Textiles and Women’s History: Part One

Embroidery fragment on display at the Vance Birthplace.

For my first blog post related to historical content for the Vance Birthplace, I decided that I wanted to delve deeper into the history of textile work, especially needlework, in America. In researching this topic, I went a little overboard and found enough information for at least 10 separate posts; therefore, this is only the first post in a three-part series on the topic, so stay tuned for that!

Women (and men in many cultures) have been creating textiles since human beings decided that it was necessary to stay warm and clothe themselves. It is easy to pass textiles off as necessities that women had to create in order to survive, or as symbols of the domestic sphere in which many women have been forced for centuries to confine themselves to, and nothing more. 

Likewise, in historical fiction novels, we often read about women and girls who rebelled against such traditional “women’s work” and were far more interested in pursuing activities considered inappropriate for girls throughout history, like swordplay, sports, and politics. As a child and adolescent, I myself had always felt that when adults encouraged us girls to participate in activities such as sewing or knitting, they were only trying to reaffirm traditional gender roles that would hold us back in the future. 

However, textile work has long been a way for women to express their creativity when they were given no other outlet and even became a method for resistance against oppression. This craft allowed women to show their personalities, influence change, and tell their stories, even in a society that repeatedly tried to silence them. Textiles are not just the result of regular housework, but are also building blocks in the cultures and narratives of countless American women. 

As a women’s historian in the making, I feel that it is necessary for me to learn about and understand the work women did on a daily basis, and what it meant to them. The women who lived and worked on the Vance plantation had access to a loom and a spinning wheel. They would have been engaging in textile work on a regular basis while fulfilling their domestic responsibilities. It is important to understand how their experiences with these household chores connects them to the wider story of American women’s history. I hope you enjoy learning about this topic with me! 

Cherokee Women and Embroidery: 

The Reems Creek Valley was inhabited by the Cherokee for hundreds of years before white settlers like David Vance Sr. and his wife Priscilla Brank arrived to settle on the land. Cherokee women (and men in some cases), among countless other Native American women, had already been creating intricately embroidered clothing, blankets, sashes, belts, shoes, and other textiles long before European women arrived in the Americas and brought their own textile culture with them. 

Cherokee craftswomen worked with deerskin, wool, and other cloth-like materials, but they also used seed beads made from shells, pearls, and later glass, to create beautiful and meaningful embroidery patterns on many of their textiles. They made needles from animal bones, and were able to use plant fibers to create thread.

The patterns in Cherokee beadwork and textile art held specific tribal meanings for centuries, but much of the knowledge of those symbols and meanings have been lost to time and to discrimination and oppression against the Cherokee and other Native American nations over the years. Many of the personal stories and the artistic legacies of the women who made these textiles have been lost with them, but modern artists are trying to preserve their heritage and continue the tradition.

Beadwork embroidery, along with Cherokee traditional crafts such as finger weaving, were not only a means of creative expression but were important for cultural events and religious rituals. Below you can see an example of Cherokee finger weaving from the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. website, which I will also link here. Give the site a look to see more examples from some amazing artists!

Finger Weaving

These crafts were used as a means for Cherokee women to help support their families outside of the home as well. Many Cherokee traded textiles for needed supplies, and when the market economy in America became more prominent, they sold their wares for profit as well. Cherokee women, as the primary textile artists, were able to use their work for self expression, as a means of making money, in support of cultural institutions, and for the survival of their heritage in the face of European invasion. 

Learn more about the history of textile production in America next week as I explore how white women honed their craft in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

If you want to learn more about embroidery specifically, check out our upcoming workshop at the Vance Birthplace. Assistant Site Manager Lauren May will be holding a virtual class for beginners on sunflower embroidery, inspired by a textile artifact on site that has a sunflower embroidered on it. The workshop will be on July 11th from 1-3PM, and you can register through the Vance Birthplace Facebook page for this event! The cost per person is $20.00, and make sure you register in advance with enough time for Lauren to mail you the embroidery kit! 

Further Reading Links: 

Cherokee Heritage Center

Oconaluftee Indian Village, Cherokee NC

Books:

The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity by Gregory D. Smithers

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 by Theda Perdue

Art of the Cherokee: Prehistory to the Present by Susan C. Power

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