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Making the World at Home

Chloe Wigston Smith—

Picture this: a young girl sits next to a fireplace, its dim glow brightened by warm candlelight. Her head is bent, and her eyes study the piece of fabric in her lap. Her needle poised in her right hand, she pulls the thread taught, adding another stitch. She sits inside, alone, her attention turned inwardly to her fabric, thread, and needle.

But look a bit more closely at historical pieces of needlework, and this view of a girl, or woman, preoccupied with domestic tasks quickly falls away—or at least comes to appear as the dusty cliché it is.

Take, for instance, the fabric globes, stuffed and stitched by white Quaker girls at Westtown School in Pennsylvania. These fabric globes are material marvels in their own right, handheld worlds in miniature whose bright threads follow the contours of continents and oceans.1 The Westtown globes remain a striking example in the canon of feminine handiwork, unique to the curriculum at this co-educational school (where both girls and boys were taught to sew, but only girls progressed to globe making). Some globes were set in wooden stands, suggesting their use in instruction; some girls made both terrestrial and celestial globes, setting their sights outwards and upwards to the constellations. Similar to the majority of crafts made by girls and women at the time, the Westtown globes demanded a range of manual techniques, skills that were combined with geographic knowledge. The globes bear the traces of colonialism, too. Their makers set out the boundaries of empires and marked the routes of noted colonial settlers, including the location of James Cook’s death. These fabric globes placed the world at their fingertips, while affirming their rights to make the world their own.

While their globes were exceptional crafts, Westtown makers were far from alone in their material attention to geography. In fact, they were part of a broader flow of ideas between feminine handiwork, geography, and colonialism. Women’s crafts went hand in hand with global aesthetics and politics, in the form of embroidered maps of the world, continents, counties, and new cities like Washington, DC. Far from focusing their needles on the domestic interior, makers in Britain and early America looked outside the walls of their houses and schools, depicting Indigenous peoples, persons of African descent, and enslaved laborers in their handiwork. They also embroidered abolitionist verse and images (including Wedgwood’s famous medallion of a chained and kneeling Black man) onto samplers and cushions, their needlework contributing to anti-slave trade messaging also found on commercial products like sugar bowls. Girls and women in Britain and early America created needlework that roamed far and wide outside the homes and schools in which they were created.

Black and Indigenous makers are a crucial part of this story. In the eighteenth century, feminine accomplishments, including refined embroidery skills, were associated with elite white women. But this association excluded the thousands of non-elite white women and women of color, across the social scale, who plied their needles and also demonstrated their extensive knowledge of technique and aesthetics, such as Rosena Disery, Mary Emiston, Christeen Baker, and Ku-To-Yi, to name just a few. Eight-year-old Mary D’Silver completed her piece in 1793, while a student at a school for free Black children in Philadelphia. In keeping with widespread needlework practices, D’Silver uses her needle to affirm her learning, marking her name, age, and school in red thread.2

Below this information about herself, she indicates her literary learning by reproducing in green thread four lines from Anna Letitia Barbauld’s 1773 poem “The Mouse’s Petition.” Barbauld’s poem, which features a mouse arguing for its right to live and escape a grim fate of scientific experiment, was frequently taught to children. By the time D’Silver was stitching her excerpt, Barbauld had started publishing poems with more explicit abolitionist content, indicating her clear support for William Wilberforce’s abolitionist campaign in print. D’Silver makes one tiny, but notable, change to Barbauld’s lines: Barbauld’s original argues that the compassionate mind “Casts round the world an equal eye, / And feels for all that lives.”3 D’Silver swaps the “all” for “each,” encouraging us to feel “for each that lives.”4 The change is slight and her fabric canvas small, but D’Silver uses her needle to make the verse her own, affirming her manual and textual knowledge, and her facility with a poet who lived an ocean away from her Philadelphia community.

All of this handiwork reflected the visual and print media readily available to women and girls, in particular engravings of continents and periodical illustrations, and stories of women who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, such as The Female American and The Woman of Colour. In the weeks and months that it took women and girls to render their names, texts, and worlds in thread, they had widespread access to tales that saw women characters pursuing adventures that often had less to do with romantic love and more to do with the expanding horizons of the globe. Readers found, in these stories, examples of fictional women using clothes, textiles, and handiwork to evade marriage and assert themselves, while demonstrating their knowledge of how these material items were inextricably connected to the commerce and violence of colonialism. Together eighteenth-century novels and needleworks dislodge conventional associations between women and home, between the domestic and women’s work, showing us how much the home was embedded in and contributed to the political and aesthetic currents of the world. The material entanglements among craft, literature, and the global eighteenth century ultimately allow us to acknowledge the complex histories and legacies of women’s work.

Chloe Wigston Smith is professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York, where she teaches in the Department of English and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies. She is the author of Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel.

1. For an example of a Westtown globe, see here: http://museumcollection.winterthur.org/single-record.php?recid=1969.0046%20A.

2. See this link for an image of the D’Silver needlework: http://museumcollection.winterthur.org/single-record.php?recid=2014.0033%20A

3. Anna Letitia Barbauld, “The Mouse’s Petition,” in Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2002), 69-72

4. Sampler by Mary D’Silver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1793, silk and linen, 12.6 × 13.3 inches, 2014.0033 A, Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collections Circle

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