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Embroidered Stories

Embroidered Stories: Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora

Edvige Giunta
Joseph Sciorra
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Embroidered Stories
    Book Description:

    For Italian immigrants and their descendants, needlework represents a marker of identity, a cultural touchstone as powerful as pasta and Neapolitan music. Out of the artifacts of their memory and imagination, Italian immigrants and their descendants used embroidering, sewing, knitting, and crocheting to help define who they were and who they have become. This book is an interdisciplinary collection of creative work by authors of Italian origin and academic essays. The creative works from thirty-seven contributors include memoir, poetry, and visual arts while the collection as a whole explores a multitude of experiences about and approaches to needlework and immigration from a transnational perspective, spanning the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century.

    At the center of the book, over thirty illustrations represent Italian immigrant women's needlework. The text reveals the many processes by which a simple object, or even the memory of that object, becomes something else through literary, visual, performance, ethnographic, or critical reimagining. While primarily concerned with interpretations of needlework rather than the needlework itself, the editors and contributors toEmbroidered Storiesremain mindful of its history and its associated cultural values, which Italian immigrants brought with them to the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina and passed on to their descendants.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-038-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-24)
    Edvige Giunta and Joseph Sciorra

    In 1933 Paulina Baldina Capozzi departed Naples on the steamshipThe Rexwith a trunk filled with her trousseau, heading for her new home in Corning, New York.¹ Other women before her had taken this trip, carrying with them embroidered items that they, or other women, often in their family, had made. Italian women saw these items as beautiful objects, examples of their skill and resourcefulness; they also regarded their needle arts as a potential source of wealth and an epitome of womanhood.

    In their new lives as immigrants, women like Capozzi developed a dynamically new relationship with their expertise...

  5. Daguerreotype: Lace Maker
    (pp. 25-26)
    Sandra M. Gilbert

    • Donna Laura
      (pp. 29-30)
      Maria Mazziotti Gillan
    • White on Black
      (pp. 31-36)
      Louise DeSalvo

      I was thirty-seven years old when I gave up knitting for a very long time. I had been knitting off and on for thirty years, since I was seven and learned how to knit from my grandmother. By the time I was thirty-seven, aside from my childhood projects of irregular scarves and unwearable mittens, I had knit a pair of argyle socks for my husband, too itchy to wear; a really ugly and poorly assembled maroon sweater for him too; a rose sweater for myself, but because I had forgotten to check the dye lot of the wool I’d bought,...

    • No ’So
      (pp. 37-38)
      Rosette Capotorto
    • bedspread
      (pp. 39-40)
      Giuliana Mammucari
    • Precious Traditions: Biancheria in Italian Australian Women’s Lives
      (pp. 41-61)
      Hwei-Fen Cheah

      As a key component of the Italian girl’s trousseau, embroideredbiancheria—underclothing, nightdresses, bedsheets, towels, bedspreads, blankets, handkerchiefs, tablecloths, and tea towels—revealed the bride’s upbringing, skills, social standing, and wealth.¹ These embroideries were often a significant part of the belongings that Italian women emigrants took with them when they left Italy. The traditional roles of embroidery andbiancheriaas markers of status did not, however, necessarily apply in Italian migrant society. Angela Starita has noted the ambivalent attitude to embroidery among Italian American women since “many immigrant mothers . . .actively discouraged their daughters from sewing and lace-making and...

    • The Tatted Handkerchief
      (pp. 62-62)
      Maria Terrone
    • Hand Towel
      (pp. 63-66)
      Maria Grillo and Lucia Grillo

      My mother Maria Grillo (née Caruso) is skilled in the needle arts. Born in Francavilla Angitola, Vibo Valentia province, Calabria, she earned her seamstress diploma from a convent. She completed an entire set ofbiancheriafor her trousseau, which she brought to the United States when she emigrated in 1965 at age fifteen to marry Vincenzo, my father. She later shared her talents by crocheting my baby doll’s bonnet and booties with a matching blanket, sewing my Barbie’s unique wardrobe, working away on her magical purring Singer as a seamstress for a boutique fashion designer, and later masterfully assembling gowns...

    • The Dressmaker’s Dummy
      (pp. 67-67)
      Sandra M. Gilbert
    • Crocheting Time
      (pp. 68-73)
      Lia Ottaviano

      It is 1972, late at night. Anna, my grandmother, sits alone on her living-room sofa. Through the bay window in front of her, she can see only streetlamps. Her neighborhood, quiet during the day, is now a ghost town. The neighbors have long ago called their children inside, finished dinner, walked dogs, locked doors, turned off lights. Anna’s daughters—sixteen, fourteen, and twelve—have been in bed for a time now. Hours. The television is silent. A lamp is lit. Beside her on the sofa, a book is cracked open.

