Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Sideways Review: Beads, Fabric, and Yarn

John Proctor
Emily R. Grosholz’s “On Necklaces,”
Holly Welker’s “Satin Worship,” and
Kyoko Mori’s “Yarn”
The Best American Essays

2004, 2005, 2008
~6th in a series


For someone who made me read for an hour every day after school, my mom’s not much of a reader. Talking to her on the phone the other day, I mentioned Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life, which I’ve been reading and thought she might like. “Oh,” she said, “I would, but I have a lot of quilting to do.”

Her response got me thinking about essays, which most everything does these days. I’d be lying, or at least committing the sin of omission, if I didn’t say that when I embarked on my journey through The Best American Essays series, I foresaw difficulty in finishing all twenty-five (so far) volumes. Now, roughly halfway through them, I’m happy to say I’m not bored—quite the opposite, actually. I find myself continually amazed, often chuckling, but rarely bored. The key to this, I think, is something that’s inherent in the essay as a form, at least in the Montaignian sense of the essai, which is an attempt or a try. These attempts encompass a multitude of forms, from linear personal narrative to polemic to critical discourse and back again. But I find my favorite essays, the ones that stick with me, are the ones that find new forms as they go.

One of these “invented forms” shares something with my mother’s—and my aunts’ and my grandmother’s and most of the women on my mother’s side of the family’s—own creative expression, quilting. I’ve heard some critics use the term “mosaic,” or “segmented,” or “patchwork”; all words that describe an attempt to pull together patches of experience and knit them into a cohesive, exquisite object.

I’ve found three essays so far, in fact, that not only share this patchwork impulse with my mother but are actually about these traditionally feminine activities: Emily Grosholz’s “On Necklaces,” which is about her compulsion to string together beads and trinkets into objects of beauty; Holly Welker’s “Satin Worship,” about her obsession with fabric; and Kyoko Mori’s “Yarn,” which uses yarn as a trope and reminds me of the mnemonic device Rigoberto Gonzalez told me about, of a trope being “th’rope” that holds a piece together.

So perhaps I should start with Mori’s piece, a meditative essay on knitting, but also on the social history and significance of the craft to her and to the world, beginning with “the yellow mittens I made in seventh-grade home economics class” and circling into a brief history of knitting, a relatively young handcraft, and weaving—or rather, knitting—it all together with comparisons to people…

As with people, so with garments: the strengths and the weaknesses are often one and the same.

…and to the art of storytelling, which hearkens back to Gonzalez’s mnemonic device:

Thread is the overall theme that gives meaning to our words and thoughts—to lose the thread is to be incoherent or inattentive. A yarn is a long, pointless, but usually amusing story whose facts have been exaggerated. It is infinitely more relaxing to listen to a yarn than to a lecture whose thread we must follow.

I should reveal here that I have no interest in knitting, or in necklaces, or in fabric or beads really. I’m one of the many men who “feign polite interest and then change the subject” when it comes up, as Grosholz mentions in her essay. But I find myself, as a reader, completely transfixed by these essays and, as a writer, marveling at the methods they share with each other and with my mother.

Of course, as with most great essays, Grosholz’s is not just about its stated subject—it’s also about writing and art, family and tradition, form and symmetry, myth and marketplace, the personal and the universal. It amazes me, actually, that this essay manages to be about so much, strung together like beads on wire:

The easy part of making necklaces is finishing them, once you have the right equipment. The hard part is making necklaces that aren’t ugly (disproportionate, mismatched, or unbalanced) but at the same time aren’t boring…. A good necklace, like an organism or a poem, is a counterexample to the metaphysical thesis of reductionism: it is much more than the sum of its parts.

Holly Welker, in seeming extension of this idea of trope as string, begins her essay “Satin Worship” thus:

A notion is “a small, useful item, such as needles, buttons or thread.” Thread is a notion; destiny is a thread.

The essay itself mimics its subject, drawing its form as well as its content from the idea that fabric comes from individual threads, but in any functional fabric the individual threads are unnoticeable. And Welker also takes the metaphor and runs with it (though my mother might take issue with her opinion of quilting as narrative):

“Spinning a yarn” is a metaphor for telling a story, and stories can be “embroidered.” But quilting doesn’t seem to be of much use as a way to talk about narrative. Stitching contrasting pieces of fabric into a pattern, stitching that to another piece of fabric with some stuffing in the middle so that heat-trapping pockets of air are formed—that’s too elaborate for the way our culture likes to talk about writing. In fact, it’s rather an insult to call a story a patchwork, but high praise to call it seamless.

Like Mori and Grosholz, Welker weaves a story—or “spins a yarn”—that is both physical and metaphysical around an art and craft that is traditionally feminine; all three essays yield a voice that is both personal and universal, with their own obsessions transformed into synecdoche of a basic human desire to create, and to carry on the traditions of the species. I’m now just waiting for an essay on quilting.

John Proctor is the Assistant Editor of Reviews Gone Sideways. He’s reading one volume of The Best American Essays a month for the next two years, and he owns about half as many quilts as volumes of The Best American Essays.

More of John’s Hunger Mountain BAE reviewsAnd if that’s not enough, check out his contributions to The Best American Reading Club.


The Best American Essays 2004
Louis Menand, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Essays 2005
Susan Orlean, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin
The Best American Essays 2008
Adam Gopnik, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

john February 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm

I just realized I left out Molly Peacock’s “Passion Flowers in Winter” from BAE 2007, a wonderful essay on flower mosaics which would have gone nicely in this review. Ah, well. Look into that one too, dear readers.


Emily Grosholz March 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Dear John Proctor,

Thank you for your thoughtful review! As it happens, I’ve written one quilting poem, for Maxine and Victor Kumin when their beloved horse Boomer died, about a year ago. My colleague here in the philosophy department at Penn State, Irene Harvey, is a quilter, so I’ve learned something about the art from her. I thought of Boomer underground, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem from the Child’s Garden of Verses, “The Land of Counterpane,” and borrowing some of Irene’s vocabulary (rail fence and north star) I wrote this poem. Maybe your mother will like it too.

Best wishes, Emily G.

for Maxine and Victor Kumin

Boomer, daughter of Taboo,
Dam of Hallelujah, and
Earlier of Praise Be,
Today lies under snow,
Her coverlet precisely
Quilted by the hand
Of February and her kind
Owners, over many years,
In rail fence pattern,
Except for one edge where
A bright celestial neighbor
Adds a square: north star.


john March 26, 2012 at 6:05 pm

I’ve shared your poem with my mom, Emily. Thanks so much for sharing your words!


Emily Grosholz April 1, 2012 at 10:10 am

You’re welcome, John! Emily G.


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