References to Needlework in American Literature

Posted to SSAWW and (very) informally reposted here by Kitty Ledbetter

Obviously there is The Color Purple (you may want to look at my article [R. J. Ellis (1994) ‘Out From Under the Cucumber: The Color Purple’s Discursive Critique of Postmodern Deferral’, in Theo D’Haen & Hans Bertens, eds., Liminal Post-Modernisms: The Postmodern, the (Post-)Colonial and the (Post-)Feminist (The Hague: Rodopi,), pp. 275-299] and its brief discussion of the ‘play’ between stitching and quilting), but Alice Walker’s short piece, ‘Everyday Use’ takes an interesting angle upon what I will call the ‘commodification’ of sewing/stitching. Richard Ellis.


Polly Mariner, Tailoress — Rose Terry Cooke  @1827

— and there are more stories in which Polly appears including “How Celia Changed Her Mind” included in my OLD MAIDS: SHORT STORIES BY NINETEENTH CENTURY U.S. WOMEN WRITERS.

And there’s an entire collection of stuff like this but I can’t remember the title — but it has the name of a woman and the word STITCH in it.

Also, if you read the Lowell Mill Girls stuff  (you can find some of this material in Benita Eisler’s selection of selections from their publication), there is talk about needlework.

Also, for the questioner — does your interest include quilting as well?  If yes, there are tons of stuff, short stories, incorporating quilting.

I hope some of this is useful.

Susan Huddis Koppelman


One last thought, although perhaps outside the parameters of your inquiry–what about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party?  I’m thinking not just of the installation, but also of the supporting material published by Chicago and her collaborators.


Gaynor Blandford


Hi everyone–I just finished reading Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine.
She focuses primarily on British literature, but it is a wonderful resource for thinking about needle work and the production
of femininity. Best, Kimberly Lamm




Many great references in this string! Someone mentioned Harriet Jacobs’ grandmother, but it was Jacobs’ herself who was the excellent seamstress. Her narrative references the nice clothes she sewed for friends, family, and her children during her 6+ years of her hiding (raising some suspicions). Jean Fagan Yellin’s edition includes in the appendix an image of an advertisement offering a reward for Jacobs saying that that she may be disguised in the “finery” she has sewn. Her sewing artistry illustrates how it can facilitate self expression, financial support, resistance to oppression, and boundary crossing.

Linda Naranjo-Huebl
Associate Professor of English
Calvin College


If needlework includes knitting, there is a whole subgenre of Civil War poetry about knitting socks for soldiers. There’s also Mary Wilkins Freeman’s disturbing story “Knitting Susan” about a simpleminded woman/holy fool who knits to focus her mind and floats off on an ice floe, still knitting.

Ellen Gruber Garvey, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of English, New Jersey City University

Author, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance
Visit the Scrapbook History website



Did any one mention Elizabeth Keckley’s book?

Francis Foster



Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868) discusses her experience as modiste to Mary Lincoln and also distinguishes between various kinds of needlework (that is, Keckley stresses that she is an elite dress designer as opposed to a seamstress).


Also, depending on how needlework is being defined, in Zitkala-Ša’s (Sioux) Impressions of an Indian Childhood (1921), chapter three, “The Beadwork,” describes her mother’s teaching her the artistry of beadwork and quillwork. (In this case, the needles/porcupine quills must be handled carefully because they are poisonous.)


Laura Laffrado


Department of English

Western Washington University

Bellingham, WA  98225



Uncommon Women: Gender and Representation in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women’s Writing

by Laura Laffrado



Kate Chopin’s story “Miss McEnders” is about a rich society young woman who demeans a seamstress, Mlle. Salambre.

This is an excellent “thread” (irresistible pun).

Emily Toth

Louisiana State University






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