” In the days when all properly brought up little American girls stitched their samplers, as all little boys did their chores, they wrote verses in each other’s Autograph Albums to record the eternal friendships of first days in school. Their careful Spencerian penmanship is faded now on the brittle pages where you read two verses often repeated, the first usually signed by Abner or Joseph, the second by Eliza or Phoebe:
When Duty whispers low, “Thou must,”
The youth replies, “I can.”
Straight is the line of Duty,
Curved is the line of Beauty.”
p. 52, chapter on Cross-Stitch, Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework, by Rose Wilder Lane, published in 1961
The oft repeated line for little boys comes from an 1863 Ralph Waldo Emerson poem titled Voluntaries. Sage Stossel, in a piece in The Atlantic explains that the poem, “paid tribute to those prepared to sacrifice all for the sake of the Union. The final four lines of the stanza below are among Emerson’s most famous, and have been inscribed on veterans’ memorials around the country.” That “Duty” the above verses speak to is a concept America’s founding fathers embraced and which J. Rufus Fears, the late historian and professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, described simply as:
“Civic virtue: The willingness of the individual to subordinate himself to the good of the community.”
In previous posts I’ve expounded on the demise of civic virtue in America and how it all begins in American families and communities, where the seeds of civic virtue must be planted and nurtured. We have child-rearing experts, from child psychologists to educational professionals to celebrity experts and yet in bygone eras, most people, with few resources, managed to train and educate their children to be citizens of good character.
For a needlework book, Rose Wilder Lane, managed to explain a great deal of American history, along with the history of American needlework. In the chapter on Cross-stitch, Lane offered photos of several American samplers, which young girls stitched to both learn how to stitch and as a future reference for various stitches.
Many of the samplers contain the girl’s name, age, and the year the sampler was stitched. Some of the most beautiful samplers were stitched by girls as young as 9 or 10 years old. These girls designed their own samplers and diligently stitched them as Lane describes:
“Dutiful those little girls were required to be, silently repressing their rebellion while they did their daily “stint” of stitching that must be done before they would be allowed to play. And the beauty of their work is in its four-square character, strictly faithful to the straight line Yet, it is a gentle beauty, for in the beholder’s eye the straight line becomes a curve of vines and flowers, of woodland bird and rabbit and deer and of the darling dog and the long-tailed mouser on the hearthrug
So those grim hours of duty unexpectedly produced the deep joy of work well-done, a triumph earned by difficult self-discipline.”
p. 52, chapter on Cross-Stitch, Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework, by Rose Wilder Lane, published in 1961
Lane also describes a sampler completed by a girl, aged 14 and points out how that girl lacked self-discipline and should have been ashamed to produce such shoddy workmanship at her age. Lane dissects how the girl began her sampler using harder stitches and patterns, which she abandoned for simpler stitches and poorly drawn motifs. Lane attributes this to indulgent parenting and that the results show that girl was not required to do her “stint” of stitching daily.
The thing that Lane is referring to is the character-building beliefs and attitudes that created people like our founding fathers.
These beliefs dominated until progressive attitudes in the late 1800s gained a foothold and throughout the 1900s this new belief system trampled civic virtue. The age of “I” took hold, where at every turn the belief, that above all else, “how you feel matters most”. The suggestion, that there is value in self-discipline, self-restraint or self-sacrifice, in anything, will be met with anger and hostility. You will be quickly cast as mean and a hater.
American academia is filled with nostrums to fix the social and political ills, that experts and pundits galore all agree are destroying America. Most fixate on political panaceas rather than address the cultural attitudes and mores that produce our corrupt political morass. It’s politically incorrect to point out the failures in parenting, the failures of individual citizens to learn civic values and live them, and the failures of the American spirit. And into this self-indulgent culture, those who suggest “standards” or behaviors that bolster the values, upon which civic virtue is built, will be attacked immediately as mean-spirited fascists.
In our schools, kids today are taught to care more about their own feelings than about learning to read, think, or acquire knowledge. In the early 90s, our oldest daughter was in elementary school. She wrote an essay and received a 100 as her grade on this pathetic effort. I asked her teacher how on earth this essay deserved a 100 and the teacher acted like I had grown horns. She lectured me about how important it is to encourage “creativity” and how I didn’t understand how fragile children’s emotions are, etc. etc. For the record, children are completely self-centered and need to be taught how to care about other people.
The problem with my daughter’s essay was she used no capitalization and no punctuation and she sure isn’t ee cummings. In addition her spelling was appalling, so it was almost impossible to make sense out of what she had written. I knew my daughter could spell, write and use punctuation much better than her lazy effort. When we got home, I told my daughter that despite what her teacher said, trying to do your best matters and that I knew she could write much better than that effort.
