Daughter’s sewing may be stitched into heritage

  • Monday, December 6, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

My daughter really wants a sewing machine. It was the only thing on her holiday wish list.

She doesn’t care if it’s used, just so long as it works. My neighbor generously loaned my daughter a machine so she could take some sewing lessons and see if sewing was really all that interesting.

My daughter loved learning to sew. It’s probably in her DNA. The hum of the machine in our house brought up long-forgotten childhood memories.

Three generations of my family made their living by sewing. As immigrants, both the men and the women sewed their way out of the depths of poverty.

Everyone in my household knew how to sew. I never learned. My family had bigger dreams for me; they wanted me to be a typist.

When I think about sewing, I think of how many women fed their families in a quiet way, doing work that, of course, never counted as work. An incredible example of this is seen in the quilts of Gee’s Bend.

Gee’s Bend is just a tiny speck of dirt in Alabama. It is named for the slave owner who once owned the land and its people. Those people, and the descendants of those people were also women who sewed.

When they didn’t have machines, they sewed by hand. They were poor and they sewed using what they had on hand. They sewed from old clothes. They would pass their clothes around the tiny corner of Gee’s Bend until no one had any use for them.

And then these brilliant women tore up the clothes and refashioned the strips of cloth into quilts. The quilts kept their beds warm, they insulated the walls, but really they nurtured an artistic spirit in each generation.

These women often worked in cotton fields, picking, and then sewing at every free moment from the fields.

The women in Gee’s Bend did not have patterns and choices of new material. They sewed purely from their imagination. They created their own patterns called “My Way.” Each quilt is unique. Each quilt is sacred art. The women in Gee’s Bend saved their quilts, sold their quilts, and kept making more quilts.

Now these very same quilts have been recognized as national treasures. These quilts have been touring the country, going from museum to museum.

I had the good fortune of seeing these quilts at the Chrysler Museum in Virginia. There is a video of the women who make the quilts now in Gee’s Bend telling their stories of learning to sew quilts. The collection starts with handmade quilts and progresses to machine-made quilts. It made no difference if they were using their hand or the machine. The power of their design, their innovation, overwhelms the viewer.

These women sewed their way out of the limits of poverty. Their art is full of statements and philosophies about living. And they have proven over and over that there is no such thing as poverty of imagination.

It’s odd that my daughter wandered into sewing. I watch her tapping into something that truly sustained women for generations in our country. The usefulness of sewing has not been “replaced” with something more high tech, thank goodness.

Sarri Gilman is a freelance writer living on Whidbey Island. Her column on living with meaning and purpose runs every other Tuesday in The Herald. She is a therapist, a wife and a mother, and has founded two nonprofit organizations to serve homeless children. You can e-mail her at features@heraldnet.com

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