All right, did you do a double take on that heading? No, no Satan Worship, satin! I found no travel essays on my bookshelves, but I knew I wanted to read an essay by a woman writer (I'm trying to balance things out a bit and read both men and women equally, but I seem to find more work by men in anthologies). I have a couple of those Best American Essays collections on my shelves, so I found "Satin Worship" by Holly Welker in Best American Essays 2005 edited by Susan Orlean. The library where I work has the whole run of Best American Short Stories and we get the new books in annually. I wish I could say we do the same for the essay books, but we don't and we only own about three or four of them, which is too bad really.
These annual collections have a variety of essays in them, which have been published in different magazines and journals over the course of the year. In this case "Satin Worship" had previously been published in PMS (poemmemoirstory) an all-women's literary journal. I wonder what the average "Best of" reader thought of it? As an avid needleworker I found it entertaining reading. Granted Welker is a seamstress, but anyone handy with a needle and thread would surely appreciate what she had to say in her personal essay. I'll forgive her for "never caring for embroidery". Yes, the stitches can be small and purely ornamental, but often times what is created can indeed be utilitarian. Much like quilting or knitting, as Welker enjoys doing, the act of creating something from fabric and thread (or in my case linen and floss) with a needle gives the needleworker a great sense of accomplishment, and in my case the process of doing is very calming. Besides, what's wrong with creating something beautiful and elegant and artistic that can just be appreciated for what it is. A piece of embroidery or a sampler can also tell a story in a way that isn't so readily apparent in something knitted or quilted.
Welker was raised in the Mormon faith and from a young age learned various homemaking skills such as crochet and knitting along with childcare. She inherited her mother's 1955 Singer sewing machine as she was the only daughter with enough "patience to learn to read a pattern, to rip seams when I sewed the pieces wrong, to spend two hours pinning and hemming a dress by hand." And she was the one to understand "fabric lust." That's something I can understand as well. When she was finishing her Ph.D. she worked in a fabric and craft store.
"The job had one primary perk: a hefty discount. More than once I spent my entire check on fabric that went straight into a storage box. I rarely had plans for the fabric I bought; it was simply beautiful, and while I did imagine that someday I would find something worthwhile to do with it, there was the more pressing imperative to own it immediately, five yards of the charcoal flannel, six yards of this teal and gold paisley calico."
Although the author's personal experiences were interesting, what I found most fascinating was reading about the literary and historical references to needles and thread and other aspects of needlework. She mentions Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years--Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (a book I have on hand as well) as a resource, which confirmed her belief that needles must be one of the oldest tools invented by humanity. She writes about scissors (I have an ever growing collection of them) and fibers that are turned into cloth and what it can be used for afterwords. And there are words used in the business of creating--spinning, embroidering that have carried over into language and literature.
"'Spinning yarn' is a metaphor for telling a story, and stories can be 'embroidered.' But quilting doesn't seem to be of much use as a way to talk about narrative. Stitching contrasting pieces of fabric into a pattern, stitching that to another piece of fabric with some stuffing in the middle so that heat-trapping pockets of air are formed--that's too elaborate for the way our culture likes to talk about writing. In fact, it's rather an insult to call a story a patchwork, but high praise to call it seamless."
It's nice reading about an activity that takes place in the more domestic sphere of life, something that at one time was even a myth--that spinning women controlled the fate of humanity (I really like that). An idea that has long been dispenced with, but like the author, I'd like to "try to spin and weave the fibers of my life into a tapestry both beautiful and useful, and of my own design."