I started to work in a factory when I was about fourteen years old. Well, I quit school about fourteen. I worked on my lace just off and on. I didn’t thing it was going to be that important because when I was working on small pieces at Bendix, I thought to myself, “it’s a lost art.” I didn’t think it was going to go this far.
Last year was my happiest year, in going to Washington and back, especially when they handed me that $5000. That’s gonna bury me. See, I ain’t got no money, so I’m setting it aside for that occasion.
When I came back from Washington and showed them the plaques and all, my husband said, “This is much better than graduating from school. At least you’ve got something to remember.”
Genevieve Nahra Mougin, Lebanese-American Lace Maker and National Heritage Fellow, was 74 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1985.
And I think I have. Something to be proud of. I think my mother would be proud of the award. When I was up on the stage in Washington, I says, “I wish momma and daddy were alive to see this.”
My cousin she says to me, “Don’t worry about it. They are looking down at you.”
And I says, “They’d be so proud of me.”
Yeah, I thank them very much for what they taught us.
My parents were born in a village. It’s mountainous country. It’s not level, like we got here. The only place that’s level in Lebanon is Beirut.
It was hard, the life they had. But when I was over there in 1954, it was a little better. See, things changed, but it was a hard life for them.
They ran away from a war. They had a revolution there. Grandpa told my dad, he said, “Go to America.”
So they came to the United States in about 1908, or 1909. And they spent most of their life here.
We lived near Davenport for a while. My dad did truck farming. He grew vegetables. The we moved to Bettendorf and he did sheet metal work.
We had a very good upbringing, from the old folks, Christian-like. And we’re still following it. You know, to love one another, like brothers and sisters. That’s about all I can remember.
Of course, mom and pa said that the boys work with their dad outside, and the girls work inside with their mother, to learn housework. And that’s what we did. I was about 7 when that started. There’s five of us girls, and three brothers.
The girls did cooking, washing, lacework, embroidery. We learned a little about Middle Eastern cooking. All the dishes we made were good. My favorites were stuffed squash, stewed okra, and meat with cracked wheat.
But I took to needlework. I can do cut work, and Swedish weave, and tapestry. And, of course, I worked in a tailor shop, and I made button holes for men’s suits. So, I’m just, all with a needle.
My mother first taught me to do lacework when I was about 7 or 9 years old. She learned in a convent in Lebanon. They have convents there, and they teach embroidery and needlework.
We all learned young. I thought it was very good. I’m glad she did it. She said, “Now, you come over here. Stand beside me. Just watch me.”
Course, she didn’t know how to explain it to us. She was young, too. And she didn’t know how to talk English.
So, I watched her. She never explained it. I learned just by watching. And that’s how we all caught up on it.
The first pattern she gave us to learn was from a handkerchief. And from that time on, it just comes to your head. If you want to make doilies, you start at the center. Then I’d work around it, all the way around.
There is no name for any of these stitches. But you have to count. In every space where you make a design, there’s counting.
We picked it up fast, my sisters too. I got two cousins here in Davenport, they’re from the old country. They used to do this work. She showed them how to do this point. And that’s all they know. I said to my cousin, “If you can do that, you can do the rest.”
“Oh, no,” she says, “I want you to teach me.”
As long as you know how to hold a needle, that’s all there is to it. We made a lot of handkerchiefs right from the start, so we’d be used to the stitch. You have to know how to hold the needle, see.
Mother would show us whenever she had time on hand. We practiced for maybe an hour a day, when we’d come home from school.
I attended Catholic school. But for me, I didn’t care for school. But now I wish I did, you know, graduate. I never graduated from any of the schools. I don’t remember anything hardly from school. At least I can read and write.
I worked first in William Bradford Company, sewing. I think for 25 years I worked there. They taught me how to make button holes, one Jewish boy. He came from Poland. He says, “I’m gonna show you how to make button holes. You’re gonna sit there and make ‘em.”
And then, by golly, he did. I love it. It was beautiful. It’s an art. I can make three different kinds of button holes. Italian button hole, French button hole, and American button hole.
The button hole stitch is similar to this work. I use two needles for button holes. One for gemp, and one for the thread. Now, for button holes on men’s coats, you hold the gemp with the thumb, and then you take it and put it in there, like that, see?
At the factory, they used to give us the button holes on piece-work. You have to make any amount of button holes you want for a certain price.
There were very few calls on handmade button holes. So when I didn’t have the coats, I’d work on lacework. And then I’d bring it home in the evening and finish 8 hours on it.
Later on, I worked for 10 cents and hour. That’s a dollar a day. And Sundays. That’s $7 a week.
