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The Secret Needlepoint Life of a Runner

needlepoint pillows
Some of my "stitch witchery," as husband, Jack, lovingly calls my hobby.

I learned to needlepoint before I could color within the lines or write my ABCs, as a way to strengthen a lazy eye. My parents still have the 5” by 7” pillow I needlepointed at age 5, the mast of the simple sailboat a vivid red set against the white sails and blue sky.

Once I started school, I left my needle and yarn behind. My mother needlepointed several projects—including eight (!) identical seats for their dining room chairs—when I was a child, but I had no desire to pick up a canvas and join her. Decades went by before I ever gave much thought to my childhood hobby. Yet in winter 2001, when my husband and I were trying to conceive our first child, I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming urge to needlepoint. I believe it was my over-agitated body’s way of forcing me to chill out.

needlepoint pillow
The bee pillow I needlepointed for Phoebe(e) while pregnant with her.

After taking a beginner class to refresh my memory from 30 years prior, I’d sit and stitch for hours, lost in a creative haze. Several months later, pregnant at last, I needlepointed for entire weekend days, listening to the radio or daydreaming about the baby growing inside of me.

In the early years of my children’s lives, needlepointing soothed my weary mind, taxed from keeping track of twin toddlers at a playground or entertaining all three kids during a Costco shopping expedition. I’m so exuberantly proud of the Christmas stockings I stitched for my three kids, I want them mentioned in my obituary.

needlepoint pillow
The dragonfly canvas, finally complete after being neglected since the Bush era.

But then, just as suddenly as I’d resumed needlepointing, I ceased. A dragonfly canvas, in woodsy shades of green, grey, and brown and destined to be a pillow for our guest bedroom, lay untouched for more than half a decade. Until this spring, when once again, I was consumed with the driving desire to push a needle through a painted canvas, trailing silk-and-wool yarn.

But now I approach the canvas differently: I have to wear “cheater” glasses, meaning I can no longer shift my gaze down to what I’m stitching then back at a TV screen like I used to. (Like slower marathon finish times, my degenerating eyesight is a dreaded by-product of aging.) Podcasts of “This American Life” and “Car Talk” now keep me entertained. This summer, I flew through the long-ignored dragonfly pillow, then immediately landed on a multi-colored owl canvas for my younger daughter’s bedroom.

As odd as it may sound, I embrace needlepointing for several of the same reasons I love running, especially the meditative, repetitive nature of both endeavors. Both activities free my mind to wander and float: Somehow following a road or a needlepointing pattern lets my brain move in a delicious non-linear fashion. Like a moderate-pace weekday run, my needlepoint projects aren’t fancy or embellished. No fancy stitches or gold yarn, just like that Wednesday morning run doesn’t have any intervals or tempo. Simply solid efforts that make me feel flush with quiet pride over a task well done.

What, if any, hobby (hobbies?) do you have other than running? 

needlepoint pillow
My current project for owl-loving Daphne: I'm banking on its mod, stylized design being juvenile enough for an 8-year-old yet hip enough to be dorm decor in a decade.

62 responses to “The Secret Needlepoint Life of a Runner

  1. I make t-shirt quilts. It started out when I saw a picture in a magazine and decided I could sew straight lines – I had never sewn anything before! But I took all my race t-shirts from my early races and managed to make a quilt. It is one we use regularly in my house and most evenings fight over who gets to use it. Luckily it is big enough to share.
    Then I decided to make my niece one as a high school graduation present. She loved it and taking high school memories off to college with her was wonderful.
    Now I have started something and every year I have a family member graduating from high school for the next 8 years. I will be busy.
    I have also made them for raffles for charity. They are a big hit.
    Every quilt is different and every t-shirt in the quilt has a different memory for the person receiving it.
    I am actually in the middle of two right now. I am making my second race t-shirt quilt (too many laying in the closet) and I have a niece graduating in May.
    It’s a great accomplishment, just like running!

  2. Thanks Sarah, it’s long from Sherwood too, but at least it’s on this side of the river. I’ll go this weekend. Happy running/stitching. You’ve motivated me to finish my four year quilt!

    PS-Is there a way to connect Mother Runners doing Dopey this January?

  3. That’s super cool! How many people can do that anymore? So cool. I make string art but that’s fading. Mostly my other hobby is reading. I LOVE to read!

  4. I am a bookbinder. Yes, that means I glue and sew things together to make books. It take intense focus and attention to detail. My love of journaling led to this hobby. I make a fill beautiful books.

