Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Arts


Art History


Robertson, Kirsty


Recent scholarship frames craft as distinct from art and as an encapsulation of cultural expression at a given moment. Building on that framework, this thesis analyzes the shifting attitudes towards the production of handmade textiles among Eastern European Jews in the US in the twentieth century, as influenced by their migration. To demonstrate the textile environment at that time, this thesis examines pre- and post-migration primary sources and autobiographical writing, including Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, supplemented with interviews of first- and second-generation immigrants to Chicago. In contrast with stereotypes about craft as historically stable, defining craft as regional also reveals change over time. The study further finds that some forms of handmade objects, namely lace, to transcend the scholarly craft/art distinction. Lastly, this research demonstrates how textiles carry memory, as historical records, and how they transmit experience past their moment and locale of origin unto new places and times.

Summary for Lay Audience

The Embroidered Tablecloth is a study about craft. It views craft as a broad category consisting of many different techniques and styles. Historically, understandings of textile work minimized the creativity and artistry involved in the creation of textiles and gave the appearance that craft was unchanging throughout history. The research in this thesis instead presents craft as specific to geographic region, culture, and time by studying the context of textile craft production within the Eastern European Jewish community of immigrants to the US at the turn of the 20th century.

This thesis looks at two types of sources: primary written sources during the period of the Great Jewish Migration to the US, occurring between the years of 1882 and 1924, and qualitative interviews of descendants of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The primary sources, which include an autobiography, an unpublished journal, two periodicals, and a craft fair, offer insight into which kinds of techniques and to what extent each was used. Subsequently, twelve women were interviewed about the craft knowledge of their immigrant ancestor(s) and direct descendants, including their own experiences with craft. Each heirloom mentioned in these interviews has been recorded and analyzed both individually and in aggregate.

Observations from this research were several. First, the presence of a needs-based hierarchy of techniques during the era of the Great Jewish Migration extending to 1950 was made clear. This hierarchy included firstly sewn, embroidered, and knitted items as ubiquitous among makers. Sewing and knitting were used for practical purposes based on necessity, often when machine-made items were unavailable. Embroidery’s prevalence as a decorative element was due to its natural extension from sewing. Secondly, white lace was created for beautification of the home, using drawn and cut work, crochet, bobbin lace, and others. After a short transition phase, craft work in the 1960s onward functioned from a desire-based model. Crocheting and knitting were paired together, sewing became on of several options, rather than pervasive, and almost all projects were done out of choice. This thesis also understands textiles to carry memory and thus can act as a historical record of family history.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.