Just about everyone at Camp Alleghany for Girls knows that I do needlework. They’ve seen me for several years around camp crocheting and doing needlepoint, and recently saw me doing embroidery as I worked on a baby quilt for our newest grandchild.
Several summers ago, I taught much of the staff and many campers how to crochet a simple scarf. And more recently I taught a few girls to needlepoint by making simple book marks. It’s wonderful to work with the campers and to find more ways to integrate textiles/sewing/needlework into the camp experience.
What most don’t know is how and why I got interested in both hand and machine sewing and needlework.
Thank You Grandmomma
My mother’s mother lived with us for most of my life. Grandmomma, as we called her, was a product of her upbringing, as we all are, and having been born in 1900 she lived by a strict set of rules. One of the first was that proper young ladies were taught to sew.
Girls of Grandmomma’s generation were taught how to make or mend items of clothing, and to embellish all kinds of things with delicate embroidery. Also, to make items of a practical nature, such as blankets and scarves. The only kind of handwork she never learned was knitting.
And I got the benefit of this. So beginning when I was about nine or ten, she began to teach me to crochet, since I was to be a proper young lady.
But, I was terrible at crocheting.
My stitches were far too tight so I didn’t make anything normal looking from those first efforts. Later she tried to teach me how to make a granny square, and my first one turned out round! My mother kept that “square” and it was a source of laughter for the whole family for a long time.
As I got older, my crochet skills improved. Both my mother and grandmother encouraged me to practice and as a result I figured out how to both crochet more loosely, and to make actual square squares.
Grandmomma’s lessons in embroidery were more successful. I also found it easier to do and embroidered pillow cases and dish towels. Of course, I got better with practice. Grandmomma always promised she would teach me how to tat lace (a very difficult skill to learn by just reading directions) but her eyesight dimmed significantly as she aged, so she never got to teach me.
Branching Out and Passing it On
In 8th grade Home Economics class we learned to use the sewing machine. This began my interest in making clothes.
Grandmomma was there, too, when I needed help with something I didn’t understand or didn’t do very well. I would ask her what I should do, and she would tell me to go back over the pattern directions and find where I went wrong. But like my other textile adventures, I wasn’t perfect in the beginning. I sewed the arm holes closed on the first dress I made. No way to put the sleeves in! Yet another source of family humor.
I concentrated on both embroidery and crocheting and even taught myself crewel embroidery, which uses wool yarn instead of embroidery floss (which the campers call “string” and use to make friendship bracelets.)
Then, during the summer of 1979, and pregnant with Elizabeth, I was put on bedrest for six weeks. For the month of July and part of August, I couldn’t leave my house and had to sit with my feet propped up 95% of the day. After about 3 hours, I was so bored I couldn’t stand it. My mother and dad came to visit to help me get organized to stay home and Momma took me to get my first needlepoint kit and brought me an easy Christmas ornament of a dog that looked like our little dog. But my mother-in-law (Franny, for those Alleghany alums who remember her!) offered an excellent piece of advice, too. She said to think of the stitching as “in and out of the windows.” I not only finished the ornament, but I got Sam to go buy me a pillow kit and I gave the finished product to my mother-in-law for Christmas that year. Elizabeth has it now.
I’ve made baby blankets for nearly all of my friends’ children and for some of their grandchildren. I’ve also made blankets and scarves for my own children and grandchildren. I did a piece of needlepoint for each of my children. Each one chose something special. I also did Afghan blankets in their school colors and camp colors.
I made needlepoint stockings for Elizabeth’s three boys and one for Patrick’s daughter. Louise also does needlepoint, so she’s made Christmas stockings for her own children already — didn’t want anyone to think I left her kids out. Elizabeth remarked that it seems Ellis’ stocking shows he’s the “favorite” grandchild because it is inordinately larger than the rest. But honestly, something went wrong and I accidentally made his in a different size than the other grandkids. So obviously family humor around needlework is sticking around, even into my golden years!
One thing I have done for all the grandchildren is a needlepointed initial of their first names, with an animal that also has that initial (for example, Mason is an M with a mallard).
Bonnie Blankets at Camp
And everyone at camp knows about “Bonnie Blankets.” I’ve made them to be used as prizes and as special gifts. I even made one for our new Program Director Casey Tucker, as a welcome to camp gift when he joined us last year.
But I think the most rewarding work began after my mother passed away.
My sisters insisted I take home the four Rubbermaid tubs of Momma’s leftover yarn. What was I going to do with all that yarn? Well, first I gave a bunch to the Arts & Crafts Department at camp.
But I also wanted to do something with her yarn that would be meaningful and would honor my mother. So I decided I would make blankets for the homeless.
I put the colors together in “organized random patterns.” The blankets are colorful and warm. I think my mother would be proud of them, and maybe a little proud of me for using her yarn in this way. I’ve used up nearly all of her yarn now in these blankets, but have plenty of left over skeins from my own projects to continue making blankets. I try to do two or three each winter. It’s my hope that this small gesture will bring a little light and hope as well as warmth into someone’s life.
In amongst all that yarn of my mother’s I also found some baby pastels and two granny squares that she had begun for someone. That particular yarn is not made anymore, but I found some white yarn that is almost exactly the same weight as Momma’s. I decided I would make at least one tiny, carseat-sized blanket using some portion of her pastels (only a very little bit is left) with my white for all of her great-grandchildren. I included this note with each of them so her great-grandkids/my grandkids/great nieces/nephews can retain documentation of our family history in needlework:
The colored yarn in this blanket was found among the many skeins of yarn that were
my mother’s. It is no longer being produced. I know she would have made blankets. With this in mind, I decided to use her yarn, adding my own white, to make small blankets for her great-grandchildren in her place and through these blankets send her love to the next generation.
I find all the needlework I do very relaxing. I love seeing the patterns develop, the colors coming together and a kind of peace settles on me. It’s a nice feeling.
Staying In Stitches
Sadly my own eyesight prevents me from using my sewing machine anymore, which allows me to consider learning Japanese Bunka, which is silk, punch embroidery. The pieces are just beautiful, but I understand it is a rather difficult skill to learn.
I do plan to teach some crocheting this summer to any counselor who wants to learn, and hopefully during one Arts & Crafts class. This means another group will be able to make their own “Bonnie blankets” and scarves for gifts and prizes at camps…and who knows what else?
And I think maybe my grandmother and mother would be pleased!
— Bonnie Dawson, Director of Special Events, Camp Alleghany for Girls