Before the days of TV, internet and other distractions, many women spent time sewing and mending clothing, making lace, cross stitching, embroidering, crocheting, and doing various other needlework. I am lucky to have had a very creative family, that includes tailors, seamstresses and those who knit, crochet, and embroider. From the time my mom taught me how to sew and my grandfather, a tailor, taught me how to sew the linings of the impeccable suits he made, I have always admired their incredible patience, precision and resourcefulness working with fabrics.
On January 22, I attended the private opening reception of the exhibition, “Woven Lives: Exploring Women’s Needlework from the Italian Diaspora” at the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA), housed in the historic Italian Hall (1908). IAMLA is located in the heart of what was formerly the Los Angeles Italian enclave, which was used as a gathering place for the Italian community at the time. The museum opened in 2016 and I began volunteering in 2017 affording me the opportunity to give back to the Italian community here in Los Angeles.
“Woven Lives” examines the significance of needlework to Italian American women, their families and communities from the mid-19th century to the present and reconsiders the role of needlework beyond its beauty or practicality. The exhibit recognizes this handiwork as remarkable: a medium for creativity and the expression and preservation of culture. “Woven Lives” includes a variety of handmade textiles created by Italian American Women, from household items to ceremonial pieces, many of which were part of a dowry. On display are diverse items such as small hot pads, doilies, dresses, purses, undergarments, bed runners, tablecloths, and bedspreads.
My Nonna Philomena (Nuccia) DiMario’s bedspread is in the exhibit. At age 15, she began working on a woven coperta or bed covering, using a booklet, "Ricami Norvegesi" (Norwegian Embroidery) as a guide. Together with her teacher she created an exquisite and unique bedspread with the word Serenitá embroidered in the center. The work she put into this piece of art, to our distracted world of today, is almost beyond comprehension.
At that time, however, in Civitanova del Sannio, Molise, her hometown, it was common for young girls, using needlework and crocheting, to make items to be included in their dowry. Items varied as bedspreads, tablecloths with matching napkins, doilies for side tables or dressers, kitchen hot pads, and booties. Her bedspread was used in Italy, where the beds were large and high off the ground. When it was brought to America, where the beds are smaller and lower to the ground, she had to remove some of the panels and eventually, with careless children and grandchildren running around the house, the “work of art” was securely wrapped and put in a box in my mom’s cedar closet. I found it one day when my mother took out her own handiwork to show me and I was immediately fascinated by the work that went into making a bedspread of that size and intricacy.
Nonna spent every day in Church praying and at home, crocheting, up until only a few years before she died. Her last legacy was crocheted booties, all sizes and colors, using bits of leftover yarn. There is a collection of them inside my mom’s back door so when we enter the house, we take off our shoes and pick a pair of Nonna Nuccia’s booties to wear.
Each piece in the exhibit has a bit of history connected to it and there is one that is very poignant, that of Barbara Ruggeri. In her early 20s, she fell in love with a fisherman and believing that she would marry this man, she embroidered a bed runner which depicts her standing on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, waiting for her beloved as he approaches in a boat. Her father disapproved of the fisherman because of his short stature so she married another man. However, for the remainder of her life she kept her beautiful handiwork.
As you view the needlework on exhibit, one shares the hopes, dreams, and unique perspectives of the Italian American women who put so much of themselves into their work. Traditions survive, change, are forgotten and then remembered again, to be revered by future generations who, hopefully, will appreciate and be grateful to the millions of women who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy and brought with them their stories in the form of needlework.