      Anna’s hands are moving. Her fingers are slim, and she...

    • Stitches in Air: Needlework as Spiritual Practice and Service in Batavia, New York
      (pp. 74-98)
      Christine F. Zinni

      Like other Italian Americans who grew up on the south side of Batavia, New York, during the 1950s and 1960s, I recall the gossamer web spun by women who gathered in parlors, under backyard arbors, and at the community center to share stories, needlework patterns, and to pray. Real and imagined, dreamlike and dreamed into being, the matrix they fashioned linked us to ancestors in Italy just as gracefully as it tethered us to the here and now of life in western New York. Cutwork, hemstitch, chain stitch, double crochet, and picot joined family to family near the bend of...

    • Canto for a Quilter
      (pp. 99-100)
      Marisa Frasca

    • Great-Grandmother’s Ocean
      (pp. 103-105)
      B. Amore

      It was my grandmother, Concetta De Iorio, who taught me the Italian word for thread,filo. It was she who stitched the past, present, and future of our family together. Her stories of Giovannina Forte, her own mother, inspired the sculptural installation pictured here. Giovannina’s dowry bedspread, which she brought with her when she crossed the ocean in 1901, represents an entire way of life, a time when young women spent years sewing theircorredoor trousseau in preparation for their betrothal and marriage. The bedspread was woven in the latter part of the nineteenth century (Giovannina was married in...

    • Filatrici: Stitching Our Voices Together
      (pp. 106-118)
      Joanna Clapps Herman

      Italian cousins are a special kind of intense friend-siblings. Gilda, Diane, Lucia, Joanna, Clorinda, Beatrice: We were the six older girl cousins in my large Italian family in Waterbury, Connecticut. There were two older boys, then the six of us girls, then six younger boys, and finally two younger girls. So, symmetry and alternation: boys, girls, boys, girls. The six girls were planets in our own universe, orbiting the sun of our mothers and aunts—playing house, dolls, school, secretary, doing acrobatics, swimming, riding our bikes, hiking, running, running to the store, climbing out of windows, climbing trees, doing housework,...

    • The lady in the hat
      (pp. 119-120)
      Rosette Capotorto
    • From Domestic Craft to Contemporary Arts: Needlework and Belonging in Two Generations of Italian Australian Artists
      (pp. 121-135)
      Ilaria Vanni

      Familiar objects—things used every day—lose and acquire meanings in the process of migration. The semiotic of objects related to needlework is particularly relevant. Graziella del Popolo, who migrated from Italy to Australia in 1968, illustrates the importance of needlework in the experience of Italian migrants in a memoir collected as part of “Belongings,” the New South Wales Migration Heritage Centrer’s online exhibition on post–World War II migration memories and journeys:

      We had brought two large trunks and lots of suitcases with us. Dad had told mum to only pack winter and summer clothes, shoes, sheets and towels...

    • The Dressmaker
      (pp. 136-138)
      Gianna Patriarca
    • Junior High, Home Economics
      (pp. 139-140)
      Barbara Crooker
    • Knitting
      (pp. 141-142)
      Barbara Crooker
    • Spalancare (Wide Open)
      (pp. 143-143)
      Peter Covino
    • “A Needle Better Fits?”: The Role of Defensive Sewing in Italian American Literature
      (pp. 144-164)
      Mary Jo Bona

      In their suggestion that Emily Dickinson’s sewing was more than metaphorical, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar also note that, like most nineteenth-century women in England and America, “she must have been as proficient with needle and thread as she was with spoon and pot.” That Dickinson literally bound her poems into fascicles made her a “highly conscious literary seamstress,” “exploiting a traditional metaphor for the female artist. Like Ariadne, Penelope, and Philomela, women have used their looms, thread, and needles both to defend themselves and silently to speak of themselves.” For many women, then, the literal and figurative activity...


    • Backbone/Colonna Vertebrale
      (pp. 167-168)
      Lisa Venditelli

      My art represents feminism, domesticity, body image, and female experiences, usually presented with more humor than angst, and from the viewpoint of my Italian American history. In my work liquid soap bottles become angels, clothespins become musical notes, and lasagna becomes wallpaper and a bikini.

