Hands to Work, Hearts to Flight: Amelia Earhart on Needlework and Aviation

I have learned from pleasant experience
that at the most despairing crisis, when all
looked sour beyond words, some delightful
“break” was apt to lurk just around the corner.

                                                            -- Amelia Earhart

It’s been said that fortune favors the brave, but Providence also attends the well-prepared and some of the most prepared women I know—women I admire who possess repose of the soul—have taught me that a well-kitted out sewing box is excellent training for adventures both close to home as well as far-flung fantasies.

This was the message that pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart encouraged in an interview for the popular women’s home arts magazine Needlecraft in May 1930, at a time when America was still reeling from the Wall Street crash six months earlier which plunged Main Street as well as the money men into the Great Depression.  With everyone’s nerves shaken and overwrought, America’s first modern heroine spoke about the connection between needlework and flying.  She wanted American women to realize that their dreams might be curtailed or detoured by the economy but that some of the best dreams begin at the kitchen table while darning socks, or continued in chairs by the fire while hooking a hearth rug.  Just make sure you have a copy of Modern Aviation nearby the sewing basket. 

“An interest in needlework doesn’t exclude an interest in aviation,” Amelia reminded women readers who were thrilled to know that she always packed “her little housewife, a small black box filled with a wonderful, large collections of all kinds, of threads, a few needles and scissors” on all her flights.  One rarely knew the delights of down-time if you weren’t prepared or expecting them.

The creative artistry of handicrafts has always been a part of women’s domestic daily round for centuries. It’s only in the last fifty years that what was once esteemed has been made to appear as “cultish” as hand work were demoted from being every woman’s accomplishment to the personal pursuits of a lucky few: women who had “time on their hands” (clearly an expression coined by a man!)  One of the reasons the clever Martha Stewart built a home based empire is that she was savvy enough to be aware that vintage serenity which had fallen through the cracks of frazzled modern living could be revamped and beautifully packaged.  

Hand work in all its many varieties was high art for Victorian women who began sewing at an early age. For Amelia Mary Earhart, born in Kansas in 1897, part of the last generation of young Victorian women as well as the first generation of “modern girls”,  life’s rich tapestry meant learning to excel in many pursuits.  The intimate and intricate soul craft of creating gave outward expression to countless women who often felt strait-jacketed by the expectations of a rigid society.  But they soon discovered that their exasperations could be calmed by the “Home Arts.” 

So many different crafts were part of their daily round: weaving, basketry, bead craft, needlecraft (embroidery, tatting, cross-stitching, lace making, smocking) sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting, rug hooking and leather craft) as women found harmony, confidence, self-determination and a sense of accomplishment.  When you peruse magazines during the thirties and forties you also discover that everyday handcrafts extended to pottery, stained glass, ribbon craft, paper craft (decoupage, collage, marbling, paper cutting, scrapbooking), bookbinding, framing and carpentry.  Whereas our great grandmothers blended meditative crafting into their everyday, can you imagine for a moment what they would say if they could time travel to an aisle at Michaels—it’s enough to bring on an attack of vertigo or “vapors” requiring regular doses of Lydia Pinkham’s “tonic” for frazzled nerves. 

 Still, our great grandmothers were wise enough to realize that meditative hand work enabled them to create and maintain boundaries and were enterprising enough to form Ladies Gift Guilds in which to sell their wares bringing in much needed income when times were very tough and money was tight.  

“The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune,” Amelia Earhart reminded them as she went from aviation record setter to a savvy and successful author, speaker and business woman; admired, respected and loved for her entrepreneurial instincts as well as adventurous “brand” which included a dazzling array of products including shoes, clothing, luggage, airplanes and automobiles.  

I think the great secret that artists of the everyday know is that when other people see that our hands are busy, they often give us a few moments grace from their requests. The pause that refreshes and restores. What the rest of the world doesn’t realize (and we shall never tell) is that when our hands are busy, our minds can rest and our dreams can soar.

Amelia Earhart confessed that “Courage is the price that Life extracts for granting peace.  The soul that knows it not, knows no release from little things.”  And for “modern” women, myself included, who forget that courage is best nurtured in small snatches of contentment, we might be missing on some of the best adventure training possible, not to mention the wisdom of the ages.  The next time the fabric of real life seems to unravel before your eyes, turn away from the nightly news and get busy with your hands, so that you can serenely sort out where your heart wishes to pick up the next stitch. 

After Amelia Earhart was tragically “lost” to the world in an effort to do the impossible—circumnavigate the globe—on May 31, 1937—and transitioned from history into icon, Eleanor Roosevelt observed that “She helped the cause of women by giving them a feeling that there was nothing they could not do.”  Amelia Earhart’s courage and creativity was a catalyst for dreams in the hearts of millions of women around the world.  She was and continues to be one Swell Dame for us all.

Sending love and fond wishes for some much deserved  well-spent moments this week, and always, blessings on your courage.