In 1970, Helen O’Connor was a young married woman, eight months pregnant, when she wandered into Clare’s Barn Emporium in Columbia County.
Before long, O’Connor was sitting with Maryel Clare, the shop’s proprietor, and learning to do needlepoint and crewel.
Today, the embroidery shop is gone, and Clare has moved to Florida.
But more than 40 years after that first day in the shop, O’Connor is hopelessly stuck on stitchery, and the Delmar resident serves as the president of the New York Capital District chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America.
The 47-year-old Capital District chapter is one of the oldest in the guild, an international organization that was founded in the 1940s in New York City.
Women from Schenectady, Saratoga, Schoharie, Albany, Rensselaer, Warren and Columbia counties belong to the chapter and stitch together at three places: St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clifton Park; Blooming Grove Reformed Church in Defreestville and the Beverwyck Retirement Community in Slingerlands. Specialized embroidery groups also meet in members’ homes.
Every two years, members show their work in a fine stitchery exhibit at Pruyn House in Latham that also features demonstrations and The Needlework Closet, a boutique selling new and gently used fibers, fabrics, books and tools.
‘Artistry in Stitches’
WHAT: Exhibit of fine stitchery by New York Capital District chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
WHERE: Pruyn House, 207 Old Niskayuna Road, Latham
HOW MUCH: $3, children 12 and under are free
MORE INFO: www.nycapega.org
The 2014 exhibit, “Artistry in Stitches,” begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.
Q: How many pieces will be in the show?
A: We have 83 members in the chapter, and I hope that everyone is putting at least one piece in. The last exhibit we had over 400 pieces.
Q: That’s a big show. How do you pull it together?
A: It’s a lot of work. It takes a good year or more of preparation. The challenge is to get people to finish their pieces. You start a piece and you get so far in it and it looks really nice, and then you come across something else. This past year, I made it my personal goal to finish things I had started.
Q: How do you define fine stitchery?
A: Anything done with a threaded needle.
Q: What will visitors see?
A: Oh my. They will see cross-stitch and crewel. They will see Japanese embroidery. They will see needlepoint. They will see naversom, a kind of pulled work. They will see hardanger, Danish stitchery. There will be beadwork. Blackwork. And many, many more. Every country in the world has its own special form of embroidery.
Q: Has embroidery changed over the years?
A: Oh yes. It has changed so much. In grandma’s day, a lot of people did what was called Berlin work, a kind of needlepoint stitched on Penelope canvas. These were done for chair seats, pillows, for sofas, wallhangings. When I’ve been in Europe and gone looking in embroidery shops, I see a lot of that still for sale. You don’t see Berlin Work for sale in the United States, at least I haven’t.
Q: Young women are knitting. Do they do embroider, too?
A: We see an interest when we talk about embroidery to younger women, but they don’t have time. They have small children, they have jobs, they have volunteer commitments. We don’t see as many young women doing this as we would like to see. We are an aging population, there’s no question about it.
Q: What’s the history of your chapter?
A: We started in 1967. I joined in ’73. At that time, there were 225 members. We met at the First United Methodist Church on Kenwood Avenue in Delmar. I dropped out for a long time because I had small children and I worked. In 2000, when I retired, I joined again and I’ve been an active member ever since.
Q: Are there beginners as well as experts?
A: Our goal is to teach. We welcome beginners. We want to foster the love of embroidery. We want to pass this on so that the art form doesn’t die out. We will teach you all you need to know. You don’t need to pay somebody for private lessons.
Q: And you show kids how to embroider?
A: Our chapter has been teaching children to stitch at the Bethlehem Public Library for over 25 years.
Q: How do you get the word out about embroidery?
A: The national organization has a Stitch-in-Public Day in February, in which members go out to a Barnes & Noble’s or a shopping mall and sit and stitch. The weather here is too uncertain. So we have a once-a-month Stitch-in-Public Day on the fourth Wednesday of every month at the East Greenbush Public Library from 10 to 2. The door is open to anyone who wants to come in and stitch.
Q: Can Gazette readers contact the chapter if they need help with projects?
A: Yes. Come to one of our meetings and someone will help you.
Q: What kind of work do you do?
A: I’ve been fascinated with traditional Japanese embroidery for about seven years. It’s very beautiful, it’s very slow. My second favorite form of stitchery is crewel. Needlepoint would be my third favorite thing to do. And sometimes, I do some cross-stitch.
Q: What is Japanese embroidery?
A: The flowers jump off the fabric. They look so real you want to touch them and smell them. The silk shines. Silk threads and gold and silver threads.
Q: Why do you belong to the guild?
A: It’s the camaraderie that we fellow stitchers have. We’ve made friends for life. We support each other in good times and bad, in happy times and sad.