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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Nursery Needlework

by Frances Epps.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 228-232


A generation or two back, needle work was taught as an important "branch" of education, for it was considered a mark of breeding that a girl should be skilful and dainty in the use of her needle. The sight, and odour, of the lavender-scented specimens we possess of the fine needlework and embroidery of the time, lying perhaps in our grandmother's delicately kept workbox, call up a vision of leisured, unsparing industry, that seems very far removed from the spirit of our own busy age, when a general feeling obtains that there is neither time nor necessity for needlework, now that lives are so full of varied occupation and interests, from schooldays onwards, and sewing-machines, ready-made garments, and presents are so good and so cheap. Hence little or no provision being made for instruction in the art, we hear constantly of children "hating" needlework, of girls, book-learned and accomplished in many ways, growing up to motherhood with but small idea of mending or making, to the great hindrance of economical management; ignorant of the real rest to tired nerves and brain to be found in the sewing of a long seam, or in the regular click of the knitting needles; missing too the real pleasure to be found in the manufacture of the useful little presents that come so gracefully and acceptably to those we love, as the result of personal effort.

Perhaps the present widespread distaste to needlework may be partly a sort of reaction from the opinion held by many before the days of higher education for women, that the chief aim and object in life for a girl on leaving school, was to sit at home and do fancy work, and that it was an act of extravagance to "put out" any sort of family needlework that could be done at home. Happily the wider, fuller education now given to girls tends to prevent the possibility of their settling down to such a poor narrow life, and public opinion no longer requires mothers [229] to toil unceasingly at their children's clothes, but rather, it urges upon them the duty of being employers of labour, as far as means will allow; and by giving work to those who so anxiously seek it, the house-mother secures time for the duties and responsibilities that are peculiarly her own.

While endeavoring to give needlework its due place, it is a fact that must be faced, that when girls are hard at work at their books the greater part of the day, preparing for one examination after another, needlework as a subject to be taught cannot appear on the school time-table at all, and also that in the too few leisure hours of each day, it is not, as a rule, a suitable employment for eyes and hands already perhaps overstrained and cramped; dancing, gymnastics, walking, or any interesting and amusing games, naturally suggest themselves as more fitting recreation. But there are Saturdays and long holidays, and if a taste and liking for the pleasures of the needle, together with a fair amount of proficiency in its use, has been fostered before the arduous work of the modern schoolgirl begins, we may reasonably count upon some of the holiday hours for the practice that is so necessary for progress.

It is clear, then, that the taste and proficiency required must be attained in the nursery, and not without considerable expenditure of time and thought--patience, too, perhaps--on the part of the mother, or whoever she deputes to take her place. For the casual tacking of long hem or seam, or interminable patchwork, will not tend to foster a liking for needlework; it seems to suggest weary uninteresting hours, pricked and tired little fingers--perhaps, alas! red eyes. As the primary object in view--above and beyond the never ceasing educational training which is the beginning and end of all that happens in the nursery--is to create an interest, an enthusiasm for the needle, the subject must be made as pleasant as possible, and its difficulties attacked one by one in the most gradual manner.

In the first place, the little one should be started with a really good workbox, one that it will be a pride and joy to keep in order, with the tiny silver thimble, blunt-pointed scissors, bodkin, tape-measure, needlebook, always in their place ready for use. The glow of satisfaction with which the small owner will place her treasure on the low deal table so comfortable for the nursery working-party, drawing up her little chair to join the elder children already seated with their boxes in front of them, makes [230] a very good frame of mind in which to attack difficulty number one--how to hold the needle in the unaccustomed little fingers, and to put it in, and bring it out, at the particular spots desired. To help to teach this, a square of coarse canvas, not too large, and neatly bound with ribbon, should be prepared, with a blunt wool needle and a bundle of pretty wools. "This is an empty garden," says the mother, "shall we put shrubs round the edge?" The child chooses some greens, and the mother shows her how to "run."One stitch at a time, in at one hole, out at the next, two or three rows all round the edge; next comes a line of scarlet for geraniums, of blue for lobelias, and so on as fancy and experience dictate, till only a small space is left in the centre, which may be filled by a cottage "run" in browns over mother's pencil lines, and the effort is complete; of no particular after use, perhaps, except to be put away amongst treasures, but it will have served its purpose if it has taught the little worker what she needed to learn, and has given her courage to turn eagerly to the carefully pricked felt work that is awaiting her. The little thimble may now be fitted on, and soon, to the first idea of running or darning will be added the first idea of stitching. The mother will carefully finish off, line, and bind the mats and kettle-holders, and then the small workwoman will have the bliss of making a "real" present. This brings us to tender ground for what mother or aunt of girls does not possess a store of funny, shapeless, useless, but withal very precious little articles, veritable examples of "cobbling," and generally prepared "all by myself" as a great surprise for the recipient. It certainly is a step gained that the independent attempt has been made, but progress will be retarded if praise be not discriminating, and wise and gentle direction be not given, for edges must not go on being crooked, and work puckered, as a matter of course, indefinitely. Sometimes it is insisted upon that every stitch of a child's work, and the fixing too, perhaps, should be done entirely by herself; then often artistic grace and finish are lost, the whole standard of attainment is lowered, and the present is valueless. But if the mother does the parts really too difficult for the inexperienced little worker, it is easy for the child to point out her own share, and take only credit for that, and then seeing how necessary is the part she couldn't manage, there will be an incentive to perseverance and further effort in conquering the difficulties that stand in the way of perfection. [231]

