Thread the Cotton
Court Fields School, Somerset
What on the BLT19.co.uk website inspired you?
I was inspired by a periodical I encountered titled ‘Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket’. It drew me in, as I do enjoy needleworking activities – such as dressmaking, crocheting and embroidery. But as I reflected on the insight these magazines were providing, it struck me as quite damning that these were activities targeted solely toward a certain group of upper-class women who had a bit of downtime between their chores, simply as a way to occupy them, to perhaps earn an extra sum to accompany the man’s pay. This belief system that a woman was only capable of so much alongside housework played a note in me because I think it really reflected the patriarchal society the Victorians resided in. From this, a pair of rather opinionated conflicting characters sprung from my mind, with two arguments regarding the ideal. Mother and daughter. A girl, who saw the world of work in a more contemporary light, questioning why a woman’s role was one thing, and why it was something so contrasting of a man’s. As well as a Mother, who had been brought up to believe and act in a certain way, and therefore of course was blinded from anything different. I decided not to write my story in the 1st person of either Edith or Agnes, to leave room for a fair argument for each character, and to leave a decision up to the reader as to which standpoint they resonated with most.
Thread the cotton. Make the loop. Twist it. Pass it. Knot it. Repeat. Thread the cotton.
Make the loop. Twist it.
Pass it. Knot-
‘Edith, do not ignore your mother! You’re forgetting to pull the thread tightly and to hold the loop loosely! Good gosh! Look at the mess you’re making!’
Edith’s mother resembled a steaming teapot, hot air pouring out of it as she boiled over in rage. All she needed was her daughter’s inability to complete a simple stitch to make her see red. She loathed Edith’s utter laziness, her disrespect for the art of needlework, and worst of all, the unladylike grimace which was now scrawled over her face. For Edith, unsurprisingly, was not fond of needlework. Her eyebrows furrowed in a distasteful tight knit, as she bowed down the hoop and needle clutched in her hands. She despised its repetitive nature, its required needless effort, and most of all, her mother’s firm belief that it was a pleasant way to spend one’s morning. To Edith, it certainly wasn’t. Wasting away the hours, embroidering an already mandatory piece of cloth, for her mother to sell on to a market seller. When in fact, she would much rather be outside playing a game of football, accompanying the boys of the street. It was always dark and cloudy in the slim strip of the cobblestone connecting the slum housing. Yet Edith didn’t mind how it clogged up her throat, whenever she took a gasp of air. Nor did she mind the way the lads pushed her about during a match. If anything, she appreciated it more, as it showed she was nothing less than equal to the boys. She was one of them.
‘Edith, are you even listening?!’
Her Mother screeched, now resemblant of an aggravated, squawking seagull, or perhaps a cuckoo clock, aggressively singing its tune. Whichever, Edith saw her Mother’s eyes expand in shock, she was most definitely used to her mother’s outbursts. In a house with four boys, three girls and a baby, it was the only way to keep order. And believe me, order was kept around Agnes Fletcher – although it seemed that, much more recently, a certain Edith Fletcher was trying to test these order boundaries.
‘Excuse my warrantless tongue mother, but I simply cannot stand this boring work any longer! It’s driving me around the bend!’
Agnes’ lips quivered in a gasp of abhorrent shock.
‘Good heavens, calm yourself, Edith.’
Her mother’s tone shifted to one of solemn sternness. It was becoming clearer that she despised any form of unladylikeness that might spring up in her daughter, including the flamboyant displays occurring in their cramped sitting room.
‘There is no room for your restless tongue here,’ she snapped.
Quite literally, there wasn’t. They sat toe-to-toe in their sitting chairs, as the room beside them was piled high with hand-me-down cots and other relics destined to be passed onto the baby in due time.
‘It’s true though mother! What is this work ever going to achieve?’
She pressed further, blatantly ignoring her mother’s adversarial tone. It seemed that once the match was struck inside Edith, words spewed out of her like a wildfire.
‘We should be out there, learning and exploring in challenging sectors of work, like Father, being physically confronted every day at his factory! Or like Uncle Tim, who endlessly works his land, and looks after his farm animals. People are all out there, doing something. Making an impact. And why is it that they all happen to be men?’
Although the words had dissipated from her lips, they seemed to resonate in the air for a long time. Edith was not quite certain of their impact until they had left her unforgiving tongue. And now the words pressed down on them, as the two women faced the immense harshness of knowing that they were the truth.
For a moment, her mother just looked at Edith. She stared hard, as if her daughter was no longer sitting there, but instead, a toad had taken her place. And it suddenly struck Edith, at that point, that the pair could not be more dissimilar in views. Prior to her outburst, she had thought, for a split second, that she could potentially change her mother’s views. But it was strikingly clear now, that this wasn’t the case. As her mother opened her mouth, Edith feared the verbal blow she was about to get cuffed with, across her already pink-tinted cheeks. But no words came. Utter silence fell onto the heavily enraged pair. The only sounds heard were huffed puffs, exerted from a despaired exhaustion. Edith had never seen her mother so richly aggravated, yet so quiet. Her dagger eyes did all the talking. When her mother stood she abruptly pushed back her chair with a start, causing a muffled kerfuffle of boxes to fall behind her.
