Stitching Together My Own Female History

To continue our mutual celebration of Women’s History month, in today’s post I’m sharing a particular portion of my own family’s female history. One pair of my great-grandparents through my mother’s line were Finnish. Another pair of great-grandparents through my father’s line were Hungarian.

Finnish bird: the whooper swan
Finland’s national bird: the whooper swan

In part, because both Finnish and Hungarian are not Indo-European languages, peoples who spoke Finno-Ugaric languages often succeeded in holding onto their native cultures and practices. Both sets of these great-grandparents immigrated from their homelands to America in the mid to late 1800’s. They came with centuries of inherited cultures, practices, beliefs, customs; in other words they were rich in traditions.

Unfortunately, I don’t know any Hungarian traditions from my father’s side. And although I grew up learning from my mother’s Finnish heritage of important familial and ethnic food traditions, there was a whole other area that was not presented to me as a family or Finnish tradition at all.  Instead, I was told that it something that all the women did.  Something that I would do too. No big deal. Nothing special. Just something I had to learn to do because it was expected of me.

That tradition was textile arts.  Now, because I’ve written it as textile arts, this tradition sounds special, important, worth knowing about, and worth preserving as part of an ethnic heritage.

needle and threadThat most certainly was not how it was ever talked about from my mom, or my aunts, or my grandmother. Instead, learning how to hand-sew, embroider, knit, crochet, make rugs, and machine sew was simply expected, even seen as banal. Women’s work. As a girl, it seemed I was supposed to learn these things because I’m female, not because I’m a descendant of Finnish women.

I did grow up hearing stories about my grandmother who was such an excellent seamstress that she could merely look at clothing in a store window, return home, create a pattern, and then stitch up a nearly identical piece. I can only assume that she learned this astonishing skill from her mother, my Finnish great-grandma Lisa. But, these textile arts didn’t end there.

One aunt was an expert knitter, another, an excellent crocheter, my mother, an accomplished seamstress and my great-aunt, a creator of intricate hooked rugs. I learned to hand-sew, machine-sew, cross-stitch, and embroidery—all with decent proficiency. Later, when my daughter was getting married, I hand-beaded the lace on her wedding dress. And yet, none of this  textile handiwork was ever deliberately or explicitly linked back to our Finnish roots for either me or my sister by the women in our family.

Detail of beaded lace

Finnish embroidery: my family heritage

And yet, because of my profession as a feminist comparative mythologist, something astonishing happened. Last year, my research on solar mare goddesses and swan maidens ran smack into my family’s Finnish heritage with its “hidden in plain sight” textile arts tradition.

I discovered that Finnish women (and in general, Baltic women) carried their goddess symbols—a Tree of life, solar horses, solar swans, goddesses holding plants or trees—with them by embroidering them onto linen cloths: towels (both everyday and sacred), bed linens, dresses, aprons, and wedding apparel. These embroideries are called goddess embroideries. Here are some examples:

Finnish embroidery swans Baltic/Archangel region, hemline of a woman's underdress. The Maiden crowned with the Sun drives a chariot. Two horses are harnessed into it. A checkered pattern covering the picture symbolizes characters depicted are gods. There are birds under a horse's belly: it means the chariot flies in the sky.Käspaikka - Memory Cloth artwork.Met Museum collection 1830-1870To my amazement, I realized that these Finnish / Baltic embroideries were part of my own family history and heritage. Once I saw these red and white images, I recognized them!  I remember seeing similar designs on towels in my grandmother’s house. As a child, I had no clue that these were sacred and ancient symbols that represented Finnish women’s religion from centuries past.

Now, I’m in the midst of recreating a käspaikka (memory cloth) that may also be a juhlakäspaikat (ceremonial cloth) of my very own. Doing so not only reaches back to a much older Finnish female history that I share, but it also pays tribute to the gifts my women relatives gave me by insisting that as their grand-daughter, niece, & daughter, I must work with cloth and thread. Of course, I’m excited for the day when I can pass along this textile arts tradition to my grandchild with the family history and Finnish mythology combined!

Thanks, as always, for reading.  Send along your comments about your family’s textile arts tradition or simply encouragement for me to keep going on käspaikka embroidery.  Happy Women’s History Month to each of you!