Little Stitches: Me, Cross-Stitch, and My Great-Grandmother

27 January 2021
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Of late I’ve been thinking a lot about thread. This I feel is due to the new cross-stitching hobby that I recently developed due to the lockdown life that we have found ourselves in. As I sit in front of my cloth, what will I create today? What life form will appear on the white fabric that sits on my lap?

Each night in the living room, my needle quietly weaves its story in and out of the fabric. I measure out my string and make my merciless cuts when I have finished the task at hand. I feel almost like a distant kin of the Fates—the fantastical image of the three Greek goddesses hunched over the spindle, the scissors, and the thread. Our lives in the mercy of these grandes dames to determine which way our strings will run and when we will feel the cold cut of the scissors and the end as we know it.

It is in these weeks, night after night, that I have been thinking more about my familial roots.

I should mention that the hobby of cross-stitching was one that originally came from my great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother. And probably from her mother before her and so on. It was her cross-stitching books that were passed on from hand to hand, cousin to cousin, woman to woman, generation to generation, continent to continent, that finally found their way to me. For the longest time these books collected dust on a bookshelf in the study room. They hadn’t seen the light of days in years, but perhaps in the yellowed No-Frills bag they were housed in, they were patiently waiting for me to unlock their secrets.

As I pore over these books, I wonder what kind of woman my great-grandmother was? I hope to find from these pages the clues that reveal the mysteries of a woman who peppered the childhood stories of my mother. From the tales that she and my grandfather shared, my great-grandmother was a quiet, diminutive woman who, like many in her generation, determinedly put her family needs before her own. The language barrier which clashed between North and South India prohibited my mother from having lengthy conversations with her grandmother. But in their unspoken agreement they were able to form their own sort of bond forged by blood and the name that they shared, the elder melding with the younger.

Image description: Nine vintage cross-stitch books laid out in a grid on a table.

Needlework books originally belonging to the author’s great-grandmother. Photo credit Ikshaa Pai.

I like to imagine that after a long day of repeated domestic scenes of wiping noses, chopping vegetables, and worrying about the fates of her family, my great-grandmother much like me sat down by the waning sunlight and dying heat and created her own world of textile bliss. That she too, in her limited scope, was a creator, an innovator, an artiste. Did she replay the day like I do, turning over each word and gesture like a stone only to settle it back in the recesses of her mind? Or did she let the needle sing its own song and she followed, humming along? Did she feel like time sped up under the hypnotic trance of needlework like I find? Or did time hopefully spread like molasses, letting her relish all the alone time that she could get before the bustle of the next day quietly crept around the corner?

The designs in these cross-stitch books belong to an innocent world. Designs of schoolgirls in dresses, of farm animals and floral prints. Was my great-grandmother content with these images or did she instead crave a life that was filled with complexity, one that would never be afforded to her due to her sex and geography? Was she disappointed by her limitations or did she accept her destiny, knowing that her string was in the hands of the Fates, both understanding the importance of thread and life? When I work each night, is she looking from above, watching me stitch and shaking her head and tut-tutting at the amount of string that I waste after I quickly give up my attempt to untie the knot that I created and start afresh, knowing that her deft and patient hands would have solved the problem with the lightest touch? Would she be proud of the little needlework that I have accomplished? Would she guide me like she did my mother? Would she be happy that her quiet, artistic legacy was passed down to a woman that she will never meet and know? The only tie binding us is our mutual love for her son, my grandfather.

Image description: White cross-stitch canvas with colourful designes stitched, including a leaf, a paw, and three cursive letters.

The author’s first dabble with cross-stitching, from designs from her family’s books, inspired her to write this essay. Photo credit Ikshaa Pai.

It is funny how something as trivial as string can cause the past to collide with the present. Or perhaps it is not that much of stretch now that the world has gone helter-skelter, where moments, feelings, objects are simultaneously meaningful and meaningless.

These cross-stitch books have come to represent so much to me. While they are perhaps old-fashioned and brag of designs from a bygone era, their impact on my present day has been profound. In these books are the signification of art, creativity, intergenerational ties that continue to connect. So, each night as I sit in my living room I am not simply cross-stitching, not simply moving my needle across the canvas. I am also continuing this sacred art form and paying homage that I know my great-grandmother would have be proud of.

Featured photo credit Ikshaa Pai.

Copyright © Ikshaa Pai except as indicated.
Ikshaa Pai- Headshot

About Ikshaa Pai

Ikshaa (she/her) is an aspiring writer and budding embroiderer who has recently gotten back into the writing scene since the start of the pandemic. She graduated from University of Western Ontario with a master’s in English Literature. Ikshaa lives in Toronto with her family and their yellow lab. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays delving in topics such as the immigrant experience, body image, and connecting the threads of her family’s history.

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