Saturday, February 13, 2010

Threads of Time

You're not going to believe this.

First a little back-story...

One of my husbands passions is woodworking - making colonial Windsor chairs, to be specific, with hand tools the way they did back in colonial times. This lead us to setting up a booth, on occasion, at different venues which would attract buyers or people interested in taking a class on learning the craft. He displays his chairs and demonstrates the process of making them.

This, combined with his interest in American History, the Revolutionary War, the founding of our country and our interest in genealogy, led us to dressing in period appropriate clothing for these events. No small task, as everything must be authentically created. For me, that means hand sewing a lot of period clothing because the sewing machine was not invented until 1846.

Part of my ensemble for my 18th century wardrobe includes pockets. The pockets of the day were not sewn into the inside of clothes, but instead attached to a ribbon which ties around the waist underneath your skirt. These were oftentimes embroidered with wool thread which is called crewel.

Mannequin at the Dewitt-Wallace Museum in Colonial Williamsburg depicting 18th century undergarments.
Photo Copyright 2010 Joanne Schleier

Side view of the pocket.
Photo copyright 2010 Joanne Schleier

Close-up of hand-stitched surface embroidery on the pocket.
Photo Copyright 2010 Joanne Schleier

My maternal grandmother used to do crewel and I've had her work stored away since she passed away in 1994. I remember also storing her books about it and yarns for a time and then later purging a lot of my sewing related stored items in an attempt to rid myself of clutter (something that is a continuous process which gives me great pleasure). I try to stick to the rule that if I haven't used it for a year then I toss it. However, this was something I was emotionally attached to. I saved it all for many years before admitting to myself that I would probably never take up crewel work.

And the story goes on...

So, now I had a strong desire to learn crewel for my pockets. I thought of how enriching it would be to be able to use my grandmother's yarns, now belonging to someone else since I donated the whole lot to Goodwill. What a shame. I almost felt numb and found it difficult to begin the project. Every time I thought of starting, I would instead start a mental self-sabotage with remorse and regret. Strong thoughts of self ridicule. My grandmother would have been proud if she could have seen me pick up her hobby and use her supplies so carefully chosen by her.

I purchased the linen and decided to rebel divert from what was acceptable and use 21st century embroidery threads including ribbon and synthetic fibers for my pockets and make my own design. Who would see them anyway? I had an inspiration from a 21st c. book.

Today, I was in my sewing room in the basement and began to draft a pattern for the pockets overall shape and embroidery design. I was through with the shape when I stepped into the connecting storage room where the framed pieces my grandmother made are stored. I was looking for inspiration for my pattern...again.

I found a piece she made that I liked the most. It was professionally framed under glass.
Crewel piece done by my grandmother in 1971.
Photo Copyright 2010 Joanne Schleier

The stitching is 101/2" by 14"; the frame is larger. (It would not fit completely on my scanner so I scanned two images from it and merged them back into one. I looked at the piece with different eyes. I had read several books about stitches, patterns, techniques, and tools. This is good work. I turned over the back of the frame and look what I saw...

Back of the crewel piece:
Tee Rambeau
1971 Nashua
New Hampshire
for Joanne Beylouny
from Grandma TeeTee
Photo Copyright 2010 Joanne Schleier

This was made for me! She finished it when I was 3 years old. I couldn't believe my eyes. I felt like she was right there beside me! I spoke out loud to her and said "thank you Tee, I am so remorseful that I gave your supplies away at a time when I've really come to appreciate what you did for me".

Something told me to walk toward the shelves where boxes of my mother's and grandmother's belongings are. I looked at all the boxes, numbered and marked with an "A" for "antiques" to tell me the contents were theirs. But then, I noticed a blue plastic trash can on the shelf. It had been there so long, I never "saw" it. It was of those plastic containers with a lid in the shape of an old round trash can. We used to store my daughters lego's in it in her room when she was a child. I knew the lego's were long since donated - my daughter is 24.

Oh heaven! Could it be? I think I remember putting her crewel yarns in there about eight years ago... but then I swear I donated them. I grabbed the can with the framed crewel work in the other hand and ran back to my sewing table to see what was inside. I opened it harriedly with my heart beat increasing in my chest.

Inside were the cards of colorful wool. I was real. I started tearing up and said "oh thank you!" many times as I dug deeper and pulled them out a handful at a time. She had tied similar colors together which had similar numbers. I laid them all out and was filled with so much joy and pride.

There are 82 cards in all. Crewel yarns sorted by color/number laid out on a five foot table.
Photo Copyright 2010 Joanne Schleier

Tee raised me and my brother with our mother (her daughter) and became a second parent. She was there for us in every way. What a beautiful lady and such a wonderful gift. I am so glad I was wrong about donating them. It will mean so much to me to use her threads.

And so, I will start again with a renewed sense of appreciation for the time and attention to detail our ancestors paid to the slightest thing. Even concealed pockets. Or perhaps a treasure for a granddaughter who will perhaps place it prominently on the wall to look at everyday and be reminded that she was loved. And so, it hangs now where I will see it everyday and think of her. Thank you, Tee.


  1. Joanne, You are so fortunate! Minerva must be looking out for you.

    As a fellow-needleworker, I must ask if you have checked the framed crewel work to see if it is framed in a way that will not damage the textile? It looks like there may be some water damage on the back paper; hopefully this does not go through to the front.

    Let me know if you would like some ideas for archival handling of the piece, and congratulations on two wonderful treasures-- the crewel work and the wool.


  2. Fabulous story - you are so lucky to have inherited your grandmother's talent. I hope you post a picture of the results when you are done.

  3. This was so lovely to look at and read. You've got a family with talent. I am all thumbs.

    You have inspired an idea for a new article at Shades. I love the old photographs where the woman's costume has incorporated a pocket for the watch dangling from a chain.

    Thank you!


  4. What a great story. This is the kind of experience that Helen Leary talked about in her video for NGS - a Serendipitous moment. When an ancestor makes contact with you in one way or another. I am still waiting for it to happen to me.

  5. It's wonderful that you had actually saved your grandmother's wool after thinking that you'd passed it on. Good job! Great story! Best wishes for success with your pockets. I hope you'll share them when you finish. Thanks.

  6. This post gave me chill bumps. I'm with Greta, I wanna see the end results. WOW!!!

  7. That was wonderful that you didn't end up giving it away like you thought! Be sure to post a photo of your finished work.

  8. wow, this is wonderfully told.
    And a great story to be retold. It is a good thing it is now recorded. jo

  9. You might enjoy this blog

    At the crafts center in Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts they have been working on an embroidered jacket, a coif, and some other projects. This blog has the story of the stitcher and some video. It's fascinating to see items being recreated from 400 years ago!

  10. @Heather - Thank you! I'd already seen this blog when I was researching embroidery on 18th century clothes. It amazes me how many people worked on the jacket and the stitches & design make it a fine piece of art.

  11. Holy cow---that's definitely one for the "ancestors reaching out" file! I can't wait to see the finished product.