Why do people stitch needlepoint?

Last year, Marni Jameson, a popular syndicated columnist, wrote that it “tether[s] us to the ancient arts of an older world and symbolize[s] perseverance.”

I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “tether” in normal conversation, but I think Jameson meant a BP world, a Before Present one, as archeologists say, one where things were made largely without machines, except perhaps a few primitive implements — a world for which human beings did not need an “antidote” (as she humorously put it) against the sometimes overwhelming technical complexity of the one many of us now experience daily.

This is a seductive, mock-Luddite argument, but it conveniently sidesteps the fact that canvas embroidery has always relied on an array of sophisticated technologies, from those required in the manufacture of yarn, needles, canvas, tracing and painting material, to knowledge and mastery of a variety of stitching techniques, and of course finishing know how, without which a stitched canvas is doomed to remain incomplete.

Also, if you look at the Intro pages of Carolyn Ambuter’s Needlepoint Celebrations (Workman Publishing, 1976), you will see an earlier example of the kind of thoughts expressed in Jameson’s column, to wit:  “Today, most of America is thoroughly mechanized… the quiet, constant repetition of stitching both calms and excites… therapeutic though it may be, needlepoint is above all an artistic activity.”  And so on.

Despite this, Jameson is on to something.

I, too, think all needlepoint stitchers ineffably sense there’s something else going on, particularly after stitching for a while, with canvas embroidery.  However, what this thing is, the almost philosophical discussion of why people actually stitch (aside from passing the time, or engaging in a social function), is rarely touched upon in, say, an ordinary, technique-oriented stitching class, and is only hinted at in a typical needlepoint-related column, magazine article, or How To book.

You have to look elsewhere for this.

Luckily, there are tons of learned books in which the noble history and deep vibe of needlepoint stitching are discussed, most of which I must confess I haven’t read, except maybe Sherlee Lantz’ A Pageant of Pattern for Needlepoint Canvas, and a few select others.

But if you are interested in Brahmin-like discussions about utilitarian needlepoint vs needlepoint as High Art, or the rise of canvas embroidery in the Middle Ages, or the influence of the Catholic Church on needlepoint stitching, or theories on the nature of artisanry, then Lantz’ book is as good a place as any to start, before maybe branching off into more eclectic directions.

Personally, I have always been interested, for example, in the influence of William Morris and the English Pre-Raphaelite movement (ah, that handsome, tragic Swinburne!) on needlepoint, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, then Beth Russell’s various books on the subject, and of course her wonderful William Morris-inspired designs are perhaps the way to go.

I usually frame my take on the discussion, which at heart is really the question “why do we still needlepoint in the 21st century?,” by mentioning a concept I call the Zen of Needlepoint.  No, it’s not so much along the lines of growing vegetables in the backyard and the joys of hand crafting in a post-hippie, post-Industrial, New Age world.  Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things, of course.  It’s more about something primeval and archetypal, one that we have carried with us since the beginning of time.  Sort of what Jameson was getting at.

*  *  *

Helen Winthorpe Kendrick

There is an intimacy to needlepointing, to holding a canvas, threading a needle, stitching a design, that is completely unlike the disconnected experience of Simple Touch-ing your way through a Nook.

Call me a digital Neanderthal.

Anyway, the other day, I was at B&N to graze at the needlepoint section, and delay the torture of concluding my Canvas of Waking Dreams think piece, the one that will cause no one to ever read my blog again after I publish it, and came across a wonderful book, Helen Winthorpe Kendrick’s Stitch-opedia.

More on this book in a jiffy.

Soon, I was eagerly standing in line, book in hand. I noticed a salesperson who was working a Nook booth that was practically in the checkout line. She was trying to convince a customer to buy a designer Nook cover to make the device sorta look like a book. Talk about ironic.

I may be sadly of touch, but I really would prefer not to pretend that something that looks like a nerd’s clipboard is almost a book. I actually want the real book. 

Maybe these Nook and Kindle gizmos are just not a needlepoint thing. And yet, there are in fact needlepoint covers for these e-readers, so what do I know?

At any rate, I bought Stitch-opedia, and started reading it. It is really filled with tons of great material, but what immediately stood out for me was right there in the second paragraph of the Introduction:

“The first needles were found in Europe and dated back to the Paleolithic period, roughly 15,000 years ago.”

That is so cool. I was instantly mesmerized. I wasn’t crazy to mention this whole business in the first place. I suddenly realized that when I held a needle in hand to stitch, that I was actually using a technology that dated back to the Stone Age. To me, that’s pretty incredible.

Talk about feeling connected to the past.

Official Poster

This is why in my mind Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams has a great deal to say about the craft we love.

I won’t get all heavy and academic here.

But I will say that after seeing this film that it didn’t feel like it was such a reach to suggest that ancient figurative art has a very special connection to the designs I work with on canvas today. And that looking at the 32,000 year old figures on the caves of Chauvet Pont d’Arc is like seeing a distant echo of, as Herzog tells us, the invention of visual communication, almost the trace rumblings of a sacred world of Imagination, one that, in effect, signaled the advent of Homo Spiritualis.

So, maybe I wasn’t one of those digital Neanderthals after all.

Maybe needlepoint stitching is just one of those things that makes me a human being.


© Erin McGrath and, 2012 – 2016.


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