Tuesday, October 21, 2014

X's on canvas

I am not the only one who makes fun of my cross stitch habit.

People at work do it all the time. I often prompt it, but they readily join in for a turn to rib Grams and the reason she's pushing 30 with no bling on her finger.

A coworker who I love to pieces recently asked me if I have a sewing machine, and not expecting me to actually say yes, got very excited/concerned when I did say yes and told me I was really Sally Homemaker.

Anyone who knew me from the years 1997 through, oh, last year, are likely reading this with a degree of skepticism, since during that time period I wore sweatpants and belched and flexed my muscles whenever given the opportunity.

I still do the final thing on that list, and to all you reading with skepticism, I think that's fine. In fact I'd be worried if you weren't.

So yes. I'm becoming (another friend recently said, "Becoming?") a very domestic lady in recent times. It's a little weird, a little alarming, a little head scratching, and a little great.

While still a slob, a beer drinker, an obnoxious fan at football games -- don't worry, not everything has changed -- I find myself sprinkling baking soda on the carpet, baking muffins, offering bandages to men with cuts on their fingers.

And cross stitching.

I'm not sure why the sudden rush of domesticity in my life (I have theories, but I will keep them to myself for the moment), but I am sure of the why behind the cross stitch obsession:

Because I love it.

My grandma works on a lot of jigsaw puzzles. So do I, and at least one of my brothers does, so this works out nicely when we pay her a visit. We all refill cups of Folgers, melt Hersheys bars in our mouths, and work on a puzzle before us.

Grandma (who loves puzzles) will generally say, at least once per puzzle-assembly session, "This is silly. It's like making a quilt. You cut something into pieces and then put it back together."

She pauses as she says this, but does not take her eyes off the puzzle nor set the puzzle piece in her hand down.

It has occurred to me that cross stitching is one of the slowest ways to put color on canvas.

I don't know how much you know about the craft, but it requires (usually) a specific fabric called Aida fabric, which has strings of thread pulled very tightly in order to create a sort of grid. It's like fabric graph paper, and each corner of a square is a hole, a hole in which a needle can fit through.

[Blah blah blah more details] about how the craft is done, but essentially you cover each teeny weeny square with a diagonal stitch across two corners with some thread, and then add another diagonal stitch across the other corners in order to create an "X," or a cross.

Hence the name cross stitch.

I'm not kidding when I say these squares are teeny weeny. I'm amazed I am yet to get a corrective lens prescription, and I am already pricing out eye exams at Costco, because my brow is rather furrowed these days.

So, because the squares are teeny weeny, and because one makes several teeny weeny stitches over and over and over, when you step back a ways from the canvas, eventually you start to see a picture. Each white square is almost completely covered by colorful thread, and like a series of dots of ink or muddled Van Gogh brush strokes, it -- slowly, slowly -- forms a picture.

Honestly this activity is probably something the pilgrims did to pass the winter evenings. But some of us freaks find this thrilling in 2014.

The same friend who smirked when I tried to pretend I am only becoming domestic has admired my patience and talent for this craft. I told him I'm not sure it's a talent, as it's more of a craft than an art (and I use patterns, so for me the creativity really isn't in it).

And he's not the first to mention the patience. But to me it doesn't take patience. It really is a labor of love. Which is why I've stitched so many bibs for babes. Babes who may not even wear my gifts, if their mothers are afraid to dirty my work, or frankly maybe just don't care to use the bib. But I make them anyway.

The quick reasons why I like love stitching so much are:

1) I can't explain why
2) I love color
3) I love math

I -- and I mean this -- love looking at the busy color-coded graphs that come with each project and translating each square on the graph to each square on the cloth, figuring out exactly where each "X" is to land, in order to uphold the integrity of the whole, final image.

It takes me hours (days, weeks, for some, total) to finish each project. But I only look to the clock in a reluctant manner, when I decide I need to quit for the evening to rest up for the evening. And then I literally sit at my desk the next day and think about stitching.

