There’s nothing like a few good finishes to get one all riled up and digging even deeper into that bag of almost dones. And with the monkey looking so luscious on the sofa, I was inspired to trek out to the sewing shed this morning, rain and all, and find my very first needlepoint. William Morris’ Fox in the Acanthus leaves, as adapted by Beth Russell.
I started this project in 1993. Oh my goodness. That’s 20 years ago. Eeeek! I don’t remember where I bought the book, but I do remember where I bought my supplies … a little embroidery store that lived on the second floor of the Toowong Shopping Centre in Brisbane. They had quite a lovely range and for many years, I was a regular customer. Sadly, it went the way of most little embroidery stores and I think the same spot is now occupied by a fingernail salon. What does that say about our society – that there are fingernail salons around every corner? I’m not sure.
However, whilst they were lovely ladies at this embroidery shop and I shared many lovely afternoons with them, they certainly did not set me up well for my first needlepoint adventure and I knew no better. Look at that canvas – white single thread with absolutely NO margins. Awful stuff. And shows up through the stitches like a bad case of dandruff.
I don’t know why I didn’t notice this – the dandruff bit – at first. I just didn’t and stitched away happily until it was almost finished … then I noticed and in puzzled disappointment, William’s fox was rolled up and put away. In fact, it was even suggested by one rather unpleasant person whose company I no longer keep, that it wasn’t worth finishing, the white speckles of the canvas so spoiled it.
However, now, with those couple of decades behind me, a whole lot more confidence, and a much more cheery and laid back approach to life, I look at this sweet embroidery and am charmed. There are surely hundreds of hours of my life stitched into these tiny white squares. I have such vivid memories of where I used to sit (I used to rise by 5am so that I could sit under the lamp, by the piano in our little flat in Hill End and stitch away before catching the ferry across the river to work at the University of Queensland), what I would listen to on the radio (Christopher Lawrence on the ABC Classic’s breakfast program – there was a particular piece he played regularly – a Catalan dance played on the recorder – that I would long for every morning – made my heart sing), and how I would watch the ferry trundling back and forth across the river and think, just one more length of wool and then I’ll run down to the terminal. Just one more. Just one more – I was so often late for work! And hundreds of dollars worth of Appleton crewel wool along with it. And it is an enchanting design – exactly why it was the very first needlepoint I chose to do.
It certainly IS worth finishing and today was the day.
I pulled out the wools – they were all still there, twenty years on, in a tin that I have carried from home to home since then. There was a wee leaf tip to stitch and a little bit more background to fill. Would be easily finished in an hour, then I could sew it up and get on with the rest of my day. Until I noticed there seemed to be the odd stitch missed here and there. Really peculiar. Puzzled me how I could have missed just one stitch here and there. Until I started to poke at the stitches around these little holes … and realised the wool had been eaten. Baaaaaaaaah!
This is incredibly expensive moth proofed Appleton crewel wool! How could it be moth eaten?!?!? And NONE of my other needlepoints (of which there are so many) have a single mark on them – NONE! How could this one! I am meticulous about washing my hands before embroidering and NEVER eat whilst I am working with fabric or yarn. A careful scientific assessment on Instagram :-) leads me to think it was probably silverfish – horrible little beasts. Every house we lived in in Queensland was riddled with them - as soon as something became untouched for more than a few weeks, they’d move in. Ugh! UNESCO even identify them as a major pest of tapestries and apparently they are very fond of sizing – of which the white canvas had plenty and protein – wool.
Each single missing stitch turned into several as I carefully unpicked the damaged stitches and then continued unpicking until I had enough intact yarn to finish off properly. In the end, not only did I repair all the spots illuminated by those missing stitches, but was able to pick out where the stitches had been chewed but hadn’t quite fallen out. It took all day.
I confess, I began to think … that’s it, this bloody needlepoint was absolutely never meant to be finished. And yet, I continued to work steadily at the damaged stitches. Each time I poked an area and it fell apart, I practically cried in frustration, but kept pulling out old stitches and putting in new ones. Let’s face it – it took all day but it certainly was still only little bits here and there that needed repairing. The favoured colour was definitely the fox’s gingerbread coat.
A good deal of self talk also helped my perspective. There I was sitting in front of a wall that I have covered in the quirky little needlepoints I have bought from op shops. Weird little designs, like the one above, higgledy-piggledy things with with missing or wonky stitches, and some with damaged frames. But all so charming and pretty in their own way.
Each time I find one and bring it home, Julian or Mum will look in horror and ask what on earth I want it for. I have the same reply each time. I’m drawn to the hours put in by a dedicated stitcher who receives so much pleasure from her work. That’s what I love. I look at these sweet pictures stitched in wool and I know the thrill of choosing a new pattern. Of buying the wools and neatly laying them on the table in front of me. Of finding the middle of the canvas and starting. Of stitching for the first several hours, holding it up and seeing nothing but a strange arrangement of stitches. Of delight when the picture begins to appear.
Perfection is highly over rated. Yes it’s nice and sure, I don’t aim to do a project badly. But two decades of stitching has taught me that the pleasure is in the doing and the using. I don’t need my points to be pin sharp. I don’t need my lines of quilting to have the perfect curve or the straightest line. I don’t need my knitting to be spot on. I try my best and then I keep going. Yes I still “enjoy” a good unpicking and will unravel a cardigan if it is required :-) But if the joy of making with my own hands becomes reduced to a mechanical exercise in getting it precisely right, I’m not interested. My time is too limited for that. I want the thrills described above.
And this needlepoint with its thousands of stitches, flecks of white, and silverfish chomped bits has delivered those thrills in abundance. As well as a marvellous learning opportunity and a passion for needlepoint that I will always have. In this light, one could call my William’s Fox a gift!
And so it was FINISHED! And I am delighted. I collected Abby from school, called into the lovely Darn Cheap Fabrics up the road for a rich red (they have the most glorious pure wool fabric – it is heavenly and well worth buying – just $20 a metre and 145cm wide), had a lovely chat with Lynne (we are kindred spirits for sure), came home and sewed William’s fox into a gorgeous cushion that I just love.
I mean, just look at him sitting there! He embodies 20 years of my journey … I am so lucky to have him.
p.s. I told you the sofa was becoming a needlepoint easel.