The Needle's Eye
Women and Work in the Age of Revolution
Sheds new light on women’s household and artisanal roles in early America
Among the enduring stereotypes of early American history has been the colonial Goodwife, perpetually spinning, sewing, darning, and quilting, answering all of her family’s textile needs. But the Goodwife of popular historical imagination obscures as much as she reveals; the icon appears to explain early American women’s labor history while at the same time allowing it to go unexplained. Tensions of class and gender recede, and the largest artisanal trade open to early American women is obscured in the guise of domesticity.
In this book, Marla R. Miller illuminates the significance of women’s work in the clothing trades of the early Republic. Drawing on diaries, letters, reminiscences, ledgers, and material culture, she explores the contours of working women’s lives in rural New England, offering a nuanced view of their varied ranks and roles—skilled and unskilled, black and white, artisanal and laboring—as producers and consumers, clients and craftswomen, employers and employees. By plumbing hierarchies of power and skill, Miller explains how needlework shaped and reflected the circumstances of real women’s lives, at once drawing them together and setting them apart.
The heart of the book brings into focus the entwined experiences of six women who lived in and around Hadley, Massachusetts, a thriving agricultural village nestled in a bend in the Connecticut River about halfway between the Connecticut and Vermont borders. Miller’s examination of their distinct yet overlapping worlds reveals the myriad ways that the circumstances of everyday lives positioned women in relationship to one another, enlarging and limiting opportunities and shaping the trajectories of days, years, and lifetimes in ways both large and small. The Needle’s Eye reveals not only how these women thought about their work, but how they thought about their world.
"Marla Miller’s book will inspire similar studies of women’s needlework in other regions of the country and, along with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun, be the beginning of a much more thorough understanding of women’s early labor history."—Lynne Z. Bassett, The Connecticut Historical Society
"This is an excellent study of an important topic. . . . It will engage scholars and students in early American history and also be accessible for general readers interested in women’s history, material culture, and social life in the period of the American Revolution. . . . In short, this is a rich and significant book."—Christopher Clark, University of Connecticut
"Many of the relevations of Needle's Eye are startling, not least among them the weeks of labor required to make a man's coat from start to finish in the late 1700s."—UMass Amherst Magazine
"This careful, richly detailed study unravels and reconstructs the working lives of unknown and unsung real women who plied the needle in the midst of multiple revolutions. . . .Miller reconstructs a complex world of women's work and relationships. She finds intersecting and overlapping spheres of household and community expressive of dense webs of connections shaping women's needlework within a changing marketplace. Particularly impressive is her reading of account books, documents that can pose narrative challenges. Out of countless transactions, Miller weaves together detailed portraits of women's needlework, their positions in communities, and their changing stations over time. . . .Well grounded in place and in the spaces in which women moved and worked, this book represents a solid addition to our understanding of women's laboring lives and interactions against the backdrop of revolutionary changes."—American Historical Review
"In this impressive book, Miller brings together the insights of women’s, labor and social history to make her readers think anew about topics we thought we already understood.