren’t as likely to advertise at that time of year, until I’ve whittled my selections down to the right ones to chase.  Then I problem solve through the process of trying to land the account.

I fall back to the design process when I have any problem to solve, really.  What are my options?  (Gather up all of the possibilities.)  Sweep away the stuff that is too hard, too expensive, ridiculous, etc.  Reduce, reduce, reduce, until I can choose a solution.  Implement.  Repeat the process to further problem solve.

The design process spills over into a lot of avenues in my life and I’m proud to say that it’s a really practical & useful skill set that I have gained from my quilting & art adventures!

SEEING COMPONENTS & POTENTIAL

Another way that you can think in art is by seeing how things fit together & using that knowledge to pull anything apart, extract what you need & create something new.  It’s an incredible talent that seems to be innate to most artisans; so we typically take it for granted.  It’s part of that language of art-  an integral part of how we think & process life.

I was totally guilty of taking this part of the language & the talents I have gained from years of making art in various ways for granted until I went to college.  I was not a little bit surprised to find myself among a dozen PHD candidates who expressed amazement & stated that they couldn’t understand how I could alter an item of clothing by making my own pattern or take a couch that had been kicked to the curb, strip it, figure out how it was upholstered & how to reupholster it, when to me, it was just “common sense.”  It was easy to look at things and see how they worked or didn’t work- what I could or couldn’t do with a given material & what might work on a proposed project if I tried because I had done it with so many materials & so many projects before.  Skill sets & experience easily transferred over to new things.

Blouse gone wrong goes purse!

MISTAKES ARE OPPORTUNITIES

But, of course, it didn’t always work.  One time I ended up making myself a purse out of a blouse that I cut out with the stripes going the wrong way on one panel.  But that’s another thing that the quilting brain does- it sees possibilities.  That ruined shirt made out of fabric that I could no longer get more of at the store still contained brand new fabric.  WHY waste it?!?  ;-). Mistakes are opportunities.

ARGUMENTS FOR & AGAINST

Some might argue that this is not a language that I’m thinking in, but a skill set that I’m applying to various facets of my life.  I think the bell could toll both ways.  Because the skill sets that I’ve gained affects the way that I think & approach life, to me it has become a language.  I also state this because the things we make convey meaning outside of words & to be immersed in the making of those things means thinking outside of words- it means to think in quilting or art.

I picked up a book last night about Scandinavian embroidery & was fascinated to learn about the custom that some of the folk women had at one point of keeping an elaborately embroidered bed made up at all times for show & nothing else.  It was a status symbol among them.  It conveyed meaning.

LANGUAGE AFFECTS PERCEPTION

So- yes.  I think it’s possible to think in quilting.  I believe that art is a language & that it can shape the way that you see, think & interact with the world.  There are some fascinating Ted Talks on the subject of how different languages affect the culture’s perception of the world.

One of my favorite examples notes that in the US where we speak English we generally have 1 word for snow- and will add just a few adjectives such as wet or dry.  However, the Eskimos have 21 words for snow!  They live with it for much more of the year.  They interact with it more intimately.  Of course they see more types of it.  My bet is that there are names for crusted snow verses drifted snow, dirty vs. pure & so much more.  (If I recall correctly, the Ted Talk references this example as well, but I heard it in a different talk years ago.)

Another example that I love comes from my days in Spanish class, as well as the Ted Talk (linked below) that I recently viewed on YouTube (not an affiliate).  In Spanish- there are no words that assign blame to the individual who forgot something.  The literal translation of: “I forgot my keys.” is “The keys, they forgot me.”  What’s interesting is that English speakers are much more likely to be mad at the person who forgot the keys and made everyone late, whereas Spanish speakers accept that sometimes things forget themselves!  (Here’s the link to the Ted Talk for anyone who wants to watch it: How Language Shapes The Way We Think)

Languages really do shape how we see the world & the decisions that we make.  When we immerse ourselves in quilting & art, it becomes a part of us- it becomes a part of how we think & see things.  It is entwined into our vocabulary & vision.  I believe it can only change us for the better.