Daily Handbasket: Long Before Writing There was Embroidery

Paisley pillow cover.

This is needlepoint, not embroidery. Pillow cover.

I love the needle arts. Well, perhaps with the exception of machine sewing/embroidery. Sometime I’ll tell you about the machine sewing class I took when I was 18. Needless to say, it was not a success. I’m more of a hand arts person.

My grandmother once had a sewing machine, I believe, but I never saw the machine, or her sewing on it. And I think my mom knew how to sew at one time, but didn’t care much for it. But once my grandmother was in her early sixties, she took up crocheting. She wasn’t into making clothes, but crocheted a blue million afghans and baby blankets. I remember she tried to teach me one summer, and I made a couple of granny squares. Sadly, I  didn’t have any kind of vision for it, and I didn’t like the texture of the acrylic yarn on my hands. And no one I knew knitted, so I never tried it. The idea of having to repeatedly count stitches drives me crazy.

Embroidery and me

You may remember the 1970s. Embroidery was all the rage. Particularly peace symbols and flowers. I didn’t have any embroidery thread at first, so I used regular cotton thread for a while, but that got very tedious, and I soon tracked down proper yarn. I wish, wish, wish I had kept the bell bottom jeans that I embroidered in middle school. I embroidered some cut-offs, too. My designs weren’t fancy–mostly flowers. But I did stitch a particularly cute puppy dog face on one pair of jeans. I drew the graphic face first, and then stitched it in. The same for the butterfly on the back pocket of my shorts. No one taught me, so my stitches were sadly simple and not very flexible. But as a kid, you work with whatever you have.

Eventually such embroidery went out of fashion, and with it my interest. But it stayed in the back of my mind.

Cross Stitch

How ironic, then, that the needlework I got seriously into first was counted cross stitch. I began with small Christmas tree ornaments and moved on to small framed projects. Cross stitch is excellent for detailed designs. If the weave of the cross stitch fabric is small enough, the lines can look almost smooth and fluid from a distance.

My first big project was a picture of an elaborate Japanese vase. It wasn’t perfectly stitched, but I loved the muted blues and golds and beiges. I can’t even remember exactly what it looked like, but I remember how it felt as I stitched it, and how proud I was of it when I was done. Who knows where it is right now. Maybe I framed it for my first in-laws? My mother would’ve given it to me already, I suspect, if she had it.

Here’s a pair of Hummel figures I cross-stitched for my grandmother. Bless her heart, she hung up every single thing I made for her.

Hummel figures for my grandmother.

Stitched for my grandmother. I still remember loving doing the apple basket.


For a long time I thought needlepoint and embroidery were the same thing. They are definitely not. Needlepoint is basically one stitch, executed in a couple possible ways. Its uniformity is its strength, which makes it perfect for pillows and upholstery. Most of my projects over the last five years have been needlepoint. They can be executed fairly mindlessly, while watching television or chatting or traveling. The paisley pillow cover at the top of the post is one I’m finishing to give to my daughter. It takes me forever to finish needlepoint projects. You can see my stitches are imperfect and that it’s been stretched out of shape a million different ways. It will have to be blocked before I can have it made into a pillow. I use Sign of the Arrow in St. Louis for finishing–their profits support charities.

If you go to a craft or needlework store, you’ll probably see far more cross stitch projects than needlepoint kits and materials. I’m not sure why.


Crewel is not a style of embroidery, but the yarn. Crewel yarn is wool, and many of the stitches have been used in hand embroidery for hundreds of years. It’s most useful for things like pillows and upholstery and curtains, etc. You wouldn’t want to do a dishtowel with Crewel, for example.

Even though I have four or five unopened embroidery projects in my closet I think this is the direction I want to go after I’m done with the pillow for my daughter. It’s certainly not expert. But I enjoyed the variety of stitches I had to learn. It kept my mind–which craves variety–entertained. I look forward to more of the same.

Here’s the crewel pillow I did a few years ago:

Birds and yarn. Two of my favorite things. Crewel is wool embroidery yarn.

I have a thing for birds. And yarn.

Last week I dropped off our vacuum cleaner to be repaired at a sew and vac store. They only carry machine sewing and quilting supplies, but I found a flyer for a local meeting of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, Inc. It seemed serendipitous to me. I weary of learning nearly everything new through books and videos, and I hope to meet some embroiderers who will share their skills with a novice.

Hand-stitching takes a lot of time, but I want a creative outlet besides writing. In fact, the more I stitch, the more excited I am about my writing. For me, stitching came first. As a child, I had early dreams of doing something creative with my life. I used to copy drawings and images, but I wasn’t brave enough to develop a visual art. Or even music. I didn’t think I could be trained. I imagined that art could only be produced as a result of innate talent.

We all have different gifts. Drawing comes naturally to some people, just as writing does to others. But there’s so much more to art. There’s practice. Practice, practice, practice. I didn’t become an experienced, published writer because I was born with a particular gift for it. In fact, my earliest work was imitative and had no soul. It looked like writing, but wasn’t storytelling. It has taken decades of practice to become what I am now.

When we want our deepest minds to play, to create the images that we can bring to the page, the mind needs to have other occupation. That’s what mine needs, anyway. A distraction. “Here, look at this, Mind. See the patterns? See the path away from your obsession?” Crafting is one way of doing it. Creating begets creating.

How do you persuade your mind to do the hard work of creativity?


June 18th Words
Journal:  75 words
Long fiction:320 words
Short fiction: 0 words
Non-fiction: 0 words
Blogging: 1129 words
Exercise: Walking the dogs, 1 mile

5 thoughts on “Daily Handbasket: Long Before Writing There was Embroidery”

  1. Karen Terry says:

    MY mom and sister sews, but I do not. I took sewing in high school and it was not pretty. I like people who does that kind of thing.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      I think people who sew well are like magicians, Karen. So admirable. 💜

  2. skyecaitlin says:

    These are breath taking, Laura, and something I have always wanted to do. All the women in my family, except for yours truly, embroidered, sewed, tailored and crocheted. I tried, and I can’t even thread a needle ( the truth). Something to do with fine motor skills, I suspect. However, I do adore Hummels and have a wee collection, and I find your embroidery to be quite lovely.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      Thank you for the sweet words, Skye. 💜 Now, go out and get yourself a needle-threader right away, if you don’t have one. I couldn’t sew on a button without one!

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