And when the depression hit us, my brother Albert was working in sheet metal work, and I was working at the factory, sewing. His check went for the house, mine went for the food.
There was no union then. We had to work for cheap wages. They call it “sweat shop.”
And then when the war broke out, I couldn’t even buy the thread for my lacework. I went to Detroit, Michigan and worked in the aircraft industry.
That still comes to my mind once in awhile. I can remember, as a riveter, what do they call it? “Rosey the riveter.” That’s what I was, a riveter.
Those were the days. I liked it. That’s the reason when I came back here, I started working at Bendix. I worked on missiles there.
I was making lace in Detroit, too. When one of my girl friends in Detroit got married, I made her a gift of a doily. She hung it up on the window, on red velvet. She had a shower then. She held it up and said, “That’s the best gift I ever got.”
See, even til this day, all my nieces and nephews, when they get married, they send you a letter that you’re invited. So, I know what that means.
I says, “I’m not even gonna go downtown to buy nothing. I’ll give ‘em some of my lacework.”
And boy, they’re glad to get it. You can’t buy it anywhere.
I got acquainted with my husband when we were working at Bradfords, sewing. That was before he went into the Army. Then he came back from the Army, and he worked again at Bradfords. He courted me for 13 years. Then we got hooked. We got married in 1955. I was too old to have children.
I like my work. Sewing, and working in the factory. I didn’t mind it at all.
I worked at Bendix, on missiles, for 20 years. After work there, I’d come home and do my lacework. I retired from Bendix in 1973.
I do the lacework because I like it, and I don’t know what to do with myself. Especially now that I’m retired. If I didn’t know how to do this work, I’d get nervous.
I want something to work with my hands. If I don’t, see, arthritis will set in, then I can’t do it. I’m glad I know how to do it.
This work is mostly lap work. You know, you sit all day long here doing it. And it’s hard on my back.
The experience I’ve had this last couple of years, when I got acquainted with Steve Orhn, that was something.
When he told me about all the excitement over this work, I says, “How do I rate?”
He says, “Well, you’re picked out from all the other states. We want you to got to Washington and get your award.”
I didn’t want to go, because I don’t like flying.
He says, “Oh, it isn’t going to hurt you.”
I says, “Yeah, but I flew once, and that was enough.”
Going to Lebanon, I didn’t like flying a bit.
But going to the old country for the first time was beautiful. See, my brother went first, in 1950. Then when he came back, I went in 1954.
In 1953, I started to work at Bendix. My mother says, “If you want to go, save your money.”
So I save it for one year. I save $2500 just to go over there.
I went, and I saw my grandmother, she was in her 90’s. After I came back, two years later she died. So I was glad to see her.
I saw the places where my mother and father were born. It was a beautiful country. But not now.
I discovered that there is a “Phoenician Lace” made there. It’s like what I do. I saw some of it in a museum in Saint Scharbel. Course it was made from reeds in Biblical times. So that’s what I call what I do. That’s the only name I can think of.
I stayed with my relatives. That was wonderful. There were so many of them. My mother had 600 relatives on her side. Also my dad had 600 relatives on his side. I couldn’t see them all.
But they thought the lacework I did was wonderful. But when they sat down to try it, that was it. They couldn’t do it.
I guess they were proud of me. When they started talking Arabic and French, you know, I can understand Arabic but I can’t understand French. And when they’d talk in Arabic, they’d talk in that, like a high and low German, a dialect that I couldn’t understand.
But in their eyes, I could see what they were saying. I could understand it that way.
They all wanted me to stay at their places. I couldn’t do it, you know, because they live in the mountain, different villages. I wanted to stay in the city, because I wanted to travel around.
So, I went through the Holy Land. It was really a pilgrimage. Of course, Lebanon is holy land, anyway.
I saw Jerusalem. When I went there, I was offered the crusaders cross. They gave it to me, in sliver.
Oh, I had a lot of fun in Jerusalem. I had more fun with the priests and nuns. A most interesting place to see, beautiful.
When I left Beirut in the plane and reached Jerusalem, it was just a real funny cold spell went down my spine when you get into the Holy Land. You think that you never would see that again, or feel it.
It gives you goose pimples, you know. It’s a feeling like, well, when you reach Jerusalem, for a man they call him hajj, and for a woman they call her hajji. That means that’s the first trip that you made to the Holy Land.
It’s just, it’s something different. It gives you an awful feeling, that you’re in the Holy Land where Christ was born. It’s a beautiful place.
I saw the rock where they had him tied to a pillar, you know. And the blood veins are still on that rock. It’s unusual.
His footsteps when he reached to heaven, you know, the rock he was standing on, that’s there.
