Connotations of needlepoint often center on scenes from Jane Austin films portraying proper English women passing time with their needlework in their laps –– or on mental images of elderly grandmothers. However, Columbians will readily attest that it is very much a 21st century hobby. As needlepoint has its origins in the ancient Egyptians, with remnants dating as far back as 1500 B.C., it is not likely to pass as a fad anytime soon.
Tapestries had their heyday during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Even some princesses and queens, including Mary Queen of Scots, were stitchers. Brits brought the skill to the Colonies, and needlework became a pastime for American women; sometimes needlework was the only adornment in a New World home. Today, museums and elaborate historic homes are brimming with walls and furnishings covered in decorative, detailed needlework.
However, the contemporary time period has also ushered in an era of needlework with a wide range of options for “self-expression,” according to The National Needle Arts Association. Janet Noble, working her way through a program to become a “master stitcher,” teaches needlework through two different guilds: Embroiderers’ Guild of America and American Needlepoint Guild. “Anyone who would like to learn needlepoint or join a group of needleworkers should consider joining one of the guilds,” Janet says. She explains that there are two categories of needlework: counted thread and non-counted thread. Those who work in the counted thread method literally count the threads to determine where the needle goes to achieve a particular image or scene. The non-counted thread camp “paints” a picture with the needle and thread, according to Janet. Thus, non-counted thread offers an even greater opportunity for creativity.
While stitchers years ago might have used only wool thread, canvas cloth and primarily a basket weave stitch, today choices are limitless. “Most stitchers today use all sorts of fibers — silk, rayon, metallics, mohair, alpaca, bamboo, soy — as well as wool and cotton,” says Janet. “And we throw in a whole selection of more intricate stitches. These can be worked on canvas, or on any even-weave fabric, plastic or perforated paper.”
Christmas stockings are a favorite of stitchers, and Janet points out that the new textured threads make animals look and feel as real as possible. “A seal can look wet, and a polar bear furry. The scenes are not flat.”
Mary Beth Gillis has been stitching since she was about 10 years old. She picked it up from Mary Ellen Nobles, an aunt who took her on Saturdays to a stitching group who met on Devine Street. She worked embroidery and cross stitch before entering the more challenging needlepoint world. “There are thousands of stitches to choose from now,” she says. “It’s so much more fun now than when I was younger. You can have anything printed on a canvas and then stitch it.”
Mary Beth said a Florida-based woman who hosts needlepoint shows encourages stitchers to just pull out any available yarn and stitch — fibers do not have to match. That ideal is a radical concept in the world of needlework, according to Mary Beth. However, it is this creative, artistic philosophy that older stitchers hope will attract younger ones.
Thirty-one-year-old Dana Theus is the exception. She popped into a cute needlepoint shop near the Furman University campus when she was a student there, picked out a canvas and thread, asked someone to teach her and was hooked. “I’ve been stitching ever since,” she says. Ironically, though, she is more of a traditionalist and likes the basket weave stitch and the basic threads. The point, she says, of a needlepoint piece is to spend a long time working on the “labor of love” that is long-lasting, not a flashy fad. But that’s just her. She knows many stitchers much older than she enjoy experimenting. “You have to like what you’re doing, whatever it is, because you’re putting so much time and effort into it.”
Mary Beth Gillis’ ideal afternoon would be spent with a project in her lap and a glass of wine beside her in the company of Tootsie, one of her five dogs. Many of her recent needlepoint subjects include Gullah women and monogrammed pillows.
She says she feels like the ambassador for the younger local stitching world and has drawn simple patterns on canvases for newbies to try. “Some get it and others do not,” she says. “Some are interested and want to pursue the hobby, and some don’t.”
Mary Beth has tried to get her nieces as obsessed as she says she is, but she has yet to succeed. They are, however, very interested in what she accomplishes and often claim pieces in progress. Mary Beth has made chair covers and stockings for nieces and others, as well as pillows. When one niece was 10, Mary Beth made her a needlepoint suitcase. “She still takes it with her everywhere, even though she’s 20 now.” Mary Beth has also stitched everything from pocketbooks to belts to shoes.
Mary Beth and other local stitchers say work and other life responsibilities get in the way of stitching. She spends as much time in the evenings, on weekends, and while traveling as she can with needle and threads, but she owns Midland Mortgage Company, which is a full-time commitment. She says an ideal afternoon would be spent with a project in her lap and a glass of wine beside her. She wanted to join a stitching group cleverly named “Stitch ‘N Bitch,” but the ladies met during work hours.
