Saturday, May 25, 2013

Willing Hands (of Louisa May Alcott)

Willing Hands
(Of Louisa May Alcott)
     Two years ago I purchased a sampler chart made in Denmark. The original sampler stitched by Anna Thies in 1859, once hung in the Deutschen Stickmuster Celle, a museum in Germany. The museum closed this year.

     The DMC threads and linen were acquired at Hodge Podge in Historic Strasburg. I like the sampler’s fancy alphabet, the cat, the faded wreath of roses – representing the aged appearance of the sampler today - faded that is – all except for its tenacious Turkey red.

     Little by little I worked on it.

     Ideas occur to a stitcher. In the relaxing slowness she ponders. It occurred to me after stitching the first alphabet that I might replace the second with a verse from Proverbs that especially speaks me.

She seeks wool and flax, And willingly works with her hands.

     How convenient it was that the thread count within the space accommodated the verse nicely.

     While I began to stitch this into the sampler I had my head in the biography, Invincible Louisa, written by Cornelia Meigs in the 1930s. Its pages contributed to my Mother Culture. Here’s why.

     It is encouraging to get to know a woman such as Louisa May Alcott – a woman with “family love, loyalty and devotion. Upon such things the very structure of life is built.”*1 She worked with willing hands for the extent of her life.

     I liked reading the earliest parts of the book, Louisa’s infant years when her father, Bronson Alcott, was a contented teacher for a Quaker community in Pennsylvania. In a few years circumstances become strained. The Alcott’s experience pangs of poverty and dismay – but accompanied by courage and good humor – remarkably so.

     Bronson's experiment at Fruitlands in Massachusetts is his attempt to live out the utopian ideals of Transcendentalism.  His wife Abba – the only woman of the little commune - has her hands full. She “who had toiled without ceasing for a moment since daylight, would be sitting by the single lamp, sewing as though her life depended on it.”*2 Abba prepares all the food, sweeps, washes, and keeps their family of six clothed quite primitively. Unlike Louisa’s novel Little Women, there is no mention of an “old Hannah” to help out.

     The tree-lined meadows of Fruitlands were a beautiful expansive playground for young Louisa - one of four sisters - but her memories of it were not always bright. At age 8, she admires her mother’s spirit and helps her in any way she can, for there were times when Abba is left to take care of the farm.

Pretty lace maiden made by a mom in Australia

     By contrast to the Shaker Community across the river, which traded with the outside world, Fruitlands was meant to be self-supporting. Yet, it is doomed for other reasons, too. No animal could be forced into labor to plow or harvest. Nothing an animal produced could be used for food. The men of the commune are more philosophic than practical. In seven months the experiment ended. 

     Invincible Louisa began to wear on me as any tale of struggle would. The countless household moves and the inability of Bronson Alcott to provide for his family aroused my sympathy. He has no talent for commerce. His teaching positions are fleeting. A profound thinker and excellent speaker he travels and lectures on transcendental philosophy. The pay is a pittance but Abba always welcomes him home with open arms. 

cat in cross stitch

     I am glad I kept turning the pages. Although difficulties arise in dwelling after dwelling where they live, there is never depression. “Something ridiculous was always to be seen in every adventure, something to call forth mirth and become the basis for a family joke.” *3 Doesn’t this sound like the stories she wrote?

     As a young woman Louisa sets out to somehow be a financial help to her family. She writes for magazines. She authors little fairy stories. This is something. But when finances become desperate she learns that her long hair is worth a startling and tempting amount of money. Does she ever cash in this reserved capital?

cross stitch sampler
Ready to stitch the butterfly in the late afternoon sun


     After serving her country, nursing wounded civil war soldiers in Washington D.C., after utter exhaustion, recovering from a life-threatening illness, Louisa is urged to write a novel by a renowned publishing agent. She sees the need for a story of quality, “instead of the sentimental and tragic tales which [young] minds were usually fed.”*4 Little Women is the result. It was an instant success, a book well loved by many.


     Cornelia Meigs softly relates that Louisa “was unlike Bronson, that although she was devoted to him, there were certain of his ideas which she did not truly comprehend, . . . she did not quite fathom the motives behind them.”*5 In Little Women in which she writes about what she knows and loves best  - her mother and sisters - she says little about the father of the story. She does, however, acknowledge Bronson while she describes the perfect school for poor boys that he always dreamed he could establish.   

     With the publication of Little Women, and her other novels, Jo’s Boys, Little Men, An Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, etc., that follow, life gives Louisa what she asked of it - finally - security for those whom she loved dearly – a happy ending. Fame and fortune are won by some but few win it with so much affection, affection that lasts for more than a century.

     Although Louisa May Alcott’s novels will appear as suggested reading for young readers, and this is fine, I think a more mature student would benefit by her greater sympathy.

          One of her fairy stories is among those in Faerie Gold. I haven’t read it but it interests me. 

