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Embroidered Stories: Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora

0 Comments 🕔14.Jan 2016

“I would sew till the world around wore
patches bright and uneven,

sew my childhood back into my bones,
I would bind, I would bind

what falls apart.  My hand is happy
piercing, rising, circling back

taking me thou needle, thou red thread,
stitch to stitch, my way back,

taking there, and I go, what more
wanting, what more?”

—Anne Marie Macari[1]


When Embroidered Stories:  Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora first arrived at my door, I eagerly flipped through the pages, anticipating the wash of recognition I so often feel when confronted with essays about my own cultural experience.  I was not wrong.   Many of the essays and poems spoke to me on a personal level, but I had not perhaps expected to find so many that opened up entirely new avenues of inquiry.  For Italian immigrants and their descendants, even those of us generations removed from the initial immigration experience, needlework transports us into a world at once familiar and lost.  Touching an embroidered tablecloth or crocheted doily calls up a host of figures and places that live now only in our collective memory.  The objects themselves are always unique and yet share design patterns, techniques, and a cultural attaché that identify them as the labor of love of Italian and Italian American women.

Edvige Giunta and Joseph Sciorra, co-editors of the volume, make no apology for the fact that the private stories of biancheria (white wear, including tablecloths, wedding sheets and christening gowns) fueled their investigation of domestic needlework, noting the capacity of a mundane object, or simply the memory of it, to transform into a literary, visual, performative, ethnographic or critical reimagining. Born of extensive conversations at Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute’s 2002 symposium “Biancheria:  Critical and Creative Perspectives on Italian American Women’s Domestic Needlework,” the academic essays and creative pieces in this interdisciplinary collection offer new perspectives on immigrant history as they unravel the yarns of a woven tapestry, propelling us across time and space, much like artist B. Amore’s installation “Life line – filo della vita” invites visitors to follow a red thread as it weaves in and out of rooms overflowing with seven generation’s worth of family objects, images and print documentation.

The methodologies of Giunta (literature) and Sciorra (folklore and folklife) inform both the structure and contents of the volume, which is organized into five thematic sections (Threads of Women; Skills and Artistry; Factory Girls; Environmental Sites; and Lost, Discarded and Reclaimed). Because each section juxtaposes scholarly essays and works of memoir and poetry, they invite reading out of sequence, skipping across sections and pages to connect points on a plane. One feels as if a conversation is picked up here and there by the contributors as they recount family stories of needlework or shed light on the historical and social issues that surround a topic.

“Threads of Women,” with its chorus of voices from intergenerational women—mothers, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and a singular mother-in-law—rightfully opens the volume.  Poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan gives voice to her grandmother, Donna Laura, whose husband left for Argentina, deserting her with seven children and no money.  Her sense of abandonment as she sucks each day on a “bitter seed,” her angry heart shrinking to a “bitter raisin,” slices through the page.[2]  When she dies, only her cloth remains, paradoxically turning her “bitterness into art” and teaching her descendants how to “spin sorrow into gold.”[3]

Louise DeSalvo employs knitting as a metaphor, marking the age of thirty-seven as the “unraveling time,” a time to cast off and immerse herself in the written word in order to manage the swirl of emotions that persists as one approaches middle and then old age.  Paralleling her experience to that of her immigrant grandmother, DeSalvo champions those who choose, “[t]o crochet and to knit because the very act of knitting, the very act of crocheting gives you what others do not, […] what this country that you came to does not give you:  a sense of worth and some small scrap of human dignity.”[4]  Her words underscore the challenges of the diasporic experience of the past and even today, of being forced to grapple with questions of identity in a country that has not always welcomed immigrants.  The complexities of domesticating a space in a new land while maintaining ties to their homeland left many women, like DeSalvo’s grandmother, feeling isolated.  As migrant women struggled to articulate their alienation, domestic needlework and its practice, much like writing for their descendants, provided a way for them to transmit culture and negotiate traditions.

