Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950. Edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin.
Burlington, VT: Ashgate, December 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0754665380, $99.95. 296 pages.
Review by Julia Hudson-Richards, Pennsylvania State University-Altoona College
This collection of essays is an excellent contribution to the growing literature on material cultures not only as texts, but also as artifacts in their own rights. Much of the historical literature on women’s roles in the production of textiles in the west has focused on the shift from home-based to factory production, but the scope of this book is far greater. The editors’ selections prove that the production of needlework and textiles—women’s primary entry point into material culture—was a pivotal intersection where the “social, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural facets of humanity” converged (1). The “world of the needle,” however, has been a blind spot for a number of scholars, and the essays in this work enhance not only to the history of material cultures, but also the construction of gender and ethnic identities, feminine culture, and the development of consumer economies.
The collection begins with an essay by Heather Pristash, Inez Schaechterle, and Sue Carter Wood that establishes a solid theoretical basis for needlework and textile production as text—a location for oftentimes coded discourses of dissent or protest, or even of gender and community identity. The discussion culminates in the analysis of the legendary “Willard Dress,” a pattern for a dress with concealed trousers published by the American Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 19th century. The Willard Dress, though we cannot find any surviving examples, represented the ways that the personal – sewing – could take on not only practical but political dimensions, in the ways that women attempted to balance their own political agendas, like suffrage, with appearances in order to maintain a certain propriety in a hostile political environment. These political themes are traced more explicitly in Part III, “Politics and Design in Yarn and Thread.” The editors define politics quite broadly here, to their credit, noting the politics of the private behind knitting for soldiers during wartime (Susan M. Strawn) as well the untold story of Florence Cory as a medium for recovering the history of women in industrial design (Sarah Johnson).
A number of essays trace the ways that textile making shifted from a woman’s necessity—as in making her trousseau, for example—to the creation of material objects encompassing a vast array of meanings. For example, Marcia McLean’s essay “’I Dearly Loved that Machine’” (69-89) investigated the introduction of the home sewing machine into rural post-World War II Canada, allowing women to not only economize their own home’s resources, but also to keep up with the latest fashions for themselves and their families. Women took tremendous pride in their creations, noting the ways that they altered the patterns to make them individual, demonstrating their own professionalism in their craft(s). Beverly Gordon and Laurel Horton’s essay about quilting at the turn of the twentieth century also falls into this category. They argue that quilting, increasingly democratized through an abundance of cheap fabric in the last decades of the nineteenth century, allowed women to stitch family records, records of participation in societies, and even the popular culture of the period. They also served as records of family history, and even of women’s lives—they “embodied” their makers and the cultures in which they lived. Cynthia Culver Prescott tells a similar story through the spread of the trendy “crazy quilts” all the way to the Pacific Northwest, as the daughters of the first settlers from the East adopted middle-class domesticity and Eastern consumer cultures, transforming them to fit their own needs (112-13). In short, these quilts serve as a unique text we can use to read women’s cultures in turn of the century America.
Perhaps most interesting, however, were the examinations of the intersections of race/ethnicity and textiles as discussed by Marsha MacDowell in “Native Quiltmaking” (129-48) and “Mundillo and Identity” by Ellen Fernandez-Socco (149-66). MacDowell notes that Native women’s quilting flew under the radar for scholars, but like in many other contexts, this same quiltmaking, introduced by western missionaries and other do-gooders, served as a record of contact, oppression, and material and cultural expressions for Native women, though nonetheless subjected to similar stereotypes as other Native arts. Similarly, a revival in art of mundillo, “the traditional Puerto Rican art of handmade bobbin lace,” represented a revival in Puerto Rican ethnic identity that has helped spur the island’s tourist industry (149). Interestingly, mundillo also continues to articulate Puerto Rico’s long history of migration and the clashes and relationships between indigenous, African, and European cultures. Further, the creation of mundillo for American consumption indicates the island’s place in a larger history of labor exploitation in the twentieth century, as the creation of market goods began to move to cheaper, and less easily regulated, locales.
Though this review cannot claim to be exhaustive, the work under consideration is an excellent contribution to the expanding field of material culture studies. The contributors represent a wide range of disciplines—the editors’ decisions to include several museum curators in the ranks of these authors, for example, provides the work with a unique perspective. The beautiful illustrations—of quilts, of outfits sewn by interview subjects—also offer an added dimension to each author’s discussion. Though there are certainly stories that still remain—an explicit discussion of the role of women in sweatshop labor in the late twentieth century comes to mind—the essays in this volume would nonetheless serve not only as an excellent additions to upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses in history, folklore, women’s studies, or museum studies. From a scholarly perspective, they offer interesting insights into the vast realm of meaning of women’s work, and the shifts in women’s work over time.