Generally speaking, these days, women who sew are engaged in making clothing, doing embroidery, quilting or creating works of art from cloth. We stitch because it pleases us, to express our creativity or satisfy the artistic impulses within us.
But there are other chapters in the story of women, and men, who sew; chapters that are tightly laced into the historical fabric of working-class Maine. I speak of those hardworking breadwinners who labored in shoe factories, spinning mills and woolen mills that once were part of the vast system of goods-producing businesses on which Maine was built.
Many Mainers don’t need to part the leaves of the family tree too deeply to discover a grandparent who knew how to hand-sew shoes or who worked on the production line sewing shirts.
My sons’ grandfather Kelsey Sheaff was a hand-sewer, working in shoe shops in Skowhegan. One of my most treasured memories of him was when, with dual needles and waxed thread in hand, he showed me the basics of hand-sewing so I could make a pair of deerskin moccasins for my son. Kelsey gave me the beautifully tanned deer hide and helped me cut out the baby shoes, drawing on his considerable skills as a cutter of leather, which he had learned working in the shoe shops.
My sons’ grandmother, Elsie Thibeault Sheaff, worked in the spinning mills in Skowhegan, beginning that segment of her life as soon as she was legally able to work at age 16, circa 1925. That meant, of course, that she had to leave school. It also meant an extra paycheck to help support her many younger brothers and sisters — in all the family had 20 children, including two sets of twins.
“It was noisy,” Elsie said many years ago when I asked her what working in a spinning mill was like. “And times were tough.”
To illuminate what it was like for 19th century female factory workers in Maine, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network will air “Hard Work” at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 5, and 11:30 p.m. Sunday, June 6. The film tells the story of these women workers through historical photographs, videos of current-day factories and interviews.
Part of the “voice” of the film comes from opinions expressed in a questionnaire circulated by the State Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistic to women textile workers in the 1880s and 1890s. University of Maine women associated with UMaine professor Carol Toner’s Maine studies program read for the film the opinions that the women factory workers expressed in the questionnaire.
For additional visual information about the factories and textile mills, visit www.mainememory.net and search for whatever you want to find. I typed spinning mills and woolen mills and came up with great images including:
• Maine Spinning Co. mill, Skowhegan, circa 1925. It was one of three large factories in Skowhegan and manufactured woolen cloth. Contributed by Skowhegan History House.
• Hussey’s Woolen Mill, Guilford, circa 1920. Contributed by Guilford Historical Society.
• The Abbot woolen mill, Abbot, circa 1900. The mill burned down in 1903. Contributed by Abbot Historical Society.
• Armed National Guard troops at Guilford Woolen Mill, Sept. 17, 1934. Troops were called in to monitor activities during a strike at the mill. Contributed by Guilford Historical Society.
• Louise Surrette, Bangor, 1941. She worked in the Philco Shoe Factory on Exchange Street in Bangor. Contributed by the Bangor Public Library, Cindy Boudreau Collection.
• Belfast Shoe Factory, Belfast, circa 1925. Contributed by the Maine Historical Society.
• Artist Jill Snyder Wallace will give a talk about her work, “Motivation Behind the Making,” 2-4 p.m. Saturday, June 26, at Maine Fiber Arts in Topsham. Snyder Wallace’s embroideries are on display through June 30 at Maine Fiber Arts.
For information, visit www.mainefiberarts.org.
• Maine Fiber Frolic will celebrate its 10th year at its fair 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 5-6, at Windsor Fairgrounds. The event celebrates the fiber arts from the ground up with a focus on fiber animals and fiber arts, including spinning, weaving, dyeing, felting and rug hooking. The fair offers workshops, products, demonstrations and free lectures. Other attractions include the Maine Llama Drill Team, youth goat, llama and sheep shows and a fleece show.
Admission is $5, $2 for seniors and free to children younger than 12. For information, call 688-4208 or visit www.fiberfrolic.com.
• The Bangor Area Chapter of the American Sewing Guild will offer the class Easy Casserole Carrier at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, June 12, at the Hampden Municipal Center in Hampden. The cost is $10 for guild members and $15 for others. Call 941-8815 to register and to obtain a list of supplies. Beginners are urged to attend.