From the Pages of Ladies’ Needlework

In December, we shared a poem, “The Origin of Knitting,” from the pages of Ladies’ Needlework; Knitting Tales and Poetry: A Melange of Instructions and Amusements, originally published in 1849 and available as a PieceWork eBook. In celebration of “Those Weird Victorians,” we offer up another poem, “The Needle,” to delight and amuse you. Share it with your stitching group, guild, or on social media.

 Left: Loene McIntyre shows Linda Ligon a set of vintage self-threading needles in the video <em><a href="https://www.interweave.com/store/antique-needles-with-loene-mcintyre" target="_blank">Antique Needles with Loene McIntyre. Right: Loene McIntyre shows Linda Ligon a Parisian mother-of-pearl needle case.


Left: Loene McIntyre shows Linda Ligon a set of vintage self-threading needles in the video Antique Needles with Loene McIntyre. Right: Loene McIntyre shows Linda Ligon a Parisian mother-of-pearl needle case.

THE NEEDLE; a serio-comic legend.

I tell of a needle—a needle of mind,
Deserving to rank as the king of its kind

(Or Queen regnant, if

You’re inclined to take tiff,
At my placing an instrument used by the tender
Half of our race, in the masculine gender).
It was not a “sharp,” so thin and genteel,
Or one of the kind that is used for “chenillé;”
And your needlework knowledge I must not affront,
By saying ‘twas a “mattress,” or “glover’s,” or “blunt;”
Neither “ground down,” nor “rug,” “tambour,” or “embroidery,”
Or “darner,” or “double-long,” “sail,” or a “tapestry;”
No “surgeon’s” or “netting,” would do that I’ve seen,
But I’m rather inclined to fix on a “between.”

This needle, I’m told,
Belonged to a lady,
Who was—well, then—not old,
But much past her hey-day.

She might have seen summers, some sixty or more;
Nor let it surprise if I hint at fourscore;
And all her life, whatever betide,
This needle she constantly kept at her side;
It had hemmed and run, had stitched and felled,
Sewn stout sheet seams, and muslin quilled;
No stuff was so coarse that it could not get through it,
No pattern so fine but the needle could do it.

A great merit this,
For no work came amiss

To mistress or needle, for both one and t’other,
Confidence felt in the skill of the other.

Aye! laugh if you will,
The needle had skill

To fashion a night-cap or scollop a frill,

Till at last, when the thread
Had been fixed at its head,
It need but be said,

Work away! and, as quick and as sure as a gun
Discharges a bullet, the garment was done!

Done! yes, finished! complete!
Tight and neat.

In short time ‘twould deck you from head-dress to feet,
Ready for ball-room, boudoir, or street;

And if you’d much to do,
In old work or new,

And wanted a something to help you well out of it,
You would prize such a needle, there can’t be a doubt of it.

‘Twas very amusing the needle to see,
Working away as brisk as a bee;

While the mistress sat by, with her spectacled nose,
Handing gusset or gore, as occasion arose,

Till aroused by a friend,
Who, having to mend

A few bits, would call in with a budget of chat:
The marriages, deaths, village courtships, and that;
And the two would agree that Miss Jones’s new bonnet
Had looked better by far were the rose not upon it.

“And so Brown’s bought that place;
Dear me! only think!
You know his girl, Grace?
She’s crooked, I think.”

The whole county thus passes beneath their review,
As all its concerns the two ladies well knew;

Nor is the chat ended,
Till the bits duly mended,

The visitor leaves for her own habitation,
With many kind wishes and “words of occasion.”

The old lady lived in a sweet little spot,
Just too small for a house, too large for a cot;
The front parlour faced on the broad village street,
Overlooking the forecourt, whose bordering neat,
Showed rose and geranium, carefully tended,
Their contrasting beauty right gracefully blended;
And passers-by saw that the gardener Cox,
Had a fancy for “dabbling a little in stocks,”
And felt no decided aversion to Box.

But could I take you
Just to see the back view;
From that window there half hid by
Jessamine, and rose, and ivy,

You would credit I wrote nothing more than I meant,
When I say the good lady was very content.

* * * * * *

But however happy our days we spend,
All in this world comes to an end;
The old lady died—her family mourned,
And assembled in sables to see her inurned.

Sitting so still
To hear the will

(Delightful to some, but which others took ill),
Dispose of stock in the three per cents,
Consols reduced, and improvable rents.
The lawyer reads, and turns the leaf;
The will is very far from brief:

Shawl of Cachemire, Muff of Mink,
China vase, and Dresden ink,
Cabinet of Sandal wood,
Chairs that in the house have stood

Since the time when Stuart’s hour
Waned before the Conqueror’s power,

Bracket clock of antique form,
Screen that had kept her corner warm;

And all these things, and more, were quoted,
Their destination duly noted;
But not a word could be found throughout,
Bequeathing the needle, and hence came a doubt.

When the reader stopped,
Had a pin been dropped,

You had heard it touch the floor;

Dead silence reigned,
Which all maintained

For full a minute or more;

Then rose on the air
The sound of a chair,

As it slightly moved in its place,

And a whispered word
Grew more plainly heard,
Till one plainly put “a case,”

In the name of the ladies assembled there,
To the lawyer a foresaid, as “Who is the heir,
To inherit the needle, whose value is such,
No housewife can ever esteem it too much?”
Opinions were varied, discussion ran strong,
Whose right was the best of the numerous throng
Of sisters and nieces, grand-children, and cousins,
Each of whose claims was supported by dozens.

And they thus might have gone on disputing forever,
But the lawyer hit on an expedient most clever;
And they quickly agreed that the sharp little elf
Of a needle, its mistress should choose for itself;
And she, for whom it worked the best,
Should in quiet possession be left by the rest.

This course once decided, as swiftly as thought,
The instrument was by a messenger brought,
That at once and forthwith the trial might be made,
Whose orders the needle most promptly obeyed.

Much did it trouble both maiden and wife:
“Never saw such a thing in the course of my life;

It’s no use to try,
I can’t see the eye;

As to threading, I’m very sure no one can do it;

The eye is so small,
It seems none at all,

No cotton or silk will go through it!”

A mystery it really seemed,
For none of them had ever deemed
Her sight particularly strong,
With whom the needle had been so long;
In vain they turned, in vain they twisted,
Every thread it still resisted,
Till every one assembled there,
Gave up the task in sheer despair.

Now, when abandoned thus—by chance,
It came beneath the eagle glance
Of one who perceived, with the greatest surprise,
The cause why the needle had dazzled their eyes;

And he gave them the reason
(Words not out of season,

Considering how their proceedings would tend
To show selfishness more than regret for their friend);

“I look around me,
And am sorry to see

That every cheek in the room is dry—
The needle alone has a tear in its eye.”
—G. C. H.

Want to learn more about the fascinating history of the needle? Interweave founder Linda Ligon interviews passionate needlework collector Loene McIntyre in a PieceWork video Antique Needles with Loene McIntyre. Loene shares some wonderful examples from her collection and delves into the fascinating history of this seemingly humble tool.

—Elizabeth


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