I still have a pillow case my grandmother embroidered on her way to this country in 1914. It’s not very pretty, I’m afraid. In black thread, which I understand was cheaper, she stitched in old German lettering, “Gluctliche Reisse” (Prosperous Journey. The cloth is some kind of inexpensive linen; the sewing is crude. She was eighteen-years-old and traveling by herself. She’d left the only home she’d ever known to come thousands of miles by wagon, train and ship to a strange country. The food was bad; the accommodations left much to be desired. One of her companions on the ship lost a baby on the journey, and the body was buried at sea. All that makes her embroidered words somehow ironic and the pillow case a touching memento. But not art.
From my first memories of her, my grandmother embroidered, crocheted and knitted. One of my earliest memories is of her and the other “ladies” of the German Congregational Church quilting around what seemed to me to be the most enormous dining table in the world. It never occurred to me to think of her work as art when I was a child, and I still don’t think of it that way, even though I’ll always be grateful for the memories of the quilt I used to wrap myself in.
For half my life and for most of history, women’s handiwork was never considered art, even when it was startlingly lovely, exciting, revealing. Perhaps, there was something too practical about it; perhaps, it was just that it was done by women. Cabinet-making, a deeply practical craft pursued mostly by men, was often considered an art. At any rate, women were continually at it and most of what they made was to be worn, or to grace windows, beds, tables and chair arms. They spun, wove, tatted, knit and sewed while they conversed, sometimes even while they read, and in the 20th century, while they watched television, attended church and school meetings, in fact-for some-for most of their waking days. Only occasionally did the result decorate the wall in the form of a sampler or tapestry, something to be seen rather than used.
The women’s movement began to change all that. Quilts especially are recognized today as art in hundreds of small and large museums and galleries. At this point, most of the other domestic arts are still just that and no more-crafts done almost entirely by women, although more and more of the same women and some men are combining traditional domestic skills with painting, collage and God-knows-what to produce something new and exciting. And some of the traditional stuff, even when no one set out to make it art, is still so clearly just that. If it makes viewers catch their collective breath, how could it not be?
All of which is to say, that it never does to define art too strictly. It’s many things; it comes to us in many different ways; and who’s to say with what intent or what spirit?