• 09Jul

    My great-grandmother, known to us as Grandma Mim, was a maker.  I remember her hands – hands that canned garden vegetables, made elderberry jelly, scrubbed clothes in a washtub before hanging them on the line.  She sewed clothes and spent tireless hours seaming quilt squares.  In earlier years she had sat across the room-sized quilt frame from her centenarian mother, both of their hands busy persuading a needle and thread to take small even steps across the top of a quilt.  Now she quilted alone.

    I remember going to visit her one spring when I was a teenager.  It was a two hour drive through small Illinois farm towns separated by a patchwork of crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa; each mile taking us farther from the city.  We passed the town with the large yellow gingerbread Victorian house, the town with the Dairy King, the water tower bearing the name of a town that sounded like a flower but wasn’t, and finally we came to the crossroads with a single flashing red light over the four-way stop.   Her address was a single number on a rural route, a small white farmhouse built by her late husband when they were ready to downsize from the large Victorian next door.  We were almost there when we could see the old Wal-Mart and the new McDonald’s by the nursing home.

    When we arrived, she welcomed us warmly into her kitchen, hugging each in turn and offering to make us lunch.  Utilitarian and functional, the kitchen was equipped with everything necessary, but little that was purely decorative.  Crisp white curtains hung at the windows, a hand knitted dishcloth hung over the faucet, well-scrubbed wood cabinets held butterfly gold Corelle dishware and rarely used china.  In some places the black and white pebble pattern on the linoleum floor had been nearly scoured away by years of footsteps.  Always smiling, Grandma Mim offered us sandwiches, fresh vegetables, and sun tea, or she would offer to “milk her cow” – which meant reconstituting a fresh gallon of “milk” from the white powder in a box.

    She had survived the Great Depression and two world wars, raised two stepsons and a daughter, and believed in being self sufficient:  growing her own food, sewing all of her own dresses, and piecing her quilts by hand.  Her quilts outlived her and are a tribute to her industrious nature.  Carefully packed away in mothballs when not in use, the perfectly stitched geometric patterns bear witness to her artistic acuity.  She never did anything halfway.

    After lunch, she sat on the divan in the living room and her never-idle hands took up her current tatting project, a large pile of lacework filling her lap and obscuring the pattern on her green and white dress.  I sat next to her on the textured sofa that was older than my mother, but well taken care of.   The room was dominated by the large upright piano on one end near the spare bedroom doorway.  An old pedal-driven Singer sat atop a sewing table, and the spinning green damask rocking chair that had been reupholstered a decade earlier sat near the telephone table.

    I watched my grandmother’s hands, fascinated, as she worked, the lace spilling from her fingers.  She was nearly ninety and her wrinkled hands reflected a lifetime of industry.  Her gold wedding band, sized for a younger and slimmer hand, formed a deep indentation in her ring finger.  She still wore it, though her husband had passed away almost fifteen years before.  Whenever my mother would urge her to remove it, she’d reply that she wasn’t looking for another husband.  Eventually, it would be cut off her finger when she was prepped for emergency surgery.  As she worked, the shiny silver shuttle in her hands reflected light as she deftly passed it back and forth, tying half a knot with each pass of the shuttle, the bobbin loaded with cotton thread the color of oleo.

    “What are you making, grandma?”  I queried.

    A smile lighted her face and her fading blue eyes glowed, contrasting with red hair that was only lightly streaked with silver, as she answered, “A tablecloth.”

    She held it up for me to see.  The lacework was composed of tiny intricate circular floral motifs that formed an interconnected latticework of lace.  Each flower was the size of a silver dollar, formed from more than two hundred tiny lark’s head knots.  More than half finished, the tablecloth was intended to someday cover a large formal dining table.

    “Wow, grandma, that’s beautiful!”  She beamed with pride.  I watched her hands closely, trying to understand their complicated movements.  “How long have you been working on it?”

    “Oh, five years.”  She said it casually, but to me five years was an eternity, a third of my life.

    And then I saw it.

    There, not too far from the end she was working on, was a large teardrop-shaped hole large enough to accommodate a dinner plate.  Some time, recently, she had apparently joined two nonadjacent motifs together, but she couldn’t see well enough anymore to realize what she had done.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her.

    I miss my grandmother.

    She has long since passed away, but her memory and influence remain.  Inspired by her tireless work, during the intervening years I have learned to sew, quilt, tat, and knit.  Remembering the tablecloth, I had a desire to attempt to correct my grandmother’s unwitting mistake – to proudly display this intricate tribute to her skill as a craftswoman.  I vainly questioned family members who had access to the house or lived there following her death.  Nobody was aware of what had happened to the tablecloth.  No one could remember seeing it.  The house has since been stripped of its contents and sold to someone desiring to develop the land.  The house was bulldozed to the ground.  The tablecloth may no longer exist, but Grandma Mim’s legacy lives on.

  • 07Jul

    I have long been fascinated by the history of fiber arts.  Old Greek manuscripts, like The Odyssey, tell stories of women spinning and weaving.  Ancient pottery shards depict images of women manipulating spindles and weaving at large looms. These crafts were passed down through history, changing and evolving with technology.  Some artforms were abandoned when new ones were popularized. Tatting, a form of lacemaking, was popular during the Victorian period and into the early 20th century.