  5. Your needlepoint is beautiful! After not working with needle, wool and canvas for over 35 years, I decided to start again. I am on holiday and wanted something to do that was easily transportable. Most days, I am able to mix long runs, beach walks and some creative cooking with short needlepoint sessions.

    I have a lovely pattern by Raymond Honeyman, entitled Daisies, which is available from Ehrman Tapestries, a British firm with distributers in Canada and the U.S. If you haven’t already found them, you might want to take a look at their site.

    Interesting, isn’t it, how so many commenters balance the action of running with measured and contemplative needlework (including knitting and crochet).

  6. Beautiful needlepoint artwork, very very nice!

    I love to crochet and now have found some mother runner crochet-nuts like me – perfect!

  7. This post is timed perfectly for me. I’m off running for a few weeks with a nasty tibia stress fracture, and I need to reconnect with some of my onetime hobbies to keep from going absolutely bonkers. I write, bake, and cook… but am thinking that it’s time to pull out the ol’ knitting needles and raid the yarn stash. Before I started running, I used to knit a lot!

  8. I cross stitch. Started again just before I got pregnant with my first as a way to feel productive while watching tv. I also go through phases and droughts but always pick back up. And I think I need seeing glasses too!

  9. I love this post! A few months ago I was thinking that I need to find a good needlepoint project for this fall/winter to relax me. My hobbies currently include baking (NOT cooking!) and sewing on my machine. I thought that needlepoint would actually be more relaxing because I can sit down on the comfy couch!
    Where do you get your canvases? Do you order online or is there a store in Portland that you like? I browsed around a store in downtown Portland but it was too overwhelming – too many choices!
    You have inspired me to start looking for a canvas again now.

  10. Thank goodness I run, because my other hobby is baking. I love the feeling of taking the ingredients and creating something yummy out of it. Seeing someones first bite and their expression when they eat one of my creations gives my the same high as finishing a great run. With baking, I can relax even when the kids (two boys ages 7 and 3) are “helping me” by dumping ingredients into the bowl. Some of my familys favorite recipes are my Elvis Cupcakes, which are banana cupcakes with chocolate filling and peanut butter frosting, My triple chocolate brownies, and my chocolate cream cheese cake pops.
    Let me know if you want any recipes, I’m always happy to share!

  11. SBS,

    My other hobby is scrapbooking but it took me a few years to figure out what to exactly scrapbook. I used to go to a monthly scrapping night at a friends(just to chat and eat)! Then I got inspired. I started with a trip to Europe and that got me going.

    With my kids, I knew I couldn’t freeze time and get back to the baby years so I figured out a system. Each of my kids has: Christmas, school, birthday, sports and artwork scrapbooks that are all in different stages of completion! (ex. Christmas is easy – toss in the Christmas letter and print off pictures by the tree and those pages are done!)

    My biggest scrapbook accomplishment was I made an anniversary scrapbook for my husband and me. I started it when we were celebrating our 18th anniversary. I planned that I would just have one spread per year and would just use any pictures that I could find – some years were sparse (before digital photos). It was a huge task and one that I am proud to have kept up with!

    Thanks for asking. : )

  12. First, GORGEOUS pieces! Beautiful work, and a definite eye for a good pattern.

    Second, I needlepointed once upon a time. I had a huge needlepointing fail in jr high – I was supposed to do one of the cushions for our Episcopal church’s communion rail… and I didn’t finish it. When I went back for a visit, I noticed that my initials, which I had carefully stitched into a corner, had been replaced by someone else’s (they commandeered it back from me when it became clear that I wouldn’t make the deadline of the Altar Guild). I also did preppy needlepoint belts in college (totally dating myself here), and a really bad 6″x6″ wall hanging that is in my kids’ bathroom, I think.

    Perhaps I need to go back to needlepoint – this post is making me think!

    Oh wait, you asked about our hobbies. Other than kids and work? Cooking. My superpower is finding unique but not-too-weird recipes that taste fantastic. And I have a special brownie talent.

    I also have done a ton of embroidery, though not for many years. I have quite a few of those pieces (crewel, mostly) lying around.

    Knitting and crocheting have been in the mix at different times. My grandmother taught me to do both. I’ve made quite a few things but they are mostly long gone. Gifts, no longer in style, etc. I tried, and failed, to teach my kids to do both. Maybe I need to try again. My last knitting project was a reusable compression band for individuals suffering from Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy).

