Both my paternal grandmother and my mom tried needlepoint. Both failed. My grandmother, a crackerjack seamstress, knitter, and crocheter, started a “fill in the background” piece once and never finished. She gave it to me in high school and I finished it an turned it into the seat for an antique rocker.
Grandma most definitely represented the old school of needlepoint as it was done pre-1970.
My mom, on the other hand, is an artist. I don’t think there is a craft she hasn’t tried and she does well at all of them. In the 70’s and inspired by my constant stitching she tried a project. But she couldn’t help tinkering and her skills were way too beginner for what she saw in her head. She also did not finish, and went back to pottery and watercolors.
The needlepoint she did is something we would all recognize immediately as “modern” needlepoint — colorful, crafty, original, and with lots of stitches.
What happened to change this? The simple answer is the Seventies, but it’s worth a closer look. Two factors fueled a change to how we looked at crafts and, very importantly, how we thought about needlepoint.
The first factor was a blossoming of interest in crafts and home-made things that started with the decade. Partially driven by young people wanting to “go back to the land” and partially driven by having both free time and money easily available, many people took to trying crafts. But the important thing about these crafts was that they weren’t the stuffy, rigid crafts of previous generations. They took time-honored crafts and applied new ideas to them. There was a joy here to rediscovering something old and forgotten.
The second factor was the degradation of needlepoint. While we may shudder at Victorian art and find the colors garish, the fact is that the needlework techniques of the late-Nineteenth and early Twentith Centuries were very creative using techniques such as four-way Bargello, thousands of colors, and adapting historic techniques to modern stitchery. Those Berlinwork flowers of 150 years ago became my grandmother’s needlepoint. Her colors were muddied and lifeless instead of garish. Her design was simplified not complex. The skill of reproducing the chart was taken away because she only had to stitch the background.
To someone who wanted a creative outlet, that needlepoint was not the answer. So the needlepoint had to change or be lost.
In 1970 needlepoint was just starting to become modern. While pre-stitched canvases were still a big part of the market, you could buy blank canvas and Persian Wool to design your own pieces. Craft magazines had original projects in them. Even more importantly the more original ideas of the great British needlepointers were becoming known and adopted by a new generation of younger stitchers.
Many of these people started stitching in the early 70’s. Influenced by the craft and youth revolutions around them, they wanted needlepoint to be freer, more original, and more creative. But although your shop might help you, you were often left on your own.
In her interview (here) Jo said she wanted to learn “everything” about needlepoint. Since I was searching for stuff about the same time I can understand how the desert of information drove her to research and to write The Needlepoint Book.
She wasn’t alone, others were doing the same thing. And after her book came out in 76, there were many others. It’s almost as if her book opened the flood gates and allowed many other books to be published, books we still consider classics.
Grab a copy of the first edition and look at the projects — wouldn’t you stitch many of them today? How many of the stitches are still in the third edition — almost 40 years later! Needlepoint in this book is recognizable as our needlepoint of today, lots of stitches, modern ideas of design, and an emphasis on the designer’s and stitcher’s creative impulses.
I have a huge needlepoint book collection and if I look at books written before 1970, needlepoint is what my grandmother stitched: Tent stitch, wool, and fill-in-the-background. A steady diet of this needlepoint probably would not fulfill your creative urges. Even someone as counter-cultural as Carole King is stitching this kind of needlepoint (picture at top of column).
If you look at a needlepoint book from the early 70’s they have opened up a bit more. There are some charted projects, there are a few more stitches. But still not terribly open. Knowledge then was passed from stitcher to stitcher, mostly inside the core group of needlepointers.
After Jo wrote her book about everything needlepoint, stitchers could learn on their own. It might be someone like me: college-age and stitching in the back of the car during a family vacation. Or it might be the young upper-class matron stitching stunning director’s chair for her porch (she was in my church choir). But we all took to stitching our own ideas, even if someone else painted the canvas, with a vengence.
And we haven’t let go yet.