In March, the Lake Norman chapter of the American Needlepoint Guild hosted a workshop at Camp Dogwood in Sherrills Ford.
Joan Thomasson, a master teacher with the guild, instructed the group on an original design for an old-world Santa Claus. Each participant started with a hand-painted image of the Santa, to which they added thread, ribbon and other embellishments to make a finished product.
The workshop participants were stationed at several rows of tables, each with her own assortment of needlework tools: needles, seam rippers, magnifying glasses, clamps, scissors, even special stands to hold the fabric in place.
Needlepoint projects can take days, even months, depending on the complexity of the design.
"You know what keeps us off the streets," joked Sue Fogel, a member of the Lake Norman chapter. The ladies talked and laughed easily as they bent over their canvases.
Thomasson explained each step in the design, drawing the pattern of the stitch on a white board. The stitches are formed on a countable ground or grid, repeated over and over throughout each section of the image.
Some stitches are complex, involving two or more layered patterns, and may even demonstrate a mathematical principle, such as the golden rectangle. (According to www.mathopenref.com/rectanglegolden.html, it's a rectangle where cutting off a square as wide as its shorter edge leaves a rectangle with sides in the same ratio as the original.)
Many contemporary designs involve a variety of materials. In Thomasson's "Tidal Textures" class, participants used stitches, padding and modeling paste and even attached seashells to the canvas to create a beach scene.
The variety and complexity of needlepoint help explain why so many people are lifelong enthusiasts.
Beth Weld, a member of the Lake Norman chapter, is passionate about needlepoint and hesitant to call it that.
"I tend to call it canvas work," she said. "This ain't no craft! It's an art."
Even though its popularity in recent years has given way to other handcrafts, such as knitting, needlepoint has evolved beyond the seat cushions many of us remember from the pages of circa-1980 "Better Homes and Gardens" magazines. Although still decorative, today's designs are also inspirational.
"We are drawn to the stitch patterns, the endless combinations of stitch groupings that fill and form the designs we adore ... (because they) communicate an idea, evoke an emotional response ... inspire the viewer to look more closely," guild member Debbie Forney said.
The national guild's website says, "Welcome to the wonderful world of needlepoint!" It is a world to itself, where stitchers talk the language of DMC (a brand of thread) and communities gather frequently to share ideas and show off designs. The hobby attracts those who enjoy the challenge of mastering new stitches and the balanced beauty of pattern.
Like a prayer labyrinth, needlepoint also offers the opportunity to meditate. At times, the classroom at Camp Dogwood was silent as the stitchers concentrated on their own canvasses and thread.
It seems, though, that the sense of community is the strongest thread holding needlepoint enthusiasts together. The guild hosts an annual national conference in Texas as well as classes nationwide throughout the year. Two members of the workshop at Camp Dogwood are sisters; one had traveled from California for the reunion.
As the class gathered for lunch in the great room overlooking the lake, most looked like old friends.
"I had never met some of these ladies, and you would never know it," Weld said.