Family Threads

>> Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In March, my family gathered to celebrate my grandmother's 90th birthday. In one of her many boxes full of collected stuff -- hotel soaps and shampoos were by far the most common item found in decorated tins -- my sister found spools of thread. Lilac and dark purple, mauve and gray, neutral white and useful black, baby blue and aqua. Plus a dark green loner and a single spool of mustardy yellow. As my grandmother was dispersing quite a few items from her apartment, I asked if I could have the thread. "No," she retorted, "I might need it." It wasn't clear to any of us present when or how she might use the thread, for she gave me her sewing machine (the only one I have, which I use regularly) over 5 years ago and she wasn't actively sewing anymore. But I said, "ok, enjoy the thread," and left it at that. She wanted to keep the thread and I respected that; regardless of whether she was actively using it, it obviously comforted her to have a full complement of colors nearby.

The wooden box of colorful semi-tangled thread now resides with me. Lodged amidst two dozen books I needed to read, it traveled back with me by plane on Sunday. Grandma died a little over a week ago, on August 10, five months after she celebrated 90 full years of life. Her death was both sudden and unexpected; two weeks ago she suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, at which point the end loomed near. But like the stubborn woman she was throughout her life, she didn't let go easily.

My grandmother did not, shall we say, prize the domestic arts. She grew up in a family of means in Germany and learned book-keeping and pursued various athletic activities with her father. She was a terrible cook, having abandoned the home ec classes her parents sent her to a Swiss finishing school to learn in favor of becoming fluent in French. Forced to cook when she escaped Nazi Germany on a domestic service visa to England, she relied on a cookbook and my grandfather who was far more proficient at food preparation. No offense to Britons, but I don't think cooking skills learned on the fly in wartime England yield particularly exemplary kitchen talents. She did, however, love sweets, and her baking far outpaced her cooking. I don't know when or where she learned to knit, but it was the only "typical" domestic activity I encountered her doing with joy. We all received blankets and sweaters, often monogrammed, in her signature style -- which may well have a name, but being unfamiliar with knitting ways, I can't elaborate effectively.

Perhaps it's because of the knitting that she had so many buttons. I can't really account for the thread or the trim which I never saw her use. But as someone who fled her home with only a couple of dollars, Grandma saved everything. Hence the array of buttons, snaps, and trim we found in the boxes in her apartment. I also found some some vintage -- though I don't think she would have categorized them as such! -- sheets, including both 60s florals and old linen with lace edges.

While my grandmother didn't teach me to sew and I never sewed with her, it struck me yesterday that one of my most material connections to her is through her sewing. She gave me my sewing machine -- which she bought but never appeared to use -- and I now have a stack of material and notions from her. I also brought back this stack of handkerchiefs, some of which have her name or her mother's name embroidered on them. Aside from washing them, I'm not sure exactly what I'll do with them, but I'd like to make something with them. There aren't enough for a quilt by themselves, and I'm not sure how well they'll work with other cotton. I think I'll probably need to interface them to be able to sew them as some are quite delicate. Except for the yellow one peeking out above, the rest are white, some plain and some embroidered. I'd like to make something that will be used, perhaps a challah cover (or several). If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear your suggestions.


Katie B August 18, 2010 at 8:27 PM  

I'd love to know what you end up doing with your handkerchiefs! I have a stack of them from my grandmother too.

Torie August 18, 2010 at 11:38 PM  

Whatever it is you end up making, you could create a business making things out of people's grandmother's things. I have a stack as well!

sews1128 August 18, 2010 at 11:39 PM  

What a beautiful tribute to Grandma. She was my mother-in-law and I always appreciated her knitting skills. I, too, never saw her sew! Enjoy the "family threads". May they link you to yet another generation.

sews1128 August 18, 2010 at 11:43 PM  

The buttons and snaps were for the sweaters Grandma made! I have more handkerchiefs from Aunt Ann that you could add to your collection. Maybe Aunt Helen has a few old handkerchiefs, too.

Abby and Stephanie August 19, 2010 at 6:47 AM  

Very sorry for your loss. How wonderful she lived a long and full life. Lovely treasures to go with the memories of her.

Unknown August 19, 2010 at 6:06 PM  

Lovely story- I also ended up with my mother-in-law's sewing box. You could put a part of a handkerchief in quilts that you make for your family. I love using one or two patches of old shirts that belonged to my Dad in family quilts.

undeadgoat August 20, 2010 at 3:14 PM  

Well, certainly you don't need to rush to use them . . . And if you still have any of your grandmother's sweaters, or pictures of them, it would be great to see them . . .

Miri August 21, 2010 at 10:40 AM  

So sorry for your loss. Its wonderful that you have this sewing connection with your will last forever.

I've given you a Versatile Bloggers Award...I'm not sure you're into things like that but I thought it a good opportunity to introduce your blog to my readers.


Jeanette August 23, 2010 at 1:00 PM  

I'm so sorry to hear of the loss of your grandma.

I too have a collection of old wooden thread spools. You can't really use them because the thread is brittle and breaks easily. I have mine displayed in a gumball machine =0)

As for your hankies, I found this idea on Flickr yesterday and fell in love with it. I don't have any hankies to make one with, but perhaps it would work for you.

Jeanette August 23, 2010 at 1:03 PM  

My link didn't work, let's try that again shall we?
Hankies in the windows

Micki August 23, 2010 at 5:55 PM  

What treasures you have of your grandma's..that is so nice!

Jeanette August 23, 2010 at 6:41 PM  

I say give the Cathedral Windows a shot! I just started my first one this weekend. It's tedious and time consuming but really not hard.

Mine is going to be very small, probably doll quilt sized because I am too impatient for something that fussy! (Says the girl who is making a bed sized Grandmother's Flower Garden LOL)

Anonymous August 29, 2010 at 8:27 PM  

What a beautiful story about your grandmother-- I'm sure it was hard to see her go. It's wonderful that you have a collection of items that will remind you of her every time you use them!

Aileen September 6, 2010 at 9:45 PM  

I love the pictures of your grandmother's treasures. I received much the same from my grandma, but she was queen of domestic arts! Well, maybe princess, as her mother was an amazing seamstress, too. I never sewed with either my grandma or great grandma, but I know my skills and passion for it come through them. Like you, it leaves me feeling connected with them.

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