A Family History of Embroidery

Nordea's blog piece on Artful Embroidery (September 19) reminded me of my teenage years when my mother, a crewel embroiderer, taught me some simple stitches. We lived in the middle of Long Island, where there was never enough for kids to do. 

My mom was a craft person extraordinaire. She made braided rugs, like this, for the rooms in our home by going to rummage sales on the last day when a shopper could fill a bag for $1.

She loaded up on wool jackets and pants, cut the material into strips, sewed the strips together at the ends and folded as she went. She braided the folded strips and then sewed the braids into an oval, like this.

The artistry came in blending the colors that would sit next to each other in the rug.

My mom also made pictures from wool thread, called crewel embroidery. She made mostly simple flower and fruit compositions that went with our New England antique furniture: ladder back chairs and butcher tables and pewter sconces and mugs.

Crewel is a style of free embroidery thousands of years old, done on linen or cotton and many stitches allow the sight of the linen through and around the design. These pieces, like the pillow below, she would frame and hang on the wall above the couch in the living room.

Both my parents were painters, as were relatives on my mother’s side. One of them lived in a lighthouse and painted it, as well as other shore scenes. Some painted the farmlands of Hicksville, Long Island in the early 1900s, which is where they lived, on potato farms. My father painted landscapes in oil and my mother used all media for her pieces. She painted well into her 80s, traveling to Italy to live and paint in Rome for a month.

All my embroidery was done on faded blue jeans. 

My masterpiece was a blue jean skirt that I made from a cut up pair of jeans. I put a few flowers on it, like this:

But I kept working on it over time. In the end, it had the feel of this piece:

According to my mother, I wore it every day from Memorial to Labor Day. It had fringe and hanging threads on the bottom. It was not something that could be purchased at the Smith Haven or Walt Whitman Malls, which is where everyone shopped. It was probably the most comfortable thing I ever wore, and I made it.