“Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
This little line about Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, would be a tasty snack for a Women’s Lit Crit discussion, I’m sure. And I really won’t touch that, but I will go boldly on to discuss how this one sentence is one of my favorite in all of American Literature. (Now dear reader, before you send me your feminist hate mail, I implore you: don’t. I will simply e-cycle it in my trashbin.com.)
I cannot speak for anyone else, and certainly not for all women, but I love the “delicate toil of the needle.”
With my needle, I lay down one tiny stitch. And then another. The slow, steady progression of stitch after stitch. Each insignificant. Each one, a trivial thing. As one stitch follows another, nothing seems to happen. My mind wanders from one thought to another. Chores planned. Dreams detailed. Old friends (almost forgotten!) remembered. While my mind is mindlessly occupied, my hands are busy sewing.
Such slow work wouldn’t seem to suit me. I am an easily distracted girl, always leaving projects unfinished to work on another. (One day my husband had a day off of work and caught an episode of Anne Washing Dishes. He thought it was pretty funny that after washing two dishes, I stopped for a coffee break and looked out the window for a full minute. Then: back to work.
Baby, if you think that’s funny, you should watch me for a whole day. My day-long work-completed-to-coffee-consumed ratio will have you rolling in the aisles.) I have an artistic ADD that suits my creative soul, but can leave me with disheveled days.
The slow pace of needlework somehow captures my attention, though. Maybe it is the peaceful mechanics of making each stitch: in, up, draw, slow. Or maybe it is the barely perceptible accomplishment of each stitch. Each stitch a promise of a pending beauty. Or maybe the act of stitching just placates my restlessness like nothing else can.
The delicate toil of the needle lends me a patience that I usually don’t have. I am not a patient person, nope. I am intolerant of bother, and unnecessities. I know sweet women who want to get together and talk about the little world of raising toddlers. Tedious chatter about what flavor of Cheerios their toddler likes, and how said toddler refuses to eat said Cheerios. I run from those nice ladies. Fast. And it’s because I have no patience for the fruitless bother of tedium.
Or most stay-at-home moms with their too-narrow world view. Yes. I know. I’m a misanthrope.
But while stitch after stitch seems obviously tedious, to me it is not. Each little stitch does not seem fussy and fruitless. To me each stitch is a part of a larger project, and I can feel it in my fingertips. The goal of a completed project energizes my work, giving my stitches purpose. The finished piece a personal championship of beauty and industry over the everyday.
As daily housework is quickly undone, waiting to be worked again tomorrow, I cherish the unerasable accomplishment of a piece wrought by a needle in my hand. Today, in my closed universe, I was significant, and I have something to show for my labor.
Textile historians, those people who recover and study handmade textiles from years past, have one great lament: the unsigned piece. The quilt that bears no author, anonymously sewn. I certainly understand the sadness over never knowing a quilter by name. American quilts are, while often humble, some of our finest work, representing a combination of craftsmanship and artistry and desperate creativity. Surely these gifted quilters should enjoy the same recognition as a Mary Cassatt or a Grant Wood. But I am not saddened by the anonymous quilter. I know that with each stitch, this quilter was satisfying a singular desire for expression. Often wedged in between the tiresome work of pre-appliance chores, quilting was an oasis of peace. The delicate toil of a needle, that rendered a work of art.
A piece that forever explains to those who see it: “I was here, and I’m good at what I do.”