Next to me on my sofa are my toys: needles, scissors, and a canvas stitched with brightly colored perled thread. Yes, this harpy loves nothing more than settling in on a cold winter’s night with some needlepoint.
For centuries, needlepoint–and its equally fussy sisters, embroidery and cross-stitch–was an “accomplishment” for gently bred ladies. No fancy parlor was complete without a few needlepointed throw pillows or chair cushions, daintily worked by the lady of the house in her “spare time” (a term I use advisedly, since leisure barely existed in the bad old days before birth control, washing machines, ready-to-wear, and modern kitchens).
And yet, despite all its elitist, pre-feminist associations, I love my needlepoint. For starters, it’s the ultimate form of soothing entertainment for an overworked fidgeter like me. In a 1798 letter to his daughter, Martha, Thomas Jefferson wrote: ”In the life of America there are many moments when a woman can have recourse to nothing but her needle for enjoyment. In a dull company, and in a dull weather, for instance, it is ill manners to read; it is ill manners to leave them; no card playing there among genteel people, that is abandoned to the blackguards. The needle is then a valuable source.” The letter contains no clue as to whether TJ—a man of many hobbies and unusual accomplishments—ever resorted to a little needlework himself. But he hits squarely on the simple pleasure of needlework: busy hands let the mind drift to more enjoyable things without seeming rude or idle. There’s a Zen quality to the smooth pull of the needle through canvas, the calming slip of the thread through my fingers as my mind wanders and focuses somewhere else…or nowhere at all.
And there are practical benefits too. Needleworking taught me to stitch. When a fellow bridesmaid’s dress popped a seam at a wedding last year, I was the only one who knew how to repair the damage with the hotel’s teeny sewing kit. Crisis averted. A hundred years ago, every woman in the room would have known how to sew a straight line. Now, even simple stitching is a lost art. At the reception a few hours later, the bride opened my gift, a custom needlepointed pillow. It’s her favorite thing in her new living room. A year later, she hung a needlework design on the wall of her baby’s nursery—another gift from Auntie Becky. Now that everyone registers for gifts at Crate & Barrel or Babies R Us, it’s the handmade gift that gets all the attention. I can smile and preen as everyone admires my beautiful handiwork, even when the occasional backhanded compliment flies my way: “I didn’t think women did that anymore.” Well, this one does.