2014 Collaborative Project: Notions: A Novel in Objects

Notions book. Background on the project, photographs, narrative, and "notions" by participating artists.. Artist: Josef Beery
Notions book. Background on the project, photographs, narrative, and “notions” by participating artists.. Artist: Josef Beery

Imagine that a sewing box belonging to a young garment worker named Rosie, who perished in the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, has been passed on through four generations of women in her family. A century later it belongs to her great-grandniece, Katya, who designs low-cost clothing that is manufactured overseas for the U.S. retail market.

In November 2012, flames raced through the Tazreen Fashions factory outside Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, killing 112 workers under circumstances uncannily similar to the Triangle fire. The workers were sewing clothing for several global retailers, including Walmart.

The Triangle and Tazreen fires are emblematic of the dangerous, inhumane working conditions and deprivations that many workers continue to endure in order to scrape together a meager living and support their families. They move us to look more carefully at lives that intersect with ours but have become almost invisible to us.

The members of the Virginia Arts of the Book Center asked this question: What can the contents of a sewing box—a collection of “vintage” notions used to stitch and mend, saved scraps, cached papers, and other seemingly arbitrary objects—reveal about the personal history of the young immigrant who first owned it, the social history of her time, and the lives of others who have added their own artifacts along the way?

Photography by Stacey Evans