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  • auntieclaws

Solitary Pursuits

Yours truly grew up on the edge of town, a bit removed from neighbors. Her sibling was nine years older, so not exactly a playmate. Luckily, she had an active imagination, a big yard and an indulgent mother who encouraged her solitary endeavors.

The result of semi-isolation was interests that kept a creative kid busy and entertained, beginning with reading, definitely a solitary pursuit. My mother was a voracious reader. She didn't have girlfriends that she got together with. My aunt came for lunch and pinochle on Thursdays, and she sent birthday cards to her friend across the river in Oglesbly. That was pretty much the extent of that, so not much of a role model for group activities, but clearly my twin for solitary pursuits. She sewed and she read. I played and I read. We understood each other.

Grandma would show up to sit under the mulberry tree and embroider in summer. In winter she crocheted in front of her "stories." She didn't have girlfriends. She had two sisters with whom she was always having some tiff or another. I spent a lot of time watching her work, and so much so that when I tried to embroider my initials on a hankie, it turned out half-way decent! (Tip: monograms work better with floss than pearl cotton!) She wasn't actually real encouraging, but she did turn it over, look at the backside and suggest that to be really nice, the back had to be as neat as the front. (First important lesson!)

Fast forward to being a half-orphan. Crewel embroidery was all the rage and the women's magazines had kits for sale in their back page ads. I still have those early efforts, and honestly, they are well done. I loved doing that kind of detailed work. I reveled in getting my needle plunked into the exact right spot to make a neat, perfectly executed stitch. My mother had died from breast cancer, and stitching was my therapy, I think. At some point, I found a kit for needlepoint and just followed the directions. Again, a pretty good product.

I was living in Chicago, and one of the things I enjoyed doing was shopping in Evanston, which wasn't far from my Roger's Park neighborhood. Chicago Avenue had a bunch of interesting shops like the Practical Tiger, Scandinavian Designs, and a couple of fun bookstores. They also had a shop called The Needlecraftsman. By then, counted cross stitch was taking root, but I hadn't yet gotten into it. I was still embroidering with wool on linen, and I was a sucker for a beautiful Elsa Williams kit. Eventually, there were things in cross stitch that I wanted to make, so I bought a kit and followed the directions and was off and running. That was a lot of fun, but not nearly as much fun as the crewel work clock I made for my sister, nor the pillow I stitched that she finished for me. (Finishing remains the bane of my stitching existence. Sewing on the welting and the back is a pain. Blocking needlepoint is something I leave to my dry cleaner!)

But every time I was in that little shop, there was a needlepoint pillow on the floor that had my attention. It was really interesting. Lots of different stitches.

I spent a lot of time in between temp jobs (or the permanent jobs that I held until I got bored and called the temp agency for something else to do), stitching. I loved doing it. I would listen to music and stitch. I would watch Cubs games and stitch. During the semi-annual sales at Marshall Field and Co., I would scout the needlework department and come home with Elsa Williams kits.

Eventually, I asked for the kit for that needlepoint pillow. "Oh, no, that's what we make in our needlepoint class. You should come." My friend Kay and I signed up. We learned stitches in class by working them on a practice canvas, and then we went about stitching them onto our project piece. We took those home and tried hard to finish up the stitches on our own before returning for the next stitches. It was so much fun! We both caught on quickly.

That class led to a hardanger class, but I didn't get to finish that one because I moved to Virginia. Dan packed up all the supplies, assuring me I could finish the other three placemats on my own. I still have them, in the distinctive orange bag. One of these days...

Here in Virginia, everyone was cross stitching. I found a shop in nearby Salem, Needle on the Square, and I was a customer through a couple of moves and a name change until the owners decided it was time and retired. Lordy, but how I miss them! I have done my share of cross stitching, but the draw for me was always their needlepoint canvases. I have done a bunch of those, which I have given as gifts.

