Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My mother is an expert needlewoman. At least, she was until arthritis and eyesight betrayed her. She grew up in an era when nearly all young girls learned to sew and excel at other needlework. When I was a girl, my mother made all my clothes before she taught me to sew, too.

She was a painstaking seamstress who worked on an item of clothing until it met the approval of her extraordinarily critical eye. Ripping out seams didn’t bother her one whit if it meant a better garment. A dart that didn’t end precisely at the right point, a facing that didn’t lie perfectly flat, a seam that puckered the tiniest bit—none of these flaws would do, no matter how slight.

I spent torturous hours standing on a stool where I was required to turn ever so slowly, like a music box ballerina (but not nearly so patiently), while she pinned and repinned a dress hem until it was perfectly straight, a fact she ensured with her trusty yardstick. Wherever needle and thread were concerned, Mother was a perfectionist.

My mother, like hers before her, tatted for years, making doilies, snowflake tree ornaments, and yards of knotted lace edging for collars, sleeves, and hemlines. She spent many an evening working on needlepoint, embroidery, crewel work, and cross-stitch, too. Needlework pieces made by either Mother or Grandmother covered the walls of my parents’ home: a zinnia bouquet, a North Carolina map, birds of America, twin Christmas “Partridge in a Pear Tree” wall hangings, along with humorous or pithy pearls of wisdom. “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” and”Nobody sits down until the cook sits down,” and “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” are three memorable ones.

The combination cross-stitch and embroidery piece that long hung just inside Mother’s bathroom door has always been one of my favorites. Surrounded by basic embroidered designs depicting various bathroom scenes (a stick figure powdering her nose, an overflowing tub, someone nervously dancing on the wrong side of the door), are these cross-stitched words:

Who waits outside this door / One may never know / So hurry up, my dear / He, too, may have to go.

One day when I was visiting Mom, I wondered aloud about its provenance. I wasn’t a hundred percent certain, but I was pretty confident I’d seen this piece hanging in my grandparents’ house before it was in hers. Her response was sure and strong. “Mother made it. I’ve always been really proud of my needlework. Mother was never very careful with hers, and there’s a mistake in this picture.”

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Can you find a mistake?

She cheerfully volunteered to show me its fault as proof. She studied that piece, then studied some more trying to find the offending error. After a long few minutes, Mother said, “I can’t find anything wrong with it. I made it, after all!”

A perfectionist—and a cocky one at that.