Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

A Stitch in Time
The Needlework of Aging Women in Antebellum America

By Aimee E. Newell

A Stitch in Time
The Needlework of Aging Women in Antebellum America

By Aimee E. Newell

“A welcome contribution to available literature on American nineteenth-century needlework…Her careful review of existing anthropological, historical and needlework literature coupled with a thoughtful analyses of the existing quilts and samplers that formed the core of her study has shown that women’s needlework can help us to better understand the lives and times of the women who made them.”

Textile History

“I highly recommend this newly published look at a previously neglected aspect of sampler and stitching history… well-researched, with many full page color images of the stitched pieces and the women who created them.”

Swan Sampler Guild Gazette

“The book looks at a field of study that many would think has been well covered from a completely new angle, focusing on older makers rather than styles, fashion, or the education of girls.… [It] brings together anthropological, sociological, and psychological work with decorative arts and straight history.”

Diane L. Fagan Affleck, author of Just New from the Mills: Printed Cottons in America, Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

“This outstanding book is a major contribution to material-culture scholarship. The in-depth analysis of samplers, quilts, and textile arts created by aging women in antebellum America reveals how they used needlework as a key tool to visually express their deep feelings and values. Each chapter explores a theme and is full of personal details, beautiful illustrations, and rich evidence that supports the author’s findings. I believe today’s readers will find meaningful connections across time and space.”

Virginia Gunn, past editor of Uncoverings, the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group

Drawing from 167 examples of decorative needlework—primarily samplers and quilts from 114 collections across the United States—made by individual women aged forty years and over between 1820 and 1860, this exquisitely illustrated book explores how women experienced social and cultural change in antebellum America.

The book is filled with individual examples, stories, and over eighty fine color photographs that illuminate the role that samplers and needlework played in the culture of the time. For example, in October 1852, Amy Fiske (1785–1859) of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, stitched a sampler. But she was not a schoolgirl making a sampler to learn her letters. Instead, as she explained, “The above is what I have taken from my sampler that I wrought when I was nine years old. It was w[rough]t on fine cloth [and] it tattered to pieces. My age at this time is 66 years.”

Situated at the intersection of women’s history, material culture study, and the history of aging, this book brings together objects, diaries, letters, portraits, and prescriptive literature to consider how middle-class American women experienced the aging process. Chapters explore the physical and mental effects of “old age” on antebellum women and their needlework, technological developments related to needlework during the antebellum period and the tensions that arose from the increased mechanization of textile production, and how gift needlework functioned among friends and family members. Far from being solely decorative ornaments or functional household textiles, these samplers and quilts served their own ends. They offered aging women a means of coping, of sharing and of expressing themselves. These “threads of time” provide a valuable and revealing source for the lives of mature antebellum women.

Publication of this book was made possible in part through generous funding from the Coby Foundation, Ltd and from the Quilters Guild of Dallas, Helena Hibbs Endowment Fund.

Aimee E. Newell is director of collections at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington, Massachusetts.   More info →

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1
    The Physical Challenges of Needlework
  • Chapter 2
    Growing Old Gracefully
  • Chapter 3
    The Technological Reshaping of Antebellum Needlework
  • Chapter 4
    I Give and Bequeath This Quilt: Needlework as Property
  • Chapter 5
    Family Currency: The Gift Needlework of Aging Women
  • Chapter 6
    Biographical Needlework: Telling a Life Story
  • Chapter 7
    Threads of Life: Needlework as Memorial
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: Decorative Needlework Made by Women Forty or Over between 1820 and 1860
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Retail price: $29.95, T.
Release date: March 2014
83 illus. · 312 pages · 8 × 10 in.
Rights:  World

Release date: March 2014
83 illus. · 312 pages
Rights:  World

Additional Praise for A Stitch in Time

“Aimee Newell has produced an extraordinarily rich piece of scholarship that, for once, appropriately and thoughtfully plays on a ubiquitous proverbial phrase. Cutting across many boundaries, A Stitch In Time identifies a large body of needlework made by older women and contextualizes it within the disciplines of history, material culture and anthropology. Beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched, this important work enhances our understanding of the cultural value of needlework to the women who made it, to the families who preserved it, and to the scholars, collectors and stitchers who appreciate it today.”

Linda Eaton, Director of Collections & Senior Curator of Textiles, Winterthur Museum

“A combination of beautiful illustrations and historical insights related to fabric choices, machine stitching, fading eyesight, and family relationships; a great read for understanding aged women who are inspired to quilt.”

Kathleen Curtis Wilson, Irish People, Irish Linen

“[Newell] delivers a highly organized read with an approachable prose style. This work could be used as a first introduction to American domestic textile crafts, especially considering its copious, full-page, color illustrations of artifacts and portraits of their makers. Still, A Stitch in Time adds significantly to literature on the motivations and uses of needlework performed by older women. Newell makes a substantial contribution in expanding the history of a generation that holds much fascination for scholars of the early Republic, but is not often studied in its elder years.”

Art Libraries Society of North America

“By studying aging women and their sewing, Newell fills an important gap in the scholarship on samplers in which young girls and their works are typically studied and on quilts in which the stitched piece itself is usually the focus rather than the stitcher…. This valuable book offers important insights on aging antebellum needlewomen in America and should be of great interest to scholars in such diverse disciplines as museum studies, textile studies, anthropology, art history, cultural studies, literary studies, material culture studies, and rhetorical studies.”

Museum Anthropology Review

“Meticulously researched and thoughtful…. Newell crafts her narrative around the relationship between aging and fiber arts through scrupulously documented case studies that lend her effort compelling immediacy. Even as she rehearses established scholarship, Newell breaks new ground with her emphasis on needlework as an embodied practice deeply implicated in multiple contextual shifts ranging from physical aging to the introduction of new technologies and new forms of middle-class sociability. Summing up: Highly recommended.”


“Previous studies of samplers focused on schoolgirl work, but Newell wanted to know what women did when they were older…. Newell details individual lives fully so that the makers emerge as real people…. The scholarship is impeccable, and many of the details are compelling.”

Winterthur Portfolio

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