I’ve taken some time out from stitching after having it be a companion in my life for almost 20 years, which is, in the stitching world, not very long. But, if I’m really honest about it, stitching became a presence in my life long before that point when I was 25.
It started in my grandmother’s living room in north Georgia when I was maybe 11 or 12, So the mid-1980s. She taught me how to cross-stitch. I sat in my grandfather’s big leather chair and fumbled with the tiny stitches, a cow bookmark I had picked out for my mother at the craft store.
My grandmother could be stern, but when it came to crafts, she was all about the love they provide. After I learned at her house, I stitched a few things here and there, not really picking craft back up until I was living far away from the South, and found myself in New York City. I found something sacred in the softness of the yarn and the click of the needles even though my first scarf was crooked and full of holes. I found that there was a sense of kind power in the making of something from nothing.
And when I started writing about crafts and activism, it was her I was thinking of, making baby hats for newborns in the hospital she volunteered with. She would have never called herself an activist, but, boy, did she make the world better with her own two hands. Quietly. Deftly. In objects that were given to babies born to relatives and strangers and community members.
Decades later, when I was visiting her at her retirement home, after the death of my grandfather and uncle, her son, who both died within a span of three days, she wordlessly tucked a round needlepoint pillow underneath my arm. It was black with a pink flower. She had a habit of giving things away to people she thought might appreciate them and this was no different. This was before dementia kept her from speaking or connecting. The last few times I was with her, I remember her watching and enjoying two things, my dog’s tongue licking her hand and my hands knitting.
The pillow lived on a chair in my bedroom for awhile, but now it lives on my sofa. And I know she’d be happy to see it be used to prop my boyfriend’s head up behind the back of the couch when we’re sitting on it and at how my dog, Sadie, sometimes uses it as a dog-sized pillow.
When I look at this pillow, I think of all the times I’d have a question about knitting something or that time I couldn’t figure out how to crochet an edge and she sat down next to me and patiently showed me how to work the yarn. At how she kept stitching through breast cancer and my grandfather’s own cancer battles and heart attack. At how she made me two pairs of the exact same socks, wanting to make sure that she had given me something to keep my feet warm.
She could be strict, yes, but would melt when it came to stitching. I used to think it was the knitting circle I joined in New York that welcomed me into the craft community, but the more I think about it, it was her and her quiet acceptance and patience when I got the stitches wrong or tangled the thread or had a question.
She died a few summers ago, and right before then didn’t even seem to know on my last visit that there were seven of her family members in the room with her. But, she still shows up when I look at the pillow. Like she showed up whenever I stitched. I put my needles down for many reasons, but it’s time to pick them up again, I’ve been buoyed by all the craft stories I’ve studied about strength in the arpilleristas, Jim Simpson, the women of Greenham Common, Gandhi’s khadi movement. But know there are many other stories to be heard too. Quiet ones, loud ones, family ones, stories wondered about found objects in thrift stores or Etsy, stories of craft that embed themselves in our lives and help make us stronger and more resilient in their essence and detail and memory.
My grandmother’s stitches live on in both in the things that she made me and in the things that I make now. I’d love to hear your own stories about stitches and textiles, stories of love or strength or mystery or kindness or skill or a million other things. This story is just one story. I’d love to hear yours too.