I am sure many of you have heard of Jean Lea or of her shop The Attic, and for those of you who have had the opportunity to visit the Attic in Mesa, Arizona…I am quite jealous! How wonderful that Jean is now sharing her own story and love of needlework with us for our interview this month.
And, in celebration of the Scarlet Letter Year, Jean is sponsoring a special giveaway – a Scarlet Letter chart with linen! Details on how to enter are below!
How old were you when you first picked up a needle and who taught you to stitch?
I can't remember how old I was, but I believe it was in my early teens when I first picked up a needle and it was my grandmother who taught me. The project was embroidering dish towels. In Wisconsin where I grew up, it was the thing to do to convert old flour sacks into dish towels, and it was fashionable to have them embroidered. I embroidered a set that included one for each day of the week. At that point in my life, I thought I would try to emulate my mother and fill a cedar chest, aka a "hope chest," (hoping to be married) with handmade items, everything from quilts to dresser scarves, etc. I didn't come close. My mother was an incredible seamstress, sometimes designing things from photos like my junior prom dress. She made all of the dresses for our wedding, mine, all of the bridesmaids', and her own. But she really didn't embroider in her later life. In fact, after I'd taken up cross-stitch and samplermaking, she remarked that she couldn't understand how I found that tedious needlework relaxing, after a day working as a court reporter, my career BC (before cross-stitch), which she saw as very tedious work.
What was the first sampler that you stitched?
To correctly answer this question I was sent to my sampler walls in our front parlor where I found many in the late 1980's and 1990's, but then I remembered that really my first "sampler" isn't hanging there at all but, rather, in my sister's home. It was a kit that also included its little frame, and it says, "A Sister is a Forever Friend." It's pretty aged now, and I've stitched several others for her over the decades that I like much more, but she prizes it, she says.
But truly the sampler that I think started it all for me was the "Pomegranate Sampler" from Darlene O'Steen/The Needle's Prayse when it appeared on the cover of Just CrossStitch magazine in 1986. My local shop, The Attic (yes, it's the same one, where I started as a customer in 1981 and purchased an interest in in 1990 and still operate today as the sole proprietor along with my husband), ordered the Au Ver A'Soie silks for it, and that began my ongoing love affair with samplers and silk threads. I did not finish the Pomegranate Sampler until 1991, when my father and I sat with my mother in her last days as she was losing her battle with breast cancer.
What time of day do you stitch?
I stitch in the evenings, often falling asleep with needle in hand.
Do you sit in a set place and what tools do you like to have at hand? Does everything have to be in a certain place in order for you to relax and concentrate on your work?
I always sit in the same spot, currently a La-Z-Boy recliner, with my Craftlite overhead and the necessary tools close at hand: 4.0 readers/glasses, scissors, needles, needle threader, Boo-Boo stick, stitch starter, pen, ruler/tape measure, and a variety of pincushions, and many gifts from needlework friends and staff.
Do you use the stick and stab technique or a sewing stitch?
Currently I stick and stab, primarily because I am stitching with a hoop on 50c linen. The hoop opens up the holes a bit more, and hooped or not hooped, I find that it's difficult to sew on that fine count of linen. I used to 'sew' and still do when I stitch over one, for example, on 28c linen, and for that over-one stitching I use the continental stitch in both directions, i.e., the first pass is from the right to the left, a continental, and then the crossing path is a 'backwards' continental from left to right. It uses a bit more thread, pads the needlework some, but the most important advantage: The stitches are never lost under the weave of the linen.
What is your favourite period of sampler-making and why?
That has evolved for me. In the '80s, when I first fell in love with samplers, I was a true Darlene O'Steen groupie (I even bought the same Vera Bradley pattern for my needlework bags, because I wanted to be just like her), and some of her sampler designs reflected her love for 17th Century band samplers. Workshops she taught included embroidery techniques from samplers she studied in English museums, including reversible techniques, such as burying the thread on the front! Who knew?!
Today I favor samplers with beautiful borders, verses, and motifs. The verse, for me, can either make or break a sampler's appeal. And for decades I have loved the 18th century Mary Balch samplers from Rhode Island.
Which designs appeal to you the most? (e.g. Scottish needlework, certain stitches, colour schemes, animal motifs, houses, figures, Quaker style, etc)
Well-balanced samplers that aren't exact mirror images. Once I've stitched one side of it, to repeat the mirror image on the opposite side is like stitching a design twice, something I can't remember ever doing. I know that I get bored easily, and that's why, for example, I enjoy using over-dyed silks, especially in the greens in borders as well as the flowers. Stitching a large area with the exact same color I find tedious, and a subtle color change in the green vine and leaves, for example, provides an ongoing interest for me as the color subtly changes as I stitch. I also think it more closely resembles the antique, whose colors have faded in spots, looking like the samplermaker had over-dyed silks in her embroidery basket.
