Life Lessons in Needlework

Within every issue of PieceWork are lessons in history and needlework, but the September/October 2017 issue stands out to me because it also offers a beautiful perspective on life and perseverance. Susan Strawn, inspired by hand-embroidered mittens exhibited at the Wing Lake Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (the “Wing”) in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, dove into the history behind the mittens and discovered much about their maker, her family, and their bravery in the face of adversity.

Seiichi and Shizuko Hara were Issei, or first-generation Japanese nationals. Their four children were Nisei, or second generation American-born citizens. On December 7, 1941, also known as the “Day of Infamy,” Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States entered WWII, and the Hara family’s life took an unexpected turn.

Seiichi, Shizuko, and their three children (one daughter had died in her youth before the war) were sent to several relocation centers. Seiichi, the father, was separated from the rest of the family for some time, but in August 1942, the family was reunited at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho.

Needlework

Hand-embroidered army-issue mittens made in a Japanese internment camp during World War II inspired these handknitted and embroidered mittens by Susan Strawn. To see the original mittens, read the September/October 2017 issue of PieceWork. Photo by George Boe.

It was here that Shizuko embroidered floral designs into a pair of otherwise bland army-issue mittens for her daughter Amy Yoshi Hara. The Japanese internees held tight to their humanity in these detention centers, continuing participation in regular activities such as gardening, school, sports, and handcrafts. Embroidery in particular has long held a place in Japanese culture. It has been a means of expression in Japanese traditions throughout history. These mittens in their simple beauty show us how, even among barbed wire, barracks, and armed guards, the Japanese found a way to persevere through the circumstances with beauty and composure. It is representative of the concept of gaman, which means to endure the unbearable with dignity and patience. Not only does Susan Strawn’s article “Gaman: Embroidered Mittens from the Minidoka Relocation Center” give us a history lesson about Japanese Americans in WWII, but it also gives us a new appreciation of Japanese traditions and values.

To learn more about the Hara family and their journey, as well as other historically rich projects and stories, read PieceWork September/October 2017.

Happy reading,
Jenna

Featured Image: The Minidoka Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho where the Hara family was taken in WWII. Photo by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia.

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