Seamstress and Narrative

Text, Sewing, and Narrative

The seamstress performs her work in time as she puts together parts that are patently spatial. If we assign the seamstress and her modern tool – the sewing machine – a symbolic role in the story in which she appears, together they can be said to produce the whirring motor of the plot, or a silent motor in the case of the seamstress sewing by hand. She is represented here by the Russian painter Ilya Repin; the seamstress at the sewing machine, by the American artist Edward Hopper.

One way to think about the seamstress is to consider her the agent of narrative: her work is directly related to making whole disconnected parts. She stitches together pieces of fabric with the purpose of creating a meaningful whole, whether a beautiful new garment or fixing an old one. Although everyday culture and nineteenth century literature portray her work as menial, the language of stitching, weaving, and sewing informs many of the metaphors that we use to describe narrative: 'narrative thread', for example, is a common image in both Russian and English, with thread having become a web term as well. 'Text', which is etymologically linked to 'textile' (from the Latin 'to weave') reveals a connection between writing and weaving. In English, we speak of seamless narrative montage or stories that present a seamless narrative experience.

Vladislav Khodasevich and Marina Tsvetaeva use the double meaning of thread (nit'), seam (shov), and stitch (stezhok) – literal and metaphoric – in their poetry that links sewing and writing.

Ты показала мне без слов,
Как вышел хорошо и чисто
Тобою проведенный шов
По краю белого батиста.

А я подумал: жизнь моя,
Как нить, за Божьими перстами
По легкой ткани бытия
Бежит такими же стежками.

Khodasevich, "Bez slov" (Without Words, 1918)

(English translation)

Some Russian terms for writing poetry have stitching as a subtext. The noun "stroka," meaning line of verse, is etymologically related to the verb "strochit'" ('to stitch'), but it also means line of stitches. Tsvetaeva uses the double meaning of "stroka," calling herself a day seamstress of lines ("Strok podennaia shveia") in "Crawling Slugs of Days" (Dnei spolzaiushchie slizni).