Has working with reproduction samplers given you any new insight into the lives of the girls and women in the 17-18-19th centuries that you did not realize before?
Truly, the history of samplermaking is what first attracted me to samplers, and also to my husband, a history buff. When I first came into The Attic in 1981, a shop that then already specialized in samplers, as there were several sampler models on the wall, and I thought, “What is this thing they have with the ABC's?” That year for Christmas my husband gave me my first antique sampler, and the rest, as they say, is history. I wish there was such a thing as time travel because it would be fascinating to travel back in time and sit beside the 11-year-old as she stitched her sampler. What time of day did she embroider? How was she able to see on the very fine ground fabric she used? What tools did she have? We know that not all of them enjoyed embroidering like we do.
What aspect(s) of working with early textiles appeals to you the most?
Finding family samplers. My husband's ancestors were Quakers, coming to America with a land grant from William Penn, and we have found some of their needlework in sampler publications. Ann Tatnall's sampler is pictured in Bolton & Coe's American Samplers. Mary Lea's Westtown sampler is in the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania as part of the Hope Randolph Hacker sampler collection.
Have you had any formal education in textiles?
None. In fact, my mother didn't even allow me to take Home Ec classes in high school, thinking that everything taught in those classes I should learn at home, from her, and much better to spend class time on what they called college-prep classes.
Why do you find antique samplers appealing?
I love thinking about the original samplermaker and imagining what her/his life was like. I especially enjoy it when there's a bit of history that accompanies a reproduction, especially when it includes photos of the samplermaker and her home or family.
Do you collect antique samplers? Apart from samplers do you collect anything else?
I do collect antique samplers. The photo of our parlor included above shows some of the antiques displayed. The only other thing I collect are more and more sampler reproductions to stitch!
What other types of handwork do you enjoy?
None. In my next life I hope to take up quilting, but there's no time in this one for that.
Any guilty secrets to confess? (e.g leave tails on the back, drink tea or coffee whilst stitching, let your cat sleep on your work, etc)
I've learned to snack while I embroider. A number of snacks can be "drunk" from a cup, like Cheez-Its and M&M's, and never dirty your hands. And I've also learned that I can enjoy a glass of wine in the evening while I'm working on my current sampler. Our cats sometimes sit on the headrest of my chair and watch what I'm doing, but the lap they prefer is my husband's.
What has been your worst needlework disaster?
"Losing" my in-progress Berlin Woolwork Sampler. I couldn't find it for almost a year, and just thinking about it was upsetting. I had to stop looking for it and hope that one day it would reappear. Well, it did. It was tucked away at the shop! It's sometimes difficult when you have two different locations to keep and store your needlework treasures.
If your house was on fire and you could only save one sampler, which would you choose and why?
I guess I should answer that it would be the circa 1600's whitework sampler hanging in our parlor, but it just might be my still unfinished Berlin Woolwork Sampler, Parts 1-9, by Darlene O'Steen/The Needle's Prayse that I've had on my must-finish-this-year list for the past couple of years. I'm on Part 9, the last part. Almost there! It's a long sampler, over 2 feet long. Here are photos all along its length.
Am I the only one who forgets that her glasses are on top of her head?
No, you're not. Am I the only one who is talking on her cell phone while looking everywhere for it?
Thank you Jean for sharing your story and stitching with all of us! Your shop has become a Mecca for lovers of stitching and samplers alike. To find out more about what the Attic has to offer you can visit the Attic’s website at www.atticneedlework.com. A must-view are the Attic’s weekly newsletters to see all the goodies being offered in the stitching world and inspirational stitching in the works!
Here is a photo taken by one of our own SLY blog stitchers, Chris of Tot Hill Farm Stitches, when she was lucky enough to visit the Attic this past Autumn. It is certainly on my bucket list!
Jean has graciously sponsored a fun giveaway for us – Winner’s choice of either Scarlet Letter chart Ann Thompson or Eliza Tagg along with the Lakeside linen to go with, also in your choice of 36, 40, or 50 ct!
To enter the giveaway please comment below and guess how many samplers are on display at the Attic as of the day of this posting. The winner will be the person who guesses closest to the correct number and will be announced on March 1st. In the event of a draw a tie break question will be asked.
I hope you all have enjoyed this series of interviews each month. It has been great fun to learn about how other stitchers have gotten started in this passion which we all enjoy. For past month’s interviews, you can find the links here.
Happy Scarlet Letter Stitching! xxx