Preppy fashion, particularly to Gen Zers who encounter it online today as “old money aesthetic,” is thought to shine with bling. Brass blazer buttons, horsebit loafers, Cartier tanks—you get the picture.
But to the madras-born, an essential part of the canon is a homespun delight that was traditionally not purchased in a high-end boutique but ideally knit by your grandmother or prep school girlfriend. We are referring, of course, to needlepoint.
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Most simply defined, needlepoint is a method of embroidery that involves stitching yarn through an open-weave canvas to create a motif or message. While examples of basic needlework dating back to ancient Egypt have been discovered, Justin Irvine of the Palm Beach-based footwear brand Stubbs & Wootton (whose shoes are seen above) finds its modern progenitor in 1600s Italy.
“As early as the 17th Century, a more durable form of needlepoint fabric was born and developed known as bargello, famous for its usage of straight stitches laid in mathematical patterns to create geometric motifs combined with a hard-wearing canvas,” says Irvine, the company’s creative director.
In time, the craft found a following among New England matrons (or their interior decorators). In 1980’s The Official Preppy Handbook, it turns up in a diagram of “A Model Family Room” that features two needlepoint-embroidered pillows (one with ducks, and another bearing the message “If You’ve Nothing Nice to Say Come Sit By Me”).
But the fun wasn’t limited to home furnishings: men and boys began wearing needlepoint belts, often adorned with school and club insignia or cheeky motifs. That tradition led Bowdoin College students Peter Smathers and Austin Branson to found Smathers & Branson in 2004, inspired by the needlepoint belts each received from their girlfriends. Realizing that they’d have to scale up from significant others, the one-time roommates found hand-stitchers in Vietnam, who today create elaborately embroidered belts and accessories that are in turn stocked by trad retailers including J. Press, Brooks Brothers and The Andover Shop.
Stubbs & Wootton, best known for its smoking slippers, has pushed the envelope further with needlepoint-embroidered footwear and bags. In addition, the business has partnered with Palm Beach needlepoint boutique Lycette to create custom designs for clients’ shoes.
“We love taking everyday patterns such as a classic animal print to a timeless yet rugged camouflage, to our newest collection which will be a woven tapestry featured in both blue and green color-ways of malachite,” Irvine tells Robb Report. “We think it perfectly translated into fashion and particularly the silhouette of a shoe.”
Not every needlepoint offering is tailored exclusively to the Muffy-and-Chad set. Designer Kate Wasserbach Moore of Abel Honor New York has given the prep staple a streetwear edge in a collection dubbed “Heirloom Horizons.” It features a hand-stitched needlepoint belt in four colorways, marked by eclectic symbology including the letters “AHNY,” a globe, the Chinese symbol for longevity, and the latitude and longitude of Manhattan.
“We wanted to modernize something so ancestral,” Moore says of her label’s foray into needlepoint. “Needlepoint designs are often custom to the wearer, and we took it a step further by infusing each belt with symbols that encapsulate our brand’s essence and what we stand for.”
At a time when the entire fashion world seems to be covered by a thick film of greige, the pop and personality of a needlepoint accessory affords an instant way to stand out, whether you received one as a hand-stitched gift in prep school—or even attended prep school at all.
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