    My great-grandmother was a tatter, probably due to her frugality.  She survived the Great Depression and two world wars, and maintained her thriftiness for the rest of her life.  Tatting allowed her the opportunity to create beautiful lace accessories, like collars and cuffs, as well as table-topping doilies and even a tablecloth, but to do so inexpensively.  The craft requires only a sturdy non-pilling cotton thread and a metal, plastic, or wooden shuttle – a boat-shaped bobbin – and either a pattern or a little imagination.  The expense was in the labor and expertise involved in manipulating the shuttle and thread, and the diligence required when creating a large or intricate project.

    I learned to tat about a decade ago, and find it a very satisfying endeavor.  Something about the rhythm of tying hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny lark’s head knots to create an intricate interconnected network of loops and scallops intrigues me.  Maybe it is the beautiful lace that I create with my own hands and some simple materials, or maybe its the act of tying myself to all the women of the past, of incorporating myself in the historic network of women who have used their hands to create clever or practical or beautiful things.

    For the past several months I have been working on a rather large (for me, anyway) project that I plan to submit to the Illinois State Fair competition.  Composed of thousands of tiny knots, this dinner-plate sized doily is made from #80 thread – thinner than standard quilting or sewing thread.  Tatting’s challenge is much like that of an old typewriter: mistakes are at the least very difficult and in the worst case impossible to correct.  Once a knot is made, it may be undone if it was done recently.  Like crochet, all intervening stitches must be undone in order to correct an early mistake.  If this involves a recently executed stitch in one of the straight or scalloping chains of knots, then it is feasible to correct an error.  But if the error lies within one of the closed loops of knots or beyond one of the aforementioned loops, then one must be a very skilled, patient, detail oriented, and have very keen sight.  Did I mention patient?

    So, here I sit, rhythmically tying tiny cotton knots, checking and double checking my work for accuracy, and hoping that it looks as good when it’s finished as it does in my imagination.

  • 05Mar

    tatted bookmarkAnother tatted bookmark…this one was for my husband’s grandmother on the occasion of her birthday.

    Shawl update:  I still have not completely decided what to do about the shawl dilemna.  I will probably rip back to the original body of the shawl in order to keep uniformity of color, and then do a wider edging to increase the size somewhat.  Meanwhile, I have been working on another shawl and I will post pictures of that at a later time.

  • 22Feb

    tatted bookmarkWell, I am feeling better after my bout with the flu and trying to get back on schedule.  It has been a long week, and I have been so bored lying around but have not felt well enough to do much else. 

    I do have a finished object.  Before I became ill I started tatting a bookmark for a friend, and I am happy to say that I finished it today and will send it off to its destination tomorrow. 

    And, after I finish a bit of seaming and blocking, I should also have pictures of the finished shawl I knitted in those wonderful moody shades that remind me of the camping in the mountains on a foggy morning. 

  • 20Jun

    tatting collage     

    When I think about my great-grandmother, I think of these three things:  tatting, quilting, and canning.  She lived in a rural Illinois town and lived through the depression.  She had a make-do-with-what-you-have attitude, and did not buy something unless absolutely necessary.  She kept a large garden into her 90’s and canned vegetables and homemade jellies.  Elderberry jelly was her specialty.  I still cannot find one that tastes as good as hers.  Sadly, we were separated by a distance that made it hard for me to see her often enough.  Even though she died when I was in my 20’s, I did not learn these skills from her. 

    I do not remember seeing my great-grandmother being idle.  when she sat, she was seated at her quilting frame or tatting.  When I grew up, I had a quilt she had made on my bed.  I had another that was a gift when I was born.  Sadly, the one from my bed was old and did not survive.  My baby quilt was made from fabric that is at least 70 years old and is very delicate; the edges are frayed and the print is very faded, but I still love it.  Before she died, she spent several years tatting a very large table cloth that was absolutely beautiful.  She had cataracts then, and her eyes were not very good, so there were some flaws.  This beautiful tablecloth is MIA.

    I very much wanted to learn these skills that neither my grandmother nor mother had learned.  My great-grandmother had passed away before I learned.  My husband knew of my desire to learn to tat, so he even purchased my first tatting shuttle on Ebay as an encouragement for me to learn.  Several years ago I found a stitching shop that offered tatting classes, and I was so excited to learn.  My sister Pink also took the class with me, and we have been “mad tatters” ever since.  The above picture is a sampling of some of the doilies, bookmarks, and Christmas ornaments I have made.

    I really enjoy tatting, it is quite relaxing.  I enjoy being able to create something beautiful out of something as simple as thread.  I enjoy being part of the history of lacemaking which stretches back centuries.  I enjoy mastering a domestic art that reminds me of my great-grandmother. 

    I also learned to hand piece and hand quilt, although I have not done a lot of it.  I do not have a sewing machine, but I do want one.  Then I would like to do the piecing by machine, but still quilt the top by hand.

    Today, I read in Tammy’s post about how to make strawberry jam, and it inspired me.  Canning may be in my future yet…