Column: Legacy of fabric, fiber and thread

  • Macon Telegraph illustration -- Ric Thornton Macon Telegraph illustration — Ric Thornton

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/26/2021 10:30:06 PM
Modified: 6/26/2021 10:30:06 PM

I come from a family of Midwestern women wedded to fabric, fiber and thread. Two grandmothers, a favorite aunt and my mother became early role models for me. They stitched colorful and complicated clothing on a sewing machine, knitted afghans and sweaters for our use and for gifts, cross-stitched and needlepointed attractive covers for chairs and footstools, and designed traditional quilts that gave a second life to saved up remnants of old cloth. A lot of work and a good deal of pleasure!

Being influenced by them over the years, I also learned to sew, knit, embroider, needlepoint and quilt, skills I continue in my present life. But they practiced additional handicrafts I’ve never attempted: braiding rugs out of old wool trousers, tatting fancy edging for pillowcases or bathroom towels and crocheting large table cloths for admiration at family dinners. I do treasure a remaining braided rug I have from one of my grandmothers; though I was young when she cut the woolen strips, planned the design and began braiding, her delight as she sat with her project is a satisfying memory. As for the rest, I have always been incredulous at anyone’s wish to edge store-bought pillowcases or crochet a tablecloth.

My efforts with fabric, yarn and thread have probably given me as much joy and fulfillment as it gave to my female predecessors. Though it’s hard to imagine from a 21st century perspective, I was given a portable Singer sewing machine as a college graduation gift. It went with me to New York for my early years of work and graduate school and remained a valued possession until I replaced it with a fancier version more adept at quilting. Being able to sew clothing for my children during years on a limited budget was an advantage. And making neckties back then for my clergy-husband was an accomplishment; a bright green, blue and yellow one he once wore for Easter festivities became known in the parish as a “resurrection tie.”

There was a major difference, however, between my Midwestern forebears and me in the intensity of dedication we each gave to our crafts. None of those women continued employment after they married and had children; maintaining their homes and finding agreeable ways of expressing themselves that included their handiwork became their occupations. For me as a woman with a long career in teaching and writing, my commitment to working with fabric and thread was haphazard. These became a diversion for relaxing or a summer project during school vacation.

But fortunately, my involvement with these tasks has changed again as I have refocused my life in retirement. Though I haven’t sewn an item of clothing for decades, I love the time I now spend on knitting and quilting. I always have an easy knitting project underway, often for long car rides or to aid concentration during meetings or discussions. I was prompted last summer to make crib-sized quilts for two nieces expecting babies in the fall.

This winter, my neighbors at the nearby Shelburne Museum offered a hand-quilting class through Zoom. It turned into a delightful Tuesday afternoon activity for a group of 12 women from around the area. Each session, we shared our unique versions of the pattern we had been assigned to use, talked about our strategies and difficulties, and offered one another broader information about quilting in general. As important, we chattered, as have quilters through the ages.

That class centered on making square drink coasters using of a variety of designs provided by the museum, a pursuit that has been easy to continue. I’ve also been motivated by a post-pandemic lunch at the home of an old friend, where the table setting featured her newly made quilted placemats. I took measurements before I left and have already purchased the material.

Recently I was reminded in a new way of this family legacy of fabric, fiber and thread. It happened when I visited my Vermont daughter for an overnight stay. There on the bed, as I walked into her airy guest room on a cool afternoon, lay an old wool afghan from my childhood. Pulling it up around me later that night was not only cozy but also comforting, as it linked the grandmother who made it, my daughter and me through its multicolored warmth. That afghan is but one of the vibrant connections I have between a past I treasure and a future still unfolding.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at

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