Happy New Year! This holiday I had the opportunity to step into Susan B. Anthony’s shoes and those of Annie, her sister-in-law, as I spent many hours sewing by
both hand and machine. Three things resulted. First, I created a beautiful dress.Besides that, I strained both my eyes and my shoulders hunched over my project. And through that process, I got a sense of what it was like for 19th century women who spent so much time creating and laundering clothing.
I wore the dress to the Turning of the Year Ball of the English Country Dancers* of Rochester. The dress was finished only 30 minutes before the dance! Here I am wearing it that night, happy to be finished and enjoying every minute of wearing my own creation.
The challenges of good stitchery
All this sewing makes me grateful for my sewing machine, a great labor-saving device. Although British homemakers were using them in the 1860s, I’m not clear yet on when they reached the U.S.
Susan B. Anthony’s shoes took her to Leavenworth, KS in January 1865 to visit her brother Daniel, married to Annie for one year. By ’65, Annie was four months pregnant. In her diary Susan notes that they tried to hire a woman to sew the baby’s layette but no one could do fine enough work.
Consequently, Annie and Susan did it themselves, with Susan teaching Annie. Annie, who came from a privileged background with maids, had no homemaking skills when she married Daniel. Susan, however, was a skilled needlewoman, having crafted a difficult quilt when she was only 15.
In her 40s, Susan probably had trouble seeing close-up work (as I do) and delegated as much as possible to Annie. As I sat and stitched, I imagined Susan’s diplomatic instructions and Annie’s frustration at having to learn as an adult a skill that most girls learned at their mother’s knee.
Sewing, in my experience, is an exercise in patience and humility. I hope Annie did not have to rip out her work as often as I do. It is, however, a perfect way to while away a cold snowy day–especially if you have a friend to sew with.
*Don’t confuse this dress with something Annie or Susan would have worn. English Country dancing ceased to be popular about a generation before Annie, so her gowns would have been much more complicated. But this one was hard enough for me!