And the table where he had the last supper, and the cave where he had the resurrection. And the via del rosa, every Friday they make the 14 stations.
Oh, it’s something unusual. It’s beautiful. It changes your mind, see. You see the people, how some of them are suffering. They don’t have enough to eat. Their homes are just, oh, they live, most of the, the poor people, live, it’s unbearable.
You come back here and you say, “I’m thankful that I’m in America, and I can live the way I want.”
But over there, you know, it’s I don’t know, I can’t explain it too well. It’s hard, hard living.
I think of myself now, I’m not that important as the next guy.
But I still love their country, where my mother and dad were born. It’s beautiful country, very pretty.
You go up to the mountains, I was there in June and July when it’s real hot. I went up the mountain on a lift.
My cousin and I went up there, and she says, “Don’t look down, Jenny.”
I says, “Why?”
She says, “It’s awful steep down there.”
And I says, “Well, I’m gonna look.”
So I looked down. A car looked about that big. That’s how high we were. I think it was about 8 or 10 thousand feet.
And they have snow, and I didn’t have a coat. It was cold. When I got up to the highest point, I said to one of the guides, “I want something to drink.”
He says, “Oh, we got coke here.”
I says, “Where?”
There was no shack or nothing. He just moved the snow down by his feet. He says, “Here’s your coke.”
It was really cold. And it tasted good.
And if you want any ice cream, they freeze water, and chip it up and color it, and that’s your ice cream. A lot of things are different over there.
That was the longest trip I ever made in my life. I stayed for two months. I wanted to go again.
I wrote letters to my cousins. But all the letters I wrote to them, the government sent them back, a pile about that high. So I didn’t know whether they’re alive or dead.
I don’t think I’ll go back there again. I’d be scared to go out across the street.
When I was younger I was kind of worried about getting older. But whatever comes, I’m ready for it.
Getting older isn’t that bad. Worry is what makes you get older. If you don’t worry, you feel younger.
I feel very good now. I get my energy from this lacework. And that’s what I give it all back to. The more energy I have, the more patterns I get in my head. I even get some of the designs in my dreams at night. I get up in the middle of the night and write the pattern down before I forget it, and then I go ahead and do it in the morning.
I can do the same things now that I always have. I don’t feel any different now than before. I can do the same as I did before, and maybe more.
I can do this work, I can do embroidery, I can do Swedish weave, I can do coat work. If I get tired on that job, I go to all the rest of it. You know, change off, every day. That’s what makes me feel younger.
This work is everything to me. I’m not looking ahead, I’m looking at my work. The only thing that lies ahead is making more lace.
I’m gonna order another box of thread, no.20, and I’m gonna make a bigger cloth. But I don’t know when I’m gonna get it done. If I don’t get it done, I’ll give it to my sister, she can finish it up. But it’s going to be a heavy one, no.20 is heavy thread. It’s hard to handle.
All this work is done with nothing but a sewing needle. For every gauge of thread, like from no.20 up to 150, you have to use a different size needle. For fine thread, I use this no.70. Some of my needles I saved from working in the tailor factory. Well, these needles come from Belgium, but I can’t get ‘em no more. You can see its got an egg shaped hole. The English needle it up and down, and when you pull on it, it breaks. I don’t use the English needle.
I been using this needle for a long, long time. You can see it. It’s going crooked. But I’m gonna still use it.
You see, I started this work when I was very young. You forget your childhood days. I don’t know much about it. My mind was always on that needlework, cause I like it so well.
I got a letter last week from a girl friend. I had sent her a gift, a snowflake lace. And she says, “I just treasure it.” She’s gonna frame it, and put it on the wall.
I don’t have too many other interests. I watch the tv. Going out, I go to bingo three times a week, and that’s it.
I enjoy it. I was there last night. I didn’t win nothing though. I was one number ahead from the jackpot, but that made me mad. And that didn’t do me any good getting mad. But it, you know, it breaks up the monotony, having a little fun with my old friends.
I’m lucky because my mother and dad were good people, a good mother and good dad. And I loved them. Nobody can say bad words about them. They were wonderful people.
My mother gave me something that I could enjoy. And I hope that they’re looking down on me.
I’ve tried to teach the lacework to my nieces, but they haven’t learned enough to carry it on. They all got their own families. So I don’t think they have time for it. There’s no one but me and my sisters to carry this on.
But I’ll do this work as long as I can. I’ll tell you what, they’ll have to bury me with a needle and thread. I can’t get away from that work. I tried.
Just as long as I can hold the needle. Like I said, you’ll have to bury me with a needle in my hand, remember that.