Usually, I can find all sorts of articles on the web about any topic. But I came up short on this one.
In the early 1960s, my mother and grandmother decided it was time I learned to embroider. I was eager; I saw Grandma doing it whenever she sat down to watch her TV shows in the afternoon or evening.
So one day they presented me with my own pillow cases to embroider. White cotton pillow cases, with lines on them to guide me. I just had to learn how to stitch an outline and make a French knot with thread.
All my friends were learning too. We all went to J.J. Newberry’s to buy small shanks of thread in the prettiest colors for our flowers. Five cents each, and the tread was twisted, six strands thick.
Now, my grandmother taught me to cut off an appropriate length, then pull two strands from the length of color, and thread the needle with those. I found that some friends — whose younger parents, I suspect, didn’t remember the privations of the Depression so well that they had to ration thread — used THREE strands. And I liked the way their embroidery came out: rich and thick! But when Grandma was watching, I used only two strands.
Some kids edged the borders of their pillow cases with crocheting; we never did. And of course, the pattern, which had been ironed onto the pillowcase (after it had been washed and dried, of course, so it wouldn’t shrink further) would fade in future washes, leaving only our lovely flowers as if they had been free-form imaginings.
The last time I saw anyone doing this work was in 1970, at a friend’s house. We walked in and his mom and younger sister were sitting on the sofa, with pillow cases, each embroidering the same pattern.
Although … this little towel shows that the idea has not died. I suspect it was embroidered by machine.
Boomer girls enjoyed the tail end of a centuries-old tradition when they learned to embroider. Ornamental embroidery is a form of sewing, and girls have learned to sew for thousands of years. Even wealthy titled women in Europe taught their little princesses to embroider. They may have been too high-born to ever make their own clothes, but all girls learned to handle a needle and thread.
I don’t know if Asian, African, or Central and South American girls had to learn to embroider into the 20th century (or ever), but I think they did because fine and fancy embroidery exists in all those places, right?. Comments on that would be welcome.
Back then, these were practical gifts, these pillow covers and dish towels. You gave sets of them, done by your own hand, at wedding showers or to old aunts at Christmas. Often they were stored away because, knowing the work that went into them, no one wanted to get them dirty or stained.
And so they end up in thrift stores and estate sales, whole collections of them (the dish towels often had the days of the week on them, so they were made in sets of seven). Yellow with age, stiff from being folded for decades, no one knows the person who worked so hard on them, not anymore.
I don’t feel too bad about it though. Learning to embroider was fun, but given what our lives are full of now, I think I’d consider it a bit of a time waster. Why invest hours making a pillow case or a dish towel too beautiful to be used, and too mundane to be framed? But we used to do that, and took great pride in our stitches.