      Imagine the plight of early twentieth-century immigrant textile workers; tireless, detailed work, long hours and rugged, unsafe conditions. Using materials from the period, including antique wooden mill and sewing thread spools, Backbone /Colonna Vertebralemimics backbones; some standing tall and others completely bent. Columns of spools that are placed over rods of worked in the...

    • How la Sartina Became a Labor Migrant
      (pp. 169-192)
      Jennifer Guglielmo

      Tina Gaeta learned to sew, like most girls, from the women in her family. Both her grandmother and mother were seamstresses, though her mother, Lucia, was particularly skilled. Word traveled fast in their southern Italian coastal city of Salerno in the region of Campania, and those who could afford it paid Lucia to make their clothes, giving her the status ofla sartina—the seamstress. In an oral history, Lucia’s daughter Tina recalled, “In Italy in those days women who sewed wore their scissors attached to a special ribbon over their long skirts. When they went home, they wouldn’t take...

    • Domestic Textile Work among Italian Immigrant Women in Post–World War II Mar del Plata, Argentina
      (pp. 193-206)
      Bettina Favero

      The domestic textile work of Italian women who immigrated to the city of Mar del Plata, Argentina, in the post–World War II era was a family-based economic enterprise. It relied on nuclear and extended family members of several generations, including mothers, daughters, grandmothers, cousins, and mothers-in-law. Knitting techniques were transferred from Italy to Argentina, and in particular to Mar del Plata, a city whose social and economic vitality appealed to many Italian immigrants. The oral testimonies of these working women—interviews I conducted in the “Archivo de la palabra del Immigrante Europeo en Mar del Plata” (UNMDP)¹— tell the...

    • Factory Girls, Bangkok
      (pp. 207-208)
      Phyllis Capello
    • Girl Talk
      (pp. 209-210)
      Paola Corso

    • Siate Felici: Garden Imagery in a Messinese Biancheria da Letto, c. 1900
      (pp. 213-238)
      Joseph J. Inguanti

      As roses bloom and other plants set fruit, a moth flutters through the perfumed night air and a nightingale alights on a branch and prepares to sing. A banderole floats across the paradisiacal scene bearing the message,“Siate Felici.”“Be Happy,” it announces to the newlywed couple that lies in this garden. Appropriate for an object that marks the beginning of marriage, the iconographic program of this pillow sham, part of a set of century-old Sicilian nuptial linens, abounds in references to springtime, the season of flowers, coupling, and growth.

      The embroidered pillow sham is Italian American in the most...

    • Rebozos/K’uanindik’uecha
      (pp. 239-241)
      Karen Guancione

      In January 2009, the Centro de Formación y Producción Gráfica del Antiguo Colegio Jesuita invited me to a create a series of lithographs in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico, as part of a printmaking residency. The center, which was built on the remains of pre-Hispanic pyramids and is housed in a sixteenth-century colonial building, is today the cultural center of Pátzcuaro. It includes printmaking studios, a museum, exhibition space, and folk art collections. A variety of classes are offered under the auspices of the Department of Culture of the State of Michoacán.

      Because of the work I had done incorporating printmaking with...

    • Above the Forests of Second Avenue
      (pp. 242-242)
      Maria Terrone
    • Escape
      (pp. 243-243)
      Paola Corso
    • Needle and Thread
      (pp. 244-244)
      Anne Marie Macari
    • Imagining Grandmother on the Paso Robles Ranch, Year My Father Was Born
      (pp. 245-246)
      Denise Calvetti Michaels
    • Embroidery
      (pp. 247-247)
      Phyllis Capello
    • The Embroidery Hoop of Mourning
      (pp. 248-258)
      Tiziana Rinaldi Castro

      We had to listen carefully for she spoke softly. It wasn’t dawn yet, and the night was the loom of the dead, as she would often say; words would need to be woven forth in a low tone of voice. Her hands were quick, though, and moved knowingly on the cloth, enriching the complex embroidery with each passing stitch.

      “Are you sewing a word or a figure this time?” I asked.

      The woman I called Mama, her voice vibrant and of a full depth, like the tuba, answered:

      “A pattern. What’s important is the intention. What goes into it the...


    • Bachelor, Lace, Butch, Trousseau
      (pp. 261-272)
      Annie Rachele Lanzillotto

      “Stai zeet? Stai zeet? Perchè no maritt?”is a line of questioning that greeted me in my grandmother’s town, Acquaviva delle Fonti, upon every visit in my twenties and thirties. Getting assailed in this way by Zia Filumena was my least favorite part of being there and the reason I had to leave, every time.

