We Have So Much . . .

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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.

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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?