Tucked into a corner of the Louvres Museum is a thousand-year old child’s tunic from the Fatimide. The coat has been mended dozens and dozens of times, sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so, as it traveled its long journey from an early medieval Arab caliphate to the climate controlled gallery of a top European museum.
But here it is: brown and stained in places, mended and fragile but with its delicate embroidery still mostly intact. The tunic is an ode to the children it clothed. It is also a tribute to the many women who helped preserve it. The mothers and grandmothers who wove, embroidered, mended, cleaned, folded and refolded and passed the beloved garment from one to the next.
Again and gain, my mind turned to that coat as I worked on embroidering the portraits of Grace and Charlotte, two young sisters from Houston. As part of the project, Pat, their grandmother, had given me a set of hand-embroidered pillowcases that had been in the family for close to a hundred years. “I wished I had taken better care of them,” Pat texted me. But who has time or use for pillowcases from another era?
The raised embroidery was exquisite, dotted with areas of whitework, family initials and delicate curlicues. The word “Amore” (Italian for “love”) had been set into elaborate blazons. But the pillowcases were also heavily damaged, brown, thin, full of holes.
With Pat’s agreement, I cut out the better part of the antique embroidery, dyed it to match the girls’ dresses and re-incorporated into the composition in the form of appliqué. Since the original cotton was so fragile, the work had to be done by hand.
The decision to cut into heirloom material is never made lightly but the practice fits into an ancient tradition of using and mending valuable textiles. The child’s coat at the Louvres is not the coat that was woven and embroidered a thousand years ago. All antique textiles are mended, repaired or modified at some time or other and not all textiles are worth keeping, nor is it practical to do so. What is important is not what is removed but what is kept.
Grace and Charlotte’s portraits are adorned with the flowers that were embroidered by their relatives. On each child’s heart is one of the blazons with the word “Amore”, love.
That wish for love was what Grace and Charlotte’s great-grandparents took with them when they packed the pillowcases into their luggage on their way to America. It is what sustained them on their journey. It was was preserved and passed on, so it could be eventually be placed over the children's heart. No other word would do.
For the weeks it took to stitch the portraits, my roles was to transform one kind of heirloom into another. My stitches are strong. They will last so they will help preserve the dreams and hope of a family and the love for their children and grandchildren.
The work felt sacred and beautiful because love is big and bold. And the love for children is the biggest of all.