A Plea for American Needlecraft

THE action of Congress in refusing to support even negatively a philanthropist who desires to establish in the West a school for lace-making is only to be accounted for on the ground that the lawmakers of that body are unaware of the expediency of the proposed effort; that they are uninformed as to the real need for a defined home industry for women in America. According to the last census, the entire number of lace-makers in the United States amounted to about twenty-one hundred, a number that includes embroiderers and machine lacemakers (of both sexes), but which represents no single handworker who would be reckoned as accomplished if placed among the lace-makers of Europe.

It has been maintained that the conditions of American life are against an industry which originated and throve primarily in the cottage ; that the European cottage in which lace-making is carried on has no counterpart in America. But this is only partially true, for though we scan with warrantable satisfaction our well - conducted factories where hours of labor and payment for the same are humanely governed, there still remains to be considered by students of sociological problems the army of home workers in city flats, in the tenements of small towns, in country places, who, unprovided with trades, unskilled in art, deprived by pride of courage to go out and labor with others, or hindered by delicate health, are yet desperately in need of some permanent employment that is at once practicable and profitable. The limitations of the lives of small farmers’ wives especially are scarcely less than those that characterize the lives of the Old World cottagers.

With certain external differences, humble home life in country places is identical in all lands. There is the same absence of diversion ; long distances separate neighbors; schooling is meagre, literature scarce. Many eloquent pens have halted in an attempt truthfully to describe the deprivations, not to say miseries, of back country life in America, in the Tennessee mountain regions, the Virginia and Pennsylvania mining towns, and in the small homes hidden in the Western prairies. The story repeats itself among the New England hills and in such Southern states as Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Everywhere may be found the woman anxious “ to get work home,” and thereby add some comfort or supply some need for which body or soul cries out. “ Fake ” advertisers, offering work (for the execution of which they sell impossible “ outfits ” or recipes), fatten on the contributions received from hopeful women, who scan the papers in search of employment for idle hours. These women are legion, and include all sorts and conditions of their sex. There is the reduced gentlewoman consumed with that shame of becoming a wageearner openly, which is foreign to American principles but common enough in American practice ; the young girl who, while pursuing her study or, perhaps, while caring for an invalid parent, must also earn, if possible, a portion of the family income ; and there is the aged, or invalid woman herself, unable to go out and labor, yet glad, indeed, to glean at home any trifle, however small, that may come her way. There are thousands of laboring men’s wives who must convert into money in some way the few hours that are left over from the day after the simple household duties have been performed. The amount of crude, coarse work done at home by untrained workers is enormous, notwithstanding legislative efforts to restrict it. Yet the sum of money gained is as pitifully small as any that may be quoted as the wages of needlewomen in foreign countries, though the labor involved has been greater and the product of an incomparably lower grade.

Available home work in cities includes the making of ties, straw-sewing, hat-making, the manufacture of garments, knitting, fringe-making, embroidery, and even painting, — of a kind. I have in mind a girl of twenty compelled to work at home because of an invalid mother whose condition necessitates the presence of a constant companion. She has picked up a knowledge of colors, and paints floral designs upon satin cushions and box covers, small banners and screens. For decorating the last-named she receives twenty cents a dozen, out of which must be purchased paints and brushes. By working until late at night this breadwinner sometimes succeeds in painting two gross of screens a week. The money resulting therefrom is above the average earning of the unassisted home worker. With even this case as a generous basis of calculation, our irregular home industries (if so one may term the manufacture of such fleeting commodities) may scarcely be rated as having superior advantages over that of lace-making. Yet the chief objection that for decades has presented itself when the subject of establishing schools for lace manufacture in America has been discussed has lain in the small remuneration likely to result to the workers.

At present we are making annual recorded purchases of dress trimmings — chiefly lace — in foreign markets to the value of twenty-five million dollars, spent principally in Switzerland, Austria, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. A large portion of this lace is machine made, but the hand product is receiving more attention than in the past century. In large part this is due to the energy of moneyed women in Italy, Austria, and England, who have set out to foster an art that may be pursued in the precincts of a home, which institution, in turn, it protects.

The instinct toward needlework may be said to be innate in the feminine nature. Little girls exhibit it with the possession of the first doll. Even women of savage tribes delight to manipulate crude threads and experiment with stitches. In the recent missionary exhibit held in New York city were specimens of lace made by the Ojibway women. They were of exquisite texture and worthy patterns, a happy exemplification of the aptitude of the sex for needlecraft.