Determinedly, Edith’s mother examined the room. Searching… Looking for something… When she found it lying delicately on a side table, her hands prized the item in question as if it were the crown jewels. She placed it in Edith’s lap. Who upon closer inspection, Edith noticed it was a rectangular stack of paper, with the flowing words of ‘Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket’ printed upon it. It seemed as if her mother’s response was not to be venomous, but silent and deadly. It shocked Edith when the next words to come out of her mother’s mouth were not sparked by a hostile pressure, but instead, a tone gently touched by the heaviness of emotion, yet lightened by the masking of such. Control was ladylike. A warranty of self-impudence was not.
‘You must practice your single stitch. Perhaps then you will see the importance of our work, and not spout such unflattering immaturities.’
Her mother emphasised in her controlled tone. It reeked of a judgmental, patronising note. Edith simply huffed, her shoulders concaving over as she collapsed in on herself in the chair. Her physical attribution of giving up. It seemed, our heroine was not fond of verbal criticism, nevertheless how unwarranted it may seem to us now. For a girl of her time, her ideas were radical. To openly disgrace the act of needlework was almost a sin in itself. Perhaps Edith was just ahead of her time…
With the smallest slice of willingness, she flicked open the periodical in her lap, as if it took the most effort effable. Her eyes gently perused the page, not meaning to really take in any knowledge on offer. She noted the extravagant font and design that seeped into the writing. How you could quite literally smell the femininity extruding off of it. A whiff of rose petals and white lilies clogged Edith’s throat as she examined the instructions. The education on how to be a socially acceptable woman was printed on the pages. Sold, to women up and down the country. Then a realisation fell on Edith like a ton of bricks. It was simply not that these patriarchal beliefs had been engrained into men and women at birth. They were not born with the assumption of what work they were to commit themselves to. They were not limited to the mindset of what they socially could or could not do. It was the printed word. The press, the periodicals. The printers and publishers had metamorphosed this idea of what set of tasks men were to complete and summed up the ones for women also. There was no real set in stone answer to what either’s purpose was. It was the media that controlled the workforce.
As she looked at the linen fabric in which lay so poorly in her lap, with stitches unravelling and seams fraying, she came to the timely conclusion that perhaps embroidery was not her purpose in life. Perhaps there was more to life than sticking a needle in fabric to make it look pretty. Perhaps there was a bigger role, a larger gap in the demand for jobs in which was made for her athletic skillset (I mean, how many other girls of Victorian England could say they had scored a penalty against every boy down the street?) and her willingness to make an impact. But perhaps there were also people in this world whose working purpose was to make items of a more delightful sort. As she looked up from her lap, from the expectations of who she was to be, her eyes fell upon her mother and softened. She noticed the way she lightly stuck out her tongue, just to the corner of her lips, as she pulled the thread to and from. The concentration on her face was timeless. To see a person so intimately focused on a piece of work touched something in Edith’s heart. As the soft metallic sound resonated in her bones, she realised the piece of work, no matter how small or impactful, gave her mother purpose. It provided women of the time, with reason. But could these women be doing more? And why was it, that these women weren’t allowed to do more?
Slowly, anger bubbled its way back into Edith. Splurging in its venomous bouts, as yet again she came face to face with the front she blamed for all this. The newspaper, which lay nonchalantly in her lap. With her heart leading, she stood. She stood without direction, without entirely knowing where she was headed, but she stood with so much conviction, so much purpose, that her Mother almost flinched in her seat. Eyes of questioning shock. Close-knit intrigue, masked by narrowed distaste.
‘Edith… What do you think you’re doing?’
She was so inbound in herself within that moment, that upon hearing her mother’s voice, it almost startled her, head cocking around to face her mother. Feebly, helplessly in her sitting chair. And Edith made another one of her timely realisations. It wasn’t her mother’s fault. It wasn’t any woman’s really. For they were stuck. Trapped in a system, which constricted them from any movement outside the realms of their gender’s norm. Her mother had not known anything else than needlework, and housecare. And it wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t experienced anything other, because there was simply no opportunities for women. But Edith could single out a source of blame for this jail sentence working men and women were imprisoned with. And it was clenched firmly within Edith’s fist. She looked at it once again, sharply breathing in the intoxicating imprisonment of curled font, targeted advertisement campaigns and wretched instructions of a ‘woman’s job.’ And at that moment, Edith knew she wanted nothing more than to not conform to it. Paper wrinkled, scrunched, torn. Words ineffable. It was a start.
Now fear teetered in her mother’s voice. Uncertainty. Her uncalled for monologues were one thing, but now her sudden standing and this defacement of property, that was another. Her mother wasn’t quite sure. But no one expected her to be sure, born into this system: bred, boiled and enmeshed.
But Edith? Edith was born for change. And so with one foot forward, she made a change. And another. Striding steps. Purpose and importance seeping into her, with every muscle movement she made.
And her mother? Well – golly gosh! – if she wasn’t sure how to react before, she certainly wasn’t sure now. A certain blankness reigned on her face.
But this story is no longer about Agnes Fletcher. It’s about the girl, who with every bold step she took further and further away from her mother, felt freer and freer from the expectations of women. She left her chair, like her mother had previously, in search of something. Although, unlike her mother, she wasn’t quite sure what. But what she was certain of, is that there was something out there for her.
And so she left.
And with every step she took, a contented smile slowly grew wider and wider on her face.