catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 11 :: 2014.05.30 — 2014.06.12


Art in craft

In generations long past, family artisans crafted life’s necessities, infusing their gifts of creating beauty into everyday items made from basic, simple materials. My husband and I still benefit from my ancestors’ giftedness expressed in their love of fine craft, while providing things for their family’s everyday existence. I find a rich sense of family living with furniture, coverlets and artwork fashioned from the 1700s into the 1900s out of wood, sheep’s wool and natural fibers by those gone long before I was born. Hopefully, each artisan realized a sense of delight and fulfillment in creating these treasures in hours of precise planning and work.

Some of these items are still in use today in our home. Our Queen Anne highboy was crafted by the grandfather of my great grandmother’s grandfather. A treasure. My DNA. Did he come in from the shed with the smell of boiled linseed oil on his stained hands? Were his hands rough and calloused from rubbing the wood smooth with a piece of old, threadbare nightshirt? The satin finish has endured for seven generations. How long did it take him to create equal, graceful arcs by hand on all four of its legs? Its dovetailed drawers are still in use today. I think back to what they might have held, and where it stood in various family homes. Inspired by its exquisite turns and curves, my father crafted miniature replicas of this very highboy and other antiques that came to us from our ancestors.

In another room stands our grandfather clock, made in 1766 by a fine craftsman. Although he did not live very long, and thus made few clocks, his workmanship was so fine that his name is still well known today. His name is etched in beautiful script on the brass face, and when I dust it, I study the challenges of the delicate difficulty he must have faced in carving its elegantly simple New England style turnings. This clock still works well today, with its loud, bell-like gong which was made to reach down halls and into rooms of homes much larger than my own. Our clock was owned by John Albion Andrew, the Governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War. My father’s name was the same; the governor was our ancestor. I think of him winding it every eight days, as do I. Same key. Same family.

My New England grandma made many quilts, some of which came to me. Some won blue ribbons at the country fair. Others were made to insulate her family against the nighttime cold of an uninsulated farmhouse, when fires in woodstoves died down to glowing red embers. Those quilts made in her later years retained a fresh beauty. Those made during her family’s growing up, farming days were used. I peek inside these quilts’ small, torn places and discover pieces of threadbare woolens and old linen sheets pieced together to create inside layers of warmth-giving insulation: the origins of recycling — practicality and frugality at its best. I wonder about her, pumping cold water into her farm kitchen sink in winter. Did her hands become rough and raw and sore in New England’s cold winters? Did she use their sheep’s lanolin to soothe fingers poked-to-bleeding by sharp quilting needles? When did she find time away from chores and babies to sit, cut and hand-stitch those many pastel pieces of fabric together, arranged in pleasing patterns? Was it by gaslight or oil lamp in the evenings, by the wood stove, after babies were sound asleep upstairs? Did this feed her need to be creative? Provide joy of accomplishing something beautiful? How precious the thought that my very kin slept under these same quilts in their farmhouse. After studying their designs throughout my childhood, and musing on my grandma’s gifts, it’s no wonder I became a quilter.

Passed down to me by my southern mother is an antique coverlet made by three sisters in my great grandmother’s generation. They created it specifically for a fourth sister who was ill. They were daughters of a physician, and their life was full of society’s events, to which they wore lovely, long dresses custom-fashioned by dressmakers. Three sections designed with small, rectangular pieces — fabrics from their many distinctive dresses: silks, taffetas, and such — in beautiful, brilliant colors give it an exquisite appearance. One small rectangle is of cream-colored silk. On it one of the sisters embroidered, in lovely script, “Ida’s wedding gown.” This is one item that will remain unused in our home. It is fragile and carefully stored. Who sewed it together and topstitched each seam in intricate designs remains a mystery. What stands out is that they stitched their love and concern into this one-of-a-kind keepsake. And I love them for that.

On a shelf with antique quilts and coverlets made by my ancestors rests a woolen coverlet created from one family’s sheep’s wool. They raised the sheep, sheared them, washed the wool — a dirty process — and carded it, a challenging process of very gently combing out the “knots.”  Then they dyed it and wove it into blankets and coverlets. It sounds too easy, but each step mentioned here represents hours of hard work. Did the weaver’s husband handcraft a wooden shuttle for her to use at her loom? To make dyes for the wool, did she pick berries from the same berry patches where my cousins and I picked berries for my grandma? Did she cook them over the same large wood-burning stove in the generations-owned farmhouse kitchen? Did she squeeze the juice from plums and soft, juicy fruits for reds and purples? Did she cook lily of the valley or azalea leaves, privet for various greens? And did she love the delicate colors that came out of delphinium flowers or larkspur? All this would have had to be done in the hot days of summer. Was she excited to prepare dyes in anticipation of coming frigid winter days or evenings when she would weave a beautiful design in a wool coverlet to wrap her family in love’s warmth? Or, was it a wedding gift for a daughter who would be married the next spring? Did she ever dream of generations down the line who might own it? Did she ever dream of me?

I dream of her — of them, and their inspiring impetus to combine craft with necessity: beauty from the ordinary, wasting nothing, art meeting needs, grace dealing with tough times and tough people, love for the needy, giving, gifting those with what they need, and with Whom they need: an artful, loving heavenly Father.

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