by Aimee E. Newell. Ohio University Press, May 2014. 265 p. ill. ISBN 9780821420522 (pbk.), $34.95.
Reviewed November 2014
A Stitch in Time uses needlework artifacts to investigate how women in mid-nineteenth-century America experienced aging, and reciprocally, how the aging process affected craft behavior. This study focuses on the needlework (quilts, samplers, knits, and more) of women aged forty and over between the years 1820 and 1860. Newell considers needlework with regard to lifestyle alterations (such as widowhood, changes in finance, and declining physical ability), alongside contemporary social and technological advances (especially the mechanization of textile production).
Post-menopausal life in antebellum America is demonstrated to be an age of newfound creative freedom and leisure. Needlework is discussed as an appropriate recreation and exercise for the aging body. Newell's sources are the objects themselves, personal accounts, such as letters and diaries, family traditions, medical products, and contemporary publications on social and domestic life. The symbolism and reception of objects is intuited through gift-giving practice, association with their makers in genealogical identity, and the transmission of explicit messages.
This work fills gaps in the research on American textile history, but does not require prior initiation to the field in order to be of interest. Rather than assuming background knowledge in her readers, Newell succinctly explains trends in textile history as relevant to her discussion. She delivers a highly organized read with an approachable prose style. This work could be used as a first introduction to American domestic textile crafts, especially considering its copious, full-page, color illustrations of artifacts and portraits of their makers. Still, A Stitch in Time adds significantly to literature on the motivations and uses of needlework performed by older women. Newell makes a substantial contribution in expanding the history of a generation that holds much fascination for scholars of the early Republic, but is not often studied in its elder years.
The volume is of fine quality and designed for legibility and ease of use. It includes an index with a particular focus on maker names. An appendix lists objects used in the study, identifying criteria, provenance, and current holding institutions. Extensive notes and bibliographies are ideal for chaining together the research on textile history, social experience, and the female lifecycle in mid-nineteenth-century America.
As an art library resource, A Stitch in Time complements textile history collections and provides visual inspiration from antebellum fashion and craft. This work augments our understanding of the impetus for handmade goods and embellishments given the ready availability of machine-made products. And it does so in a highly visual manner, ideal for the investigation of artifacts and material culture in an educational setting.