Yet, Mary Beth claims stitching is a huge stress reliever. She says the bigger the problem, the faster she sews. “I have three to four pieces going all the time. If I have a lot on my mind, I’ll pick up an easy piece and stitch fast to work out whatever I need to. If all is going well, I’ll pick up a harder piece.”
Dana has it in hand when she visits with neighbors and friends, and when she travels. She has also taught her mom how to needlepoint, so they do it together and visit.
Janet says she chooses projects based on when and where she can do them. Some are easily taken on a plane, others into a hotel room. “Anyone who knows me well knows that I am doing needlework if I am waiting … for my car, in a doctor’s office. Sometimes I’m disappointed when they call my name because I’m not ready to finish.”
When Janet was living in Europe for many years, she did needlework with women there. When returning to the States, she sought out stitchers. “They are my people … we talk, live and breathe needlework. None of these people think I’m weird. The fellowship among stitchers is wonderful. It’s universal. Every region in the world has some sort of needlework.”
Janet adds, “My husband says, ‘Give her a needle and thread, and she can entertain herself for hours.’”
Mary Beth says that she’s still trying to figure out how she can achieve her perfect evening: listening to favorite television programs with her husband, while stitching, while also listening to an audible book. “That would be perfect!” she says with a laugh.
Jane Hemphill says she revisited the hobby after she raised two sons and devoted attention to a career. Her interest in needlepoint was piqued at a young age from watching her paternal grandmother who did beautiful work. Jane decided it would be a good way to occupy idle time as she sat at the bedside of Robert, her husband, who was in recovery six years ago from two strokes. “I wasn’t used to just sitting, and I knew from reading the clinical research in psychotherapy that patients who suffer from worry and anxiety benefit from working with their hands. Needlepoint took my mind off of the worries for a few hours while he worked hard in therapy, and it helped me through a difficult time.”
Stitchers enjoy the compliments offered by those who experience their work, but they also experience joy just giving the pieces away. “I give them away as I do them,” says Mary Beth. “They’re not always for ownership.” Yet, she says her home in town and at Pawleys are nonetheless decorated in needlepoint. “It’s the enjoyment of doing it.” Mary Beth says many of her recent needlepoint subjects involve Gullah women. She likes to stitch with colorful threads. She is also focusing on monogrammed pillows for friends and family. “I’m not much into beige and white — mostly colors.” Most of the finishing work for Mary Beth’s needlepoint is done by Margaret Mills of Forest Lake Fabrics.
Janet Noble, working her way through a program to become a “master stitcher,” uses new textured threads on her Christmas stockings to make the details look and feel as real as possible.
Dana has made many Christmas items and looks forward to unpacking them each holiday. She says the needlepoint world is full of Christmas options: nativities, ornaments, pillows, Christmas villages and, of course, stockings. “I give away needlepoint to those I care about the most: family members and best friends.”
Jane has made at least 16 belts, many of which have been gifts. She can complete a belt in about three weeks if she stitches several hours each evening. Currently, she is working on a nativity scene of 3-D stuffed and finished needlepoint figures. Jane Hudson at Two’s Company designed them along with the stitch guide. Jane Hudson’s husband plans to construct the manger once Jane Hemphill has completed the project. After that project, she plans to tackle a series of 12 nutcrackers.
These local stitchers indicate they typically only seek out supplies on the Internet if they have trouble finding them at a brick and mortar store. There is one in Lexington, The Needler, as well as one near Pawleys Island, Natasha’s Needlepoint; both are well supported by needleworkers. Shops typically have women on hand to provide advice or teach stitches; plus, stitchers like to touch the fibers and see the items first hand.
“Whenever I’m traveling,” says Dana, “one of the first things I do in a new place is to look up whether or not there are any needlepoint shops.”
Jane likes Two’s Company Needlepoint in Rock Hill. There, she can pay for private instructions if she needs them. She says stitchers gather there from all over. Jane, like Dana, seeks out shops when she travels. She has visited them all over the Southeast and as far away as Texas. In Stitches, a store in the Buckhead area of Atlanta, Georgia, has a back room devoted to needlepoint instruction, and the tables have mounted frames and comfortable seating. When Jane visited In Stitches, she met women from all over the country. Two were from South Carolina.
Mary Beth says she will be stitching until her eyes give out. “Right now I’m in No. 2 glasses; I need them to see the hole. It’s a good thing all needlepoint shops sell glasses!” she smiles.
Jane Hemphill has made at least 16 belts and is currently working on several cummerbunds for the men in her family –– with their family crest and initials that she had painted on a canvas by an artist.