Saturday, November 21, 2009

Two Red Threads In An Unfinished Sampler

I'm the current custodian of an unfinished cross-stitch sampler. It’s faded and hard to photograph through conservation glass, so let me tell you its story.

Back in the early 1970’s, my great-aunt Ruth Matthews Wiggins gave the sampler to my parents. In 2005, they passed it on to me. The information passed along with this linen sampler says it was made about 1815. The maker’s name was Elizabeth Hodge.

Elizabeth used two different green threads, one of which is still pretty vivid, to work an outer border and designs that separate the major sections of the sampler.

The first two sections -- an alphabet (upper and lower case letters) and a poem – are worked in one shade of red. Part of the third section -- her name and dates – is worked in a different red. The last section says, ”Elizabeth Hodge was born September the 4 186 (we would read that 1806) and was married July the 6 1824.”

She would have been 9 years old when she began the sampler, and 18 when she married.

The sampler is about 18 inches square, and there’s a good 5 inches of blank space between the last stitched date and the bottom border. Maybe she meant to sample different embroidery stitches there, or fill the space with some design or motif. Maybe she intended to fill in the birth dates of her children, then had children and never found the time.

I know a lot of people who feel weighted down by projects begun but not completed. Maybe Elizabeth felt the same way. I don’t know. But I do know this: Even if my great-great-great grandmother had bought this sampler at a carriage-house sale, I would still treasure it. Even though it appears to be unfinished, to me it represents the process of learning.

Learning is a lifelong adventure. It doesn’t always fit exactly into the framework we expect, or the timetable we would choose. There's something to be learned from everything we make, and it’s not all related to design or technique. It may be about patience or perseverance or learning to accept our own imperfections. It may be about celebrating achievement instead of feeling guilty when our reach exceeds our grasp.

I know you know that, but sometimes we forget.

Take a look around in the corner of the world where you make stuff. If you find things you’ve been lamenting because they never got finished, ask yourself:

-- Is there more I want to learn from this?
-- Can I learn more from it, or is the lesson complete?
-- Is this a project or a sampler?
-- Can I be happy with it just the way it is -- at least for now?

If it’s weighing you down, give yourself permission to pass it along: Sell it at a garage sale, take it to a thrift shop, offer it to a friend. Or reclassify it in your mind from Unfinished Project to Material or Supplies, and use it for sampling some new product or technique. But please, think twice before you send it to a landfill.

I’m grateful to all the people between Elizabeth and me who made the choice to save this faded, unfinished artifact.

Two red threads represent a passion for learning that never fades. Now, that’s a legacy.

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