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  • The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution
  • Wendy Gamber
The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution. By Marla R. Miller (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.xiv plus 302 pp. $24.95).

This is a book that does justice to its subject. The Needle's Eye is a meticulous, nuanced account of the many varieties of needlework that engaged the energies of women in eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century rural New England. Indeed, it demonstrates that its author is as talented a practitioner of her craft (history) as the most skilled of her protagonists were of theirs. Marla R. Miller combines impressive expertise in material culture with smart reading of fragmentary documentary evidence to recover a vibrant social and economic world rendered largely invisible by nostalgia for an imagined colonial past.

Miller has three related goals. First, she seeks to dismantle the assumption-embodied in popular representations as prosaic as the self-sufficient goodwife and bizarre as Colonial Barbie-that eighteenth-century needlework was coterminous with homespun domesticity. Second, she wishes to show that rural communities, far from being bastions of homogeneity and equality, accommodated intricate social and occupational hierarchies. She is particularly interested in documenting the "complex power relationships ... among women who at first glance look very similar." (227) Third, Miller aims to expand definitions of artisanry-a term historians usually associate with urban masculinity-to incorporate rural women (and men) who learned their crafts, sometimes through formal apprenticeships, more often in "communities of practice."

In all of this, Miller succeeds admirably. Certainly, she explains, eighteenth-century housewifery included clothing production, especially in the case of "two-dimensional" garments such as short gowns, shifts, and skirts, whose fabrication entailed relatively little skill. Aprosperous housewife or one who preferred dairying to sewing might delegate even these tasks to a semi-skilled tailoress. Making men's coats and women's gowns, however, required the services of specialized craftspeople who knew how to cut and fit, including tailors (mostly men, but sometimes women like Catherine Phelps Parsons of Northampton), milliners, and gown makers. In a period in which clothing represented a considerable financial investment (so valuable that probate inventories typically enumerated individual garments and owners offered rewards for lost or stolen apparel), much of their work necessarily included alterations. Thus Elizabeth Phelps, a member of the Hadley, Massachusetts elite, engaged a mantua maker to "make [her] lutestring gown plumb," that is, to transform its full skirt into one more in keeping with the late eighteenth-century rage for neoclassical fashions. (77) [End Page 211]

Miller's finely textured analysis shows that women's relationship to needle-work varied according to class, race, skill, inclination, and marital status. Gown maker Rebecca Dickenson never married, and hence depended entirely on her earnings, finding compensation, both emotional and monetary, in her trade. A less careful scholar might have assumed that tailoress Tryphena Newton Cooke withdrew from gainful employment after her marriage, but Miller's painstaking detective work demonstrates otherwise. Cooke continued to pursue her trade to offset family debts and finance home improvements, combining sewing and inn keeping with housewifery and childcare. Like most rural New England artisans, Cooke and Dickenson kept no shops, another fact that might have encouraged historians in search of artisans to overlook them. In this they were not unusual; as Miller convincingly demonstrates both craftswomen and craftsmen worked out of their homes, sometimes adding an ell to accommodate the tools and materials of their trades. Both typically labored according to the rhythms of the agricultural calendar, resorting to blacksmithing, cabinetmaking, and needlework when the seasonal demands of planting, harvesting, and food preservation receded.

Even unremunerated needlework had meaning beyond the purely domestic, as Miller's brilliant revisionist interpretation of quilting demonstrates. Women of the eighteenth-century elite came together to quilt "whole cloth" petticoats made of expensive imported fabrics, not to piece together bed covers from home-spun scraps. Quilting symbolized social privilege and the maintenance of genteel family alliances rather than the communal solidarity and assiduous frugality associated with mythic "bees." And often it was the labor of enslaved women, who scrubbed and swept...


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pp. 211-213
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