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Book Review from Bookworm Eats Flower: The Art of Homespun

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I came across The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard Professor, a few months ago, when I felt the need to read something other than another mystery. Sometimes I like to pretend to do something with that history degree I got.

Thanks to a misleading Amazon review, I was expecting something a bit more focused on the history of various weaving and knitting techniques, but this book is actually a scholarly but approachable take on the role of textiles in the development of the emerging American economy and identity. Thatcher Ulrich uses eleven textile artifacts, from a woven basket to a knitted stocking, to outline some of the fundamental shifts in America from the time of colonialism to the late nineteenth century, with a focus on the role of women.

Growing up in America, schoolchildren are taught our founding story in the context of men, those famous “founding fathers.” When women are mentioned, it is usually the wives of presidents. Abigail Adams, maintaining the family farm back in New England and telling her husband not to forget the women when writing the Constitution. (By the way, he did.) Martha Washington, the archetypal first lady. Dolley Madison, who didn’t care about politics except as an excuse for social gaiety and who fled Washington as it burned.

The only “normal” women from this period I remember learning about in school were Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag, and Barbara Fritchie, who waved it in the face of a Confederate phalanx. Beyond that, American women who lived before the twentieth century were just a mass, the patriotic, indomitable Woman, standing behind her Minuteman, proud but faceless and nameless.

The Age of Homespun addresses this myth and then goes beyond it, telling the histories of individual women, both European and Native American. Thatcher Ulrich uses the historical record where possible, but when it is not she unpicks the textiles women left behind— sometimes almost literally—to separate myth from reality. (In fact, it is often the artifacts that do a better job of keeping women’s names alive through history—see the story of Hannah Barnard’s cupboard.) In combining the paper and textile records, the author reveals not only individuals’ stories, but also the story of a nation striving to achieve political, cultural, and economic independence.

There was enough about technique in this book to pique my interest, but not so much that my eyes glazed over (I have no weaving aspirations, and—as the name suggests—weaving is a major focus of the book). The most valuable thing about The Age of Homespun, as with any good history writing, was that it made me reflect on my own time and self. Needlecrafts have become resurgently popular in recent years. What does it say about our society that so many people are taking them up? What are we trying to say, or create, or escape?

Lauren Houlihan-Kumar, aka Bookworm Eats Flower is a Significant Seams’s volunteer, and a fabulous baker. She makes us amazing treats every Saturday to welcome all our visitors. You should come have a taste! She tweets over at @BWEFshop.

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Significant Seams is actively recruiting volunteers for a wide range of roles – some we’ve thought of, and some we haven’t. (We NEEDED a weekly baked goods delivery, and didn’t even know it until Lauren pointed this out!) You can learn more about the ones we’ve identified at our ivo page: http://ivo.org/significantseams

The Stitch & Craft Library is a central resource of hundreds of books and patterns that connect the East London crafting community, and is sponsored by Waterstones Walthamstow, and supported by Chapel End and Wood Street Ward Forums.

Members of E17 Designers, students at Waltham Forest College Fashion department, and residents of Chapel End and Wood Street Wards who are on ESA, job seekers allowance or in receipt of housing benefit are eligible for free membership.

Members of the Stitch and Craft Library receive 10% off books not already discounted from Waterstones Walthamstow when they show their membership card.

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