      “Are you engaged? Are you engaged? Why aren’t you married?”my Sicilian editor Edvige Giunta e-mails me the translation.

      “No,” I protest.“Are you married? Are you married? Why no husband?”I know what my Zia Filumena was telling me, and what she was implying...

    • Ink Still Wet
      (pp. 273-274)
      Paul Zarzyski
    • The Woman and the Tiger
      (pp. 275-277)
      Angela Valeria

      “The Woman and the Tiger” is part of a series inspired by childhood memories of my Nonna Francesca’s dazzlingbiancheriahanging on the backyard line to dry, flapping in the breeze like doves or ghosts, and later, of the shock of seeing blood on a white bedsheet, and every so often, the random stain of spilled wine on a damask tablecloth. On washdays, Nonna would hang out herbiancheriaacross the paved part of my grandfather’s garden, a jungle of fig trees, roses, and zinnias, and a fascinating variety of detritus of mirrors and dolls’ heads.

      We lived in Brighton...

    • Identified
      (pp. 278-278)
      Paola Corso
    • My Lost Needle
      (pp. 279-280)
      Anne Marie Macari
    • Embroidery as Inscription in the Life of a Calabrian Immigrant Woman
      (pp. 281-312)
      Joan L. Saverino

      Anna Guarascio was a reluctant immigrant. sent for by her husband, Domenico Peluso, to join him in the north-central West Virginia coal fields, she left Calabria, Italy, at the age of twenty-four in 1915 with her two small children. Recognized in her hometown of San Giovanni in Fiore as amaestrina(teacher) of embroidery, she lost that identification upon emigration. Anna, the sole member of her family to emigrate, spent the rest of her life in various coal camps. She returned to her hometown only once, after a sixty-year absence. It was a life-changing experience that facilitated a rediscovery of...

    • II corredo: Loss and Continuity in an Italian American Family
      (pp. 313-325)
      Jo Ann Cavallo

      “Your grandmother had acorredofor you, linens and things,” my father mentioned over dinner a few months after my grandmother’s death in 1976. “It’s somewhere in the old house, but who knows where?” Although I would have liked to know more, I didn’t press my father to search for it because I realized he was reluctant to return to the vacant house. During my childhood the Cavallo family used to gather at my grandparents’ home in Vaux Hall, New Jersey, by noon every Sunday for “dinner” and spend the rest of the afternoon together. Unfailingly seated around the table...

    • Bitter Trade: A Castle for a Trousseau
      (pp. 326-335)
      Giovanna Miceli Jeffries

      “The best years of my life were spent in the embroidering rooms and courtyard of theistituto(nuns’ convent),” my mother would tell me. I saw sadness and fleeting dreaming on her face. Her mouth relaxed into a soft smile as she took a brief pause from her ironing or mending. It was evening, and we were in the kitchen of our second-floor duplex in a new Italian neighborhood on the north side of Montreal. After a long day at the garment factory where she and I had worked standing on our feet for seven and a half hours, cutting...

    • Biancheria and My Mother
      (pp. 336-337)
      Maria Mazziotti Gillan
    • Medicine of Language
      (pp. 338-338)
      Peter Covino
    • Lace
      (pp. 339-339)
      Maria Terrone
    • Love how much do we know & when do we know it
      (pp. 340-340)
      Rosette Capotorto
    • White Shadows (2)
      (pp. 341-344)
      Elisa D’Arrigo

      For the past twenty-five years I have produced work in various media, such as cloth, thread, clay, handmade paper, wax, wire, acrylic paint, and bronze. Although largely abstract, this work contains a range of allusions to the body, nature, and personal memory. A specific memory underlies each piece and partially determines its particular character and color. These are memories of things that I have observed and then held in my mind’s eye, sometimes for decades: They are the subtext of the work.

      The impetus forWhite Shadows (2)was the sun-drenched, dense stonework of Chaco Canyon, a pre-Colombian site in...


    • Needling Scholars, Needling Scholarship
      (pp. 347-356)
      Donna R. Gabaccia

      I am the woman scholar you see knitting through conferences, lectures, scholarly panels, and public events. In the past I have also embroidered or crocheted obsessively while listening. But few people know that also I weave and sew because weaving and sewing are, for me, home arts. At most I have finished a hem or two and once or twice emptied a mending basket while attending to departmental squabbles or committee decisions. Paradoxically, the types of textile work that entered the public sphere with the biggest and most significant flourish—in the form of an industrial revolution, mechanical looms, and...

  12. Notes on Contributors and Editors
    (pp. 357-364)
    (pp. 365-366)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 367-380)