March 2023

There are textiles in my family. Like many families, there are multiple generations of textile makers and artists. On one side, a great grandmother who I never knew told a family story about a flood in 1936: when the police arrived by rowboat to rescue the family from the second floor of their home, she ran back into the house to grab her crochet work. On another side, it goes back to the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century. There my great aunt, having immigrated from Belarus, worked as a sweatshop seamstress and an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. I love hearing my mom describe how her aunt sewed her clothing when she was young. My mom sewed me clothing too—dress-up capes and fantastic skirts in the colors and prints I dreamed of and a lace-up dress I wore to shreds. I was surprised to learn, in the last few years, that my mom doesn’t actuall­­y like to sew.

When my older brother opened his first shop, a bespoke men’s suiting business, the whole family was charmed by the notion that almost a hundred years earlier a great aunt had worked in the factories in that same neighborhood. But what I want to talk about here is less genealogy and more a genealogy of knowledge and shared practices. Textile art is an embodied knowledge, tactile, material practices of making and knowing. It is something the hands know. And I love how it is also abstract, intellectual, and emotional—a set of practices that require mathematical skills and design sensibilities. Working with fabric, thread, and yarn requires a synthesis of abstracted and embodied knowledge practices.

When I was in middle school my grandmother—my mother’s mother—gave me something I think was called a stitch genie. Shaped like a little white staple gun, it could sew a basic seam through a few layers of fabric. I don’t remember ever using it, but I remember the joy of having my own sewing tools. Recently, my mom told me that my grandmother learned to sew when my mom was in girl scouts; when she had to do a sewing badge, Grandma got into it, took classes, and took up sewing, which she taught me and my older brother. 

My grandmother was always busy, making things, doing things, changing things. My mom remembered going to bed as a child and hearing her mother up late into the night doing sewing projects. A few years before my grandmother died, my partner and I visited her. After lunch she showed me several sewing projects which she had started but wanted me to finish up for her—an embroidered pillow to repair, a stuffed baby toy to finish. I will always associate these “baby balls” with my grandmother: she made these geometric little balls, constructed from four sets of four segments which could be assembled into soft stuff balls, and always had one on hand as a baby gift. When we packed up her condo in 2020, we found zip lock bags of precut segment pieces in a variety of quilting cottons. Always ready for more projects.

From my mom I learned knitting and spinning (though I never got good at that one) and dyeing. We were always making things, planning things, designing and trying. My mother, in turn, discovered spinning and dyeing as a teenager and was fascinated ever since. As a child and teenager I was always dreaming up projects—a garment knitted from spun milkweed fluff, a skirt with just the right pockets—and pursuing them alongside my mom (though we never figured out how to spin the bags and bags of milkweed fluff I collected).

As a bookbinder, though I work in paper, I find the same fine motor skills, the same satisfaction of a making a stitch, are a part of my practice too.

In My grandmother, my mother, and me, I have draw together threads and materials from these different practices: the silk covers I dyed either on my own or alongside my mom; the thread which binds the books is from a spool I found among my grandmother’s sewing supplies that day we packed up her condo. For almost three years the spool next to a midcentury pewter tea and coffee set I’d also taken from Grandma’s condo, waiting to find a use. Here, bookbinding, fabric dyeing, and sewing are held together, uniting the three of us in these objects.