We Have So Much . . .


Oodles of creative energy and desire. A strong desire, the impulse to make, to create . . .

And no resources. No thread, no yarn, no fabric. Nothing to turn my hands to. I can’t imagine . . .

A lot of my recent pleasure in this complicated world comes from my poor power to make something. When I get too overwhelmed by the news, I can turn away, pick up a rainbow of pretty threads, and play. And heal.

I’m reading a book that helps me realize how very, very lucky I am to have that outlet.

The book is Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett. It was published as a companion to a 2012 show that was organized by the now-defunct American Textile History Museum. The show traveled to other museums, including Shelburne Museum of Vermont, where Don and I saw the collection a couple years ago.

The show was spectacular, using “quilts, textiles, clothing, and other artifacts to connect deeply moving and insightful personal stories about the war, its causes, and its aftermath with the broader national context and public history.”

I didn’t write a blog post about this experience, mostly because photography wasn’t allowed and the impact of the show was visual—items included the hemp rope said to have been used to hang abolitionist John Brown, quilts made for soldiers to carry with them to battle, and all manner of personal textile items—knapsacks, clothing, and “housewives”—small sewing kits made for soldiers to carry with them in order to do their own sewing repairs.

Seeing these items moved me greatly and brought the reality of the Civil War to life for me, and I bought the well-written and beautifully illustrated book so I could learn more and have the photographs of the wonderful artifacts. I would recommend it to anyone interested in textiles, domestic social history, and human resilience.

I’ve been re-reading the book lately, in another time of American upheaval and uncertainty. Sometimes, as I read, I almost envy the women left home during the Civil War—they were full of a sense of purpose and knew exactly what they could do to make a difference during difficult times. They sewed, they knit, they wove, they quilted, and they sent the product of their labor to the soldiers whose lives were made substantially more bearable as a result.


from the website of the American Textile History Museum, athm.org 

In these times that try one’s soul, as I turn my hand to weaving, sewing, quilting, I have no such sense of broader purpose. I am doing what I do for myself and my own state of mind. Making is a balm.

Yet, reading Homefront and Battlefield also encourages me to think about how lucky I am, and not just in the obvious ways—we are not engaged in a war with ourselves, I am not sending sons to battle to fight and kill their brothers. I am not burying the silver in the yard to hide it from the enemy.

I am lucky, too, in that in my need to make and to turn my hand to a job of work, I have unlimited power to do so and unlimited resources to draw from.

One of the points made in the book, and something that had never occurred to me is that, often during years of the Civil War, women had nothing–nothing— to work with.

As a result of any number of realities of war, there were no raw materials to be had. No cotton because it was all diverted to the war effort. No wool because sheep were killed to feed troops, rather than kept for their wool. A Georgia woman described the plight in her diary, saying, “There is no cloth to be had and no thread, no yarn—nor anything to do with. Time passes heavily under such circumstances” (164).

Indeed, it would.

No cloth? No thread? No yarn?? Just worry, and a frustrated desire to turn hands to fruitful labor, to make something that could help.

I have worry. But I have yarn and thread and fabric. I can sublimate my worry, my agitation, into something positive.

I read examples all the time of women channeling grief or anger or worry into their craft, turning to the soothing rhythm of knitting needles clicking or the needle and thread purring through cloth . . .

Can you imagine not having that outlet?

68 thoughts on “We Have So Much . . .

  1. Kerry, if I had no yarn or thread , needle fabric….. I’m sure that would be a very dark time for me! So thankful for these things that brighten my days. I’m glad to know about the book ,I enjoy civil war history as I live on the civil war path that went from Atlanta to Savannah.

    • It would be a dark time for me, too, Deb! The book is kind of expensive but, for me, so worth it–the photographs are excellent and I learned a lot from the background given.

  2. That is fascinating to think about. It would be grim indeed if I could not handle fiber in the evenings. Ever since 1939 we have known about the shortage of dress goods, when Maria Mitchell had Scarlett O’Hara make a dress from curtains – and of course, Carol Burnett made us scream with laughter as she wore Bob Fosse’s creation, complete with curtain rods. But I never really thought about what that meant beyond no more pretty clothes. Makes me wonder if my stash is big enough to handle a time of deprivation like that…

    • I suspect your stash is plenty big enough! 😉 Part of the issue during the Civil War was that the soldiers needed so much of the available resources–people at home put the soldiers’ needs first and had little for themselves. And, yes, that Carol Burnett sketch was perfection!

  3. That’s a fascinbatinmg piece of history from a time and place we Brits know only the barest bones about. You made it come alive with your stories of deprivation, and sometimes make-do-and-mend. Thank you.

