Friday, September 17, 2004

Peter Pan Complex

My friend BMH sent me a few retro needlework books that she picked up at a library sale recently. I've fallen completely in love with Mary Martin's Needlepoint, and I don't even needlepoint. Yes, Mary Martin of Peter Pan fame. Part biography, part travelogue, part theatre memoir, the 1969 book highlights Mary Martin's needlepoint career. The book beings with a lengthy account of the actress's first project: a 5.5' x 7.5' rug. That's right, 5 1/2 by 7 1/2 FOOT rug. That's right, first project. They had difficulty finding the right rug for their hall in the Connecticut house, so her husband brought home a painted canvas (or rather two halves of canvas). The novices anticipated stitching it in 2-3 months. It took 2 1/2 years and the rug traveled to Bermuda, Cape Cod, London, Ireland, Scotland, Paris and Sicily, as well as spending a great deal of time backstage. It was commented on by Noel Coward and trod upon by Princess Margaret.

What's so charming is that although Martin stitched forever and often designed her own pieces, she only ever did tent stitch, the "true" needlepoint stitch. Martin spends 11 pages discussing the different ways of doing continental stitch, and explains why she never used other embroidery stitches:

There is one kind of needlepointer--I am one--who would rather achieve all the details of a design with this regular, endlessly repeated even texture of the one needlepoint stitch than any other, using the combination of needlepoint and petit point as the only variation. Perhaps laziness has something to do with not using the other stitches, but I have never thought so. The limitation of making the colors plus just the one stitch do everything is the challenge. There are even those who say that resorting to the fancy stitches is cheating. This is rather prejudiced, but I sympathise even if I don't agree.

Ah, la plus que change! I can just hear all the fights on all the different cross-stitch boards and lists about needlepoint vs cross-stitch, about linen vs aida, about counted embroidery vs "just exes."

I love how she describes each piece by the recipient/reason it was made, where she stitched it (while working on "South Pacific"; while traveling by freighter from London; at the farm in Brazil), and what the significance of all the symbols are.

In one rather short chapter she describes some cross-stitch samplers in her collection done by Mary Martin in the 19th century. Yes, another Mary Martin. It is described with such naivete. That there is another Mary Martin! "There is nothing that someone, somewhere, sometime hasn't thought of before--not even one's very own name!" That this Mary Martin stitched from 1800 to 1839, much more likely that the later of the three pieces--despite the similar motifs--was done by Mary's daughter Mary. The three samplers were found in New Hampshire, Nantucket, and Eleuthera (Bahamas), but our Mary believes that this Mary just moved about (rather than considering that her stitching moved about or that the families moved them, or that buyers moved them). Ah, the thought process of the wealthy.

Nevertheless, I think this is just the sort of book that could give cross-stitch a boost. Now if we could just get a celebrity-stitcher to come out of the closet!

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