As a newlywed, I resettled in Houston from New York City, taking with me a cat, a car, Uncle Russell’s “Trees” painting and miscellaneous stuff. I left behind my job as project manager of the first full multi-media curriculum in sex education produced for American schools. No kidding. I’ll tell you about that later.
A kind new friend invited me to a needlepoint class, having observed my discombobulation, a Yankee stranger in the Lone Star State of football and armadillos. And cockroaches, a lot of them. Was she kidding? Well, wasn’t former Pro Bowl player Roosevelt Grier an active needlepointer? At 6’5” and 284 lbs, if he wanted to pull out his Persian yarn and embroidery scissors, was anyone really going to call him anti-macho? If Rosie could do it, maybe needlepoint wasn’t such a weird thing to take up in my new life as a Big Apple dropout.
So, to be polite, I accompanied my well-meaning friend to the Chaparral yarn shop, and long story short, it was love at first stitch. I totally and instantly got needlepoint as if a switch to an unused fusebox had been flipped. And I was overwhelmingly on. So on that I couldn’t learn fast enough, as I began feverishly working on a sampler picking up the colors in the beautiful Bakhtiari rug we had gotten as a wedding present. I was dangerous to be around. I left needles in the sofa cushions and forgot about the roast crisping itself to oblivion at 350 degrees. I barely missed getting hit by a foul ball at an Astros game. (That is a true story.)
Rosie Grier’s Needlepoint Book for Men just didn’t have enough in it for me, and though I searched and in those beginning weeks bought dozens of books, I couldn’t find one that provided me with the needlepoint education of my dreams. So I decided to convince an editor at Crown to publish a new work. I found an experienced needlepointer who knew what she was doing, and we wrote A New Look at Needlepoint together. It sold over 200,000 copies. I was on talk TV with Dr. Ruth and a vampire expert. Then I wrote A New Look at Bargello, and then another collaboration resulted in Needlepoint Letters and Numbers.
Finally I had found a way to express my artistic self, which craved working with two-dimensional space and the luxurious tactile sensations of transforming a white “canvas” with counted surface stitchery (diagrams for 80 stitches in book 1). I dove into designing and teaching needlepoint. The most massive project—the kneelers adorning St. John the Divine in Houston, which I designed to complement the church’s magnificent contemporary stained glass windows. Dozens of church members came together in fellowship every week for months to stitch the patterns. A quilting bee for needlepointers. (Sorry Rosie, no men.)
So what do I love about needlepoint the most? You can’t really speed it up. It takes a certain amount of time to cover a square inch of 14-count canvas with 196 tent stitches. It’s rhythmic and soothing. No cell phones, no apps or ads, no multi-tasking—you have to look at what you’re doing. Of course you can still chat with another person—it’s nice working together. Real, not virtual. Discovering new techniques and solving problems, like how to keep your canvas from warping, a lot learned from someone else willing to share. The chance to take an old medium to new places—some of the stuff I did had not been tried before. Creating with your own hand something precious and enduring with a purpose, usually a gift.
Maybe it’s not such a big leap from that time in my life when I was obsessed with needlepoint to now when I am obsessed with school communications. They are clearly connected in my mind. Take your time and follow your heart and your friends. But don’t sit on the needle or let the cat get your yarn bag. If you want to learn how to do basketweave left-handed, send me a message and I’ll email you the diagrams.
This post is dedicated to Kathryn Hooper, who led me to the Chaparral and has been a friend to me and to education for decades.