Don’t Put Up My Thread and Needle

July 8, 2002

Don’t put up my Thread and Needle —
I’ll begin to Sew
When the Birds begin to whistle —
Better Stitches — so —

These were bent — my sight got crooked —
When my mind — is plain
I’ll do seams — a Queen’s endeavor
Would not blush to own —

Hems — too fine for Lady’s tracing
To the sightless Knot —
Tucks — of dainty interspersion
Like a dotted Dot —

Leave my Needle in the furrow —
Where I put it down —
I can make the zigzag stitches
Straight — when I am strong —

Till then — dreaming I am sewing
Fetch the seam I missed —
Closer — so I — at my sleeping —
Still surmise I stitch — 
                              — Emily Dickinson

I read Emily Dickinson the way I read the Bible — daily, devotionally, seeking guidance. I know both canons about equally well, and I can, if need be, turn to certain passages in either for inspiration regarding loss, loneliness, or love.This poem began itching at me in April. I heard Jorie Graham read it on the steps of a library at Harvard in 1999. Her voice, the very poignant way she let that last line trail off, have never left my memory.

It’s a poem about loss, about the loss of a skill or an endeavor the speaker once held quite dear and was quite good at. Evidently the speaker’s skill has been compromised, but she looks forward to the day when she will be able to take up the activity again. She’ll sew “better stitches” soon. “These were bent – my sight got crooked –” A little bit of word play there. Emily Dickinson had some trouble with her eyes, and a visit to a specialist in Boston was one of the few trips she took ooutside her home after she had withdrawn from society. Here she seems to be saying that she was unaware that her seams were not straight because she couldn’t see straight. When she is well again she will take up the task again, and no longer make mistakes. Until then, she fantasizes about that day.

Women in Dickinson’s time sewed for utility as well as for pleasure. I have only ever taken up thread and needle because it amuses me. At one time I made nearly all the clothes I wore (using a state-of-the-art computerized sewing machine, not hand needles), as well as bed linens and draperies and other household decorations. I also indulged in cross-stitch. And then Lynn was born, and I put sewing aside mostly because of all the dangerous small objects the craft uses. I took it up again when she was a little older, but then I put up my thread and needle once more in 1992 when I went back to school. Last year, longing for the joy that stitching used to give me, I got the stuff out again, only to discover that my astigmatism and presbyopia have advanced to such a stage where fine work like this is difficult and a strain on my eyes, and the beginnings of arthritis in my hands complicates the issue further.

I read this poem dozens of times, pondering what to do with my sewing equipment and the supplies and the several cross-stitch projects that have languished for ten years. I know that in practical terms, even without the physical compromises, I am more committed to writing than to sewing. And yet, dreaming, I still surmise I stitch. If I am not to sew again, then I really should divest myself of all my hoarded supplies and expensive hardware, freeing up both space and funds for other purposes.

Last week I began reading The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, a novel by Ann Packer. It tells the story of a young woman whose fiancé suffers a paralyzing diving accident just as she is contemplating ending the relationship. Sewing provides a leitmotif that runs through the pages. Carrie, the central character, turns to her sewing to distract herself, to channel the emotional energy that the accident and its aftermath create. Packer shows her planning projects, shopping for supplies, doggedly following the steps in construction so that there is at least one thing in her life that she can control.

On Saturday I determined to complete one sewing project, as a sort of trial to see if this activity was worth taking up again. I have two pairs of pants that fall just above my ankle bone, too short really but too long for this summer’s popular capri look. I knew that all they needed was to be measured, have about six inches lopped off each leg, and the hem turned and secured with top stitching. It took all afternoon for me to gather my equipment, set up the machine and a strong light, find the instruction manuals and do some practice stitching on scrap material.

Like many activities one has once been proficient at, the awkwardness began to disappear and I found that I remembered more than I had forgotten. By evening both pairs of pants were shortened, pressed, and ready to wear, and I’d measured my bed for a new dust skirt that will actually fit.

I don’t see myself going back to serious dressmaking again. The kinds of clothes I wear now are more economical to buy than to create. But I have reconnected with an old friend, and found that we are still good together.