Wednesday, June 14, 2017

An Inheritance of Thread

         Signe Widestrand, my Grandmother, age about 17.

      Women have always been the needle weavers, the creative 'adorners' with an eye for 'dressing up' even the simplest and most mundane of objects in order to make their homes, their clothes, and the lives of their families more beautiful. A needle or a loom, some colored threads or yarn and a bit of time and a room could be transformed from dull to extraordinary.

      My maternal grandmother Signe Widestrand Russell, 1898-1993, was quite a talented needle woman and weaver, amongst other things. I inherited her trunks full of hand made sheets and pillow cases, drapes, towels, clothes and table runners of varying shapes and sizes. As I pull the individual pieces from the trunks now I imagine her and her younger sisters all sitting together, heads bent to their intricate work, dreaming of their futures as they worked on the linens that would fill each of their own dowry trunks. My fingers lightly follow a line of tiny, fine stitches. I marvel at how the backs of cross stitched runners are as neat and tidy as the fronts. I wonder at the hours that were invested to create the geometric folk art designs on the rugs.

Cut work trim on a sheet.
      This is the decorative hem of one of Signe's sheets. In cut work and drawn thread work the linen is cut away and then the holes are bound or filled, or just the weft or warp threads are removed and the remaining threads bound into patterns. Her initials in Satin stitch are above. I have a set of her sister Margit's sheets as well.

Detail of embroidered blouse.
     The fine, light blouse, so delicate, blooms with flowers. Perfect for a warm Mid summer day.

Blouse with embroidered details.

     I didn't know of my grandmothers skill until I was in my teens. I discovered her treasure trove of handwork held within two trunks in her bedroom when we were moving her from Massachusetts to Southern California. My father's job with the Department of Defense was transferring us to San Diego.

     I remember pulling a long woven rug from one of the trunks and falling in love with the earthy tones and the geometric folk art pattern's. One rug after the other I unrolled, followed by an assortment of woven pillow covers. My exclamations brought my Grandmother into the room. She promptly rolled them all back up and stowed them away once again, her mouth a thin, straight line. These things were not to be used, nor touched. I could not understand then or now why anything so beautiful would not be shared. What was the point of making them if you didn't use or at least display them? Eventually I convinced her to at least hang a few of her weaving's on the walls and during the holidays the Yule runners finally saw the light of candles and twinkling lights, even if it was for a brief time once a year.
Signe and Lill-Sie, my Mother. 1936.

     Early on I was drawn to embroidery which was a wonder as my Mother, Lill-Sie, hated anything to do with a needle and/or sewing. She had memories of being forced to sit and sew in school and had no further desire or really any aptitude for it she admitted as she was too impatient. Somehow it was never mentioned that her mother was so adept until my find.

fragment of an embroidered runner.

     Signe used to go to museums and copy patterns. Some of the runners, now so very fragile and torn, were un-salvageable, so we saved at least blocks of designs which I hope to attach to other things. Later during the 1920's and the popularity of Egyptian designs she made a number of drapery panels embroidered with scarabs.


Cross stitch decorated handkerchief bags.
 Scandinavians used a lot of cross stitch patterns; garlands, deer, butterflies, crowns, and flowers. Runners, linen bags of all shapes and sizes to keep handkerchiefs, under wear and collars flat and tidy.

Cross Stitch floral pattern from a runner.

     Grandmother rugs and pillow covers with fringe, in earthy tones and traditional patterns.

Hand woven rugs and pillow covers.

     As for now I refold and roll and put the linens and rugs back in the trunks. I can't help but wish that my Grandmother had taken the time to pass on her knowledge and skills to me. It would have been perhaps a way for us to connect with each other on a different level as a crafts person teaches a student. And perhaps sitting together she would have reminisced about her sisters and her childhood, something she never talked about either, it was her memories and her family and she didn't want to share them either. She was the eldest of 10 children and the only one of her family to come to the United States in the 1920's. She lived in her adopted country longer than her homeland.

     Threads interwoven to create beauty and perhaps too they were the warps and wefts that kept her connected to home and family as she created a new life in a new land. Stitches in time, laid one by one, woven together with memories and now they grace my life but I will share them forward and celebrate my Grandmother's skill. Tack sa mycket. 

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