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The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution. By Marla R. Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2006.

In The Needle's Eye Marla R. Miller has rescued for a twenty-first century audience New England needlework and needleworkers in the generations before, during, and after the American Revolution. Her account offers a broad perspective, viewing needlework as [End Page 144] both paid and unpaid work, exploring both its economic and social dimensions in village life from roughly the mid-eighteenth century through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. She also brings to the topic a sensitivity to its material culture dimensions which is particularly valuable. Building upon extensive research in both archives and collections of surviving clothing, Miller also places her narrative within the broader interpretive framework of the industrial and market revolutions that transformed New England in the period. The result is a rich and thoughtful study that makes deft contributions to women's, labor, and family history, while also speaking to the regional economic and social development transforming New England in the Revolutionary era. In a final chapter, she moves beyond the temporal focus of the study and writes intelligently about changing perspectives on early-national needlework over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As material culture study, social history, and intellectual history, The Needle's Eye has much to say to American studies scholars today.

Miller's introduction sets the broader framework and introduces readers to the Connecticut Valley, the primary geographical focus for the study. The carefully organized study moves through three sections: a first part focusing on clothing production and consumption; a second exploring the lives of six needlewomen whose experiences and surviving sources illuminate different aspects of the development of the needletrades in and around the town of Hadley, Massachusetts; and a final one that broadens the perspective, placing the transformation of the needletrades in this period within the broader economic transformation of New England and within changing perceptions of needlewomen and their craft in subsequent years.

This is a nuanced and complex work that contributes new knowledge on many levels. The way in which cooperative needlework among the rural gentry helped to constitute a female elite in the Connecticut Valley is a striking and original finding. Miller shows how quilting among the wealthy depended upon the contributions of their servants and slaves and played an important role in the visiting and socializing that marked elite women as a cut above their neighbors. Miller's analysis of needlework employment distinguishes among three groups: tailoresses who did plain work in the homes of their customers, skilled dressmakers who fit, cut, and stitched women's gowns, and women who worked on men's clothing, competing more directly with male tailors. Two broader points emerge over the course of the case studies. First, that needleworkers rarely kept accounts of their own but that considerable evidence of their work can be teased out of the account books of their fathers and husbands. Second, the study of needleworkers reminds us that women could be artisans, but that they did so on terms that were quite different from those of men. The clear implication is that overly male-centered criteria have defined artisan work and culture in ways that have blinded historians to female participation in artisan crafts. Marla Miller makes a real contribution by viewing artisan work through a gendered lens, reminding all in the historical trade of the value of this new perspective.

Thomas Dublin
State University of New York at Binghamton