It is an unfortunate fact that American women of means seldom apply their thought to the deliberate attempt to develop industries in which the poorer of their sex may engage. There is no lack of generosity in the endowing of colleges, the building of hospitals, of libraries and art schools, but there is a failure to take cognizance of the dangers of enforced idleness among women of scant means, and of the menace such idleness, especially among the very poor and often charity-fed, may become to family and community. An eloquent writer in the Revue des Deux Mondes, pleading for a revival of certain hand-needlecrafts in France, describes the lack of interesting occupation among women as being inevitably “ the first station along the road to alcoholism,” and, therefore, above all things to be provided against.

It is a question whether the universal impulse toward club organization does not depreciate in the minds of women the value to the individual and to the nation of encouraging domestic industries. Civil rights, politics, suffrage, large philanthropies, and mental culture engage their thought, but handcrafts and industries are passed by ; yet almost every problem that affects workingwomen depends for its solving on the intervention of their moneyed sisters. Socially, these emulate the fashions and manners of the women of Europe, duplicating or excelling in lavishness the extravagances that there obtain ; but they fail to imitate the protecting chatelaine whose part it is to support with her patronage the workers in the cottages about her home. We are making an effort to evolve a nation of book-readers, of the intellectually cultivated, of machine manipulators, and are forgetting the part the fingers must play in the highest industrial development. As with boys and men, there are numbers of girls and women to whom “ reading, writing, and ciphering ” do not appeal, and for whom a needle and thimble have far more of interest than have the schoolbooks they are obliged to con. Ever since the banishment of the spinning wheel a false estimate of handwork as such has become more and more general even by those who must live by means of it. The children of the poor, detecting the general absence of esteem for handicrafts, learn early to resent the idea of training for the trades. Especially is this the case with girls. John D. Philbrick, who in 1871 would have introduced ornamental needlework as a branch of industrial training in certain schools, found his idea denounced by two women reformers whom he consulted. These declared the needle “ to be a symbol and badge of slavery and degradation, and as such unworthy of a place in school education.” With this idea to-day as prevalent as it was three decades ago, it is not to be wondered at that native needlework is crude and coarse, and that our girls disdain to acquire a better knowledge of it.

Up to the present our art schools chiefly direct their attention to the teaching of drawing, painting, designing for woven or printed stuffs, wall coverings, book covers, etc. Such schools spawn half-castes in the laboring field, who are neither artists nor artisans, whose feeble output belittles art, yet who have learned to underrate good artisanship. Few of the products fostered in our art schools represent anything having permanent commercial or industrial value except to the fittest who occasionally survives. On the other hand, lace-making, though as yet neglected in this country, is the one industrial art product for which there is an unremitting demand. Lace among dress garnitures is as the diamond among precious stones. Our enormous and constantly increasing annual purchase is incontrovertible evidence of its favor. Nor has the demand varied appreciably in five hundred years, although the scene of lace manufacture has changed from the Orient to Spain, from Spain to Italy, thence to what is now Flemish France, and to England and Ireland.

The fabrication of lace may be entered upon by children, as recreation, as an accomplishment for young women, or fondly be retained by the weak fingers of old age with equal success. It is distinctly feminine in character, devoid of drudgery ; in short, a clean and gentle home occupation. Its intricacies appeal alike to the cultivated and to the uneducated mind, constantly stimulating the fancy and awakening the delicate perceptions of those engaged in making it. It was a simple Venetian girl who evolved the matchless patterns that made her city forever famous, and caused kings and cardinals to exchange fortunes for the possession of the marvelous laces produced there.

In whatsoever country lace manufacture has flourished it has been by means of the studied support of the wealthy. France’s latter-day prosperity is founded on a fabric of lace. Yet because of the extravagance of the dandies in the time of Louis XIV., the country was in desperate financial straits. For a hundred years or more its treasuries had poured gold into Italy for the laces that were a passion with every follower of the Medicis and their descendants. The stream was only dammed when Colbert established schools of lace-making at home, and king and court set the fashion of wearing only the home product.

To pass quickly along to recent lace history, — Comtessa Marcello, friend and attendant of Queen Adelaide, of Italy, with her support organized a society of Venetian noblewomen, who pledged themselves to patronize the work of the schools which they proposed to found at Burano. The object was not merely to revive a lost and romantic art which at one period had made Italy famous, but also to provide an occupation for idle countrywomen who suffered for lack of employment. In Austria, at the same period (1870), serious strikes among the workingmen threatened disaster all over the empire. Poverty, discontent, and other evils pressed one another until family peace and national safety were jeopardized. At this juncture, Austrian women, led by the Empress in person, founded lace-making schools in several cities, and provided free instruction to representatives from many towns. These, in time, returned to their homes and instructed others. The court undertook to set its own fashions, and agreed to wear only Austrian-made lace. The Chamber of Commerce at Prague took action to support the enterprise. The effect was instantaneous. Industry tranquillized the country. To-day Austria is a large producer of hand-made lace, and the leaders of fashion make it a point of honor to wear only lace of home manufacture.

