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Sewing Machine Storyteller

Pearl Allen and Friends on a Picnic, c. 1910. Museum Collection L2003-12.2

Pearl Allen invented a unique way to record family stories. One day, she was patching her sons’ overalls using a foot-powered sewing machine. She lifted the machine’s presser foot to move the fabric freely, and machine-stitched the boys’ names in flowing script. From that moment on, she recorded family moments on fabric of all sizes, from tablecloths to hot pads and diploma cases.

Pearl’s free-form stitchery reflects her free spirit. As young women, Pearl and her sister Lillie spent fourteen months homesteading near Othello, Washington. Dust was everywhere in sage brush country and their only water was hand-carried from a nearby stream. Once they earned title to the land in 1909, they ended their adventure and returned to Spokane.

Pearl never did learn to drive a car. Instead, she rode a bicycle eight miles from Nine Mile Falls to catch a bus. Or she hung a bag on her mailbox to flag rides from neighbors driving into town.

She loved the outdoors, roaming the hills barefoot and dropping everything to join friends for a trip or a picnic. Her son Clyde described her: “as independent as a hog on ice.”

Steady temperature and humidity preserve dozens of Pearl’s free-form embroidery pieces in the Museum Collection, preserving her daily life for posterity.

The Inland Northwest History Moment is a collaboration of Spokane Public Radio and the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC), in celebration of 100 Stories, the museum’s centennial exhibition.

Episode originally published September 1, 2014.