Relative scarcity makes columnist’s photographs of needleworkers precious

Posted March 02, 2009, at 10:49 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:41 a.m.

Recently, when I was trolling through nearly 50 years of photographs I have accumulated, it occurred to me how few I have of women knitting, sewing, crocheting, embroidering or doing other needlework and handcrafts. That train of thought set me on a quest to determine how many such photographs I had. I found four.

The photo of Leila Livingston Davis was taken circa 1960 in Bingham when she was 80-something. She is knitting a boot stocking, and she’s wearing pearls. She’s also wearing earrings and a bracelet. Mrs. Davis was my sister’s grandmother-in-law. Perhaps Mrs. Davis was dressed up and waiting until it was time to go to church, grabbing a few extra minutes to knit a few rows. She is working on the foot part of the stocking, with only a few inches to go before “toeing off” to finish it. In those days, men wore rubber boots or lace-up leather boots in winter. Knee-high wool stockings were an important part of keeping warm and dry as they hunted birds and deer or worked in the woods.

The stockings Mrs. Davis knit were done in earthy colors of brown, gray and dark green, and always with a stripe of a contrasting color placed about two inches beyond the cast-on edge.

It was Mrs. Davis who taught my sister to knit stockings using a pattern from a 1940s vintage knitting booklet, a pattern passed on to me when my sister taught me to knit stockings. But as a young wife in the early 1900s, Mrs. Davis wrote out in pencil in a copybook the instructions for turning a heel, a document given to me a few years ago.

The picture of my sister Nancy knitting was taken in the early 1990s at my house, and like Mrs. Davis she is knitting a stocking. She is working on the leg part, with only a few inches completed. She’s sitting in my rocking chair, her favorite kind of chair. She always rocked when she knit. It was in the 1990s, after I began wearing Birkenstocks, that she used leftover bits of yarn to knit me crazily striped stockings to wear with my sandals, even in the coldest months. Unlike Mrs. Davis, she is not wearing pearls. She is dressed for comfort in khaki pants and a red sweat shirt.

In a photo of myself, I am sitting in my living room, in a rocking chair, knitting a sweater of dark brown wool yarn spun at Bartlett Yarns in Harmony from the fleece of Suffolk sheep raised by friends who once lived just down the road from me. I have completed about 6 inches of the back or front the sweater — both were identical. I still have the pattern for that sweater. It was knit in garter stitch — two rectangles for front and back, and two smaller rectangles for the sleeves. The sides were left open about three inches from the bottom edge to create vents. The sleeves were rolled up to form a cuff. I wore that sweater to shreds, it was so warm and comfortable.

The fourth photo is of Lee McIntyre, one of my mother’s dearest friends, at camp on Otter Pond in Mayfield in the 1960s. It’s not perfectly clear whether she is knitting or crocheting — she was adept at both. If she’s knitting, then she’s working on a sweater. If she’s crocheting, then it may be the piece she worked on for years and always referred to laughingly as “my shroud.” It was fashioned of natural-color yarn using the afghan stitch. I swear, she worked on that thing for years. I’ve often wondered what became of her “shroud” after she died in the 1970s.

In the photograph, a basket containing yarn is set at Lee’s feet. It appears to be a Penobscot Indian basket, probably acquired when she and her husband, a state trooper, lived in Milford.

Lee is seated in a castoff chair and her pants legs are rolled up. She’s wearing bright red lipstick and navy blue sneakers.

It was Lee who showed me the basics of knitting a sweater and introduced me to Scandia yarn, a “thick and thin” spun wool fiber that was quite exotic in my narrow world of Red Heart wool in the early 1960s.

That I possess only four photographs of women working with wool seems minuscule to me. Where are the photos of my mother, grandmother Hamlin or Uncle Bill Rancourt knitting mittens? Where are the photos of my great-grandmothers Herrick fashioning silk and velvet crazy quilts or sewing baby clothes? Where are the photos of my grandfather Hamlin darning his wool pants or my grandfather Herrick using a knitting machine to fashion socks (of yarn from Bartlett Mill) for my mother and her brothers? Those photos don’t exist.

Thinking about those gaps in my family photo archives prompts me to give you, dear readers, an assignment. Get someone to take a picture of you plying your needlework craft. Leave a dense visual record of the work of your hands for future generations of needleworkers to cherish.

Snippets

- The Bangor Area Chapter of the American Sewing Guild is offering the class “Easy Reversible Vest” at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, March 14, at the Hampden Municipal Building, Western Avenue. The cost is $10 for guild members, $15 for others. Quilters are urged to attend and use their quilting skills to make a vest that is wearable art. The class is open to beginners. For more information, call Kathy at 941-8815.

- Planning a trip to the West Coast? Quilt artist Elizabeth Busch of Glenburn will conduct a workshop on fabric painting and design 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, April 1-2 at Vision Art Quilt Gallery and Pat D’Arrigo Art Center in San Diego, Calif. For more information, call 619-546-4872.

- Fiberphilia in Orono is offering classes in lace knitting, cast-on techniques, Fair Isle, toe-up socks, penny rugs, entrelac and beginning socks. Call 866-3423 for more information.

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