Practically the same scenes were enacted in Sweden early in the seventies. The attention of Swedish women of the wealthier classes was directed to the needs of their countrywomen, and, headed by the crown princess, a society opened the way for lace-making schools and the sales of their products. England makes much of the lace manufactured by her women. Queen Victoria has been interested in the reëstablishment of the industry at Honiton, and has helped, by truly regal purchases, the lace-makers of Youghal, Limerick, Donegal, Carrick, and other Irish towns. During the recent passage of the Queen through Ireland she received in person a number of these needlewomen and complimented them upon their handiwork. At present, Ireland is so actively engaged in producing lace that it is proposed to hold a great fair in New York in the near future with the definite purpose in view of diverting the attention of generous American purchasers to the fine productions of its principal towns. This enterprise, headed by Lady Aberdeen, Lady Cadogan, and others, is, by all means, laudable ; but where are their counterparts among women of corresponding position in America ? For the greater part they are busy in establishing colleges, founding hospitals, debating in clubrooms ; or, when irresistibly dominated by the feminine in them, competing abroad for the purchase of fine wearing apparel.

Thus, in all of the foremost countries, except the United States, the manufacture of this luxury is encouraged as a source of social good, and the ambition of the needlewomen engaged in it is stimulated by the approbation and avowed patronage of the rich. American women display sharp acumen in selecting the best examples of handiwork abroad, paying high prices to middlemen, and, added to this, the regular duties, or tariff; but the advisability, not to say necessity, of transplanting this home industry to this side of the water and here protecting it seems not to have occurred to them. Nevertheless, no nation needs more to provide an interesting and quieting occupation for its working women than does this one. Not all native-born women may become school-teachers, artists, bookkeepers, stenographers, dressmakers, milliners, etc.; neither may the less well-equipped physically and mentally labor in mills, factories, or behind the counter. A trade that shall represent a more than passing value sooner or later must be transplanted or invented to meet the wants of workers not included in the classes above named ; but besides these our cities and small communities are still crowding with foreign laborers, all expectant of a means of livelihood. These often take our very hospitality with suspicion and awkwardness because of their unacquaintance with our industrial avenues and habits. So long as such strangers continue to be received, the responsibility of providing them with work must be met.

The situation especially is to be deplored for the women of the poorer classes who emigrate to America : who, from lack of some real and recognized occupation, take to peddling, organ-grinding, begging, or worse. When, happily, the husband’s earnings are continuous, and sufficient to supply his family with bread, the wife still finds much unemployed time upon her hands in which to squat at her tenement-house door, and little by little to acquire habits of idleness that are distinctly hurtful to herself and to the young that are sure to be about her. It is not enough to provide such newcomers with hospitals, asylums, homes, — nor to invite all to a common education through books. Particularization is necessary. A movement among wide-minded women is imperative that shall comprehend, protect, stimulate, and support with their patronage the skilled needlewomen in the home. These exist, and everywhere.

The condition of Hebrew communities would be improved by substituting the clean craft of lace-making for the handling of cheap woolen and cotton goods in large quantities, a necessity in the manufacture of clothing, which calling is followed mostly by these workers. The success of the Jewish race as lacemakers is proverbial. Their exile from Spain in 1495 was the deathblow to the industry in that country. Scattered through the United States in every direction are colonies of Italians, known only to the public at large when heard of in the turmoil of strikes and resistance to the law. Their earnings are absurdly small. They are seen at their worst because of their strange surroundings and the makeshift occupations to which they, by circumstances, are compelled. Instructed in the art of lace-making, numbers of the unemployed women of such families might find an avocation at once natural and friendly to them.

In New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other large cities are to be found comparatively large neighborhoods (and these constantly augmenting) occupied by Syrians, the women of which display an Eastern fondness for needlework; but these, for lack of instruction in the lace-making methods of Europe, and with no encouragement here to invent new stitches, content themselves with the making of a kind of knotted thread lace, delicate and filmy, but not sufficiently artistic in workmanship to give it real rank among true laces. The introduction of lace-making as an industry in Cuba, and the establishment of lace classes among the trade schools that sooner or later there must be introduced, the instruction of the finer-fingered colored women of the South, would be steps directly conducive to domesticity.

Here is a distinct and untrodden field for the women who are now devoting themselves indeterminately to the sotermed amelioration of the condition of their sex, especially the poor among them. Once the enterprise is thoughtfully entered upon it is not to be conjectured that Congress will refuse admission to the qualified teachers whom it would be necessary to attract to America for a proper establishment of the industry. Let a coterie of earnest, moneyed women be formed in each large city, under pledge to support the industry by purchasing and wearing the lace locally produced, and another five years would see this gentlest of all strictly feminine occupations in a thriving condition.

Ada Sterling.