Maria Mitchell once said, “When I see a woman sew, I think, what a capacity she has for using a micrometer!” So, maybe what I am about to write would be a bit disappointing to her. However, I believe she was likely pleased by what sewing circles on Nantucket could accomplish for her fellow Nantucketers. As, the great-granddaughter of a milliner and extremely talented seamstress (she hand-smocked about twenty dresses for me when I was an infant and did all of that with rheumatoid arthritis!) and the granddaughter of two talented women of sewing and needlework, my apologies to Maria . . . .
The sewing circles that arose on Nantucket in the nineteenth century were formed in part because of the Great Fire of 1846, which, along with the demise of whaling and the lure of the Gold Rush, helped to bring about an economic depression that would last decades and cause Nantucket’s population to decrease from its height of around 10,000 in the 1830s to fewer than 2,000 people by the late nineteenth century. The sewing circles helped struggling families by providing them with clothes, food, and even paying their rent.
Many of the organizations rose from within the churches of the island and all were founded, managed, and run by women. The Ladies Union Circle of the First Congregational Church, established in 1846, was followed by similar groups, such as the Unitarian Sewing Society and the Ladies Wesleyan Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, both established in 1850. The women gathered together to create, sew, and sell their creations to raise money for those in need and for their own churches. The groups not only generated the money to help others; they also provided a social venue for those who remained on Nantucket and witnessed the quickly deteriorating social fabric of their island home. The societies served as a positive network and support group for their members.
The women’s activities, accomplished many good deeds, and one group, the Unitarians, was even able to purchase a parish house for the church with funds they raised – no small task. Additionally, the sewing circles gave rise to other groups that many islanders heavily relied upon in the nineteenth century: the Relief Association, the Children’s Aid Society, and the Ladies Howard Society, which could date its beginnings to the era of the American Revolution. The Relief Association is still in existence today; assisting island families in need.
The act of helping your fellow islander is something that has been a constant on Nantucket, back to when the first English came to the island to settle in 1659. Some of it is born of the isolation of the island, but it is largely that the island is akin to one big family and that is what you do, you take care of your family.