Tiny stitches bind the generations

Help me look for it," my mother said. "Look for what?" I asked. "It's in the sewing cabinet," she said. So not even knowing what we were searching for, I helped her stack everything on her bed: slippery remnants of fabric and patterns left from 50 years of projects, metal zippers in crinkly cellophane, hanks of seed beads purchased at Macy's, wooden spools wound with bright thread, velvet ribbons, fabric bags with every size of knitting needle and crochet hook.

"Here it is," she said finally. She opened a little box with a sigh of relief. "Here is your grandmother's gold thimble. I want you to have it."

That same day, she also gave me a framed piece of embroidery she'd stitched. In it, two ebony-haired Chinese ladies in pink petitpoint stand on a balcony of pulled-thread work. She named the stitches for me: open trellis, chequer, festoon, wave....

It is beautiful - as fine as any museum piece. Yet I know she learned her stitches when she was a little girl, just as I'd learned mine, with pricked fingers and needles that came unthreaded. My daughter went through the same thing. But first stitches turn into mature stitches, even into beautiful stitches. My daughter sews for her own little girl.

Now that I have Grandma's thimble, our combined history of first stitches gains another 30 years. My grandmother took her first stitches when she was 5 or 6. In the 1880s.

Later that day, when I was back home, I looked through tattered stitchery books Mother has given me over the years. I saw photos of lacy doilies, crocheted, knitted, or tatted, and blouses with collars and cuffs heavy with black work trimmed with gold thread. Tiny diamond eyelets and flowers shone among satin stitches that adorned petticoats and chemises. Hem-stitched tablecloths and runners were done with white thread on white fabric, as if the embroiderer hardly cared if her stitches were noticed at all.

Women continue to create beauty with needle and thread, even defacing perfectly good fabric, removing threads to make spaces to fill with new threads in feathery designs. In the 1960s, they stitched fancywork onto ordinary denim shirts. In the '70s, they knotted macrame to cradle the spider plants that swung from every ceiling. In the '80s, women quilted masterpieces of modern fabrics and modern themes. Today, the fanciest little girls' dresses are still smocked. Tiny seed beads sparkle in jewelry and on fabric and even swing in fringes from the bottoms of lampshades, just as they did in the '20s.

My grandmother's thimble gleams on my finger, and I examine it under the magnifying glass. I see how the gold is marred with dark gouges, which suddenly to my ears resound with the tiny ping of thimble tapping needle, thousands, perhaps millions, of times. Tap and push. Tap and push. With this thimble on her finger, my grandmother's needle turned scraps into warm quilts; she replaced the collars and cuffs on my grandfather's shirts; she made gingham dresses for my mother to wear to school. And when she was done with those, she fancied up her pillowcases with lace she'd made herself.

Why did she take the time to fancy something up? Why did she (and why do I) persist in a craft that makes us sit so still, with our eyes downcast? Perhaps we do it because with downcast eyes we create works as artistic as any museum piece, as useful as any plowed field, and as precise as any engineer's drawing.

A bond of stitches holds my mother to me and her mother to my daughter, who now sews for her own daughter. I find the photograph taken last October in which her baby is wearing the christening dress that was made by my grandmother for her own firstborn, my mother, in 1906. And no doubt, while Grandma stitched the tiny tucks that decorate the hem, she wore the thimble that now warms my finger.

THE baby's photo reminds me of other albums, and I pull them down from the closet shelf. There is my daughter wearing the latest beaded amulet purse. There I am, modeling the Norwegian cardigan I knitted in blues and grays. And there's the fuchsia hairpin-lace shawl I made in the '50s. I see my babies in knitted sweaters and booties. Here, in an older album, is me again, five years old, in the chiffon dress and shirred bonnet Mother made for me when I was the flower girl in my uncle's wedding. Turning the pages backward, I find my mother in her 1930 college graduation dress, Bokhara couching on the sleeves. And there is my grandmother in her wedding gown of 1901, cascades of lace on the bodice and the sparkle of beads around the neck.

Every stitch, no matter how simple or how complex, is made with tiny movements of the needle, inserted first in one direction, and then in another. As I close the albums, I savor the wealth of stitches available to me. I think about how the stitches fit into my life.

I live as I stitch. Farfetched thought. But true. I live one moment at a time. One breath at a time. Stitchery slows me down. It reminds me that the whole cloth of life is made of tiny moments. First one, then the next, then the next.

This gold thimble has seen 100 years of stitches. It has seen a century that was shaped by tiny movements and tiny moments. Painstaking stitches, made one ... by one ... by one.

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