Outline crewel stitch and chain stitch are easily learnt, and perhaps follow best on the felt work. At first, bold, simple patterns will be chosen, that a result may be soon apparent. "If you outline a flower on this piece of satin, I will make it up into a doll's bonnet for you." " Here is a piece of ribbon with a flower traced on it; when you have worked it I will put a little tassel at each end, and you will have a nice book-marker for father." It will be found an economical and satisfactory plan to buy undressed linen, Roman sheeting and serge, by the yard, and cut out tea-cloths, carving-cloths, d'oyleys, mats, cushions, book-covers, the size required, and then draw or transfer easy patterns or monograms that will not give more work than the child is likely to finish with pleasure, for it is fatal to the happy progress of nursery needlework to have to urge and worry unduly to get a piece of work done after the children are tired of it. Sometimes truly heroic efforts are made by them to finish a tedious piece of work, a joy to the mother as marking a victory won; but as a rule, the habit of perseverance is more likely to grow and flourish by the prompt and conscientious finishing of smaller undertakings. [Towards Christmas it will be found a helpful plan to keep a "finished" box in which the various little presents being prepared can be carefully put away as soon as done. " I have three presents in the finished box, how many have you?" It creates such an enthusiasm for making and finishing, that even the baby-boy will not be unrepresented, but proudly brings the "nose-bag" he has been making for his horse, after gravely smoothing it with a cold iron for some time, with the remark, "Quite finished now!"] The introduction to plain needlework and dressmaking can be very pleasantly effected by the help of the dolls; the motherly instinct so strong in little girls, of providing what is necessary for the doll-children, as well as motherly pride in seeing them well dressed, is a very attractive inducement to overcome the difficulties of hemming, sewing, felling, and the rest. "Dolly certainly needs a new pinafore; shall we make one for her together?" The piece of soft striped or checked zephyr which will give a guide as to where the stitches shall fall, is cut out and fitted. The shoulder seams and curved arm-holes are done by the doll's grandmother, and then with some prospect of a pretty finished garment in the near future, the little mother soon masters the mysteries of hemming, perhaps of over-sewing too, if a piece of suitable trimming be at hand. She will next willingly under-take [232] a "skirt," with promised help for yoke and sleeves, and a set of pocket-handkerchiefs for dolly, as a pocket is being put in for her. A golden opportunity for helping on the little one's work will be found in the quarterly " sorting time," that is the custom in many families, when the needlewoman, nurse, and mother sit down determinedly before the new garments required for the coming season, the lengthening and letting-out! It is such a happiness to little people to be associated in work with their elders, and to do things "just like mother," that much sewing-labor may be made light by sparing a little time from the serious work in hand to guide and help the beginners. When the mother is writing for her patterns, imagine the pleasure of measuring dolly and writing for one for her too; then of cutting out and arranging for machine; imagine too the absorbed interested faces, as the important little folks learn the use of the iron in turning hems, pressing seams, how to measure hems and tucks with tape or card, and how to sew on buttons and hooks.

The next step to dolls' dressmaking follows naturally and easily, the helping in the Dorcas work that is carried on in the household; warm list garments, simple frocks and pinafores will be found none too difficult, with a little oversight. Meanwhile as the power to work grows, the feeling of responsibility and independence grows too, and the children will be proud to sew in their own tuckers, mend their own stockings, and to give real useful help when a new set of sheets or towels are being hemstitched and marked, for instance, or when the needlewoman is in the house.

Besides all these habits of quick, attentive work--neatness, perseverance, thought for others, have been cultivated by the way, as well as taste for the beautiful and the suitable, also a feeling of family comradeship, all very necessary to the girl entering her teens, with increased bookwork and a wider circle. Although her leisure becomes scanty, she will not be likely to drop her needlework, because she really likes it, but she will seek and find opportunities both for practicing what she already knows and for learning more.