Academic journal article Material Culture

Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950

Academic journal article Material Culture

Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950

Article excerpt

Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1 950 Edited by Maureen DaIy Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2009. 296 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, index. $124.95 (cloth).

"The history of needlework and textiles is deliciously complex" (p. 1). So Maureen DaIy Goggin beckons the reader to Women and the Material Culture ofNeedlework and Textiles, 1750 to 1950, a fine collection of thirteen essays that examine women as makers and the things women made.

Some of the most forward thinking material culture scholarship today comes from the previously neglected area of textiles and needlework study. This collection joins the work of Mary Beaudry Maria Miller, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Beverly Gordon (represented here as well) in critically examining a material culture of gender through the lens of women's relationships to one another, the economy, and objects of their making.

This essay collection mirrors some of the above but also asks some refreshingly new questions. The study of women's production of objects is placed in a dialogue of gendered power and service in an alternative rhetorical discourse. Hence, Goggin challenges us to see the needle in action (making, ornamenting, and speaking) in its relationship to the pen's capacity to write and, in so doing, recover the lives and voices of women. She also calls for a continued emphasis on praxis - the "making of things" as cultural habit and individual creativity. Finally, the essays interrogate the endemic problems of art versus craft in the intellectual canon, and how the fiber arts have been marginalized.

Like the best of such collected volumes, the essays represent a wide variety of types, places, cultures, and time periods that highlight differences, but together strengthen common themes. Because the authors come from such a wide variety of backgrounds (English, history, design studies, folklore and art history professors, as well as textile curators), a savvy reader can gather up a list of the methodologies used to form a snapshot of the material culture field of today, at least that found in the eye of a needle. In the same way, we can see the variety of interests in subthemes. Some authors are engaging with newer "do-it-yourself third-wave feminist constructions; others are interested in an art/craft divide; others use the trope of textile workers and fledgling workers' rights.

Following Goggin's introduction, the collection is divided into three sections. The first explores the "ways in which needlework, whether decorative embroidery, plain sewing, or machine stitching is both constructed by and constructs gendered identity" (5). Heather Pristash, Inez Schaechterle, and Sue Carter Wood investigate a "Francis Willard" pattern that could be ordered to include a design for a split skirt, certainly one step toward women's pants. Marcia McLean takes on a neglected area of more modern behavior by examining women's sewing in 1940s Canada. Goggin and Aimee Newall look at embroidered samplers, an object type that has been examined at length before, but ask fresh questions. Goggin examines the stitched words as "silken inke." Finally, Newell looks at particular object lives and how skill levels declined in the individual biographies of women in a more industrial society.

The second section examines cultural identity and social linkages through quiltmaking, piecing, and lace making. Beverly Gordon and Laurel Horton present particular quilts as object studies to demonstrate a forceful and convincing way of thinking about quilts through embodiment and as multi-sensory experience. Two other authors push the study of quilts away from mainstream study and open fascinating views: Cynthia Culver Prescott examines crazy quilts in the Far West and how increasing availability led consumer demands for high-fashion quilt materials. Martha MacDowell hits the ball out of the park with her study of native quilt making. …

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