By Sophia DuBrul
Remember the 70s? Erica Wilson had her shop in New York and wrote all those books and everyone was needlepointing cushions in fun, bold colors. My mother did a tiger with big loud flowers (it’s in my guest room), and I remember her friends all had cushions with smart-ass sayings festooning their living rooms and bedrooms. Even Marshall Field’s had a needlepoint department. Well, it’s back.
Here is the Tiger!
My mother taught me how to needlepoint in the 70s too. She bought me a 10 mono canvas featuring a big white duck strutting in front of an electric blue sky on kelly green grass. I dutifully stitched it and then she had it made into a red canvas tote bag that I was too mortified to ever carry, and then I stopped. But I started needlepointing again in college. I was writing my thesis and picked up an old project that my mother started, but never finished, and I worked at it when I needed a break from my thesis. It worked: by the end of my senior year, I had a completed thesis and a pillow. Hooray!
That might have been the end of my needlepointing, but then I met Bunky Cushing right after I graduated. Anyone who remembers Bunky will know that when he wasn’t selling ties, gossiping, or lunching with his lady friends, he was stitching away. Bunky always wore a needlepoint belt that he had stitched himself and his apartment had literally dozens of needlepointed pillows. Bunky decided that we should meet every month for tea and stitching, a bitch and stitch, so I kept on needlepointing. I stitched stockings for my children, made some pillows and Christmas ornaments, right until 2007, and then I stopped. I started teaching again and entered grad school, so I put my needlework aside, sort of. I stopped physically stitching, but I did write a thesis on American samplers and how they reflected the changes in the roles, identities and education of women in the late Colonial to the early Federal period.
Bunky Cushing stitched this for Kip when he was a baby.
Kip and Violet’s stockings—bargello and basketweave on 18 mono with Kreinik gold braid, my own design.
But then two things happened: a rainy day on Cape Cod and COVID.
First was the rainy day. During the summer of 2019, as per usual, I drove to Farmington in June to pick up Violet at Miss Porter’s and then on to the Cape for three weeks. Brad was coming later, so Violet and I had a few days to ourselves. One day, it rained cats and dogs, so it seemed like a good idea to go Woods Hole and see the aquarium, have lunch and check out that end of the Cape. On our way back, I decide to drive on 28 instead of 6 and check out the towns, and then I saw The Osterville Needlepoint Shop in Mashpee. I hadn’t been in a needlepoint store in years, but I remembered someone had told me that the Osterville Needlepoint Shop was really a good one, so we stop and I bought a canvas, a big nautilus shell. I had forgotten how much fun it was to pick a canvas and then to peruse the fiber choices. I was very excited to find an overdyed silk that I knew would look just like wet sand when it was stitched. We drove back and the rain continued for two more days, but I was thrilled and happily stitched away.
The big nautilus that got me back into stitching—design by Gayla, stitched in Silk and Ivory and Planet Earth Fiber silk overdye.
But then COVID came, and I had lots of time to stitch. I finished three pillows, a stocking for the dog, a picture, a bean bag frog and four jewelry boxes. Everyone is getting something needlepointed for Christmas.
Christmas is coming! The pillow is an Eva Howard design that I customized; the owls are a Charley Harper design; the dog stocking cuff and bone are by All Things Christmas; and, the jewelry box inserts are all Lee designs.
But I am not the only one who stitched her way through quarantine. Needlepoint is suddenly on trend again. It started, quietly, in 2012 with Gucci showing a needlepointed bag in their spring collection, and Dolce & Gabbana had embroidery on everything. Then Jonathon Adler introduced a collection of pop art inspired needlepoint pillows. Every few months, a new article would appear trumpeting needlepoint’s comeback, but the real impetus would be Instagram! On August 20, 2019, Carly Riordan (aka Carly the Prepster, @carly) gets her first needlepoint project and shares it with her 227K followers. Now, there are other needlepointing Instagrammers, like Rudy Saunders (aka @rudytheprep) or Alexandra Martin (aka @milennial_needlepointer), but they only have a few thousand followers each: Carly has over 200,000 (including Rudy, Alexandra and me) and then Carly started a second Instagram handle @carlysstitchclub. Carly, a good influencer that she is, always tags her favorite needlepoint shops and designers and now they can’t keep Carly’s favorite designs in stock. Which brings us to Forbes, on September 8, 2020, Forbes actually does a feature on a needlepoint shop—Lycette Designs in Palm Beach (a Carly favorite). When Forbes is covering needlepoint, it’s become a serious business.
A couple of other 2020 projects. I forget who designed the sampler because I had bought around 2005 but never got around to doing it. The fun rabbit sampler is from Birds Of A Feather. Both are basketweave in Paternayan yarn. Those of you who stitched in the 70s and 80s will be familiar with Paternayan. Sadly, the company is out of business, but lots of needlepoint stores still have old stock.
So, what’s the appeal? It’s very soothing and it can be as simple or as complex as you care to make it. Needlepoint, usually, is done on canvas with the design painted on, no counting or charts, so it’s paint by numbers but with pretty fibers. You can just do the basic diagonal stitch and have this nice zen moment. Or, you can pick a variety of stitches to create different textures and fun fibers for different effects. There are also stitch guides for particular canvases if you want to try some more challenging stitches but don’t know which ones to choose. Some projects can be very big, but a lot of them are small and easily fit into a handbag, so if you find yourself waiting anywhere for a few minutes, you can do a little stitching. Unlike knitting, the project does not grow or become ungainly as it nears completion and you don’t have to worry about finishing a row before putting it away. And no one will ever outgrow a needlepoint pillow, unlike a sweater.
Some pillows from 90s and 00s stitching days.
So, how do you start? Start by going to your local needlepoint store (needlepoint is very much small business—the shops, the designers, the fiber producers are mostly small businesses, mostly owned by women). In the Chicago area, I like The Canvasback in Northfield, The Forest Needle in Lake Forest and The Classic Stitch in Winnetka. Announce that you are new to the craft (or returning), and the staff will help you choose an appropriate canvas and fibers for a beginner. I always recommend starting with a canvas with larger holes, like a 12 or 13 mono, and a nice smooth fiber like Silk and Ivory (a wool and silk blend). They will be happy to show you the basic stitch, and if you get stuck or mess it up, go back and they will help you fix your mistakes. If you really screw up, there are do-overs in needlepoint as you can always rip out the mistakes and stitch it over. I also recommend joining Needlepoint Nation and Needlepoint Only on Facebook; you will have over 8000 fellow needlepointers at your beck and call when you need advice and encouragement.
Since it looks like it’s going to be a quiet winter, I have stocked up on projects. I have my favorite chair, with a good lamp, next to the fire across from the TV so I can binge watch my latest series and stitch away. It’s heaven.
Where to start your needlepoint obsession:
The Classic Stitch—http://www.theclassicstitch.com
The Forest Needle—https://www.forestneedle.com
Sophia du Brul is the owner of Sophia’s Room and conducts estate sales, does appraisals, and deals in vintage and antique décor and furnishings. You can find her at sophiadubrul.com.