Today is the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this event has been central to my American-Jewish identity. I’m not particularly devout; my interests lie in Jewish culture and storytelling, NYC history, labor history, immigrant rights, feminism, the value of tikkun olam (healing the world). The fire ties together all these narratives. I’ve written about the event and its aftermath for the Jewish Forward, for Tablet, and on this blog. (Google, if you want.) Right now, when human rights in this country feel precarious, it’s good to remember that a hundred years ago, young women like Clara Lemlich — a tiny dynamo who didn’t even speak English! — fought, at great personal risk, to galvanize workers to strike and succeeded in creating safer workplaces and better lives for their fellow Americans. Sweatshops are still an issue all over the world, and I don’t mean to minimize that. But today NYC has laws against child labor and to protect workers, and codes to make buildings safer. Collective action and commitment can have a real impact.
Thanks to the efforts of the volunteer Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition
, work has begun, at last, on a memorial
at the site of the factory. (Which is now an NYU building, like everything else below 14th street.) Fittingly, the Coalition turned building the memorial into a participatory act
. Last week, I helped with the fabrication process at the Fashion Institute of Technology â€” architects, fashion professors, activists, survivorsâ€™ descendants, Jewish and Italian and Chinese women — the last group are leading the fight for NYC workplace rights today — gathered to create together. There were a handful of men. Not many. Also fitting. What we worked on together was lovely, inspiring.
Each person was asked
to bring a bit of fabric that meant something to them (a wide variety of beautiful snippets were provided for those who didn’t bring their own) and to write up why it was meaningful and why we cared about the fire. The stories and cloth were scanned (so the monument will be searchable) and then we all stitched our fabric to a giant roll of muslin laid off across dozens of work tables. Eventually the long ribbon of stories will be 3D-printed, digitally recreated, or cast in a lightweight metal alloy to become part of the memorial,
mounted on the side of the Brown Building.
Visually, the process of making
the memorial â€” dozens of women bent over tables of fabric, stitching in unison — recalled the work of the people who were being memorialized. Unlike the actual factory workers, we all wound up chatting with the women on either side of us about why they came and what their fabric meant to them.
There were some great stories. I chatted with an older activist who was somberly sewing sexy, lacy purple panties — with the words SAFETY and FREEDOM stitched on the crotch, along with beautiful vintage rhinestone buttons — to the muslin. She told me her contribution was in honor of a friend of her family who used to mend her underpants during union meetings to discomfit the men. I met the daughter of a lifelong NYC firefighter who grew up on tales about why New York City’s building codes, training and equipment are are better than any other cityâ€™s. She’d contributed her grandmother’s tatted lace and her mother’s lace wedding bolero. The ribbon contains a shirtwaist, family photos printed on fabric, a swath of shirtwaist fabric with the names of many of the 146 victims painstakingly sewn onto it by an FIT professor. There was a small child’s sparkly pink tank top with a unicorn on it. There were baby bonnets, vintage souvenir hankies from foreign countries, velvet bags for prayer shawls. I saw people using thimbles for the first time! I’d only known thimbles from fairy tales.
I brought a bit of a needlepoint wall hanging that a friend of my bubbe Olla made for my Bat Mitzvah almost 40 years ago. It depicts the traditional Hebrew blessing said to children on Shabbat. Attempting to whipstitch my bit of tapestry to the muslin, I learned how astonishingly crappy I am with a needle and thread.
I look forward to learning all the stories of all the fabric scraps when the memorial is complete; you can find out how to help here.