To wrap up 2018, I took advantage of my employer’s generous vacation leave policy and spent eleven days — including two weekends, Christmas, and New Year’s Day — at home, and during that lengthy stretch, I rarely left my house, only journeying out into the wild to re-stock my stores of snacks and beer. If you want to be nitpicky, we did travel to my brother’s house for Christmas Day, and there were two running events, including a five-mile fun run, and a marathon. That all adds up to about one day of travel by car and on foot, and the rest of the time I was camped out on the couch watching TV and doing cross-stitch.
Cross-stitch, for the uninitiated is a form of “counted thread embroidery,” in which thread is woven through even-weave fabric (Google it) in a particular pattern to produce a picture or words. I’ve most often seen cross-stitch tapestries in the form of “bell pulls,” a long and narrow rectangle that hangs vertically and features some message like “Happy Holidays” or a family name along with flowery images. The project I worked on over my Christmas was based on a pattern my daughter found featuring Star Trek uniform insignias for Command, Sciences, and Engineering. We are a family of geeks, and my daughter made the Star Trek tapestry for her brother as a gift he could hang in his college dorm room. When my brother saw it, he expressed his admiration, so she decided to make one for him, too. Life got busy for her, and I ended up taking over the project. After all, I had lots of time on my hands, and cross-stitch is a wonderful pastime.
I have been doing needlework since I was a young child. My mother, practiced in many of the textile arts, decided I should learn to sew and taught me how to do a basic stitch in order to hold two edges of fabric together and how to sew on a button. Thanks to Mom, I am prepared for any garment emergencies, which is good because I lose an inordinate number of buttons from my shirts. My clothes dryer seems to enjoy eating buttons, and I am loath to spend money on new garments. I have a massive collection of buttons, passed down from my mother and prior generations of my family’s seamstresses, and I can always find one that almost matches the other buttons.
While my hand-sewing skills have never progressed beyond the basics, Mom also taught me how to use a sewing machine. I am adept at operating such a device, as long as it was manufactured before the year of my birth, 1968. I learned on my mom’s 1961 machine, and I inherited my aunt’s 1967ish Kenmore. I know more about the components of a sewing machine — including the bobbin winder, presser foot, and feed dog — than I do about internal combustion engines. I can’t change the oil on my car, but I can thread a sewing machine like nobody’s business.
Sewing has always been a practical matter, but for creativity, I learned how to do needlepoint: the beginner’s version of cross-stitch. I was more of an art kid than an athletic kid, and needlepoint was an outlet for my aesthetic interests. It was like drawing with yarn, and I created colorful drink coasters, a Christmas scene — with a tree, fireplace, and stockings hung with care —that adorns my mother’s home every holiday season, and a three-dimensional recreation of a Rubik’s cube that served as a pin cushion.
Mom reassured the young, impressionable me there was nothing sissy about needlepoint. She pointed out that Rosy Grier — the NFL Hall of Fame six-foot five-inch, 285 pound defensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams — was a needlepoint aficionado who even wrote a book about it. I thought that was interesting, but I was never overly concerned about having my masculinity challenged because of my love for needlepoint. I just thought it was cool.
It had been many years since I picked up a needle and thread for creative purposes, but sitting on the couch each evening during my Christmas break with the even-weave fabric mounted in a wooden stitch frame in my lap and a needle in my hand was just the break from the daily grind of work that I needed. While I toiled, there was no email, no Facebook, and I even lost track of what was on the big screen TV. My focus was singular, carefully counting spaces on the even-weave, poking the needle through the back of the canvas, and pulling the colored thread as the image slowly formed. It’s close up work, and I pushed my glasses up onto my head so I could focus my aging eyes on the tiny holes. It was a meditation of sorts and deeply relaxing. From time to time, the thread would snarl, and so would I, as I was forced to “frog” a few stitches and begin again. There is no art without a bit of suffering.
The tapestry is now complete, and I love the subtle irony of the symbols of Star Trek’s futuristic technology being illustrated with humble embroidery floss. I’ve been on Pinterest all week looking for my next project, which will probably be a rendering of some extreme metal imagery, of course. Whatever it is, it will have to wait a bit, as I’ve returned to the busy-ness of work and I’ve got a book to finish, but some day soon, I will retreat to my couch, push my glasses back on my head with needle in hand and escape into the cross-stitch universe to seek out new imagery and delightful meditation, to boldly go where Rosy Grier has gone before.