It’s March and among other things it means that it is time to reflect on the accomplishments of women. For me, this means creating another Women’s History Challenge for my school’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students. I started this event almost ten years ago as a way for our school, a private girls school – the oldest in New Jersey, to honor women. It is an enrichment opportunity and is optional, though every year at least twenty to twenty-five students eagerly participate. The Challenge consists of researching ten women plus another of their choice. The girls have six weeks to complete their research. In mid-February, I present the list of women for that year. Then the students who decide to participate work independently completing their research by the end of March. While the students are busy researching and writing, I create a Women’s History Challenge quiz show in the form of a slideshow. There are ten questions focusing on the lives of each women. Also, I gather pictures of the women who the students have chosen for their independent projects. In early April, we all gather to share information and celebrate the girls’ hard work researching. The celebration is in the form of an elegant tea party. I got this idea from feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation – The Dinner Party, which honors the lives of 39 women.
We prepare a large classroom in the style of high tea: lace table cloths, colorful tea pots, vases of flowers, and table settings in springtime colors. There is the traditional tea menu: tea sandwiches, tea breads, shortbread, sugar cookies, fruit salad, and an assortment of flavored teas. As the participants enter the room, you can feel the energy and see the excitement on their faces. The girls are ready to share what they’ve learned and also eager to taste the treats and plop one or two sugar cubes in their teacups. I learned that sugar cubes are a much favored treat with eight to eleven year old girls!
During the tea we have the quiz show and girls take turns answering questions about the featured women. The emphasis is on the knowledge they uncovered. There are no losers here. They are all winners because they have learned how to conduct research and found out about women they had not previously known. After the quiz show, each girl presents information the women they individually research. We ask questions and marvel about the lives of the women we had honored that year. It is one of my favorite school celebrations.
Last year, we had to create a virtual tea part due to COVID-19. I was worried that it would not be as special because I could not set up the high tea finery or prepare the luscious treats. But I was wrong. Even virtually, the girls happily celebrated and their individual presentations were even more spectacular. This year, I’m in the midst of planning our second virtual tea. Since we are lucky to have a hybrid/in-person schedule, the girls will be taking home a treat bag and then zooming into our virtual tea when then return home in the afternoon.
When preparing for the Women’s History Challenge, I have learned so much about all different women in all different walks of life. I try to gather a diverse list every year. Some years, I focus on women in the arts or women in science. This year, I chose women, most of whom I had not heard of before but who had picture books written about them. Every year I learn something new, and the students learn to be curious and are inspired by so many women role models. I wouldn’t be surprised that one day they may have a book written about them that other children will read and be inspired by.
I have been thinking about sewing lately – mending specifically. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book that caught my eye, Mending Life A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro. It’s cover is patterned and embossed. I have always been attracted to that type of patchwork – collage style. Something about the tactile diversity calls to me. The book is as much poetry and personal narrative as it is about actually sewing. It is so inventive – weaving equal parts of story, poetry, drawings, and sewing together. I had never seen a book quite like it. I was enticed and started reading. The authors’ words calmed and centered me. I began recalling my history with thread and needle. Funny how some things you loved to do in the past fade from memory, and then are quickly rekindled with a smell, an object, or a phrase.
Before my mother became a teacher, she was a seamstress. She worked to contribute to her family and put her two brothers and then her husband through college. She was amazingly gifted. She could look at a piece of fabric, fold it, pin it, cut it without a pattern and produce a blouse, a skirt, a dress, or a jacket. My sister and I would watch her as if she were a magician – and she was. She taught me to hem, put on a button, attach a zipper and sleeves. I became interested in embroidery in my early teens. I’d spend hours making designs on pillows, t-shirts and many of my jeans. I wish I had kept those pieces and repurposed them. I have one faded light green burlap pillow that made for my mom. It is not my best work, it was one of my first, and I will always treasure it.
I continued with embroidery into college and young adulthood. Embroidery helped me to stay centered. It calmed my mind. It helped me focus. I entered the flow of the stitches, the lines and curves of the pattern, the feel of the needle sliding through the fabric. One of my English professors invited us to create an artwork instead of a paper on Chekov for one assignment. I took a big risk and embroidered a scene from The Cherry Orchard. It wasn’t a perfect piece, but it did show that I took tremendous time to create the design and execute the stitches. I got an A+, and the professor showcased it at our next session. To my surprise, no one else had taken the art challenge that is why he added the plus. He wanted to reward risk-taking. His message was loud and clear, and my classmates started to be bold and creative. More inventive projects came pouring in that semester.
In my twenties, I went to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. I was astounded by her ceramic designs and needlework. At the end of the exhibit, there was an announcement about Judy’s next endeavor – The Birth Project. She was looking for quilters and embroiderers. I quickly wrote down the information, went home and began producing embroidery samples to submit. To my great surprise, I was accepted and I worked on a piece called “The Crowning,” for over a year and a half, meeting periodically with the other quilters and Judy when she visited New York. That was a great experience for me. I found a community of stitchers from all walks of life. I also wrote a poem called “Power,” that Judy included in The Birth Project book. And I began to think that my life would turn toward the arts and crafting.
But it did not. Like my mother, I turned toward teaching. I continued to create with my students. I kept containers of threads, needles, fabric, embroidery hoops, yarn for my students to experiment with. For all the years I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, my classes would create story quilts. We’d readTar Beach by Faith Ringgold and a whole cavalcade of picture books about quilts and quilting. Yes, it is chaotic to stitch with twenty 7 and 8-year old children, but it is joyful too. We’d sit in a large circle and attend to our stitching, everyone concentrating, everyone quiet. We became a community in a way that we hadn’t been before. We were creating something together, something that would be joined together. When the quilts were completed, we presented them to the parents and our school community. I still have a couple of the quilts, but the majority of them were stolen from my car one year. I always wondered what the thief did with a pile of children’s quilts. There’s a story in that!
