In 1914, Bessie Spence completed a remarkable tablecloth composed of seventy distinct pieces of embroidery. Her work was extraordinarily: extravagant baskets of fruit and flowers, butterflies, a set of tiny bees with feet and stingers, all of it colorful, precise, perfect. I paid less than twenty dollars for this masterpiece, rescued from the lower bin of a local thrift shop. It was only when I got home that I noticed the inscription in gold lettering:"Bessie Spence's Cloth Made in Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen".
In her wonderful book, Remember me - women and their friendship quilts, textile historian Linda Lipsett explains that women's names (especially maiden names) are generally absent from historical records. Rarely did women own property. If they were listed on a census, it would have been under their father's or husband's name. The only notable exceptions are textiles. Girls embroidered their names on samplers and a woman's name might be found on a quilt , on in Bessie's case, a table cloth. But it was precisely because textiles were not valued that women could make them beautiful, hold on to them and put their name on them.
Unlike Bessie, I am able to hold property, sign contracts, earn money. I have a footprint on the internet. This week I signed up for an virtual conference on "branding" because everybody is a brand now and you better know how to promote your name, be seen and heard.
I am finishing up a series of four larger-scale embroideries that I started last September. I am proud to be coming to terms with this project. As I complete each piece, the very last step is to embroider my name. I am doing this by hand, using the rounded custom font I developed especially for this purpose. I am taking my time stitching each letter.
Bessie and I are separated by over a hundred years. Our worlds are vastly different but I relate to what must have been her feeling of accomplishment. Deep down, I know we both felt the same mix of peace and joy when we each snipped the last bit of thread and thought: "I am the one who created this." Craftsmanship isn't about branding; it's about leaving the best possible mark on this fleeting world.
Bessie Spence's cloth is touching and beautiful. Her name is in my heart. Now it's in yours too.
For more photos of Bessie's work, check my instagram page @pmneist.