Needle/Work – Art, Craft, and Industry in a Port City

Exhibition Date: 2008

Needlework as an art, craft, and industry has played a significant role in the history of New Bedford and its environs.  The plying of needle and thread – whether domestic or commercial, for ornamental or utilitarian purposes – symbolizes the impact of whaling both as a source of wealth and a means of subsistence. 

Sampler of Martha (Patty) Lewis Gowen, #1947.6.2

The lives and work of merchants’ and captains’ wives and daughters; seamstresses, dressmakers, and tailors; embroiderers and knitters; sail- and flag-makers; and the whalemen who carved exquisite scrimshaw needlework tools for the women in their lives, demonstrate the complexities and contradictions inherent in the domestic ideal and working realities of needlework.

This exhibition provided an opportunity to examine, for the first time, the roles that such work played in the social, economic, and cultural lives of New Bedford’s men and women between the late 18th and early 20th centuries.  The exhibition intended to bring new attention to the region’s textile heritage and to expand the understanding of the interconnectedness and multicultural character of the whaling and textile industries.

In contrasting and comparing needlework as household pastime with needlework as occupation, this exhibition revealed how and where the worlds of consumption and production in the needle arts and trades overlapped and intersected during the height of the whaling industry. Needlework pursuits enhanced and sustained personal and family relationships, built and supported communities, and linked diverse cultures.


“Far from being only a female activity engaged in for reasons of display or aesthetic sensibility, needlework in this port city was a skill important to, and shared by, both men and women,” said Madelyn Shaw, the Museum’s vice president for collections and exhibitions who has a strong textile background.  “The distinctions between men’s and women’s work are not always simple to define, and they changed over time with the mechanization of sewing and the transformation of clothing manufacturing from supplemental outwork to full-time factory work.”

Primary source materials are helping staff and consultants uncover new information and gain fresh insights in the textile field.  Historian Lisa Norling notes that “the world of sewing and clothing-making was complex, divided into different sectors, not automatically and holistically gendered female.”

Textile consultant Kathleen Staples believes that the Museum’s collection is rare in its “localness,” and that it uniquely shows how different traditions were brought together and transformed to become a locality’s “fingerprint.”

As the region’s largest museum of artifacts and archival materials related to local history, the Whaling Museum was able to draw on its rich, textile-related collections. The exhibition was supplemented by lectures throughout the year and a symposium in June of 2008. There were also stitching workshops and site visits to local historical societies with relatively unknown but significant needlework collections.

Sponsored by Coby Foundation, the William M. Wood Foundation, Sovereign Bank, New Bedford Thread, Matouk Textile Works, Denise De More, with additional support from Swan Sampler Guild and Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Corp.

Last modified: June 7, 2018