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Reflections of a North Country Girl At Heart - The Crafts

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EDITOR’S NOTE:The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

The Crafts

Rainbow loom bracelets— been there, done that.

Just not with rubber bands.

I’m not sure we even called our handwork “crafts.”For my grandmother it was a way of life. Some of my earliest memories include standing beside her in the small back bedroom while I watched her sew on her treadle Singer sewing machine in front of a window that let in much needed light and an occasional diversion. The sound of jackhammers in the street had nothing on the sound that the machine made as she push and pulled fabric, always with incredible speed and the right tension, and turned it into many of the necessities of life—like men’s underwear and aprons. Let me explain. When collars wore out on Grandpa’s shirts, she would “turn the collar.”That meant detaching the shirt collar, flipping it over, and re-sewing it to the shirt with the worn edges now on the inside. When those shirts wore out, they received new life once again—as Grandpa’s boxer shorts and her full aprons. All parts of the shirt—placket, pocket and sleeve — reappeared in these new forms—fodder for her ironing board. When those wore out, they reappeared as Grandpa’s shaving rags and as strips of cotton to seal the edges of her famous apple pies. I often wondered why her finger never slipped and was fed through the machine along with the fabric of her current project. She assured me that it often did.

Those fingers were magic. Grandma also produced the finest crocheted lace and embroidery. As children, we never slept on a pillow case that did not feature some character such as the cow jumping over the moon, edged with inches of color coordinated crocheted edges. One of Grandma’s signature products was handkerchiefs and matching earring sets, crocheted from the finest thread. Every elementary school teacher my sister and I ever had received these handkerchiefs with four inches of lace and tiny screw back earrings, embellished with crochet shaped like petals on a flower, all held in place by clear nail polish. Although Grandma was a knitter as well, the true artist in our family in that category was my mother.

As a young adult during the 1940s, she knit endless pairs of argyle socks, on three needles, with many bobbins of colored yarn waiting for their turn in the pattern. Throughout our school days, we had the most elaborate ski sweaters in town, knit in the true Norwegian style, complete with snowflakes, reindeer and multiple Nordic patterns. Although we all grew up knowing how to knit (I actually made a few sweaters—one for a boyfriend that, of course, did not fit), it was my sister who inherited the talent to make sweaters with elaborate designs.

Aside from our “accomplished” needle work, the crafts of our youth were as varied as cutting paper strips, gluing them together with a mixture of flour and water used as paste, and hanging the garlands on the Christmas tree—to weaving endless potholders on a small red loom; burning designs on wood with a heated chisel shaped pen; painting by numbers; making Valentines from paper doilies (which always ripped when pulling them apart); decoupaging; creating boondoggle lanyards and friendship bracelets; building model ships and airplanes (balsa wood airplanes were particularly easy); and, much later—in the age of Aquarius—attempting macramé and tie dye.

A craft that hit the scene in high school was particularly innovative. We took glass marbles, heated them in the oven, and then dropped them into ice water, causing them to crack. We then mounted them in metal findings and wore them as assorted pieces of jewelry. I remember these because I actually have a picture of me as a sophomore sporting this classy accessory.

We also have to remember that our interest in crafts might have been connected to the required vocational education (shop) classes boys were required to take in junior high and the corresponding home economics classes required of the girls. Boys primarily focused on woodworking, while the girls focused on cooking and sewing. That meant that in seventh grade we had to make an apron and in eighth grade—a skirt—which we actually had to wear. I think Mother wore the apron out of duty, and I wore the skirt, with a very crooked zipper and gaping button hole, only because I needed to get a final grade.(Did I mention that my sister also inherited the seamstress gene? She actually made her own wedding dress—well, the first one at least!)

According to a public relations article published in January 2013, by Michaels, the largest craft store in North America, these past few years have witnessed a “significant vintage craft trend (that) harkens back to childhood and involves images of Grandma’s house.” Oh yeah? Well, I haven’t seen any oven roasted marbles lately!

Author’s notes:

I still have several sweaters that have survived 50+ years, made by my mother, complete with name tags testifying that I did indeed take them to college. Mother loved to knit, but she hated to put the final product together. When we closed her home on Ogden Street, we found one beautiful black Christmas sweater with poinsettias—still awaiting completion.

True craft confession—In my senior year of college, embroidery was making a comeback. Most of my fellow students bought small projects.Me?I bought a quilt top! The Tree of Life. I carted that thing around for over 40 years, across numerous states, many homes and two marriages. I finished it—in 2010!I paid someone to quilt it! I lovingly call it my funeral shroud.

Among my most treasured possessions is a quilt that was made for my grandmother by her mother in the Dresden Plate pattern. There were five daughters in my great-grandmother’s family and each received a similar quilt, but in a different ground color. Mine is yellow. In my long-gone days of teaching literature, we often got bogged down in discussions of loss and death—especially when reading Emily Dickinson. Students once asked me if my house was burning, what would I save? My answer—family photographs and that quilt.

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