  4. Great book Kerry, I ordered it right away. And I agree, of all the hardship that can befell on men..loosing a sense of purpose is so dreadful. My heart breaks when I see all those refugees and I cant help thinking how incredibly bored they also must be. Just sitting waiting with nothing, nothing to do. It must be so depressing. I cannot, will not even imagine how that would be. Wishing you blissful days with colorful yarns and fabric! xo Johanna

    • That’s a very good point about the refugees and their long hours of just waiting and fearing, with nothing to distract them. I think you will love the book–I learned a lot and was very inspired by the ways women made a difference in that war effort.

  5. We also are fortunate because we love to create. We have the ability and drive and desire to make things. Many people don’t. Perhaps they have other compensations but, from my perspective, they are missing out on so much richness in their lives. I guess I should stock up on textiles and wool in case the world falls apart in the next four years! And lots of reading glasses, for sure. Otherwise, everything else will be useless.

    • You’re so right! I know a number of people who have no creative outlets and I want to convert them! But they don’t seem to know what they are missing . . . or care. I don’t get it!

  6. Needles and thread, yarn and cloth are constantly in my hands. I think there are times when I would lose my mind if I did not have access to these things to distract me from the news and chaos of the world. Women throughout history have learned to be very resourceful in finding and using what they could find locally. How very lucky we are to have on line shops and almost instant delivery of almost anything we need/want.

    • That’s just how I feel, Barbara–during my day, I move from weaving to quilting to embroidery, and back. Without those things, my days would be, pretty literally, empty. Awful to even consider!

    • Well, that’s interesting–paper was also in short supply and very expensive. I’ve seen letters written in the Civil War era, where the first letter is written in one color ink and the second letter is written in another color with the page turned 90 degrees, in an effort to get more use out of the scarce resource. So, I don’t know if journal writing was even an outlet for a lot of women.

  7. Denise > A wonderfully thoughtful post, Kerry. And how fortunate we are to have professionally run well-funded museums and galleries and other institutions that tell the story of our nations and cultures with truth and inquiry and sensitivity.

    • Thanks, Denise. One of the sad postscripts to my post is that the American Textile History Museum, which sponsored this show and book, has since had to close its doors and divest itself of its collections–such a loss!

      • Jonathan > That’s dreadful news. I wonder what happened to those collections? When I was about 12, my mother came home from a Women’s Institute trip to the American Museum in Britain, near Bath with a new zeal for textiles and especially quilts. (See https://americanmuseum.org/). This would have been late 60s. I cannot begin to tell you how profoundly influential that visit by mum was, for her, my childhood home, and in time for Denise and I. Yet neither D nor I have been there: the opportunity has never arisen. One day, perhaps …

        • I have no idea what will happen to the collections of the ATHM–their website just says they are looking for new homes for them . . .

          Two other bloggers have recently mentioned the American Museum in Bath–it sounds just my style! Interesting how your life was influenced by it.

  8. I recall that women often unpicked their old dresses to make new ones in those times. Often clothing would be recut and repurposed for others in the family. Not to make light of a resource poor time, but I would think that women with deep stashes were quite popular

    • The book talks quite a bit about the re-making of old clothing, some to update wardrobes and some to send to soldiers, to cover their needs. Even the deepest stashes ran dry over the course of those awful 4 years!

  9. As you know, I don’t have that outlet. And I have been feeling anxious lately. I researched “calming herbs” a few days ago in the internet and read good things about it. I bought some yesterday and took it as soon as I got home. I thought it helped some. I’ve taken it today but it hasn’t helped much. I read that valerian works synergistically with lemon balm so tomorrow I pick up valerian. I must remember to breathe deeply!

    • I know nothing about calming herbs but I do know that deep breathing and meditation seem to help. Do you ever think about picking up a craft? When you start a new one, it takes a lot of attention and keeps you from thinking about the news. Then when you get better at it, the rhythm sets is and that’s calming in a different way. Just a thought . . .

  10. A thoughtful and most timely piece of history Kerry. We are so very fortunate and so often don’t appreciate it until we lose it! Perhaps the most important part of hand working, apart from being balm for our soul, is the ability to do something for others – but even if crafting is not our thing, we can still lend a helping hand to those in need. It reminded me that when I was young community parties were still all the go – to make a garden or paint a house or ‘raise a barn’ ….. work done with many hands goes more quickly and more cheerfully and there is always food and drink afterwards 🙂

  11. You brought me back in mind of my grandmother’s quilts. These were made from the good parts of scraps from clothing that had worn out and couldn’t be a dish towel or a handkerchief. We forget how valuable fabric used to be and it does boggle the mind. Even paper–have you seen those letters where people wrote vertical and horizontal across the writing? We are so fortunate, even with our worries. I remember reading a pioneer journal where the writer said “How do I tell it? Squash for breakfast again.” Obviously, she had “scraped the bottom of the barrel.” Thanks for reminding us.

