The Painstaking, Sanity-Making Work of Embroidery

It was a few years ago that I asked my mom to teach me how to embroider. She obligingly unearthed her old materials from the ’70s and walked me through some basic stitches, then left me with all her old thread, kits and needles. We probably spent under a half hour on the whole endeavor.

The back of an early project

I had tried knitting once, back in graduate school, before my teacher (a very kind priest with a wicked sense of humor) washed her hands of me and cheerfully considered me a lost cause. But I wanted some skill that would help me to make beautiful things for my loved ones, and so embroidery was my second such attempt.

Since that first lesson several years ago, I’ve been embroidering on and off. From patterns, I made things for the girls, and for a friend that was moving. I made freehand projects for a couple of new babies in my life, with limited success. I eventually found that I most enjoyed embroidery work when we were on long car trips; I hate driving on the interstate and have trouble even watching J do it, but I don’t get car sick, so keeping my hands busy can help keep me sane.

Guess who this one was for.

It turned out embroidering on the interstate got my mind off my anxiety and my eyes off the road. I had to focus on the stitches and, especially in the beginning, the tangled threads, or how I’d inadvertently stitched the canvas onto my skirt, or whatever the current small crisis was. I took pleasure in each small decision, one after another: a color, a stitch, an order of attack.

Enter the pandemic, when everything so often feels as hazardous as a van hurtling at 80 mph to an uncertain destination. Embroidery has come to my rescue again, taking my volleying thoughts and forcing them into submission: first this small decision, then the next. Then the next and the next.

A friend generously donated her cast off embroidery materials and commissioned this little doofus in exchange.

I’ve cranked out projects at an unprecedented rate and my skill has grown as I’ve developed the discipline of the Next Right Thing, attacking the problem I think I can solve and leaving the overwhelming ones, one after another, until soon I’m doing the parts that worried me in the beginning.

V scared about this bee and its wings, mostly.

Through embroidery this year, I’ve mourned the loss of one friend’s babies and celebrated the impending arrival of another friend’s daughter. I’ve made something for my mom, who I haven’t been able to see for nine months, and something for my son, who needs to be reminded I love seeing him even though we’ve been daily fellow inmates for the last six months. I have embroidered dish towels and wall hangings and a battered old onesie dear to an old friend. The simple work of embroidery has been such an outlet for me, slowly stitching beauty from the chaos in which we are all tangled.

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