I spent a good part of yesterday sewing pillows for breast cancer patients as part of a benefit held at the local Y; it was a terrific experience, not only because of the cause, but also the comfort of being in a room with other sewers. The sounds of scissors and sewing machines, as well as the smell of freshly ironed fabric, are so relaxing, at least to me!
I was taking part in a ritual that has involved women for centuries. Unable to participate in warfare or other public events, women have used other “weapons” to fight conquest, disease, national disaster, and poverty. During the American Civil War, for example, women joined groups around the country to “roll” bandages; this involved cutting up fabric (usually muslin) into long strips, then rolling them up into cylinders and hand sewing them together. Other women knit socks, gloves and hats, while others hand-sewed military banners and flags as well as uniforms.
During World War I, American women knit caps, socks, and gloves for the troops. There was an effort to knit sweaters for the beleaguered citizens of Belgium (misguided, as it turned out, because Belgians didn’t wear sweaters, and Belgian women promptly unraveled the sweaters to knit shawls and blankets!) Although many young American women disdained this type of work – hundreds volunteered as ambulance drivers or nurses instead- local organizations, including the Red Cross and YWCA, sponsored events similar to the one I attended yesterday, in which a group of women would meet together for a day of knitting or sewing. Newspapers and magazines offered free patterns for women to use to show their support for our war effort.
And even when the country wasn’t at war, women were still asked to knit or sew for the “needy”: sewing sandbag casings to fight flooding in the Tennessee and Mississippi Valleys in the 1920s and 1930s as well as knitting sweaters and blankets for orphaned children.
Even today, besides the non-profit organizations that provides, free of charge, pillows for breast cancer patients, there are hundreds of organizations that rely on volunteer knitters and seamstresses: knitted caps for newborns and preemies, teddy bears and stuffed toys for children impacted by disasters and tragedies, quilts and other blankets for refugees and accident victims. These contributions are little noticed or acknowledged by the general public, but are considered vital to non-profits and charities. I am proud that I am part of a long tradition such as this.