    • I was just telling another commenter about those letters, written to conserve paper! You’re right, we have so much of everything at our disposal that it’s too easy to take it all for granted. I love those Depression-era patchwork quilts best, for the way they show how beauty can come from humble origins.

  12. We are blest with an abundance that, even the poorest among our citizens, have more than other parts of our globe…..yet, with all the “stuff” that surrounds us there is no peace, no calmness, no satisfaction but rather an underlying(?) tension. Could it be the notion that all that we have has come about in our own strengths and wrangling? That these things possibly are only a “vapor” that could go “poof” without any way for us to stop it??? Although, years ago, lives were simple (without all that stuff) there was a pervasive underlying faith in the One Who truly holds all this together and gave many the strength, and hope in a better future, to go on. I loved this post and will note the book title for the future!!!! Thanks so much………………………….

  13. Kerry, you always go beyond the self-evident, and you uplift us with the most unusual things. Considering that resources were so scarce for women during the Civil War, and I have more “resources” than I can store, I am wondering what you think women in 1865 might have had in such abundance that was a burden (and yet a woman now might year for more of it)? By the way, what did you decide to do about the red work quilt deviation?

    • You say the nicest things–thank you! The only things I can think of that Civil War women had in abundance, other than fear and dread, were a sense of community and purpose. As I read that book, I really did envy them that they knew exactly what to do to help–knit socks, make quilts, raise money to help their soldiers. I, on the other hand, am at a kind of big loss as to what to do to make a difference right now. As for the redwork–so far, I have left the deviation in and not fixed it. In a way, I think that leaving it will always help me remember the blog posts and the wonderful discussion that ensued in the comments!

  14. Sounds like a great book. The inability to have access to creative materials has befallen people all over the world at various times throughout history. I think that’s why I collect so much creative material now.

    • You’re right and I suppose it could happen again, although it seems almost unimaginable when we all talk about how much we have and struggle to find ways to store it!

  15. Another thoughtful and interesting post. I am glad you can be soothed in times of stress by your skill in so many crafts. I would be *so* interested in that exhibition organised by the American Textile History Museum!
    My grandmother was an excellent needlewoman and was able to make anything she wanted to and created her own paper patterns and could knit garments without a pattern. During WW2 when it was almost impossible to get material or new clothes, my mother tells me her mother would undo clothes and make them up again as something else. She managed to get enough material from somewhere to make my mother a school blouse which unfortunately fell to pieces while my mother was at school because of the poor thread my grandmother had had to use to sew it together!

    • That’s such a great story about your grandmother and her resourcefulness! The book I wrote about also talked about the remaking of old clothes into new–people did the best with what they had. The museum show was one of the best I’ve ever seen for humanizing a war and reminding viewers what life was like for soldiers AND the people at home. It’s terribly sad that the museum that mounted the show has since closed its doors because it lacked funding . . .

    • It really is such a loss. One moment, their website was saying they’d closed temporarily to seek funding, etc., and the next thing I knew, they were closing permanently and looking for places to house their collections. And I never got there before it closed!! AAARRRGH!

  16. No, I cannot imagine not having that outlet. When people ask me why I do what I do (hand-quilting), I give them an answer which offers more than my internal response of, “How could I not?” I’ve had my eye on this book for a while – now might be the time to buy. Thank you for your ever so thoughtful posts.

    • Thank you for your kind words! I think you would LOVE this book–the photos are wonderful and the narrative is thoughtful and well-researched and written. It’s kind of expensive but totally worth it, I thought!

  17. I’ve often said, perhaps even here, how fortunate I feel to be able to make. Making (arts, crafts, music, poetry…) is a way to immerse oneself for a time and to add beauty into a sometimes ugly world. When resources are scarce, those who are most resourceful will still find a way, creating music from voice or by drumming, or drawing figures in the dirt, or adding words into a fantastical story, even if kept only in mind. But those of us somewhat less resourceful (and I include myself) still depend on things as well as imagination. I am lucky to have some of those things.

  18. In the years when I wasn’t making things I read a great deal, but it is so good to do something myself and not just be passive. Books would have been scarce at that time too.
    A big difference is that our output is not needed by our society or family anymore as goods are readily available to be bought. For those of us who want to create, we are fortunate that beautiful and diverse materials are also readily available.

    • You’re right–our output is much more for pleasure than any need. I envied the sense of purpose the Civil War women clearly felt–even if they were just knitting sock after sock, they knew it was going to a good cause.

  19. Kerry, while I’ve not been able to spend much time on WP, I always know that when I visit you, I’ll be inspired by your thoughts and words. AND I love the comment section.
    You inspire me to put more effort into my sadly neglected blog.
    In the meantime, I like thinking about having a sense of purpose to our craft, whatever it may be.

  20. That sounds like a good book, Kerry. I am reminded of my 5th Grade teacher saying “When the going gets tough,the tough get going”. These women were no exception, and were very resourceful.

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