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Lace in the Crystal City

Lace in the Crystal City

Joseph Sciorra (August 28, 2008)
Joseph Sciorra
The exhibition “Lace, the Spaces Between,” Corning, New York.

An exhibition presents women’s domestic needlework in Corning, New York.



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.


Lace Exhibit Announcement [open]
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sciorra's picture

to Cheryl

I'm glad you found my blog. Thanks for commenting. I don't know where you can find such a pattern. Joseph Sciorra

Lace in the Crystal City

Well, I am so happy you posted this complete with photos. Providing the i.d. of women who made the lace and in social context is especially important and wonderful to see. Like others, I too collect, and hold dear and when I can display at least some of the items that are identified with particular women in my family who are now gone. Thank you for sharing.

Interesting: did she also

Interesting: did she also talk about the current craze of collecting such linens at swap meets--where prices for _antica biancheria_ have hit the roof? I've been collecting night gowns, pillow cases, sheets, and other embroidered things for at least 3 decades (started at le Cascine in Florence in late 70's) usually at Italian street markets on the _roba americana_ tables. It always pains me to think of the hours women put into this work and how it was all being discarded by those who were done with hand crafts and everything they represented. It seems a real _recupero_ has been going on for many of us (not necessarily to produce ourselves, but to collect/use/appreciate, at the very least). Of course, the other thing that is sad, is the thought that many of these items may have been donated to charities of various sorts and are now being sold in marketplaces... When I use these linens at home—and because they were so inexpensive to buy, and beautiful, I prefer them to store-bought—I think of those women and girls putting carefully created linens into their hope chests and know I am communing with loving hands and hearts. Thanks Joey Skee. ldg

sciorra's picture


The exhibit deals with one with a contemporary visual artist -- I don't recall her name at the moment -- who incorporates discarded/found needlework in her art.

just before heading to Corning, NY, picked up some beautiful cut work in an upstate NY flea market only because it was so cheap, $3.



thanks giuseppe for this... the photos are beautiful.