February 17, 1851

Hem

Feb 17th  Monday  Washed the dishes and worked about

house most of the forenoon  This afternoon cut out some

work for Susan & set her to hemming, counted

stiches with her.  Helen came home from

New bedford.  Spent the evening at Olivers with

Sarah W.  Worked on an apron of Susans but

had so much talking to do that […] I accomplished

but a little sewing  Pleasant but cold

Sewing was a necessity, but it was also a sociable occupation, which is perhaps one of the reasons that Evelina enjoyed it so. Her visit next door with her two sisters-in-law, Sarah Lothrop Ames and Sarah Witherell, turned into an evening of conversation with “but a little sewing,” which she didn’t seem to mind.  What did the women discuss?  Did they revisit the tender issue of the failed Sewing Circle meeting?  Or did they steer toward safer topics like Helen’s return from New Bedford? What had the fourteen-year-old been doing there?  Had she been in school? Why did she return home at the start of a week?  Susie Ames was home from school this week, too.  Was mid-February a typical time for schools to close?

At this time in our history, almost every woman knew how to sew. Sewing was a skill handed down from one generation to the next. Evelina, Sarah Ames and Sarah Witherell had each learned their stitches from their mothers or grandmothers; now it was Susie Ames’s turn to learn.  How could the women know that sewing was about to be transformed by the arrival of the domestic sewing machine, and that a forthcoming civil war would introduce mass-produced, “ready-made” clothing on an unimagined scale?  They, who in their youth had probably watched a elderly relative work a spinning wheel, would experience a dramatic trajectory in the making of apparel.  By the time Susie reached adulthood and became a housewife, some of what she was being taught would be obsolete.  But not all: hemming, mending, quilting, and neat hand-sewing would always have a place in the domestic arts, even though few women today practice the skills.

Young girls of the antebellum period like Susie and Helen and Emily Witherell  sat by their mothers’ sides and struggled to manage a needle and thread, basting or hemming or working cross stitches.  Some of them created the hand-wrought samplers that hang now in textile collections, featuring alphabets or numbers or biblical quotations with colorful, tiny stitches painstakingly wrought by stubby little fingers at age eight or twelve or fourteen. Sewing was a necessity, but it was an art form as well.

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