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Historic photographs can show us rare, fleeting moments of craft in action. We found lots of fantastic examples of Wisconsin women sewing, knitting, and crocheting through Wisconsin Historical Images and the State of Wisconsin Collection; here are some we didn’t have space to include in the gallery.
An online feature from UW-Madison’s Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection offers a closer look at 19th century fancywork wreaths made from hair. These wreaths are some of the most visually striking examples of Victorian-era fancywork. While modern audiences might find the use of hair distasteful, hairwork was once a highly-valued representation of the maker’s close connections to the friends and family members whose hair she collected and displayed in her parlor.
“Hair Wreaths: Fancywork from the Victorian Era” includes two interpretive essays as well as a link to 16 related objects in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection’s public database.
Community building. A twenty-first century catch-phrase, for sure. Networking. Social climbing. Marketing. What do these have to do with crafting? If we could ask Theresa Scheffler, maker of this ca. 1900 redwork quilt, we might hear some surprising answers.
Understanding the motivation behind why crafters craft is what the Handmade Meaning exhibition is all about. Considering the meaning makers stitched, painted, or sculpted into their works is the conversation.
Theresa’s quilt, today owned by the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton but too fragile to loan out for this upcoming exhibit, expands the crafting conversation. Each square is essentially an ad or promotion for an Appleton business. 72 of them. Red floss is stitched onto white cotton squares. Each square includes an image and often a humorous line. One lists the telephone number of the business: “Phone 66.” A square for the local paper, the Evening Crescent, reads “10 cents a week” and goes further to note the paper offers “Six Day Want Ads 25 cents.”
Why would one young woman in 1900 be so interested in local businesses to spend countless hours selecting patterns, making up funny quips and stitching them into life? Many redwork quilts were intended as fundraisers, auctioned off for a good cause. But there is no record to indicate that Theresa’s quilt was meant to be sold, or was sold.
Clues to Theresa’s meaning may be evident in her life. Her young adult years were messy and unstable. Her mother dies or moves away. Her father changes his name (to something less Prussian sounding) and marries again. Theresa works as a teacher around the time she makes the quilt. In 1909 she marries James Wagg, who followed his father as the superintendent of the Fox River Paper Company Mill, a prestigious position in the community. They live in a big house on the main drag just a few blocks from the business district. Local newspaper society columns are filled with reports of their social activities. And Theresa becomes an important figure in the Masonic temple. Maybe Theresa’s early interest in local businesses was a way of making community connections. Of networking. Of exposing her skills to prospective husbands. Of elevating her status in the community. Of using her marketing skills in a socially acceptable way for a woman of her time. What seems clear by her example is that no crafter spends the many hours required to make a work of this extent without meaning something by it. It requires energy, fortitude. And a great deal of creative expression.
Anyone can try out this form of creative expression in our Community Embroidery Project developed by Andrea Miller. Choose a pattern from the templates offered, or free-form stitch one from your own mind or a business on your street. Do it to share your crafting skills with others. Do it to make a mark on Wisconsin. Do it to connect to a prospective employer. Do it for all your own reasons. To mean what you intend. Your square will be stitched together with others to form a network of meanings. Together they will represent our crafting community in the twenty-first century.
– Susan Bostian Young
“Large quantities of corn husks are wasted every year, which might be made useful in many ways.”
An article in the 1874 issue of the journal American Agriculturalist offered instructions for making indoor and outdoor floor mats from braided corn husks, a ubiquitous byproduct in farming communities throughout the United States. This use of corn husks as a craft medium dates back many centuries, if not millennia, in the Americas.
The unidentified Wisconsin woman who made this mat, now in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, elevated this humble form to a more decorative level through a complex pattern of concentric circles and waves. The mat was donated to Vesterheim by the daughter of the original owner, Martha Aaker Bakke, who used it in her Iowa home. According to family history, Bakke acquired the mat around 1906 from “an elderly lady who lived on a farm near Stoughton (or Koshkonong), Wisconsin, and was from Norway or of Norwegian descent. The maker was about 80 years of age and had made a number of mats in her lifetime.”
Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover the identity of the thrifty and talented woman who made this intricately patterned mat. A note in the Vesterheim files indicating that the maker’s daughter was a “Mrs. Gjerset” did not turn up any results in census records or other genealogy resources.
However, it is possible to reconstruct the story of the mat’s use by Martha Bakke and her family. Bakke was born Martha Aaker in the rural community of Pleasant Springs, Dane County, Wisconsin in 1869, the oldest daughter of Norwegian immigrants Etling (or Elling) and Anna Aaker. The Aakers were one of hundreds of families who left Norway and established farms in southeastern Dane County in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1885, the family relocated from Pleasant Springs to a much larger farm in nearby Dunkirk.
In 1891, 22-year-old Martha married Iowa native John Bakke and left Wisconsin for Winneshiek County, Iowa. According to family history, she acquired the mat in the Stoughton area around 1906—fifteen years after moving to Iowa. Perhaps she purchased it during a visit to her parents’ home in Wisconsin. According to Bakke’s daughter, who later used it in her own home, the mat was treated with care and was never used outdoors. Now more than 100 years old, the fragile corn husks have held up remarkably well.
Today’s do-it-yourself crafters might call this use of corn husks “upcycling,” or the transformation of waste materials into useful products. For example, using a technique not far from that used in braiding a corn husk mat, Illinois artist Emily Kircher upcycles fabric sourced from yard sales, thrift stores, and “mill ends” from textile factories into colorful crocheted rugs.
–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer
The American Agriculturalist: For the Farm, Garden, and Household, vol. 33 (New York: Orange Judd Co., 1874), p. 385 (via Google Books)
History of Dane County: Biographical and Genealogical, vol. 1 (Madison: Western Historical Association, 1906), p. 17-18 (via Google Books)
Emily Kircher, Recycling Artist. Website. http://www.etchouse.com/EKRA/
Three pairs of knit stockings with beadwork and crochet, Elizabeth Pauline Ebert, Menomonee Falls, Waukesha County, 1878-1879
(Private Collection, from the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database )
Elizabeth Pauline Ebert of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, knit these three pairs of stockings between 1878 and 1879. Like many residents of the state in the second half of the 19th century, she immigrated to Wisconsin from Germany, and these stockings were handed down to her granddaughter, who passed them on to their current owner, who has kindly allowed us to include them in the exhibition.
Elizabeth’s knit stockings are a reflection of her fine knitting skills: her stitches are precise and even, a sign of a competent knitter. In addition, she includes technically difficult lacework and beading on each stocking, clearly demonstrating her knitting ability. While I wasn’t able to identify the lace patterns on the stockings with the red or green beading at the time of this post, the blue socks use feather and fan or Old Shale stitch, one which remains popular today. The choice to include both her initials and the year in the intricate bead work show a sense of ownership and pride in her work. A story that was passed down to her granddaughter is that she knit these stockings to be beautiful in her new home in the United States.
Like many of the objects showcased in this exhibit, Elizabeth’s stockings are a reflection of the increased interest in fancywork and decorating everyday objects among many middle class women in the late nineteenth century. Elizabeth knit her socks at a point when socks and stockings were available commercially but when many women were still making them at home both for pleasure and economy. Elizabeth created a luxurious version of a practical and ubiquitous garment, and in doing so created objects that were important enough to be saved and passed along to her descendants and finally to their new owner.
Socks like Elizabeth’s are still a popular project for many knitters, and often include everything from lace to beadwork to new construction techniques. The socks below are ones I knit in March 2009 using a toe up method instead of starting with the cuff as Elizabeth did for her stockings. While they different in both construction and materials, the impulse to make something beautiful is the same. I used Regia Color, a self-striping wool/nylon sock yarn, something that would have been unheard of in 1878 when Elizabeth knit her socks. Because of the color of the yarn itself, I knit most of the sock in stockinette except the cuff (not shown in the image). While my socks looks almost nothing like Elizabeth’s, I knit them for pleasure just as Elizabeth did over 130 years ago.
Nancy Bush Knitting Vintage Socks: New Twists on Classic Patterns Interweave Press. 2005.
–Posted by Rebecca Keyel