When everyone gets a gold star, a gold star means nothing.
I worked in Walmart almost 15 years, holding several positions, including being the department manager in fabrics and crafts a number of years. Working in Walmart is like a social laboratory of American social pathologies, especially the fixation on “stuff”. Speaking as a hoarder of craft and sewing supplies, I diagnosed my own bad behaviors years ago and am still working on gaining more discipline about my craft and needlework shopping habits. The buying-too-much-stuff problem is a common behavior among way too many needleworkers, hobbyists, computer gamers, sportsmen, outdoorsmen and in every recreational pursuit. Each pastime comes with a lot of “stuff” that we want.
Often, when talking to customers who were new to craft and sewing supplies, I would discuss what they were working on or wanted to work on and direct them to the supplies we carried. I also would often direct them to websites or books where they could learn more about the basics of that particular craft or needlework. There’s a mindset in America that has taken over quilting and needlework, that if you buy the “right” stuff (expensive frames, gadgets, fabric), you will be able to create beautiful work. The entire building blocks, of learning the basics first and taking the time to practice those basics skills, are lost in the mindless pursuit of buying more and more “stuff”.
This same attitude prevails in the attention-seeking Reality TV culture and social media culture, where even thousands of cross-stitchers have their own floss tube channels, where they talk about their cross-stitch and offer support and encouragement to each other (mostly to promote mindless acquisition of more “stuff” and starting lots of projects). Although, in the mix there are plenty of amazingly talented needlewomen out there. For the record, I am just a competent cross-stitcher, who works hard to keep my stitches neat on the front and back of my work. I have the build of a PA Dutch farm woman, as befitting my heritage, and I have large hands and wear a ladies size 11 shoe. Mine are not the dainty fingers of a needleworker.
Whenever I learn a new type of needlework, I try to learn the basics first and practice a lot. My mother taught me simple rules about embroidery and I still follow them. These rules are in the instructions in almost every cross-stitch kit and book too. They aren’t my mother’s rules, but the time-tested standards for embroidery, of which cross-stitch is a popular type of embroidery.
Anywhere in social media, I run into issues stating facts or an opinion that offends someone or evokes anger, so it was no surprise to me that on floss tube, I would offend someone. The prevailing attitude is it’s taboo to say anything is wrong, apparently, even when what people are promoting is not only wrong, it’s a recipe for disaster for new stitchers. Some stitchers started a facebook group called “Stitch Maynia”, which began as some event in May, where they focus on starting a new cross-stitch project every day in May. Their focus is all about starting new projects, not about finishing what they start. They believe they are promoting cross-stitching and doing something good.
There’s now also a common attitude among many stitchers that it doesn’t matter how the back of their work looks, it’s all about that stitching makes them happy. If you don’t care that your work is sloppy and a messy back on needlework is sloppiness (that’s a FACT), fine, but once you have a facebook group and a floss tube channel, with thousands of followers, well, you can become a corrupting influence very quickly. This happens with Reality TV stars constantly too.
I tried to point out to a fairly new cross-stitcher that from years of experience with needlework and crafting, that starting too many projects leads to lots of unfinished projects and also added stress. To keep track of this madness, there are floss tubers waxing on about all their “WIPs” (works-in- progress) and the spreadsheets, stitch journals and stitching schedules, they are using to keep track of it all. Into this chaos, they insist they love stitching and starting so many things makes them”happy”. For a new stitcher, this approach assures lots of wasted money, lots of unfinished projects and lots of poor needlework.
There is no foundation, of focused practice and good stitching habits, upon which excellent stitching is built.
One of the ladies who promotes sloppy needlework at Stitch Maynia quickly tried to tell me I was wrong and that it’s all about being happy stitching and that the back doesn’t matter. She also told me she has 20 years experience at cross-stitch. I didn’t even bother to respond, because it’s lost on her. She has no idea how sad it is to smugly state she’s proud of doing sloppy needlework for 20 years. Sadder still is most of these needlewomen, caught up in this “feel-good” ethos will follow her advice and believe I am mean for stating that standards in needlework (just like everything else we take pride in) matter. She proudly told me Stitch Maynia has 9,000 followers.
People of good character, not government programs, build a society based upon civic virtue.
Good work habits matter.
Lazy, sloppy habits and work should not be cheered on or promoted, in tasks, whether small or large.
Learning self-discipline is the key to building good character.
It really is that simple.