Purl Soho’s Needlepoint Houses kit is one of the shop’s most popular items. Image via: Purlsoho.com
After taking a backseat to knitting in recent years, the age-old craft—needlepoint dating to about 1500 BC has been found in Egypt—is back in the spotlight. Credit high-fashion interpretations, celebrity adopters like (you guessed it) Taylor Swift, and the continued popularity of everything “vintage.”
Needlepoint and knitting have long “been in something of a see-saw pattern,” notes Don Lynch, a board member of the National NeedleArts Association. “When one is up, the other is a little down, and then the trend reverses.”
At the moment, needlepoint is undeniably up. “Anecdotally, we hear from our client stores that they are busier than they have been,” says Lynch. “Another indication, particularly around the holiday season, is that companies that fabricate the stitched canvas into a finished product, such as a pillow or ornament, are incredibly busy. Many had to move their Christmas deadlines up due to higher-than-normal volume.”
Thanks to fresh takes on the craft, it’s also overcoming its rather fusty rep. Heather Gray, whose Etsy shop Modern Needleworks, does a brisk business, reports that people are often surprised by how, well, hip her wares are. “The feedback I get from customers is … ‘I never knew needlepoint could be this cool!’”
One of this year’s Christmas windows at Bergdorf Goodman featured needlepoint prominently. Image via: Bergdorf Goodman
Not Your Granny’s Craft
For clarity, let’s define. (I got some help from Karen Edenfield, an inspiration specialist at Jo-Ann fabric and craft stores.) Needlepoint is a diagonal stitch worked (usually with wool yarn and a tapestry needle) through a stiff, open-weave canvas. The designs are created by either printing in color on the canvas and following the colored areas with matching thread or by following color-charted designs, with each square in the chart representing one stitch.
“The true needlepoint technique is a very labor intensive process, as individual stitches completely cover the canvas,” says Edenfield. “If it gets a bad rap, the time consideration is a strong factor.” (The supplies can also be pricey.)
Another factor: the historical appeal of the pastime to grannies.
“Everyone had a grandmother who needlepointed smelly old floral designs that were destined for chair seats or pillows in a guest room,” says Lynch. “These old-fashioned pieces were typically stitched in wool with one basic stitch. [But] in the past 10 years, needlepoint has seen an explosion in the threads available—and the designs and stitching techniques have kept pace.”
Gray traces the rise of needlepoint back to Jonathan Adler. The designer copped to developing a “raging obsession with Waspy country club style” back in 2003. He introduced a line of zany, modern needlepoint pillows that remain top-sellers. “Since everything he does is cool,” says Gray, “it made needlepoint cool.”
Lynch also points to “very high-end uses of needlepoint” like this year’s Christmas window at Bergdorf Goodman and the display at Hermés during Miami’s Art Basel (which featured Frédérique Morrel’s ”needlepoint taxidermy”) as proof of the craft’s current appeal.
Groovy! Jonathan Adler’s needlepoint rendering of Jackie O. on a throw pillow retails for $165. Image via: Jonathan Adler
The Modern Look
“Our customers continue to love Charley Harper’s designs,” adds co-owner Joelle Hoverson. “We see needlepointers embracing hand-dyed yarns (like Koigu’s needlepoint yarn), hand-painted canvases (from companies like Treglown, Birds of a Feather and Unique NZ Designs) and designs that complement modern homes.”
Gray cites U.K. designer Felicity Hall as a modern inspiration, adding: “I’ve seen needlepoint iPad cases and necklaces—nothing ‘old-school’ about that!”
For some young crafters, though, the appearance of needlepoint is more popular (or at least: more doable) than the actual technique, points out Edenfield. Hence, the abundance of needlepoint looks created with a cross-stitch technique instead. (See: Swift’s Drake-themed gift to pal Ed Sheeran.) Edenfield sees quotes, graphics and personalization expressed in charted designs (often done in cross-stitch) as the current trends.
“I do feel that the look of needlepoint becoming a more prevalent trend will draw more attention to the needlepoint technique, making it stronger as well,” she predicts.
For those interested in taking up the hobby, enthusiasts say it’s well worth the time investment. Says Hoverson: “It’s portable, relaxing and, most of all, beautiful!”