Last week I visited the brilliantly conceptualized and beautifully executed exhibition “Lace, the Spaces Between” at the Benjamin Patterson Inn Museum in Corning, New York. The modest, one-room exhibit is subtitled “Domestic Lace Making and the Social Fabric of the Italian American Community in Corning.” It closes on December 20th.
Corning is known as the Crystal City because of its historic association with glass making. Italian men arrived at the turn of the twentieth century to labor on the three railroad companies, with women and children coming afterwards. They settled in the Irish neighborhood along Water Street, frequented St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, established the Marconi Lodge, and listened to the symphonic marches of the Sons of Italy Liberty Marching Band.
For exhibit curator Constance Sullivan-Blum “[h]andmade domestic lace can be seen as a metaphor for the Italian American experience in Corning, [. . .] representing the social dynamics of the immigrant experience as people struggle with preserving their cultural identity while adopting new practices both by choice and by coercion in their new homes.”
The exhibited needlework focused on crochet – “the lace of poor people” – made to imitate bobbin lace created for elite families. Through text and artifacts, the exhibit shows the various crochet patterns like “violets” and “wild strawberries,” and techniques like reticella that involved cutting and pulling threads to create a frame for additional threads.
The exhibit goes out of its way to identify individual makers like Paulina Baldina Capozzi, Julia Pieri, and Lucia Yorio, to name but three, and situate their handmade objects in context. Cary Castellana Granata’s decorated bed sheet and pillowcases are displayed on a mock bed. Visitors are invited to enjoy the beauty of a series of filigreed dollies, runners, and table cloths by opening drawers of a dresser tucked in a corner.
Over time, Italian-American women adapted their skills to their new environment. They borrowed Irish patterns from their neighbors, gave American names to Italian patterns (e.g., “wild strawberries” were redubbed “pineapples”), used thicker and multicolored threads, and utilized patterns published by Carmela Testa and Company of Boston.
The exhibit deals with women refusing to learn or practice needlework, as new economic and social opportunities became available:
“The refusal of young women to learn crochet symbolized cultural change. Young women were unwilling to iron linens, clean lace or take the time to make lace doilies. They saw lace as an inconvenience that added work rather than an art that increased the beauty of the home. They also rejected socializing in women-only crochet circles and acquired the social interests of other American youth.”
I learned about the catastrophic flooding of the Chemung River in 1972 during a storm (the remnants of Hurricane Agnes) that destroyed much of the city, including the Italian community of Water Street.
The exhibit concludes with examples of contemporary Italian-American women involved in domestic needlework, part of a larger needlework revival in the United States. Some women learned directly from their elders, while others use American-style stitches and patterns.
“Lace, the Spaces Between” is an important contribution to our understanding of Italian-American women domestic artistry and work.