A few years ago, I dragged out a project I had begun and completed a great deal of, but the "fun" part was yet to come. I struggled with it. This was a sampler kit I bought in one of those semi-annual sales. (It retailed for $7.50, I got it half price, and that goes to show you how long I have had that in my stash!) The upper part is all cross stitch on stamped linen. The lower 1/5 is embroidery for masochists. That would be me because this is the part I am most enjoying but for a slight problem. Keeping the linen stretched tightly so I can stitch has been downright HARD. Remember, I like those stitches placed just so! Off and on, I have given the Damn Sampler blasts of attention. Then I would give up in frustration with the loose linen issue and go needlepoint a bunch of things. I would pull out the Damn Sampler and give it more attention. Then make other things... It's gone on like this for years.

One day last summer, I saw something about a slate frame. I had seen what people called scroll frames, and I had tried one, which I rejected. I had tried snap on frames, and those, too, were pretty useless. I used to stretch my crewel pieces on my artists' canvas stretchers, and those worked well. But this slate frame... when I watched the lady's video, I was in love. It's made in England and she is a graduate and teacher for The Royal School of Needlework. (This is hot stuff in our world of stitchery.) As it turns out, the exchange rate is pretty good right now, so I asked Santa for one of those, and my Santa delivered the goods! (I do love my Santa!)

In my stash are a bunch of Elsa Williams crewel kits that I have amassed over the years. Those that I always wanted to make but never saw in a store have appeared on eBay, and I have managed to complete the collection. There are a few I probably won't make and will attempt to get rid of at some point, but for now, I am looking forward to stringing up the Damn Sampler and being able to complete it without all the stress of a slipping hoop frame. Then I am going to dig into the Elsa stash with that slate frame!

At the same time, a couple of friends wanted to learn needlepoint. Even after admonitions of how expensive it is, they wanted to learn, so we meet once a week, and I walk them through the stitches from the old sampler I made all those years ago. The difference is, no one stitches on 14 count canvas with wool, so I have had to adapt the sampler to 18 count canvas and they are using DMC pearl cotton. Some of those stitches won't cover properly, so they have had to add matching floss to their materials, and those stitches are done in the colors to match, but with a different thread. These days, this is the norm. We stitch using different threads all in one piece. The idea of using a different thread because different stitches have different requirements is alien to them, understandably, but they dragged their heels on getting the floss. (Well, one didn't - she ordered online!)

One of my learners is a dedicated cross stitcher, so she is catching on, and for a first shot at needlepoint, doing quite well. The other two are having more trouble, but then they also are more social than I am, so they have to actually carve out time to stitch. Nonstop nagging to go home and keep doing the stitch in front of the television in order to get some motor memory going has met with no results. Nagging to do some every day has been ignored. A solitary pursuit doesn't float to the top of their consciousness. They think if they put in a little bit of time once or twice a week that will suffice and then are frustrated that they aren't catching on to a particular stitch. I don't know who is more confused - them or me. I'm all worried that I need to stay ahead of them so that I can show them how to overcome the differences in working with this kind of fiber (which isn't my first choice), and the tricks I used to make the stitch easier. They show up with nothing finished, and barely anything attempted.

They are upset that they have to pull out so much of their work due to mistakes, without understanding they have a sample piece of canvas where they should hone their skill with the stitch until they feel like they can do the sampler section with some success. I keep pushing a peanut uphill with my nose on the issue of practice. And, yes, as a matter of fact, I am still having to tear out. I have been known to remove an entire 16"long sandy beach from a piece because I hated the way it turned out! I have new thread and a new plan for it. So this is what we do! Get over it!

My third student, in the meantime is stitching away and ready to move on. I gave up. I chewed the two recalcitrants out.I love them dearly. They are my posse, but I gave them the Stella Treatment. I had to. They just didn't understand that I have given this time and effort because they wanted me to. But then they didn't do their share. The ball is in their court. They were the ones who wanted to learn and they are going to have to get with the program and understand this is something you learn by doing over and over and over. I hope they listen. They are going to have a beautiful piece when it is finished. If they finish. If they don't get mad at me and throw the thing in the trash! I hope they don't, but Stella was pretty blunt, so we'll just have to see how this plays out

Meanwhile, I'm going to be stringing up the Damn Sampler today, come hell or high water! It's a solitary pursuit, and it's just what Stella needs after going off like a bottle rocket

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