The women of Islesboro’s Sewing Circle (est. 1858) make everything from baby sweaters to iPhone cases — not to mention a strong community fabric.
By Sandra L. Oliver
Photographed by Erin Little
It’s just before 1 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon when we pull into the lot of the former Dark Harbor School, a 109-year-old, brown-shingled American foursquare on the southern end of Islesboro island in Penobscot Bay. We emerge from our cars carrying baskets bristling with knitting needles and bags bulging with fabric. We exchange smiles and cheery hellos as we make our way to the front door, alongside which hangs a large, brightly painted quilt square.
Most of us make a beeline to a favorite spot at one of the large tables, which are topped with sewing machines, baskets of scissors, spools of thread, pincushions prickling with pins, and jars of crochet hooks. The knitters and the needle pointers settle on the folding chairs lined up under the sunny south-facing windows. Some women drift into the next room, where they spread out their fabric and patterns on the wide work surface. Others head to the weaving studio at the back of the building and take a seat at one of the looms. Quiet conversation fills the building.
This is what island women have been doing nearly every Tuesday since 1858, when Islesboro’s Sewing Circle, one of the oldest sewing circles in the country, was founded by the wife of the Second Baptist Church pastor. Today, our membership — 40 women in summer and a faithful dozen-plus in winter — includes Baptists, Episcopalians, Jews, Catholics, and maybe even a Buddhist for all I know, and our meetings are secular, although we do send an annual donation to the Second Baptist Church. The State of Maine and the IRS know us as The Second Baptist Sewing Society, but we call ourselves “the Sewing Circle” or simply “Circle,” as in “Are you going to Circle today?”
The old school has been our home for almost 100 years. You should see the stash inside. It is, as one visitor remarked, a sewer’s heaven: fabric of all sorts, alphabetized by color on shelves just inside the door; piles and piles of yarn, from fine fingering to bulky; notions by the bucketful; thousands of buttons; and “UFOs” — unfinished objects, laid out on a table as a broad hint to someone looking for something to do. While most members bring their own tools, Circle owns enough hooks, needles, thimbles, and machines to keep everyone busy. We sew, crochet, knit, needlepoint, embroider, weave, talk, organize, plan, and find ways to do good for our island.
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Most of us joined Circle because we love to make things. I was all thumbs at sewing when I joined, and I wanted to build on the slender experience gained when I was 10 years old and in 4-H. Member Linda Achorn told me she joined because she loves to do handwork, but she has already made everything she needs. Because Circle makes and sells goods to raise money for various island projects, Linda can keep on producing to her heart’s content.
On this day, Harriet Hathaway is embroidering classic, dainty designs on pillowcase borders and Charlotte Robinson is knitting pastel baby sweaters like the ones our grandmothers made for us. Other members, meanwhile, are making products, like needlepoint iPhone cases, that would be utterly foreign to our founding mothers. Judy Coffin is fashioning yoga-mat carrying bags from upholstery scraps, while Bonnie Hughes and Linda Badoian are making aprons for guys who like to cook — imagine! (Judy Coffin has since passed away.)
There is so much to do at Circle that you don’t even have to know how to sew, knit, or weave to join. It doesn’t take knowing how to drive a sewing machine to fill a balsam pillow. Some of our most adept seamstresses will patiently walk a beginner through a project, but they don’t coddle lousy craftsmanship. Marilyn Pendleton, one of our most prolific members and an expert seamstress, undertook to teach me how to make a drawstring sewing bag with lots of interior pockets and a little pincushion inside. The bag rests on a fabric-covered disk stitched onto the bottom. Marilyn can make them in her sleep. With Marilyn supplying step-by-step instructions, I managed to sew the bag together with its lining, formed the pincushion, and took it home to finish. I struggled to attach the pincushion inside, but was absolutely defeated by centering and stitching the bottom exterior disk in place. In exasperation, I resorted to my glue gun. The shortcut didn’t get past Marilyn. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” she said at our next meeting. I was given the opportunity to remove the disk and learn how to wrestle it on the right way, with needle and thread.
Marilyn’s sister-in-law Norma, another prolific Pendleton, taught me how to clean and lubricate a sewing machine. She also schooled me in using a rotary cutter on fabric. Ruth Hartley, my potholder mentor, walked me through the assembly of one of Circle’s signature potholder styles. She told me, “This is the way Eva Pendleton taught me to do it.” Eva, a past president and venerated member who revived quilt making on our island, died several years ago, but her skills live on in us.
While we work, Marilyn sets up the old percolator coffee pot, so we’re ready when president Pat Mitchell rings the bell and calls out, “It’s time to get your coffee! We’ll begin the meeting in five minutes.”
We get our mugs — each of us has one in the cupboard above the white enamel ’50s-era kitchenette — and grab a homemade cookie or bar that members have brought to share. Many of us are older and live alone, and though we still like to bake, we don’t necessarily benefit from cohabitating with several dozen cookies. And, oh, the cakes! Once a month, we celebrate members’ birthdays. Pat Mitchell usually brings a rich chocolate cake, and Dorea Engstrom has a recipe for coconut cake that can’t be beat. During Easter week, Charlotte Robinson brought a cake encrusted with jellybeans and marshmallow peeps. Ruth Hartley recently made a grand orange marmalade–filled cake with whipped cream frosting. We sing happy birthday, eat, wipe crumbs off our chins, and then move on to business.