For the last twenty years, I’ve been stitching on paper using embellishments of buttons and beads and shells. I enjoy taking a traditional art and seeing what I can do to change it, to make it my own. I do these projects purely for myself. I love choosing the colors and textures of paper. I pour over the many different threads and floss I marry into the design. The buttons and beads are a particular favorite. One year, while vacationing I Vermont, I found a woman who made her own clay buttons. They were rustic, asymmetrical, and perfect.
I don’t embroider or mend as much as I would like to. It seems there never is enough time. I’m usually rushing and sewing is a slow activity. I guess that is why I was attracted to Mending Life. It was that object that sparked the memories that are in my hands. Embroidery is an integral part of my life almost like writing is, but I didn’t realize that until this week, until I read the Montenegro sisters’ words:
Making something whole again is also a form of healing, and we humans have a deep desire to heal what is broken. Learning to mend gives us a new lens through which to problem solve. A garment or belonging we thought was beyond repair is now stitched back together by our own two hands and we discover we are more resilient than we thought.
That’s what kept me reading – that desire to heal myself and our country. I wanted a blueprint on how to mend, how to put pieces back together, how to repair something, extend its life, make it last.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Montenegro’s talk about “A Spirit of Play.” They recount how their father who was a carpenter and an artist, repaired everything in their home. He used bright red thread to repair watches, baskets, spoons, chairs, and his old brown leather belt. By using the bright red thread he was celebrating rather than hiding the flaw. I love this idea. Don’t be bashful, bring attention to the old and broken – create it anew.
Mr. Montenegro’s red thread was its own version of the Japanese ceramic repair process called kintsugi. Broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer, which highlight the mend instead of trying to make it invisible. This makes the piece unique and beautiful in its own right. Kate Roberts also speaks of the healing power of kintsugi in her book, A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice. She artfully and thoughtfully explains: The metaphor is an easy one: we embrace the flaws in our lives; we make beauty of the breaks. The reality is harder. My father couldn’t do it. His cracks grew over the years and even as he saw his life breaking apart, all he could do was lament what could have been. I have tried to learn from him. I have tried to use my cracks to become more open than I was, more empathic… I have tried to fill the breaks with gold.
I love this idea of repairing, mending, stitching together with “gold,” so the broken thing becomes beautiful and whole again. Maybe that was why I was drawn to sewing and embroidery all along. Maybe I was trying to repair my broken parts, trying to make something new and useful and unique.
Clothes sit in a pile
On the edge of my bed,
Waiting for attention.
I sit down next to them:
The khakis with the torn hem,
The sweater missing its button,
The shirt that split it’s seam,
The sock with a hole in its toe,
The old pair of worn-out jeans
With a huge tear in one knee.
I take a deep breath,
I rather be doing something else,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
Pick up the pants,
Examine the hem,
Thread the needle with
As close a khaki colored thread
As I can find – and start.
I pierce the supple surface
Down and up, down and up again and again
The thread slides through the fabric
Until the hem secured.
My hands take up the sweater
It is my favorite: black, red, and white
Thick and warm from Norway
With embossed silver buttons
One is missing now
I find another in my button box
It is not quite the same
Will anyone notice?
Does it matter? Do I care?
I snip off the top button
And put it in the place of the missing one
Then I take the mismatched button
And place it on top in full view
Like that’s where it was meant to be
I wrap heavy black floss around and around
The button shank keeping it
Snug - sure not to fall off.
My husband’s blue striped dress shirt
With it’s tiny split seam is next
I hold it up to my nose
It smells like him
I take a deep breath,
I’m doing something for someone I love,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
I find delicate white cotton thread
And another sharp needle
I concentrate on make tiny
Identical stitches one after another
After another until it is complete.
There’s my old worn sock
I take it in hands and examine it
Is it worth keeping?
The hole is quite large
But the rest of the sock is perfect
And they are my warmest
They make my feet happy
I search for charcoal gray yarn.
But find only Prussian Blue.
I begin to knit with my darning needle
Chains of wool connecting loops
Upon connecting loops
This work is different
I am not so much as attaching
As I am creating more material
I am making a toe-shaped space
Prussian blue, all its own.
My mending pile is gone
Only my worn jeans are left
The tear is huge and threatens
To extend mid-shin.
The fabric is flimsy and thin
I think a patch is possible.
I place a pretty blue and pink print
Underneath the tear
Stitching it quickly in place
Then I take up an abundance
Of pastel floss and create blossoms
Around the knee and down
Along one side of my pants leg
I keep adding flower upon flower
Pink, yellow, blue, pale peach,
A vine of mint green winds in and out
My needle pokes and pierces,
Loops and slides until it is picture perfect.
My mending is done for the day.
I take a deep breath.
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention.
Books About Mending
Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess
Fix Your Clothes: The Sustainable Magic of Mending, Patching, and Darning
by Raleigh Briggs
Joyful Mending: Visible Repairs for the Perfectly Imperfect Things We Love by Noriko Misumi
Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules
Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nin and Sonya Montenegro
Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh
Modern Mending by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald
Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
The Geometry of Hand-Sewing by Natalie Chanin
The Hand-stitched Surface by Lynn Krawczyk
Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop
Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth
What Will These Hands Make? by Nikki McClure
Quilt Books for Children
Cassie’s Word Quilt by Faith Ringgold
Early American Patchwork Quilt Designs by Susan Johnston
Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Texas Star by Barbara Hancock Cole
The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair
The Josefina Story Quilt by Bruce Degen
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
The Patchwork Farmer by Craig Brown
The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud