Thumbs up for Threads of Life: A History of the World through the Eye of a Needle by Clare Hunter. History/Memoir.
A worthwhile but flawed book. Each chapter explores the history of needlework via one lens– “Power” talks about Mary Queen of Scots; “Captivity” discusses the quilts made in POW camps in WWII Singapore; “Journey” investigates Miao/Hmong story cloths; and so on. The writing flows elegantly and some of the information covered is absolutely fascinating, assuming you like history and don’t turn your nose up at needlework.* Some sections are much more successful than others; at times I found myself sighing a bit when the author landed upon what was obviously a favored topic. Additionally, this book has a painful flaw, which is the lack of photos. Even if printing a color insert was cost-prohibitive, at least pair the book with a link website that is kept up to date! The page in the back with a list of museum websites made me say out loud, “Oh for god’s sake!”; since there’s no hint as to which textile is going to be on which site, it has no benefit over Googling. So, yes, I have complaints, but most of the time I wanted more rather than less.
It is not only the nature of the cloth that could safeguard babies, but also the act of stitching itself through which the protective hand of a mother or grandmother was evident. A Hawaiian mother believed that the sewing of a quilt for her baby imbued the quilt with her own aura to keep her child safe. In West Punjab, the grandmother puts in the first stitch of a newborn’s cradle cover. In Tajikistan, a marriage coverlet is begun by the mother of many children. The garment made for a Jewish boy’s circumcision was traditionally sewn by a mother who had never lost a child. In parts of China the protection of children used to be a community affair. A new mother would be brought strips of cloth by neighbors to be joined and made into a baby’s coat, a communal cloak of combined cherishing. Alternatively, families would bring the mother small pieces of embroidered silk to be pieced into what was known as the Hundred Families Coat, so that the strength of many – the many pieces, stitches, blessings, families – would ensure a child’s safety. The same concept existed in Japan, although not for children but for soldiers going into battle. The senninbari (the ‘one-thousand stitch belt’) was a protective talisman made by female relatives who went to a busy location, such as a railway station or street corner, and collected stitches from passers-by, which they were asked to sew on a stretch of cotton. Once 1,000 stitches had been gathered, the belt was given to the soldier as a form of protection, the accumulation of many diverse energies acting as a human shield against his injury or death. Some of these customs prevail, others have been replaced by the making or purchasing of more modern talismans.
*Side note: if you turn your nose up at needlework, you should read, not this book first, but Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, because you are missing some very, very important things about history.
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