Embroidering a character to life, right in my lap

A couple weeks a go, I corralled all my hand-stitching supplies into a basket.

IMG_3281This didn’t take a long time or a big container. Although my Mom began teaching me needlepoint, cross-stitch, and embroidery when I was only four or five years old, these pastimes didn’t hold my interest into adulthood. (Not like scrapbooking or rubber stamping or card-making, all of which became obsessions that have occupied tremendous time and substantial square footage of storage space.)

But now, in my mid-forties, I crave new creative challenges for my head and hands (and heart and health, too, for you who know 4-H). So I mined my non-paper-related craft supplies for all things “stitch-y.”

First I found a few inherited embroidery hoops.

One very old, metal hoop must have been my Grandma Hatfield’s. Possibly antique, it has great features: a smooth layer of cork on the inside hoop, and a tight little spring at the seam of the outside hoop. It’s very snug, if slightly bent.

The wood and plastic hoops I remember as Mom’s. In the seventies, when she wasn’t exploring new-fangled crafts like macrame or paper quilling, she made a lot of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. They had embroidered faces, which she applied before she sewed and stuffed the dolls. I remember how she stretched the flat, flesh-colored fabric into these hoops, then stitched the features. The transformation was Pinocchio-like. Those happy, expressive dolls came to life in her lap.

Next I found a stash of embroidery floss in a small, tan, heavy plastic shopping bag.

I laughed out loud when I realized the age of the bag. My estimate is 1985. The bag is from a group of clothing stores that operated in my small, Midwestern hometown. One of them, the Merry-Go-Round, catered to teen girls who wore odd numbers (sizes 1, 3, 5, 7 …). “All the girls” shopped there for trendy outfits. “All the girls” did not include me. The Merry-Go-Round’s prices were beyond my family’s reach. My clothes were hand-me-downs, discount buys, or handmade.

But here was a Merry-Go-Round bag, repurposed to hold thread. I guess I did buy something at that shop. The tiny bag was just big enough to hold a skinny belt, or maybe a pair of earrings, or a bracelet. I must have bought some sale-priced accessory, I thought. And then I laughed out loud again. As I pulled embroidery floss from this little shopping bag, much of it was tangled around and woven into bracelets my friends and I used to braid for each other on bus rides. Accessories made of thread. That was more my speed.

Sizing up this decades-old inventory of supplies, I realized I needed a few things. One quick trip to the fabric store filled the gaps: a needle case and a package of needles, a needle threader, a couple more hoops, some thread snippers, and a jumbo pack of floss in more colors than I will ever use.

Now then. What to stitch?

My mother-in-law recently challenged everyone in our family to make an ornament for her Christmas tree. She made this request last year, too, but with broader parameters. In 2013, she only hoped we would make the ornaments by hand. Most of us complied. Buoyed by our participation, I guess, this year she specified a theme. All 2014 ornaments are not only to be handmade, but also to have something to do with snowmen.


Feminist that I am, I want to be sure Grandma Shirley’s tree reflects equal opportunity. Searching Pinterest, I found the motif for a snow woman with high heels, a muff, and a fur-lined hat. A snow diva! Incredibly fashionable, even in handmade accessories. Perfect!

Since the design was really intended for machine embroidery, I made a few mental adjustments and studied an embroidery book to refresh my memory of a few useful stitches. I printed the design to a reasonable size, traced an outline of the motif on a remnant of cotton fabric, and set to work.

Watching my little snow person take shape was so gratifying. She’s put together almost entirely in satin stitches and French knots. Mom used to insist that the back of the work should be as neat as the front. Though her lecture rang in my ears, I did not apply that standard to this project. After years of neglect, my technique is far from perfect.

But who cares? This style of embroidery—filling in a cartoonish design with various stitches—is like coloring with thread. It was relaxing and motivating, all at once. Initially, I envisioned completing the project over several days. A few stitches here, a few knots there. But once the girl had legs, I just couldn’t stop. I had to finish her body and accessories, so I could add those eyes and that nose and that mouth. I was driven to bring her little character to life, right there in my lap.

Maybe embroidery will be my next obsession.

IMG_0419There are, however, two potential snags.

(1) Two of our three cats found the project irresistible. Frankie chased the loose end of my floss between stitches, and Mojo swiped a needle and thread twice. Thank goodness he didn’t unthread the needle …

(2) … because that whole process of getting three plies of floss through the eye of a needle? Good God! Even with a needle threader, this essential step is no longer the swift and easy action it was when I was a little girl. No wonder Mom always had me thread her needle. Middle-aged eyesight. Grumble, grumble.

One response to “Embroidering a character to life, right in my lap

  1. I am bringing an art embroidery book for you to see. This old territory that you are entering is so very vast. Enjoy all the terrain you choose to explore.

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