Sometimes homemaking can seem to be a continual cycle of projects with no endings. We shop for food, prepare food, and clean up food. We buy clothes, wash clothes, and put away clothes. Day after day fades with little proof of how much work or good has been done. Because tangible evidence of their efforts is elusive, women throughout the centuries have used domestic arts to give visibility to their homemaking skills and accomplishments.
Anciently, our sisters worked more with their hands, spinning, sewing, and making candles. The Old Testament records that a virtuous woman “worketh willingly with her hands” (Prov. 31:13), and in the Book of Mormon we read that the women spun, toiled, and worked fine linen and the people prospered (see Mosiah 10:5).
But how do women today leave tangible evidence of all the good they do? Through the centuries, women had to work hard just to survive; yet they managed to create beautiful tapestries, bake festive holiday meals, and develop sophisticated herb gardens. These domestic labors were their way of weaving discernible threads of accomplishment throughout the unrelenting elements of their world. The austere surroundings of many women moved them to create beauty with simple objects. My great-grandmother, Sarah Oakey Sirrine, left behind several artifacts that attest to this.
Sarah was from a prominent family of lace makers in Nottingham, England. When they joined the Church, the family, led by their mother, walked across the plains to Zion. After they arrived, President Brigham Young called them to farm in Paris, Idaho, in 1864. It was not easy for an artistic lace maker to put aside the lace patterns and work the rugged land of Bear Lake County. Yet farm they did, saving the patterns and hoping to someday take up their craft again; but it was not to be. Our family still has the old lace designs my ancestors brought from England.
Family memories of Sarah describe her as someone who always liked the finer things in life. She would collect odd bits of string and later add them as tatting to the edges of things she wanted to fancy up. A family heirloom from Sarah is a bleached flour-sack pillow with delicate string embroidery around the edges, a testament of her desire to add beauty to a spartan existence.
I remember that my mother would also take ordinary elements and create art. Once when our family was gathered around the table for dinner, my father said, “Look at this salad your mother has made. See how artistically the tomato slices are arranged on the lettuce. It looks too pretty to eat.” My father insisted on taking a picture of that salad. In the photo, my mom is standing in the background, with a smile on her face.
When women have something tangible to show for their labor, it reinforces feelings of worth. Weaving, journal writing, and cooking thus become practical as well as artistic endeavors—a result of their longing for a bit of immortality. They wish to leave a legacy.
The Church has always recognized the need for women to learn domestic arts. To support the sisters in developing homemaking skills, “work day” was established. That Relief Society activity day, which evolved into homemaking meeting, was held on a weekday in the middle of the day, and all the sisters attended the same class and worked on identical projects.
Many of us have mused at the glass grapes made in those Relief Society classes during the sixties. There were so many glass grapes set on tables throughout Zion that one nonmember was overheard asking what symbolic meaning grapes had for our religion. We may chuckle now at those grapes, but they had an important place in our folk-art history.
Quiet books also tell a story about Latter-day Saint women. The early forms of these books were simply handkerchiefs folded to look like a baby in a blanket. Since then, quiet books have evolved to handmade cloth books with lacing, zipping, and buttoning activities designed to keep an active little one quiet in church. My grandmother used the doll handkerchief to keep her children quiet in church; a generation later my mother made me a quiet book.
Concrete reminders of our heritage include hand-tatted pillowcases, glass grapes, and quiet books. But what will be the Latter-day Saint domestic-art legacy of the nineties? Because we live in a time when social forces have attempted to devalue women’s work in the home, a widespread misperception is that the only valuable contributions to be made to society have a paycheck attached to them. As a result, many women of today feel that they should be superwomen, effortlessly accomplishing what traditional women have always done, while simultaneously working to bring home money.
Women who become enmeshed in this philosophy sometimes choose to work outside the home when it is not financially necessary. As Latter-day Saint mothers blessed with a testimony of our Father’s great plan of happiness, we must never lose sight of the fact that our efforts and time spent in rearing our families in the safe refuge of gospel-centered homes are our most lasting legacy of all.
Whereas our foremothers battled limited resources in order to enhance home life, one of our major battles might be battling limited resources as well as challenging society’s attitude. Learning and practicing homemaking skills is not popular among the sophisticated in today’s world. But Latter-day Saint women have a unique perspective on building homes: we build them for eternity, understanding that the efforts we make today can reap rewards forever.
I will always be grateful to those who shared their testimony of homemaking with me. My mother was a great example to me, but when I married and moved far from home, I found I needed more home-management skills. Although my husband taught me to make gravy, most of my skills were learned in the cultural hall at church during homemaking meeting. Slowly I have found that happiness and fulfillment can come by creating order, serenity, and beauty in my home.
Sisters in the Church find themselves in vastly different circumstances. There are single sisters, single mothers, widows, young mothers, working mothers, and sisters with no children. Every one has different interests, talents, and ways of expressing herself and finding fulfillment in the area of homemaking. Most homemaking meetings today offer a variety of ways to learn more about creating a lasting legacy. To my Aunt Lottie, canning was tangible proof of where her hours in the day had gone. I’ve found that the fruit of my hands is most visible in my sewing.
Barbara Griffin, a designer of children’s clothing, says, “When you sew for children, you give them a hug to wear all day long.” When my son Jace was three years old, he loved tigers. I made him some pants with a patch of a tiger’s paw coming out of the back pocket. We called them his “Grrr” pants, and he wore them nearly every day. Few things have brought me greater satisfaction than seeing Jace’s enthusiasm when he wore those pants.
I’m sad that many women today have almost no time, or feel that they have no time, for domestic art, whether it be sewing, cooking, knitting, gardening, making home decorations, or any of dozens of other activities that serve practical needs as well as offer creative outlets. There is a joy that comes from sewing a pair of pants, designing curtains, or even scrubbing floors to make one’s home shine. As my hands shape the environment of my family, I love even more that place in which I labor. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).
We live in a world driven by materialism. As a result, the value of domestic art is often overlooked or undefined. But although homemaking chores can be wearisome in their repetition and intangible rewards, even a simple task, if approached with an artistic eye, can be meaningful.
Great-grandmother Sarah left me another relic. It is a simple infant blessing gown, inventively made from a rough flour sack. A casing at the neck has a string that gathers the garment around the baby. The gown is crude but serves as a reminder that we can build a legacy with the common materials available to us. We can feel satisfaction, as did sisters of old, in spinning, cooking, nurturing, and loving with our hands—finding fulfillment in the fruit of our hands (see Prov. 31:31).