Ancient Artistry, Modern Times

When I was a little girl I used to watch my mother knit sweaters for my dad and for each of her children. Some of them were pretty simple, but there was one I remember, that I think was based on an Irish Fisherman’s pattern, that was more complicated and looked really beautiful in its better days. My dad wore it as a ski sweater for many years, and at some point it got hijacked by one of my sisters. Many years later, it was handed to me, with holes, almost as if it was a holy object, and I put it away in my closet.

I think most people know, or can remember a woman in their life who they picture in their mind holding knitting needles, an embroidery needle, a crochet hook, or even sitting at a loom. If you’re lucky, they made something beautiful and useful for you. With the birth of my youngest son, I received two handmade baby blankets from elderly women here in Vallejo. One was knitted by Lilian Rivera, who had a long career in fashion design and especially with knits. She is the mother of my daycare provider, and when I come to pick up my kids, she will often grab a hook, sit me down, and fix the little snags on my sweater before allowing me to leave, a service for which I am very grateful! The other blanket was crocheted by Sammi Nobles. It has a bold geometric design, with tight little stitches and garnered many compliments while wrapped around my little boy.

Sammi’s gift made me curious about this woman and her skills, and prompted me to meditate a bit on the whole story of women and textiles, bringing me to write this editorial during March, which is Women’s History Month. Textile production goes back to ancient times. Considering that clothing and textiles are integral to the survival of the human race, weaving is perhaps one of the most miraculous skills people have managed to acquire all over the world. The design of looms, and the mechanization of the industry in more modern times may have been dominated by men, but the original technology almost certainly originated in the hands of women as they labored to but clothes on the backs of their husbands and children. They were all engaged in a constant search for better, more efficient, and also more beautiful ways to weave, crochet, knit and sew together the fabric of their clothes and communities.

From the Andean mountains, home of Vicu?a, Alpaca Wool and Pima Cotton, to the Burnt City where women living 5,000 years ago wore outfits similar to the sari worn by Indian and Pakistani women of today, beautiful fabrics were part of every day life. All ancient Egyptians, rich or poor, male or female, wore linen clothing, and of course the weavings of Native Americans are prized possessions among collectors. Quilts made in Europe and America that were once looked at as folk art, are now highly prized works of art worth thousands and sometimes millions of dollars.

If you look around you a bit, there is probably a woman in your life right now with skills. Here are short profiles on three women I know with skills and how they put them to use.

According to Sammi Nobles, indigenous Guatemalans are the best weavers, crocheters and embroiderers in the world. She showed me with absolute admiration a crocheted bag that her sister brought back from Guatemala, and told me that she will “never be able to crochet like that.” The bags crocheted by Guatemalan women are meant for carrying produce and even water, and are made with very tiny, very tight stitches. Sammi’s enthusiasm for textile arts is infectious, and it is apparent that she has read quite a bit about the subject. She started knitting at the age of thirteen with a “Learn How” book. She was corrected one day by Ms. Elma Bollman, a former White House maid, who told her that she was “twisting her stitches,” and proceeded to show her how not to twist them. Since then it has been “a steady progression of learning and more fine points.” At 21, a co-worker of hers named Ita Noone, who was Irish, told her that the Irish would say “she was a bad knitter” because she was doing a single stitch at a time. Ita showed her a faster, more efficient way to knit. She also shared with Sammi that Irish fishermen who washed up to shore from the sea could be recognized by their sweaters. According to Sammi, “things that were essential are now hobbies, so the supplies have gotten more expensive.” She has stuck with it because “it’s something to do,” and her friends have benefitted from her activities with the gifts of socks and sweaters and blankets and such. Her mother and sisters were “1920’s ladies who embroidered. Mom did acres of needlepoint. I still can’t touch the quality. It takes practice.”

Janet Sylvain has made a career out of quilting and interior design. Unlike Sammi, who grew up surrounded by women with needles in their hands, Janet didn’t learn to quilt at home. She met an eighty year old woman, affectionately called Grandma Dickerson, who was a friend of the family and rented out her home to skiers in Tahoe for Christmas vacations. “Every bed had two or three quilts that she had made. To me it represented her lifetime. Some were made on a machine, some by hand. She had something to show for her time.” Even as a beginner Janet couldn’t help thinking that she would have used different colors, which led her to think ?I could make a quilt.π

At the age of twenty-four she had three kids at home and one on the way, and “couldn’t go to college” because she had no time. She wanted something to practice while her kids were growing up, so she would have a skill when the kids were grown, and be able to contribute something to the economy of the family. She started out with a craft show, and at her very first show she got an order for a king size quilt. She brought that quilt around to a high-end store that had a policy not to buy “crafty, hand made goods” but broke with that policy to order one of her distinctive quilts. Still having ideas of her own, she made a sample according to their instructions, and another one the way she would make it. They loved her original sample so much that they never gave her any instructions again. They turned into “a really good customer” and launched her career in interior design as she branched out into designing pillows and other sorts of things. Her career has progressed mostly by word of mouth ever since, leading her into adventures with rich oil families in Texas, and some of the wealthiest American families, who hire her for both restoration work, and her unique and often non-traditional designs. “I have to like everything I make. I never let anything go if I think the customer doesn’t like it. I just tell them, I’ve got a thousand ideas, let’s fix this.≤ Janet’s store is called Pieced on Earth and is located at 340 Georgia Street in Vallejo. The phone number is 707-644-6768. Her advice for anyone going into the sewing business: “Be open to changes in the market. You have to keep growing and changing. Right now I’m opening up to creatively designed window treatments. Slip covers are still a large part of my income. My work now, instead of coming in pieces, is coming in rooms.”

I already knew Dawn Jacobson had some serious skills in canning, having been the recipient of some of her award winning jams and jellies. Her husband, (our staff photographer) informed me that her skills are not limited to the kitchen. A teacher at Hogan High School here in Vallejo, Dawn grew up in a family where needlework “has always been done.” Her great grandmother on her dad’s side taught her two daughters how to crochet, do tatting (sort of like lace), knit, and do fine needlework. Dawn’s mother learned to knit from Irish nuns in the orphanage where she grew up in Pennsylvania. Dawn started learning needlework at the age of five, embroidery at seven, and knitting at nine or ten. Crocheting is actually her favorite, because she “doesn’t have to think about it, and it keeps her from strangling people at meetings.” Unlike her preserves, she hasn’t entered too many contests with her needlework, although she once won a second place prize for a napkin. She is considering entering a recently completed Afghan in the next County Fair. Some of her favorite pieces of work are a large wool rug in her home with a Chinese design. Her inspiration comes from Chinese needlepoint designs and European and American weaving from the 14th to 19th centuries. She said she doesn’t have the “tremendous patience it takes to do really fine Navajo weaving.” Maybe not, but she does have the patience, sometimes, to spin her own thread. Supplies for spinning have become increasingly rare, and most practitioners of the art order them from the internet these days. For Dawn, it’s all a hobby. “I have fun with it. It’s something I’ve always done and probably always will. My mom is in her seventies and a very active quilter. I look to my mom for inspiration, but I leave the quilting for her to do.”

Do you have a story about a practitioner of the art of textiles that you would like to share? Please write a letter to the editor. We would be very happy to hear from you.

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