I took up needlepointing this summer. I am not sure I can account for how I came to decide to do this. If you knew me, you’d appreciate why even I am surprised. My college-age son flinched when he first saw me needlepointing because it just didn’t mesh with his image of me. I’m not sure what his image of me actually is, or even what my own image of me is these days. When he made a wry comment upon discovering me with threaded needle and canvas in hand, I was defensive but not apologetic, pointing him to the historical aspects of this art and the ancient guilds of “brorders” which were well documented in my newly purchased encyclopedia of stitches.
The idea of needlepointing had hung in the recesses of my mind for quite a while when suddenly, and I mean suddenly, it came into clear focus as something I felt compelled to pursue. I suspect the home remodeling project which had taken over our summer like a lingering obnoxious house guest instigated my fervor.
As a needle art, needlepoint was much in vogue during my adolescence, especially among a number of women I spent time with, save my mother. I actually learned the craft from my great aunt who dabbled in various needle crafts when she wasn’t playing bridge, which was, in fact, most of the time.
One of the loveliest gifts I’ve received in my life was a decorative pillow needlepointed by two of my dearest friends for one of my birthdays when we were in high school. It featured a unique design of my favorite soft drink and the two of them had passed it back and forth for months as they stitched it in secret.
I also remember that the grandmother of one of these friends needlepointed gorgeous and intricate canvases I’ve not seen rivaled. I have to believe my friend and her siblings each have some of her pieces in their homes as treasured remembrances of her talent and labors of love. I recently learned that my other friend needlepointed and appliqued her way through the stresses of her earliest years of motherhood when her oldest four were under five. Stitching that pillow for me probably provided some good practice for her.
Lots of women and girls at that time carried wicker purses adorned with colorful needlepointed monograms. Needlepointed tennis racquet covers were also the rage. Some of my earliest memories are associated with the beautiful canvases and finished pieces displayed in the window of a small store devoted to needlepoint in a retail area of local merchants a few blocks from my childhood home. I would park my bike in the rack outside the store when I rode to the area on steamy summer days to purchase a cone or slushy from the ice cream shop next door. My pre-adolescent eyes found the designs colorful and intriguing.
Yes, there is rich irony evidenced in my return nearly 40 years later to what I all but shunned by the time I was old enough to drive. When I first learned needlepoint under the tutelage of my great aunt, I was around twelve. It felt slightly laborious but served as a diversion of sorts before I was able to determine my own entertainment agenda.
Honestly, there was more to my rejection of this and the other domestic activities I simultaneously rejected. Though detail-oriented work of any kind was never my strong suit, needlepoint and other kindred arts somehow came to represent to me and perhaps other women of my generation pursuits that weren’t deserving of our time and intellect. No one ever said this, mind you. It was what I intuited from the tumultuous times post 1969. By contrast, I was more than happy to park myself in front of the TV for an entire summer and watch gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings, a far more fascinating enterprise to me then than anything smacking of women’s work.
Eschewing needlepointing and sewing and cooking was the perfect rebellion against the anti-intellectual image my mother and her generation of homemakers represented to me. The premises of the women’s movement were attractive as a viable alternative: the promise of being anything you wanted to be (except a homemaker) and having a rich, fulfilling life outside of home and family. If only I could have grasped a bit earlier that these endeavors are not at all mutually exclusive.
When I made the momentous decision to needlepoint, I knew I needed some coaching. Fortunately, the needlepoint store of my youth lives on in another location. The proprietor, a woman just a bit younger than me, helped me pick out a suitable canvas to start with and the yarn to match. She sat down at a table with me and instructed me on the basketweave stitch and helped me start my piece. She was patient, she was kind, she did not give up.
As I stitched and ripped out stitches, she mended a complex piece of knitted apparel. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her long fingers work swift magic with the yarn and a hook. I wondered what her eyes saw and what her fingers knew. I at once relished being a true novice, knowing fully the raw frustration of barely hanging on with the little knowledge I had, and yet aspiring to do this well someday, to have experience as well as expertise.
Other women of different ages drifted in and out of the store in the several hours I was there. They were knitting and needlepointing and shopping for projects or accoutrements, all the while talking about their projects and their lives and helping each other make decisions in regard to both. I felt I was part of a larger life fabric by just being there.
Now that I finished my first project and am well on my way with my second, I have found that needlepointing brings me much joy and offers me just as it did my friend a very practical way to escape the stresses that some days threaten to overwhelm me. It allows me to feel a connection to women I have known and admired in my life. It permits me a genuine appreciation of how this art might have existed in antiquity. Thankfully, I am now well past caring what it signifies beyond my own simple engagement in it. And that, in my estimation, is most liberating.