Friday, September 16, 2011

Attention to detail

I have been up to my elbows at times this week in ladies lingerie, which sounds odd. So I should add that I have no particular interest in lingerie and my interest in ladies in general is focused on their minds and hearts rather than on elements that lingerie of this vintage, all more than a century old, was designed to obscure.

But many museums, including Lucas County's, rest on mountains of fabric and thread manipulated, primarily by women, into underappreciated works of art --- quilts, woven coverlets, clothing, dresser scarves, doilies, antimacassars, pillow cases. And lingere, particularly petticoats and slips.

Only so much can be displayed, so what isn't displayed is stored. I've tackled the contents of museum bureau drawers where much has been put away over the course of the last 50 years, to iventory, assess condition, sort and in some cases repair. The eventual goal is to store these items in an archivally correct manner, then be able to actually find them if and when someone appears at the Lewis Building door and asks to see great-great-grandmother's hand-embroidered coverlet.

The highly talented needle of Ellen Hawkins pulled back together yesterday handmade lace inserts and the fabric of an elaborate baby dress and an equally elaborate half-slip --- both dating from the latter half of the 19th century and both belonging originally to one of Chariton's great ladies, Mae Glenn Gasser.

I didn't take any pictures, and wish this morning that I had. But the photo here shows two family items I have at home and like to look at --- the hand-made lace edging on a dresser scarf and part of a row of quilt blocks pieced from plain and printed scraps of cotton but never fully assembled.

I can understand the attention paid to items that would be displayed. The attention paid to items that wouldn't, like hand-made petticoats, boggles the mind. I wonder how many people out there these days could actually produce comparable items.

My favorite item so far is a heavily-emobroidered linen coverlet dated in thread by its creator, Sophia (Barnhart) Arnold, April 9, 1869. In order to make it, she first stitched together so perfectly the seam is almost invisible two lengths of white linen to make the coverlet wide enough to cover a bed. It was then entirely encircled and bordered on both ends with bold and beautiful silk embroidery.

Obviously used over the years, a hole developed. It was edged in embroidery and filled with a tatted insert to become a decorative element. Another hole developed near a hem. That patch, too, although far plainer,  is a work of art.

Museum personnel long dead had not treated this coverlet kindly. It had been folded and displayed at some point with one surface exposed for far too long, resulting in yellowing and some foxing. We assessed it and brave Judy Besco took it home and carefully hand-laundered and then stretched (not pressed) it --- for days. It is now pristine again and once a couple of small tears in its hems have been repaired should be good for another 150 years.

Women, of course, were not alone in this attention to detail. Also yesterday, while preparing an explainer card, I unfolded and examined a fine and pliable hand-tooled leather wallet still securied by its original strap in such good condition it could have been purchased a few weeks ago. It would have been hand-made by a leather craftsman, most likely male since leather work was considered a masculine trade.

It's original owner, Harrison M. Bussell, has written in a flowing hand on one of the interior panels that he purchased his "pocket book" for 62 and a half cents from a store (I've forgotten which) in Franklin County, Indiana, on December 20, 1839.

I've been looking around here to see if I have anything made recently that is likely to survive in such good condition, or that deserves to survive, for 170 years. Probably not.

It would be possible to preach a brief sermon here on the detailed nature of creation, and how careless we  are with it, as well as with the details of our own lives and work. But I'll pass on that --- for this morning at least.

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