    My biggest hobby is sewing. I’ve made 4 wedding dresses, multiple prom dresses, etc. I have a trophy for winning a sewing competition in high school. Hubby just got me a gorgeous sewing table for my birthday, and a serger a couple years ago. Sadly, I have not set up either of them yet. Running and kiddoing and feeding the family get in the way, but I’m determined to do more, and soon.

    Last hobby – gardening. Moved into a new place last fall, so this is the first year. Humongous bumper crop of basil. I mean, huge leaves, huge amounts of leaves, like I’ve never seen before. Can you say frozen pesto? Usually sweet onions are my best ROI ($1.29 for a set yields 20+ lbs onions), but I got 4 tiny golf ball sized ones this year. Tomatoes are finally in with a vengeance, and my top ROI crop this year is cucumber. I have a single plant that has produced probably 20 lbs of cukes and is still producing 3-6 cukes a DAY. So I’m learning to make pickles and hoping that I learn to love homemade ones since I don’t like store bought. Plus our peach tree bore about 10 lbs of fruit; got that canned, plus made 15 pints of raspberry jam.

    Sorry for the novel!

  13. Those were incredibly beautiful! Thank you for sharing them with us. My mom needlepointed for a long time and I thought she was an artist. You’re now included in that same exclusive boat. I play the piano and crochet. I love the need to be present enough to stay aware of where I am and where I’m going but the luxury of, simultaneously, getting lost in thought. Especially when I play, my zen moments come when emotions take over and my music refects my perfect contentment and focus on the piece. Running is–in so many ways–like this for me, completed in delicious, hard-earned, energy-draining, soul-filling peace.

  14. Tell us more about that lazy eye. You guys are kind of my heroes and my daughter has a lazy eye. I try not to worry about her, but of course I do. This post makes me think I should fret less and enjoy more! But I’m also serious – I’m sure many of the tribe are also worried about this issue and what a huge comfort it would be to hear how you managed it.

    1. Believe it or not, both Dimity and I had lazy eyes. I’m fairly certain she had surgery to correct it, but my parents went non-surgical. I did LOADS Of close-up eye exercises, like needlepointing and sewing cards (I LOVED those things!). I wore glasses from age 3-12. EVERY day. Then, summer after 6th grade, doc said I was cured. Oh, and I also wore patch over my “good” eye when i was 3 and 4. For a few hours/day.

  15. I crochet. A few years ago, I started making preemie-size hats and blankets to donate to the NICU. I was horrified when I heard that some babies were too small for hospital-issue stuff so I wanted to help a little. Then I started running…and I haven’t made more than 1 or 2 since (a hat takes maybe an hour). I need to find the balance, I guess.

  16. In the past and present I have made quilts and knitted, I have been both a paper and digital scrapbooker, and I have made jewelry. I am a perpetual doer of hobbies that I start and stop, start and stop again. I always thought it was because I like to run, bike, work out, ski, snowboard and swim as well. There’s always too much to do and too little time especially when engaged in raising children!

  17. WOW! Those are beautiful pieces of art! I think you are a professional needlepoint artist!
    On occasion, I like to scrapbook. But mostly, I do laundry!

  18. Quilting allows me to zone in and out while staying relaxed. Well, till I screw up and have to tear it apart. 🙂 But to me that is just like a rough run, it sucked but you head out again next time for a different run.

  19. I am a cross stitcher, scrapbooker, quilter. it used to be you never saw me without something to stitch. I too stitched many things including Christmas stockings and a tree skirt! when we adopted D, I started on his stocking. but on dark blue fabric with itty bitty holes, it is a major struggle and I have yet to complete it. very sad! every fall I say I will get it back out. thanks for the early push!

  20. This is so timely! I just got my long-neglected cross stitch project out (a Christmas stocking I had started for myself before having kids; I got my husband’s done, but not my own, and none yet for the twins). I so agree with the meditative repetitive soothing nature of needle craft. You make me eager to begin again (would love to see photos of your stockings).

  21. The eyesight issue is my major deterrent these days. Still trying to finish a needlepoint project featuring Lincoln for my brother’s birthday present. Three years back! May turn to knitting and go for MASSIVE needles, BIG stitches. Really miss needlepoint for the very reasons you note. Soothing and relaxing. Can’t wait to see the finished owl pillow.

