This book represents the first conscious and serious effort to take Needlecraft from its humble place as the Cinderella of Manual arts, and to show how it may become a means of general and even of higher education. The writers have faith that in taking the common things of life and walking truly among them they will find greatness and beauty at last. And this faith is justified. Through all the earlier chapters we are travelling step by step and by a narrow path towards a widening highway, along which at last the rapture of life and the vista of beauty greet the wayfarer.
The Key of the whole work is Acceptance. The two authors take the little child as she is - with her long-sighted child eye, her hunger for bright colour, her small, undeveloped hand, her wandering desires (reflections of a brain where even the great connecting pathways are not yet beaten out). They do not ask from her what she cannot give - Imagination without memories, fine or complex work ere yet any real power of fine co-ordination has been won. From the first the child walks with physiologists, who know where she is, physically, and also with artists, in short, with teachers who can understand and interpret her naive efforts. The knots she makes on her thread with long ends flying might, to some teachers, represent only clumsy method. To Miss Swanson and Miss Macbeth these flying ends are the origin of the fringe and tassel, and they appear on all the early specimens of their children's work. (Later, the fringes of even the commonest things, such as towels, are treated in very charming ways.) They do not even try to influence the little one in her choice of colour, but yield gladly to her selection of bright reds and blues and yellows. The large tacking stitch (which is the oldest of all) done in bright colour on a contrasting background imposes no strain on eye or hand. And thus, without distress, and in the early tracks of the race, the six-year-old needle-woman takes her first lessons.
At every point the joint authors take the main events of growth into account, following the lines of natural development with a new and bold faith, and often in spite of tradition.
There is something suggestive of a butterfly hunt in the early chapters, only this chase is not to end in capture but in freedom. From the first the little one plays with what she learns. She plays with her conquests, and takes new flights, and always the helpers meet her at the right moment, fluttering, agitated by the joy of her latest victory, taking her growing energy, and effort, and desire as the token of real success. Surely this offers a contrast to the old method, in which every lesson appeared to add something more to a dead weight that was already crushing the learner.
No obstacle is allowed to threaten the wavering flight of the Imagination - that wide-going, vague flight on which depends all later "Voyaging and Victory." For the educated and full-grown woman, " sewing a long seam " is a good sedative. For the child, sewing must be a flight into the unknown, a joyful adventure, or a fruitless and deadening task. No white seam for her, but bright colours, good contrasts, and when the lesson is over, memories that do not sleep. From the first they are awake and stimulate, but it is expected that as time goes on, and many things are learned, these living memories will move in stronger currents, tossed and changed by an inner movement that is never quite stilled even in sleep. This rumour and striving is creative power already. It will grow and gather strength, bringing in its train the reasoning intelligence on which so much depends, and providing material for its exercise. Every part of the scheme is planned and worked out so as to realize this aim.
The passing over from the freedom of childhood and art impulse to real craftsmanship is for the girl as for the boy a new initiation, a discipline. It is due, we may say, at eleven or twelve years old - becomes then a condition of any new advance. The physiologist knows that at this age her pupils attain " normal" vision, a more or less adult eye. They are also aware that now there is a sudden development of hand-skill, of the brain centres that represent the hand and its movements. For most children even this great epoch is ill-defined as yet. The blurring of even main lines of growth is the sign of languor in the inner life. To-day the joy of childhood is often hardly present in work. The child mind is becalmed. Strength of impulse is lacking. This is why the 12-year old is not ready to plunge hardily into the cold waters of Difficulty that separate him from the world of real Achievement, but goes on towards adolescence without mastering anything. Our writers, however, do not hesitate, nor do their pupils. These eleven- and twelve-year-old girls do not fail to become real artizans. They seize new tools (the one thing that women have hesitated or failed to do in the past), and with scissors and tape line begin to shape, measure, cut out - in a word, construct. They select types of work, and recognize these in different forms, and in a very practical way go on now to master their craft. Bodices, coats, skirts, collars, underclothing for wearers of every age, hoods also, and caps, braces (the rings even shaped and covered by the workers' busy fingers), dressing-jackets, gowns - nothing is too hard. Childhood's wandering wings of Imagination are now darting wings. All the old learning is in a crucible. Out of mere oddments, and by means of patching and darning, a beautiful new object emerges. There is nowhere a hint of fear, of drawing back, or timid leaning on the teacher. Briefly these twelve-year-old girls are learning how to clothe themselves and others.
