A needlesmith is a person who makes a living with their hands sewing and doing needlework. Some needlesmiths’ are also men who excel in needlework design including weaving, embroidery, leatherwork, tailoring, sewing and design. This short story is about a very special woman I once knew who lived in Brooklyn, New York whose name is Mrs. Bernice E. Butler. I wanted to share Mrs. Butlers’ story because she was such a special woman in so many ways. She was an extraordinary gifted seamstress, clothes designer and embroideress. A woman of valor of great worth and integrity.
I met Mrs. Butler many moons ago and was honored to have the opportunity to sit with her one day to learn many intimate details about her life and sewing skills.
The first question I asked was how she learned to sew so well. She told me that she was born during the depression years and both her parents had died and left her and her siblings penniless and homeless.
Her mother’s father and his brother took them in and raised them. Her grandfather was a widower and very poor. Food was so scarce that all they had to eat was potatoes. Potato soup, fried potatoes, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes and mashed potatoes; all without meat. She told me one day she was so hungry she went to the root cellar to steal a potato so she could boil and eat it. But while in the cellar, she noticed a jar that looked like sugar. She ate a spoon full of the sugar and immediately her stomach and chest area began burning. She screamed until her grandfather came and she then learned she had eaten granulated lye for soap. When they arrived at the hospital, they were told by the head nurse that they did not serve black people. By chance, her grandfather thought to feed her cooking lard to relieve the burning in her chest and stomach. It worked! He did this for many days along with boiled potatoes and lots of prayers and soon Mrs. Butler was back to good health.
Her grandfather couldn’t afford to buy her and her siblings clothing and the other children made fun of them. She told herself that she would teach herself how to sew and she started by using brown grocery bags to make patterns and used some of her old clothes that she cut up and ironed for fabric. She did this until she could afford to buy her own fabrics to make fashionable dresses.
Mrs. Butler’s dresses were so well made they matched the work of another woman I greatly admired whose name was Madam Elizabeth Keckley born in 1818. She was the seamtress for President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Butler was my mother.
Just like my mother, I also do Needlework and am a Needlesmith. I am not as good as my mother but I was called to pursue a career in the field of Needlework Art and also Folk Art. My needlework career has taken me around the world making me with destiny would have made it possible that I and my mother could have experienced these places together. This year of 2015 for Women’s History I dedicate this simple story to one of the greatest women I’ve ever known, my beautiful mother, Mrs. Bernice E. Butler.
Denise E. Allen, Folk Artist, Painter and Seamstress