If there is an event coming up, like the Valentine lunch, we pass a clipboard and sign our names alongside the tasks that need to be done (“salad,” “main dish,” “dessert,” “set-up,” “clean-up,” and the like). Preparation for the August fair, our biggest event of the year, is a multi-day affair for which we enlist helpers, recruit pickup trucks, make fudge, and seek donated vegetables.
Next come the announcements. “The class of 2016 is having a lasagna dinner to raise money for the class trip,” Pat told us at one recent meeting. Or she may say, “There is an informational meeting about the town-wide broadband project.” Finally, Pat will ask, “Is there anyone we ought to send a card to?”
Circle, you see, doesn’t just donate money to island projects, like after-school programs or the elder-care home, though that is certainly a core function. It is also a thoughtful neighbor.
“Well, the ambulance went off on Thursday morning,” one of us may reply. “Does anyone know who that was?” Someone always does, and the clipboard goes around again so we can all sign a get-well card (“We heard of your hospitalization,” it says, “and hope you recover quickly.”) We send cards to the bereaved, “missing you” cards to members spending the winter away, and “thinking of you” cards to members no longer able to attend. We make casseroles for caregivers and offer a Circle-made bib and hearty congratulations to the family of every island newborn.
We take care of each other too. We have jobs that any member can do, no matter her capabilities. It’s a great comfort to me to know that when I get old and dotty, there will be a task for me at Circle, whether it’s folding the “Made By the Sewing Circle” tags that we pin to our products or sorting buttons by color.
All the while we’re chatting and passing cards, the handwork continues. Ruth stitches binding on potholders, Marilyn makes progress on placemats and casserole carriers, and Bev Rogers applies watercolors to blank note cards until purple-blue lupines or golden sunflowers bloom. We add finished projects to a basket for show and tell after the business portion of the meeting. One by one, Pat holds up members’ creations for all to admire. A baby sweater is greeted with a chorus of “oh, that is sooo adorable!” A stuffed bear is handed around for everyone to squeeze and cuddle. “That’ll go” is how we invoke favor upon an item that will sell at the August fair or on Black Friday after Thanksgiving. We applaud the maker and note her in the minutes. After that, it’s no longer her product, it’s the Circle’s.
We treasure the companionship of other women — and we are all women. Every week, I sit next to wise women, good friends, and living links to the island’s past. Some of us, like Marilyn Pendleton, share surnames with the island’s original settlers. Some, like Ruth Hartley, attended school in the Circle’s building. Most of us are retired (or, like me, goof off from self-employment one afternoon a week). We are former teachers, psychologists, gardeners, research scientists, nurses, and at least one mayor. We are mothers, grandmothers, homemakers, and cooks. Many of us worked for summer people when we were younger. Some of us still do.
We have one 10-year-old dues-paying member: Posey Cabannis, the granddaughter of another member, is making a stuffed toy for the fair. (Dues are a buck, by the way, up from a quarter not long ago, and good for one year. Please just put a little additional donation in the little red pot to pay for coffee.)
Some of the summer residents in our group return each year laden with items produced while away. Some of the year-round residents, like Sue Bolduc and Maxine Nelson, take off in May to work as gardeners and return in the fall when the gardens are all put to bed. We have a summer secretary, Evelyn Whitehouse, who comes up from the South and replaces the winter secretary, Yvette Reid, who often takes a summer job. These seasonal shifts help keep Circle’s work from falling too heavily on a few.
We have fun at Circle. Our little jar full of seam rippers has a label on it that reads: “As ye sew, so shall ye rip.” On the kitchenette cupboard door is an index card, that says, “I’m not old: I’m vintage.” For our 150th anniversary, we marched in the Fourth of July parade carrying a banner that read “Sewing Circle: Keeping Islesboro in Stitches Since 1858.” Carved out of a former classroom, the restroom has a chalkboard for one of its walls, and there is always chalk on hand. At the change of each season, someone will write a timely message like “Spring Has Sprung.” Others will add letters, Scrabble-style — perhaps an m above u in sprung and d below it for mud. Or the cross words will be lupines or delightful or peepers. This past winter, the phrase Winter Wonderland sprouted the word snow a dozen times, along with cold, wind, and flu.
The annual fair, culmination of the year’s productivity, is hard work: lugging and toting, baking in hot weather, a day or two of being on our feet. Always held at Islesboro Central School on the second Tuesday of August, it’s just what we don’t need in the midst of visits from children, grandchildren, and houseguests. But it wouldn’t be August without it — not for us and not for our town. So on the appointed day, as noon nears, a long line of fair-goers forms outside the locked gym doors. Meanwhile, we are inside, wearing our blue Sewing Circle aprons and making final preparations. At 12 o’clock, fair chairman Kathy Kerr opens the doors, and our sharp-eyed, sharp-elbowed customers rush in, happily filling their arms with unique items. In only an hour-and-a-half, we will see our products “go,” and thousands of dollars will be collected in the cash boxes. And by 5 p.m., 40-plus very tired, happy, and extraordinarily satisfied women will have broken down the fair, loaded everything back into pickups, and hauled it back to the Circle building, where it is ready for another year of sewing and knitting, sending cards and baby bibs, and eating birthday cakes.