Stitching stitching stitching.

As a person with (maybe undiagnosed) ADD, anxiety, restlessness, and a well-documented history of tomboyism, it surprises even me why this absorbs me so.

I am luckily on some psychotropic meds right now that have me feeling less anxious and less depressed and the most regulated I have felt in years, praise God above, but before I was on such a successful cocktail, I found that one of the only things that distracted me almost fully during a bout of anxious fear or sadness was this stitching.

Stitching stitching stitching.

(And for those of you worried that a drug may take away your edge or your artistic bent, well let me just say my obsession for stitching has not wavered).

I recall one time, on the phone with Dad in tears, he asked me what I was going to do after I got off the phone. Sniffling, I said I was going to stitch. I could hear his smile through the phone as he replied, "Mm hmm." He knew the power of the stitch.

I was Skyping recently with my brother Patrick and his family and, being silly, I grabbed my nearby embroidery hoop and placed it in front of my face, as a frame around it.

I quickly laid it down, out of sight, but my niece, being an unflappably curious 4-year-old, asked, "What was that, Auntie Bailey?"

I then conducted a mini-education session with my family about how the hoop pulls an otherwise-floppy, oversized piece of fabric tight, making it easier to hold and to stitch upon.

The lesson may have been lost on my niece, but one thing I have learned from stitching is that tension holds a purpose.

I hate tension, I'll be honest. (In my life; it's all right in cross stitch). It hurts, it makes me cry, it helps me realize again the coward in me who can't confront anyone, even when I am in the right and in addition have every right to address this person who is clearly wrong, or who has hurt me, or is hurting me.

Or to just tell a boy that I like -- or don't like -- him. Still haven't figured that one out yet. But I promise to ruminate on it while I stitch.

I have had too much tension in my life. We all have.

But in stitching, at least, it helps.* It keeps my hand from getting cramped, which allows me to stitch longer. It makes the picture clearer, not wrinkled or crumpled.

And it focuses in on a piece of a larger picture. Right now my hoop is fastened around Minnie Mouse's face. She has no eyes or mouth yet (because I noticed she looked like a zombie without them and thus kept them that way in order to take a picture and post to social media), but she will.

Next to Minnie's face is the very, very beginning of Daisy Duck's sleeve. (Stitched in DMC floss thread color No. 210, lavender). You wouldn't know it's her sleeve, unless I told you or you looked at the graph or the picture of the finished product that came with the project kit.

But it will be her sleeve.

How do you finish a jigsaw puzzle? You look at the box cover, with the final picture on it.

Sometimes you don't need the box. Sometimes you get into a groove and you know right where you're going, piecing together that section of yellow, or blue, or lavender.

My grandmother (who was too nervous to watch her beloved Royals in the World Series tonight, as they were losing) says that jigsaw puzzles are silly.

She says this every time she works on one.

But she never wavers in her commitment to the puzzle. Because she knows that moments later, the edges of that piece in her hand will rub against the cardboard corners of another, and she will be spurred on to seek another piece and find it a home on the table.

Anxious or no, scared or no, baby-will-actually-wear-the-bib-I-am-stitching-for-it or no, I imagine this habit of mine is not soon to die. Because I love that groove. That stitching of black thread to make the ear of a mouse, a mouse who first animated screens years ago, and still turns heads at Disneyland, tourists running to get a picture with the famous Minnie.

Thanks to this gift of a hobby, I have been privileged to stitch eyes on a zebra, snow upon a bicycle seat, the name of my nephew.

I love it. And I'm grateful for it.

With the future unflappably curious 4-year-old (circa less than one year old), modeling her bib
*And apparently in other situations, too.


  1. "The power of the stitch" — love it! If we're together at Thanksgiving, let's please do a puzzle.

    1. i love puzzles!!! if we're together, yes please to a puzzle!