I am beginning to see light at the end of my counted-cross-stitch tunnel! To reach my annual goal of entering five handmade pieces in the needlework competition at the county fair, I have only 15,000 more stitches to make on my tulip picture!
My familiarity with needle and thread started years ago, literally at my mother’s knee. And I suppose Mother learned some of her handwork techniques the same way. I recall my Grandmother Maurice crocheting beautiful doilies without even a pattern in front of her.
I also remember that my great-aunt, Jessie Ward, taught Mother home economics as well as Latin in high school. Mother related the story of inserting a placket on the wrong side of a skirt she was making. She did not relish redoing the complicated maneuver on the proper side, but Aunt Jessie – always the perfectionist – insisted on correctness.
However, Mother also fine-tuned her skills and learned new ones all on her own. She kept a stash of Workbasket magazines in the cupboard. The small periodicals with red-and-white covers – wrinkled and dogeared from use – brimmed with diagrams and patterns for whatever type of needlework was in vogue at the time.
Although she regularly borrowed knitting and sewing books from the library, Mother had her own collection of books, patterns, clippings, and leaflets with her notations and calculations in their margins.
She embroidered, back when iron-on patterns and tissue paper designs were popular. I remember little dresses she made for my sister and me; the pink and purple frocks were accented with her hand-embroidered motifs.
She crocheted. My father, at her behest, once brought home a paper bag full of bottle caps retrieved from the pop machine at some Urbana filling station. Mother then crocheted covers for the caps in shades of purple and sewed them together randomly to form trivets in the shape of grape clusters – all from a leaflet pattern.
She tatted. I watched her eyes scan back and forth between the instructions and a shuttle filled with silky, white thread. How she used the delicate lace she created, I cannot recall.
She sewed – all kinds of clothes for us. I particularly remember a green maternity top she made for herself and a light blue dress for my sister’s eighth-grade graduation. There was a cute red-and-white dress trimmed in rickrack for another sister’s first day of school and a spectacular Christmas dress for the first granddaughter.
Of course, things did not always go according to plan. It seemed I stood in front of her for hours as she muttered and tugged at the denim shorts under construction for me. She was convinced my chunky, preteen shape was causing the shorts to be baggy in front and tight across the rump – until we discovered I had them on backwards.
Still, she recovered and made matching outfits for the youngest three girls: yellow pique jumpers with coordinating blouses in a teddy bear print. And she made loads of little dresses for my youngest sister.
She knitted. I think this craft was her best and probably her favorite. There was a soft, lavender shawl made for her mother and entered at the county fair. She perfected a pattern for ear warmer hats with pompoms and embroidered names –eventually taking orders and selling several. And her gorgeous baby afghans for the grandchildren were absolute masterpieces.
Of course, she had to carve out time from her busy, mother-farmwife life to engage in any of these pastimes. Too often, just as she settled down with her thread and crochet hook or yarn and knitting needles, the yammering began. “Mommy! I want to knit! Mommy! I want to crochet!” Out came four balls of thread or four sets of knitting needles, as the juvenile chorus continued, “Mommy! I dropped a stitch! Mommy! Her chain is longer than mine!” Sigh…
Then came the 4-H years. She presided as part-time advisor and full-time mother when all five of us stitched up projects including a pink-checked apron with scalloped pocket and a red plaid school dress. Two sewing machines produced a Raggedy Ann/Andy smock top over jeans with flat-felled seams and a long yellow robe that survived a cutting error with the emergency application of eyelet lace.
The story, however, did not end there. Nowadays the West Virginia sister cross stitches, crochets baby blankets, and is completing a few of Mother’s unfinished knitting projects. The Tennessee sister uses published patterns only as suggestions when she knits and crochets “to the beat of a different drum.”
Here in Ohio, the Oxford sister knows just about every traditional quilt pattern around. She collects quilt tops: sometimes she repairs a well-worn coverlet to preserve its history for the future, sometimes she creates her own.
And the Urbana sister sews for her family. A lifetime of clothing and Halloween costumes for three children has morphed into quilts and outfits for her granddaughters as well as décor for her home.
Knitting hats in the winter and cross stitching items for gifts and donation the rest of the year give me a sense of accomplishment. And my hobbies allow me to stretch my creative wings.
But the most significant result of my handwork and that of my sisters: what our mother enjoyed and mastered and shared continues to be reflected in every stitch we make with our needles pulling thread.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.