In “From Domestic Craft to Contemporary Arts:  Needlework and Belonging in Two Generations of Italian Australian Artists,” Ilaria Vanni argues that immigration belongs to the category of crisi della presenza (crisis of presence), developed by the Italian anthropologist Ernesto De Martino (1908-1965) to describe the experience of cultural apocalypses, because migration effectively marks the end of a known world.  She reads biancheria as narratives of migration and symbols of transnational lives that record the continuum of experiences across space and between people, primarily women.  Particularly efficacious is her classification of domestic crafts as a conduit from being disconnected/without a village (spaesamento/essere spaesato) to belonging/having a home (appaesamento/sentirsi a casa).

The artistry that left a legacy is evident in prose and verse throughout Embroidered Stories.  Our attention is drawn to the finest details of domestic needlework, such as technique, gesture, stitch, pattern, color, and even the feel of “light, cool” Italian linens, “soft gray yarn,” “polyesters that refuse ironing,” and heavy wool knits, whether the dressmaker labored in a “basement of a suburban house” or the floor of a factory in New York’s garment industry.[5]  While the focus of the book is the domestic space, the industrialized setting where immigrant women could earn income, frequently using their homes as extensions of the factory, is not forgotten.  Lisa Venditelli’s installation “Backbone/Colonna Vertebrale” threads antique wooden spools on aluminum rods to depict the crooked backbones of thousands of women bent over their work, enduring the hazards of unsafe conditions to produce quality needlework in U.S. mills that emphasized instead “fast, cheap, and high-volume product.”[6]

In their essays, Jennifer Guglielmo and Bettina Favero provide historical detail about the period of industrialization that thrust many southern Italian women into manufacturing in early 20th century United States and post-World War II Argentina, respectively.  Between 1900 and 1910, textiles, an industry dominated by women, was among Italy’s chief exports.  The rise of factory-made textiles compelled women to take up sewing in order to secure wage-earning positions that subsequently led them to develop new kinds of relationships among themselves and with their employers.  While labor migration allowed women to contribute to the family income and navigate new social worlds, it simultaneously subjected them to exploitation and jeopardized their health, leaving Guglielmo to pose a question that resonates even today:  “economic development at what cost?”[7]

Paola Corso’s two poems, one in “Factory Girls” and the second in “Environmental Sites,” depict the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to map an Italian diasporic topography, connecting the falling embers from the New York factory to the spread of Vesuvius’ molten lava toward the native village of one doomed factory worker who jumps to her death, leaving “the way she came.”[8]  Loss and death, in fact, haunt the pages of the collection, even as they are balanced by the words that give voice to ghosts and the objects that throw light upon shadow.  In “White Shadows” (2), Elisa D’Arrigo notes that “attempting to conjure a physical object from a mental image is an elusive process due to the fugitive, constantly shifting nature of memory.”[9]  Likewise, writing and storytelling are tricky matters when endeavoring to capture an immigrant history that lives primarily in domestic objects.  For many of the authors in Embroidered Stories, a critical understanding of the art created by their foremothers can be teased out by first putting hand to fabric, fingers to needles. Only then can pen touch paper to birth a modern trousseau, a treasure of written words that testify to the historical, artistic, cultural and personal importance of Italian women’s needlework.

Reviewed by Gina M. Miele, Department of Spanish/Italian, Montclair State University

Embroidered Stories: Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora
Co-edited by Edvige Giunta and Joseph Sciorra
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover / 394 pages / 2014
ISBN: 978-1628460131

[1] Giunta, Edvige and Joseph Sciorra, eds., Embroidered Stories:  Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora (Jackson:  University of Mississippi Press, 2014), 279-280.

[2] Ibid., 29-30.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] Ibid., 136, 141.

[6] Ibid., 168.

[7] Ibid., 185.

[8] Ibid., 243.

[9] Ibid., 341.

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