This post was written by Nancy Beiles, Family Programs Coordinator at the Museum.
You’ll find Ruth Taube’s domain a few blocks from the East River, down in the basement of the Vladeck Houses, just past the Meals on Wheels office in a warren of rooms overstuffed with fabric remnants, giant spools of thread, racks of clothes and tables outfitted with sewing machines. This hidden-away space is the Henry Street Settlement’s Home Planning Workshop – where students of all ages, from the youngest kids to contemporaries of Ruth, the 90-something-year-old director – come to learn how to sew, knit, embroider and crochet.
On a recent Wednesday, Ruth was teaching a 60-ish guy, who’d recently lost his job, how to hem and cuff a pair of trousers. Nearby a woman who drops by the workshop regularly was working on a crochet project. The Home Planning Workshop, which Henry Street started in 1940 to provide domestic support to the immigrants who had flooded the Lower East Side, is open from 12pm – 4pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and anyone can drop in to get an introduction to the needle arts or to consult with Ruth on a particularly vexing sewing project. Ruth has worked there since 1966, when she started as a substitute teaching gaggles of middle school girls how to sew. Back then, the workshop also taught carpentry, electrical skills and shoe repair. These days, the offerings have been winnowed down to sewing and needle arts sessions, but Ruth maintains an avid following, with dozens of students flocking to see her each afternoon. “It’s beautiful,” Ruth says. “We are like a family.”
In an era when people buy most of their clothes, any given day’s tasks may center on replacing a busted zipper or mending a worn garment. Years ago, Ruth would help girls make wardrobes from scratch. And from time to time, her former career as a seamstress in a bridal salon would come in handy, like when a student named Estelle was getting married on a Saturday and Ruth and Estelle worked overtime in the workshop until Thursday at midnight putting the finishing touches on a custom wedding gown. Sewing together can produce a certain intimacy, and Ruth has become more than just a teacher to many of her students – occupying a space somewhere between amateur therapist and life maven. She’s also a neighborhood superstar who regularly gets stopped by strangers – in the supermarket or on her way to the workshop – and it’s only intensified since 2015, when she made matzoh balls with Mo Rocca on his Cooking Channel show My Grandmother’s Ravioli.
Ruth’s daughter never learned to sew, preferring to let her mom handle the handiwork of the household. Still, Ruth has singlehandedly endowed thousands of New Yorkers with the skills they need to make and fix and mend. And guess what? If you come to the Generation to Generation Festival at the Museum at Eldridge Street on Sunday, November 12 from 12pm-4pm, you’ll find Ruth hosting a special learn-to-knit workshop. Don’t miss this incredible chance to knit with Ruth!
Generation to Generation is a free event – reserve your spot online today. See you Sunday!