     In Your Story Hour Volume 2 a commemorative tale is told about her. The Your Story Hour recordings were heard over and over in our family. They will meet the expectations of those who seek inspiring content expertly told.

     After a novel or two, a high school student would appreciate Invincible Louisa. Above all, this biography as well as the novels, makes a welcome read for an adult. By them we who are walking through life’s pressing responsibilities, we who are faced with life’s increased challenges, will be reminded not to give up on our dreams.   

End Notes
Cornelia Meigs, Invincible Louisa, Scholastic Inc.
*1 pg64   *2 pg 56   *3 pg 89   *4 pg 200  *5 pg 213

     Do you like historical houses? I do. To see a tour of rooms click Orchard House. It is where Louisa wrote Little Women. Fruitlands is preserved and open as a museum today, too.

Anna Thies reproduction sampler
My sampler photographed on the back of the sofa awaits framing.  Can you see the verse from Proverbs?

Comments are Welcome,
Karen Andreola 


  1. Karen, your sampler is lovely. The cat makes me smile!


  2. It's beautiful Karen!

    I've never seen this book about Louisa. I'll need to check it out. Thank you too for the links.


  3. Oh Karen, what a lovely post :) I am a great fan of L.M.Alcott and have enjoyed her stories quite a bit. My sons were not big fans :(

    The sampler is just delightful, and yes, I could read the Proverb...thank you so much for sharing. m.

  4. The sampler is just beautiful,your handwork is wonderful. Thanks for sharing this biography of Louisa Alcott. I put it on my list of books to look for at the library. Sounds like something I would love to read.


  5. I really liked that book. I did feel sorry for them, living to their father's ideas and ideals. I wondered about Bronson and felt that he had lost his way.

  6. Your sampler is *lovely*. I love the colors and the verse is just perfect.

    Thank you for the links to the Alcott home tour. I love old houses and I love history. :)

  7. Hello Karen,
    I particularly enjoyed this post and will try to get the book.Your sampler is beautiful and I love that Proverbs 31 verse. Cross stitch is something I really enjoy. So very relaxing and gives me time to let my mind just wonder about. Have a lovely day.
    Blessings Gail

  8. Your stitcheries are so inspiring. I've not done much counted cross stitch but eagerly anticipate the day that the fascination becomes application! I feel the itch.. :)

    What dreamy, romantic, home school mom (or daughter) hasn't fallen in love with the Alcott books? I appreciate your well told summation of Louisa's beginnings and look forward to reading the recommended books. Once again you inspire so much.. Thank you for all that you put into your posts and for the inspiration you've been to me these past years.

    Blessings, Debbie

  9. Karen,

    Your stitching is lovely, and I like the substitution you made. :) I had your website up and was reading your post when an email arrived that you had commented over on mine...funny how these blogs provide connections across the continent! Thanks, as always, for the good reading recommendations. So glad your grandsons came to visit over the weekend!

    Many blessings,

    Lisa :)

  10. Karen, I love the way you interlink your hand crafts, your quiet thoughts, and gentle lessons with literature and family stories. As always, love this post. Invincible Louisa sits on my shelf, unread. It just moved up on my list of to-reads.

  11. The sampler is lovely! I have never worked with Linen, only Aida, but I would like to work this sampler. Do you know where I might get it?

  12. How special to see your progress on your beautiful sampler and to be able to admire the finished work. I like the verse you put in there very much. You are an artist!

  13. Dear Ladies,
    Thank you for sharing your interest in the biography of Louisa May Alcott and the sampler I stitched. I've observed that life and books blend in the mind of the reader. Perhaps you've observed this, too.

    The company Homespun Samplar (spelled with an "a") sells linen - and a great many charts. It takes a little scouting to find the telephone number but you can call if you have questions. I like linen because you can "sew." Like quilting the needle stays above your fabric. Wyndham Needleworks has less charts but a nice selection of antique designs that doesn't take hours to wade through. I'll try and remember where I found the rose wreath chart. In the meanwhile email me if you'd like.

    Karen A.

  14. I love your sampler! My first cross-stitch project was a sampler that I designed myself. I was 10. My mom had to really stand on me (figuratively, of course) to make me finish the border--first! The rest was more fun. I won a blue ribbon at our county fair, and it is hanging in my sewing corner now. I haven't cross-stitched for years, but I was just thinking about my Proverbs 31 pattern the other day. Hmmm. My daughter is reading Little Women, and you have made me want to read it again. Thank you for your lovely meeting place blog.

  15. Karen,
    I read this post back in late May. A little memory came flooding in with the thoughts that I had read this book. A trip to the library upon which I checked out the book, and as I began to read it I realized it was the book I remembered and truly enjoyed reading years ago.

    I love revisiting books, especially good books!

  16. Hello dear Mrs. Andreola,
    You inspire me to look into this book. Alas I have quite a list of books I'd like to read. I also want to knit. I must see if I can find some books on cd. Blessings, Mrs. Laura Lane ~wink~