Social reformers might well glance for a moment at these busy little needle-women. In every great capital there is great display in dress - splendid robes are described in the Press, and the rapid changes of fashion make it needful for thousands of women to appear constantly in expensive new clothes. Side by side with all this, in the poor quarters, thousands of people do not even know what it is to wear a dress specially made for them. Children go to school swathed in half a dozen wretched skirts and bodices or half naked even in winter. They wear old, cast-off clothes, which somehow hide even the grace of childhood. Yet all this is unnecessary. The elder children - of twelve years - might alter all this in the schools. They could make all their own clothes. Some of them do this already - and more. Without eye-strain, but with free use and application of all they have learned, in drawing, arithmetic, and other " subjects," they have got so far already, that given strong and cheap materials they will clothe themselves and the little ones. To-day our timid pedagogy halts before such an achievement. " Learn by doing," we say, yet even from this diligent " doing" we expect very little. With child-drudgery in all its forms we are familiar, as, for example, with the work of the little "doffer" in the North Country mills. But that a girl entering her 'teens should construct, should take her own measurements, recognize the type of any garment, clothe herself and her sisters, is not expected by many teachers. In vain have the greatest of physico-psychologists declared that the development of the hand must take place between eleven and thirteen, and that failing this rapid gain in manual skill and executive power in the early 'teens, there is little hope that these will come later. Our guides have been afraid to act on this teaching. The present writers, as we say, are not afraid, but confident. They assume that the brain has its Seasons, and that its snowdrops will not come in August, or its roses fail in June.
Moreover, it is not the child alone who finds acceptance. The writers do not ask for fine materials, but simple things. They decline silks and satins and velvets in the dressing as in the work of children. They take hold of fabrics that can be bought for fourpence-halfpenny a yard, as strong, unbleached calico. They select durable and fast-dyed linens, serge, and flannel. The housewife who knows that she cannot buy expensive things, but only washable and hard-wearing clothes, may well take heart. In the hands of the real artists the common fabrics as well as the common duties take on a new beauty. Not far away must we go to seek the great opportunities, but here in the homeliest tasks - in darning, in patching, in mending. Where there is a strengthening of the work (as below arms, and along edges, or at the end of seams), there is also a kind of blossoming - a fair design smiling out of the practical, well-chosen stitchery. It is all a wonder, this beauty that rises out of necessity and use, and yet it evokes not merely wonder but also recognition. Grave men and tired housewives take up these little garments with the joy that might fill people who go into a splendid house, and then suddenly discover that it is their own kitchen. When one takes those two facts together - the fitness of cheap and common materials for useful and beautiful attire, and the early power of children to fashion these garments, what are we to think of the rags and nakedness of our streets ?
In all this new application of things seen and done by twelve-year-old workers, throughout all their work now become serious and very practical, the creative power - mother of all achievement - is ever active. Imagination is the leading factor in all work - in planning and adapting clothes as in the phantasies of early childhood. The young crafts-woman works now in many colours. She also begins to touch primitive arts more closely, to experiment not only with materials, but with warp and woof, weaving as she darns, or arranging strands and fringes, so that the darning may be the making of a new thing out of the old. (Needless to say, the darn over nothing or making of warp and woof will be all the more firm and beautiful.) Then she does not march with a regiment, making a dress or other garment that is to be repeated by fifty others. Her imagination plays freely around the work.
She often transforms, say, a pinafore into a dress, or, choosing her own colours in piping, tacking, herring-boning, turns out a garment that has individuality as well as beauty. The joy of labour overflows in the decorating of even buttons and clasps, and above all in the new articles made in holiday mood and in playtime. The sachets, pockets, and drapery shine with a new beauty, a soft radiance that reminds one of the glow in the needlework of Indian women. It is the herald of a new life that is fast drawing near. That this approach is indicated, that the jubilant morning song and glowing dawn of youth is found in the later stages of this course in needlework, is in itself a guarantee of its faithfulness.
Where is the pageant of developing human life (once fairly seen) other than thrilling? It is the most dramatic thing in Nature. It should be indicated in the teaching of arts else that teaching has gone, off the lines. Our authors are not only conscious of the rising emotional power that is all around them when the "'teens" are reached, they note its effects in the work. The girl discovers a new way of cutting out subtly and swiftly, a new way of applying stitchery, a new way of treating the folds in texture, ascending from the purely imitative and emulative period to dream her own dreams and see her own visions! Even now the book continues to preach the gospel of the conquest of beauty through common things, and, if its pages blossom (as they do) into a pageant of beauty, the workers are still dealing with cotton fabrics, with plain crash towellings, with simple woollens and coloured mending yarn.
At last the writers themselves, hitherto so unobtrusive, allow themselves to emerge a little. There is a truly Greek element in their quick recoil from the use of even the best silks and satins in the house of the average citizen (the highly educated citizen can hardly need or desire costly materials for household things). There is the true Greek spirit in the joyful admission of occasions for splendour and richness of material, but for the most part in communal life, and the whole course of training ends fittingly enough by a study of the treatment of velvet, of "bold and simple patterns in sober colour," for a velvet curtain embroidered with silk in Oriental stitchery!
So the course of work designed to open the girl's eyes to the possibilities of her own home and the beauty that waits her there ends in an indication of the existence of a larger life growing out of the smaller. Th ere is a higher beauty for the mothers and maidens who conceive a great social as well as of an intimate family life, and who wish to give the widest and fullest expression to this higher consciousness.
In becoming good craftswomen girls may become something more. Their work itself leads them to look at last beyond their homes, and if they look to-day, what do they see? Much beauty and happiness, work and pleasure, but also beyond these vivid glimpses of widespread misery and darkness - a chaos which waits for creators to make of it a new world. That winged power in them, the unresting creative energy, must find a new field for its labour. It cannot be confined to the home. What the educated woman of to-morrow will do we cannot foretell, for she will no longer be the slave of routine and tradition.