The simple pleasure of hand embroidery
An old fashioned art is still practiced fervently by those who love it
|My mom took up embroidery when I was in high|
school and made me this crewelwork piece,
which she created using at least a dozen
When I was in high school, my stay-at-home mom took up embroidery for a time. What most people today call crewelwork, she called stitchery. It was like painting with thread. She would buy a kit that had white fabric with a printed design, a needle, embroidery floss and instructions, and then hand stitch the image onto the fabric with in a variety of stitch patterns.
I have a framed piece of her work that I recently pulled out of storage (sorry mom) and hung in my bedroom: a whimsical picture of a smiling mouse and a bird with an arm and a wing around the other, as if for a photograph.
Crewelwork kits are still sold, but these days, needlepoint and cross stitch are the bread and butter of most needlework shops. You’ve probably seen cross stitch before—a series of tiny Xs on a field of white linen—created using a chart and by counting threads. Needlepoint, on the other hand, requires no counting because it’s done on a special type of loose-weave canvas which very often has a design hand-painted onto it. In addition, needlepoint can employ a variety of stitches whereas cross stitch employs primarily just one.
Crewel, cross stitch and needlepoint are all types of embroidery, and there are many more types such as beadwork, goldwork, couching, ribbon embroidery, monogramming, and smocking. Embroidery was basic knowledge for colonial school girls in early America, who learned to sew, count and read by stitching letters, numbers and verses into samplers. But today, hand embroidery has largely been replaced by machine embroidery, and relatively few stitchers carry on the tradition.
To find out who’s still doing embroidery and why, I joined several members of Stitchers by the Sea (a local chapter of The Embroiders’ Guild of America) at the Santa Cruz County Fair last month, as they stitched away on their projects and conversed with curious fair-goers in the Harvest Building.
Elisa Papa—a member of the group for 27 years—was making teeny tiny cross stitches on 40-count linen (40 threads per inch), while Sandy Rich was making larger stitches on 14-count plastic canvas. Papa was creating a frameable Victorian-style piece with images of ten symbolic pigs—a gift that she hoped would bring good luck to her brother who has leukemia. “If pigs bring good luck, my brother will have ten times good luck,” she said. Rich was stitching butterfly wings which she would later cut out from the canvas and join together with clips as Christmas tree ornaments.
|Georgann Lane won first prize at the Santa |
Cruz County Fair this year for her original
embroidery piece, “Slice of Lime.”
Only one member of The Stitchers—Georgann Lane—submitted work to the fair for judging this year. Although she submitted two pieces in the home arts department, the judge thought her work belonged with the paintings and sculpture in the fine art department. And there, in the Fine Arts Building, I found her two, small pieces with 1st and 2nd place ribbons.
Lane—a certified master of traditional Japanese embroidery and past judge for the Embroiderers’ Guild of America—learned to embroider as a girl. “My mother taught me to do pillowcases when I was 10 years old,” she said. She majored in clothing and textiles in college and isn’t afraid to create works of her own design. Most of the other Stitchers stopped entering work at the fair several years ago, when some works were stolen. “I’d like to see [the fair] create a category in fine art for needle art,” said Lane.
|Mary Kelly’s sampler collection covers two|
walls of her dining room, and includes lots
of examples from the 1930s and ‘40s when
stitching samplers from patterns in books
was a popular pastime.
A few days after the fair I visited another member of The Stitchers by the Sea—Mary Kelly—to see her collection of vintage samplers. Kelly’s collection features several samplers from early America and many more from the 1930s and 40s when making samplers was again in vogue, and patterns were available in books. The early ones were created by girls to learn stitches, and to keep samples for later reference. Kelly has an impressive collection covering several walls, many with sweet, sentimental verses on them, like, “Warm friendship like the setting sun sheds kindly light on everyone.”
Kelly points to one of her oldest and most treasured samplers, created by a girl in Vermont almost 300 years ago. The dark-with-age, oblong sampler has a cross stitched saying and these identifying words at the bottom: “Sarah Bellows in the eleven year of her age done in the year of our Lord 1738.”
Mary Kelly and I met again later that day at the home of her good friend, Dorothy Clarke, a founding member of The Stitchers by the Sea, who, at 96, still does cross stitch every day despite her failing vision due to macular degeneration. Clarke brought out a box of small projects from stitching workshops she attended over the years.
|Good friends Dorothy Clarke
and Mary Kelly hold two needlework|
pieces made by Dorothy that she is especially proud of. The two
friends are both members of The Stitchers by the Sea, a local chapter
of The Embroiderers’ Guild of America.
Mary Kelly admitted that not many people these days don’t take time for embroidery. It’s intricate, detailed work, demanding good eyesight, commitment and the willingness to spend good money on quality materials. “Let’s face it,” said Kelly. “It’s kind of fussy. But the ones who do love it, love it to death.”