LADIES, FIRST: COMMON THREADS
An ardent crocheter, Debra Scala Giokas yearned to tell yarns about the nation’s first ladies, how they stitched together an army of wartime knitters, built the West Wing, held parties with oyster ice cream and shared needlework patterns with the public.
People may know basic facts about U.S. First Ladies, but "Ladies, First: Common Threads" is the first biography of its kind to hone in their needlework.
The book features 18 First Ladies, including Iowa native Lou Henry Hoover, who all shared a love of needlework, be it knitting, crocheting, embroidering, quilting, cross-stitching or sewing."
Included in Ladies, First: Common Threads are images of needlework by the first ladies: a baby cap knitted by Dolley Madison, tumbling block pattern quilt sewn by Abigail Fillmore, and a needlepoint rug created by Barbara Bush, for example. The book’s plentiful historic and needlework images are not highly detailed, and the book is designed in muted tones, giving it an historic feel. However, you can easily read from the images of typewritten instructions on pages 74-75 from First Lady Edith Roosevelt for knitting a pair of men’s socks.
"I have come to appreciate each and every one of them," Scala Giokas says when pressed to choose a favorite first lady. "But I must say that I am in awe of Eleanor Roosevelt for all that she accomplished in regard to humanitarianism. And then to find out that whenever she was sitting, she was knitting, was just amazing. She always wanted to have a purpose and to be of use."
The book dives into stories about 18 first ladies and focuses on ones who at one point in their lives knitted, crocheted, embroidered, quilted, cross-stitched or sewed. The book contains photos of the ladies’ work and tells stories that humanize these extraordinary women.
Scala Giokas, who is an avid crocheter, said she first got the idea to write this book after learning that Ida McKinley crocheted 4,000 slippers in her lifetime. She was originally going to write a picture book on McKinley, but decided to highlight more first ladies and their work.
Lou Henry Hoover and 17 other first ladies who, at one point in their lives knitted, crocheted, embroidered, quilted, cross-stitched, or sewed, are the focus of a new book, “Ladies, First: Common Threads,” by Debra Scala Giokas.
Scala Giokas will present a virtual book talk via Zoom, Aug. 18 at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
According to Scala Giokas, Lou Henry Hoover could knit and cross-stitch. She was known for knitting baby blankets with a process called double-knitting, which creates reversible blankets. Present day knitters have emulated her pattern and it appears on popular websites such as ravelry.com, Scala Giokas said.
In addition to biographical information, the chapter on Mrs. Hoover includes a story about her role in the formation of the President’s Mountain School, established near Camp Rapidan in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
The lasting impression of
America's first ladies
"The audience was treated to a rich tapestry of insights about the women who have helped shape the course of American history," said association president, Mary Bailey."
Her curiosity was piqued after seeing one of McCardell's monastic dresses on display. After reading articles about the designer and her autobiography, Scala Giokas determined it would be a great story for children and more.
The scenes from McCardell’s years in New York City are particularly striking. Reading CLAIRE empowers to see that when faced with a problem, one only has to design their own solution. Scala Giokas’ natural warmth and enthusiasm shine in the pages of Claire straight through to the end, where you can find old-fashioned paper dolls to continue the adventure.
“What intrigued me was that Claire was ahead of her time,” Scala-Giokas said.
“She had three brothers; she played with them and wanted to wear comfortable clothes. So she made her own. In the high-fashion world, everyone knows her. Donna Karan, Michael Kors and Diane von Furstenberg all credit Claire; she influenced a lot of designers. In Maryland, they know her, but not many here.”
“This is to encourage little girls to dream big. Of course, it’s for anyone who appreciates fashion,” she added.
Today’s special guest is someone I met when we were both at Stony Brook University – Southampton writing conference in 2017.
“There was a 2018 New York Times article about the exhibition ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion in Catholic Imagination’ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that included Claire McCardell and her monastic dress [an unstructured garment that could be self-styled with a belt or sash]. And that’s how it started,” she said. “I began really to research her....”
“I read her autobiography, What Shall I Wear (Simon and Schuster, 1956), and then read as many articles as I could find about her. I thought it would make an inspiring story for children, especially girls. Here is someone who wanted to play sports . . . but not in dresses. She solved her own problem with creativity.”
Debra Scala Giokas and Mary Ryan Reeves live hundreds of miles apart. They’ve never met. But after the pandemic forced them each into lockdown, they forged a close — if virtual — friendship, rooted in a shared admiration for a long-dead Frederick woman who forever changed the fashion industry.
What do Frederick and Sayville, N.Y. have in common? They both have residents who are celebrating Claire McCardell, the American designer who changed fashion forever for American women.
Scala Giokas said the book -- her first -- illuminates the fashion icon's story and she promises it will empower little girls.
Mary Ryan Reeves, illustrator of “Claire: The Little Girl Who Climbed to the Top and Changed the Way Women Dress,” hosted a party at her home recently to celebrate both the book’s official publication and what would have been fashion designer Claire McCardell’s 116th birthday. Debra Scala Giokas authored the picture book.
"Honoring an icon: Frederick Art Club unveils statue of fashion trailblazer Claire McCardell"
"What do Sayville, New York and Frederick, Maryland have in common? They both have residents who are celebrating Claire McCardell, the American designer who changed fashion culture. McCardell, who graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1955, brought modern American women sportswear, ballet flats, knit ski caps, hooded jerseys, and pockets.
An article entitled, "Crocheting Comfort: Local resident's DAD Dolls console sick kids" which appeared in the Suffolk County News about my crocheted dolls made in memory of my father.
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