  22. I have many, I recently have begun to do beading, and my favorite is bead stitching, peyote, etc. I also have been crocheting and knitting for years, I am a big reader, I golf and bowl…..I mean really, between running, beading, knitting, crocheting, reading, golfing, and bowling who has time for that job that keeps me in beads, yarn and books, etc…. 🙂 I do have 3 children and a full time job that I commute to an hour each way….all I can say is sleep is highly overrated…not enough hours in the day for all!!

  23. I show my australian shepherds in dog agility. I also do cross stitch when I have a spare moment which is never with a just learned how to walk toddler in the house.

  24. I love to knit, and actually have a little etsy shop, it’s such a relaxin hobby and it’s fun to create! I like to quilt and sew and embroider, but those are just things I dabble in for a project or two, knitting is my go-to crafty pursuit.

  25. You have done some beautiful pieces!! I, too, work with needle and fabric, but in the form of counted cross stitch. I also crochet and have made close to 50 baby blankets for friends, family, and co-workers!! I’m also a musician – professional (trombone) and for my own personal enjoyment (piano).

  26. What beautiful work! I learned how to crochet after I finished grad school (before kids…when I actually had time to myself!) and recently started to do some embroidery (like you SBS — a childhood skill that I had left behind). While I probably spend more time thinking about it than actually doing it, I love the creative energy and having something concrete at the end!

  27. I used to needlepoint when I was younger and love these canvases. Where do you shop in Portland? I’ve made Hawaiian quilt needlepoints that are fun. I quilt, (very slowly, my current king size is almost four full years) I knit, (mostly hats this year) I scrapbook, and I do genealogy research. But am finishing up school this December so sadly all of it is on hold…however looking forward to a snowy January (hopefully) so I can actually finish something! It’s good to dream right?

    1. Tryna, I make that long-by-Portland-standards drive over to Forest Heights to In Stitches. I LOVE that store and the women who work there. They custom ordered the owl for me. It’s where I get all my canvasses, supplies, and get my pillows finished.

  28. I love your work SBS! My other hobby is quilting. Or as my Grandma says ” taking big pieces of fabric and cutting them into little pieces, just to sew them back into big pieces.” My dream if I ever win the lottery, Is to
    quit my job as a pharmacist and quilt and coach beginner runners!

  29. No hobbies, but I loved this blog!! What an artist! I guess that is my hobby, reading and then enjoying the art work of others….? This was just lovely, beautiful and thoughtful work that produced love, leaving her fingerprints on the hearts of her family. Love Love LOVE IT!! Thanks for sharing this!!

  30. I also quilt and knit and used to sell my work at street fairs. Now I just use the baby quilts as gifts for showers and give an occasional quilt to a charity to auction off. I still sell my handknit dishcloths to pay for my race fees.

  31. Wow, those are beautiful! Wish I had the patience to knit or needlepoint. I don’t know if it is a hobby, but I am a voracious reader. I love to read.

  32. Just insert Crochet for needlepoint in your story and that is me! I find the repetitive work soothing. And I feel the need to have a tangible finished project. So much work as a mom is intangible and gets undone on a weekly basis, laundry, dishes, cleaning the house.

    Beautiful work!

    1. Excellent point, Cathy. With this owl, my son (twin of child pillow is for) loves tracking my “progress,” asking me to turn it over so he can see how much I’ve done. He even makes me show his friends, then he brags about how fast I’m doing it. My own little needlepoint cheerleader!

  33. Knitting and spinning (yarn, not bicycles that go nowhere…) for me. I wrote an article in the Spring 2011 issue of Twist Collective (fantastically beautiful online knitting magazine) about the upsurge in running among knitters, which has been pretty remarkable, considering that our hobby has us sitting on our butts most of the time. Some of us have even figured out how to knit and run at the same time, but I wouldn’t recommend it…

  34. I taught myself to knit while pregnant, and have since taken up crocheting during his nap time. I haven’t made anything complex, just more the mindless repitition of stitching away at a scarf or dish cloth to relax

  35. Quilt! I think some of it is I just can’t sit to watch tv, so I can sew or whatever. But I like quilting because I like the finished product.

  36. Sewing. Clothes, tote bags, stuff around the house. It seems as though when life is at its craziest, that is when my brain craves something that is structured. Follow the directions, end with something beautiful. (Your pillows are beautiful, by the way!)

  37. Your work is beautiful. My hobby other than running is scrapbooking. I love to take pictures of my two boys and scrapbook them with journaling. I love to catch them looking at the albums. They love to see pictures of them when they were toddlers (currently 12 and 10).

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