This appalling piece of work looks like it was made by a drunk person, doesn\’t it? Note the wobbly lines, the unfinished rows, the uneven spacing, the stains, the pathetic attempt at drawn-thread work. I was not drunk when I made it, but I was twelve years old, and utterly indifferent to the womanly art of embroidery.
Needle arts class was the bane of my school years. My first teachers, an order of German nuns in Barcelona, attempted to teach me crochet when I was six. \”Watch me, Eulalinchen\” the kindly Schwester would say, leaning close, yarn and hook in hand. But I was too overwhelmed by the proximity of her black veil and her starched white wimple and her fingers twisting the yarn and thrusting the hook into undefined loops to master anything beyond the chain stitch.
In second grade, we were taught to knit. Once again the Schwester showed me how to stick the big needles (this time two of them!) into what looked to me like random spaces. At home, my mother did some supplementary tutoring and even made a row or two for me, but by the end of the school year all I had to show for my efforts was a blue \”scarf,\” barely longer than it was wide, with an enormous gap in the middle.
Just before the start of the summer vacation, the nuns would invite the parents to the annual needlework show. Crocheted doilies and knitted scarves, and the sophisticated embroideries of the older girls were pinned in decorative patters to the classroom walls. I still remember walking into that room with my parents, not wanting to look up because I knew that my scarf with its hole was too disgraceful to be exhibited.
But then, \”Look! There it is!\” my mother exclaimed. My scarf was on the wall, among the more accomplished efforts of my agile-fingered classmates. And, miracle of miracles, you could not see the hole! The clever Schwester had pinned all four corners of the scarf to the wall, and scrunched up the middle, where the hole was, with a bright red ribbon.
In Ecuador, where I attended a school run by nuns imported from Spain, there was even more emphasis on needlework. That is where, with sweat and tears and gritted teeth, I produced the sampler shown above. Fortunately my mother, who had spent years of her life embroidering linens and baby clothes and my head-to-toe First Communion veil, overcame her upbringing and her culture and did not give my poor performance with needle and thread any importance. She had greater heights in mind for me to scale.
Although my mother\’s casual attitude helped, needlework class was an endless trial. But all those years of struggle paid off when, at fourteen, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and entered a high school run by Benedictine nuns. As Americans, these nuns were more practical-minded than my previous teachers and, in Home Ec, instead of cutwork and crewel, we were taught to make a skirt.
After some trouble learning how to thread the sewing machine (I knew very little English and couldn\’t understand the instructions) I came into my glory when it was time to finish the seams and hem the bottom of the skirt, which we did by hand. Most of the girls had never held a needle or worn a thimble, whereas I had had years of experience. Catch stitch, slip stitch, even blanket stitch held no secrets from me. The Schwester in Barcelona, and the hermana in Quito would have been pleased to see Sister Dorothy hold up, for the class\’s admiration, the flawless hem of my blue wool skirt.
Much later, my attitude towards needle and thread changed. In the 70s I joined the rest of my generation and crocheted afghans and ponchos out of granny squares. I made dresses for myself and my daughters, and even embroidered a Jacobean bell pull to summon nonexistent servants.
The brain is a thrifty organ, and nothing that life throws its way is ever lost. My early needlework traumas probably improved my eye-hand coordination. But they also taught me patience, humility, and frustration tolerance–life skills that have proven far more useful than the ability to produce flawless satin stitches or French knots.
(In this video, Renate Hiller makes an eloquent case for the teaching of handwork to children, and for the benefits that it offers to people of all ages.)