In my recent excavations amongst the foothills of projects unfinished I came across a needlepoint cushion, in progress, shall we say, rather than uncompleted, and spent a quiet and happy afternoon, sitting on my holiday sofa, stitching.
I first started doing needlepoint in the mid-nineteen-eighties at around the time Kaffe Fassett published his book Glorious Needlepoint. He had a wonderful exhibition of his work at the V&A and I remember sitting in on a seminar he took, where he was trying to encourage the concept of creativity amongst the audience, and stressing the importance of designing your own work, yet the bulk of the questions seemed to be variations on the theme of when he would produce his next kit!
There was definitely a craze for needlepoint at the time, or so it seemed to me – whenever I went away for the weekend everyone sat around chatting over canvas and wool. In terms of skill required, needlepoint kits might be akin to painting by numbers, but it was certainly how I rediscovered needlework after being put off by the tedium of school sewing.
And as I worked away at my latest needlepoint this week, I thought of how many cushions I had stitched, and when I gathered them together, I was quite surprised to see how many I had finished. And you can see them above, all lined up along the sofa.
I missed one out by accident – I had been using it on my office chair, and in fact the colours are rather unfortunate – petrol blue and old gold (you see what I mean) – and have never really matched anything in my house. But the hours of work involved and the cost of having it blocked and turned into a cushion have always made me reluctant to cast the poor thing aside.
This unphotographed cushion reminds me of George Eliot’s line in her novel Felix Holt, The Radical published in 1866. Eliot writes that a ‘little daily embroidery had been a constant element in Mrs Transome’s life; that soothing occupation of taking stitches to produce what neither she nor any one else wanted, was then the resource of many a well-born and unhappy woman.’
In that simple sentence we learn so much about Mrs Transome, her situation and her life – all conveyed through her needlework. And this was one of the little occurrences that impelled me to begin to research the practice of needlework in nineteenth-century literature, which eventually ended up in my PhD thesis on that very subject.
And when I look at my needlepoint cushions all neatly arrayed on the sofa, I recall so much about myself and my own life. I did a lot of needlepoint when the children were small – I remember those afternoons when they played around my feet and I could stitch away happily, supervising them but pleasantly occupied as well. Needlepoint can be picked up and put down – you don’t have to remember your place, and no harm will come to it if it is grabbed by a little hand.
The knot garden kit above was given to me by my dear, departed grandmother one Christmas – she was a very keen stitcher and made rosy chair seats by the dozen for dining room chairs, piano stools, and the like. And when I became a mother to a little girl, after two boys, I bought the Candace Bahouth sampler, with its candy colours and picture of a little girl, from Ehrman, to do while I watched my own little girl play and grow.
The hen cushions have memories, too – the small Jolly Red one has a chewed corner from a naughty puppy, the Ploughboy’s eighteenth birthday present to himself. This puppy also showed a penchant for munching on bamboo knitting needles when she joined the family, and still takes pleasure in removing polyfill from her own cushions.
The larger speckled hen cushion is a repository of sad memories. I came home clutching that kit from what had been a pleasant day at the Country Living fair, only to find out that my father-in-law was very ill. He died before it was finished, and woven into the fabric of that cushion is the memory of hours of anxious waiting as I sat and sewed away, and recollections of a long, grief-stricken winter. And my stitching was so tight, and it made the canvas so badly distorted, that even after blocking and making up its crookedness is still visible. And yet again I cannot bring myself to abandon it to its fate.
The Candace Bahouth Maytime cushion with its Clunyesque flowers, and the warm tones of the Stitchery beehive, presents from my grandmother and mother respectively, conjure up images of happier winters and sitting on a sofa indoors by the fire. Kaffe Fassett’s apple proved impossible to do by night, though, and my grandmother had warned me of this when she saw it. ‘All those shades of green,’ she said, ‘You will never be able to tell them apart in artificial light.’ And she was right – so I would only get this cushion out in the summer, and it took quite a few years to finish.
I am not sure what memories the bees in this cushion will preserve for me – only time will tell. And I think this might be a long time in the making – because now I knit and stitch in different ways, and the needlepoint goes to the back of the queue because my life has changed – my children are growing and have grown, and there is no one to grab my work from my lap in an insistent demand for attention. In fact, nowadays I have to demand their attention if I want it, and I look back with a kind of longing for those days when I did not have a moment to myself.