Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stitching a Memory on Veteran's Day

AndStitches e-zine, the blog that I was a guest writer for over the summer, is hosting a contest.  The challenge:
  1. Pick something old--a vintage pattern, inherited materials, an antiquated style of embroidery, etc.
  2. Use it for a new purpose that is different from how it was intended.
There are all kinds of wacky directions a creative embroiderer can go with this.  Make a traditional crewel embroidery sampler . . . with neon colors!  Cross-stitch . . . on waffles!  I am excited to see what other participants created.  When I saw the contest rules, my mind went in a different direction.  I had a project that I have been planning on doing for a while, but the contest gave me the impetus to do it.

During World War II, nearly all of the adult men in my family served in the United States armed forces.  The one who saw the most action and survived was my great-uncle Morrey.  He was a gunner on a B-17 in the 8th Air Force.  He was stationed in Eye, Suffolk, England, and flew in campaigns over Germany to knock out Nazi oil refineries.  If you survived 25 missions, you got to go home--and he flew 35.

Morrey never had children, so my dad got his war memorabilia.  The box contains pictures of his experiences, including remarkable ones taken from the air of bombs dropping and anti-aircraft flak.  At the bottom of the box was a little notebook, every page counting up from #1.  My great-uncle had written the details for every mission he flew--targets, weaponry, casualties.  This is the stuff that history books are made of.  One page, in particular, caught our attention.  It was about a mission that had major difficulties and losses, captured with minimal yet evocative description.

I had my challenge.  The old:  the page from Uncle Morrey's diary.  The new:  use embroidery to capture this moment in history and in his life.

It appealed to me for many reasons.  Starting with my Stitching Shakespeare project, I've been fascinated by the idea of using embroidery to capture handwriting.  Just seeing someone's penmanship style can bring back memories, and it is an experience that future generations will have fewer opportunities for as most of our written communication goes digital.  I liked the challenge of trying to stitch in a way that preserves the quirks of one person's style.

I also liked the juxtaposition of portraying war, the ultimate masculine activity, through the traditionally feminine folk art of embroidery.  As I talked about in my Craftivism post, the combination of these two elements gets people's attention.  Embroidery is also a way of making this memorable page last longer.  Paper may degrade, but at least cloth and thread will preserve it for just a bit longer.

For the background, I selected an off-white fabric that has little fuzzy bits of different colors.  I think the effect is called "oatmeal."  It reminds me of the wallpaper in our old house . . . anyway, it made me think of low-quality notebook paper.  For the handwriting, I used the leftover bobbin of Weeks Dye Works in Blackberry.  It is a hand-dyed thread that subtly changes between dark blue and dark purple.  I picked this color in particular because it reminds me of the way dark blue or black ink fades overtime, taking on a purple hue.

My dad copied made an enlarged and high-contrast photocopy of the page.  I then used my light pad and a pencil to transfer the image onto the fabric.  It took me about 5 weeks to embroider the image in backstitch.

As I continued to work on it, I also found that it was a way for me to communicate with a relative who is no longer here to tell me his experiences.  I don't know how long it took him to write this one small page, but I have been living with his words every day I've worked on this.  I looked up the details surrounding this air battle as I came to them.  Where was this town?  What was going on during the war at the time?  I also thought about how Morrey experienced this event.  What was going through his mind?  How did it feel to have to write about the death of his fellow airmen?  Did he think about it often after the war?  How did he cope with it?

Line 1:  Mission #22, flown on February 6, 1945
Line 2:  Towns in Germany with Nazi oil refineries
Line 3:  Twenty 250-pound General Purpose bombs used
Line 4:  Anti-aircraft weapons used
Line 5:  Target of mission, railway yards leading to oil refinery
I'm treating this as a "proof of concept" for a more complex project in the future.  I could turn this into an illuminated manuscript, providing footnotes to explain each line of the text.  I could print Morrey's pictures onto cloth and attach them to the larger picture, crazy quilt style.  I could make this a giant cornucopia of stitched images to illustrate the horrors of war.

For now though . . . I just didn't want to do anything to detract from my great-uncle's words that manage to say so much with so little.  Thank you for your service, Uncle Morrey, and may all those who served in the armed forces feel appreciated on this Veteran's Day.

[And thanks to my parents, who went through their closets and made all of these copies without me telling them why.]


  1. This is an awesome idea. I may have to borrow this.

    - Melissa

  2. What a beautiful and moving piece. I love how much thought you've put into every aspect of this right down to the colour of the ink. And how eloquent are those two words: "Bad Day". They say more than a thousand others could. Thanks for sharing this project.

  3. This is such a powerful piece, had me in tears-I love the idea of interpreting history as art and honoring our personal heroes at the same time. Wow.