June 17 – The Subversive Needle

by Sara Etgen-Baker

Once upon a time (and not so long ago), I spent my summer vacations with my Aunt Betty. She was a non-traditional, career-minded, single woman in the ’50s who each morning ventured off to work at the nearby Western Union office.

“Don’t go outside until I get home,” she emphatically said, leaving me alone to while away the hours as best I could. She didn’t own a television so I occupied myself reading her books and magazines, playing her 33 1/3 rpm records, and listening to such greats as Glen Miller, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Perry Como.

“You’re wearing out my records,” she told me one day. You need something else to do.”

Off we went to the local five and dime store where she purchased a set of seven bleached feed sack towels, skeins of colored embroidery thread, embroidery needles, and a package of hot iron transfers. We returned to her tiny crackerbox house, where we cut out the transfers and positioned them on the feed sack towels. Using her steam iron we pressed the transfer for 30 seconds until it magically appeared on the fabric.

“Wah-lah!” she exclaimed. “Now you can embroider while I’m at work.”

And so I did, lost in choosing the color of thread, embroidering the design, and making the pattern come alive. During my time with her, I created seven towels–one for each day of the week that represented the agreed upon prescribed daily duties for women of the time. Monday: Wash Day; Tuesday: Ironing Day; Wednesday: Sewing and Mending Day; Thursday: Go to Market Day; Friday: Clean House Day; Saturday: Baking Day; Sunday: Day of Rest (or church attendance).

I loved embroidering from the start, for it not only allowed me to occupy my mind and fill the time, but it also allowed me to express my creativity. I still have many of the pieces I completed that summer and the summers afterward.  When I look at them and think back to those summers spent at my aunt’s house, I realize that embroidering also taught me how to be a feminist.

What?” you say. “How could embroidering, a seemingly negative symbol of traditional femininity, sweetness, passivity, and obedience, provide the skills and qualities necessary for a feminist?”

Femininity and sweetness are part of a woman’s strength, but passivity and obedience are the very opposite qualities necessary to make a sustained effort in any type of needlework. What’s required is a host of physical and mental skills; fine aesthetic judgment in color, texture, and composition; disobedience of convention; creative expression; assertive individuality (in design and application); as well as patience and determination.

I doubt my aunt knew just how subversive the embroidery needle, hoop, and threads could be. With them, she inadvertently created in me a mindset that would serve me as I grew into womanhood and became an ardent feminist. I am grateful for her and for all I learned while using a simple embroidery hoop, a needle, and skeins of colorful threads.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

8 responses to “June 17 – The Subversive Needle

  1. What a wonderful memory piece on your aunt and I love the connection with the embroidery and feminism!

  2. I really enjoyed your story. Do you still do embroidery? Did you pass this art to someone else? In Hebrew there is a phrase – to embroider a story. I always found it to be so inspiring.

    • sara etgen-baker

      Hi Ariel–In answer to your question, I don’t currently embroider. I did try passing on embroidery to some co-workers and friends, but none of them stayed with it very long. Do you embroider? Thanks for sharing the Hebrew phrase. How fascinating and inspirational. 🙂

  3. Interesting to link a connection between the craft of embroidery and feminism. Although I do not have a similar interest I was reminded of my ‘own’ Aunt Maggie who holds a special place in my heart forever-and-ever. We owe a lot to these women who demonstrated a different way of living.

  4. sara etgen-baker

    Thanks, Debra, for reading the post and appreciating the connection. Glad the piece tugged at a special memory of your own aunt. Yes, we do owe a lot to those women. Wish I’d told my aunt before she passed. I’d like to think, however, that she knows.

  5. Your piece triggered my own memories of doing counted cross stitch, embroidery, latch hook as methods to cope with a divorce and my own health challenges.

    • sara etgen-baker

      thanks, Patricia, for reading the piece and for letting me know it triggered some memories for you. Half of the reason I write many of the pieces I do is in the hopes that they trigger similar memories and feelings. 🙂

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