Twiddling with needles and threads

cross-stitch patterns
I walked into a shop of paper, thread and beads. By the door, little jars of paper flowers, yellow beads and other craft supplies were laid out, taunting me to buy one or two of them. The walls showed off bright handmade creations, daring me to pause and take a look. But my feet were resolute, kindled with a purpose and I went straight to the clear books.

I flipped pattern after pattern, waiting for an image to capture my attention and immediate interest. I was absorbed with cross-stitch designs of fruits, prayers, angels, and Precious Moments figures that it took me some time to notice another woman, petite, quiet and somber-dressed, at the opposite side of the table.

Her eyes were fixed on two patterns that were rubbing shoulders with each other. With balmy eyes darting left to right and back, the woman looked like she has arrived at a crossroad, like the many crafts enthusiasts who are willing to buy everything in the store but have to restrain themselves because of lack of money, if not lack of storage space.

To me, here was another woman who was passionate about struggling with separating strands that can be as mischievous as toddlers who refuse to remove their clothes, licking the stubborn edges of the same threads to get them to stick together, and hooking those edges through a vision-challenging hole of a needle, before operating on a cloth.

We glanced at each other. I gave her a polite smile, which she returned hesitantly. We didn't speak. I continued with my silent self-debate over which pattern to buy and which one to use for the next project, my heart thumping with excitement, my eyes quick on assessing the difficulty level of a design, my fingers promptly counting the colors needed, my head big on possibilities but conflicted about the costs.

My concentration, and maybe hers too, was not deterred by the store attendants who talked loudly about Daniel Matsunaga, Ellen Adarna and other celebrities I haven't heard of. It was not shaken by the horde of students in uniform who came in and out, looking for and buying art supplies.

It was only interrupted by the sudden presence of a mother, all dolled up and elegant. She held the picture of a calm event coordinator at a wedding ceremony, pointing this and that to her assistants. She was doing just that with a sales attendant, her soft-veined hands directed at the stitches her daughter had done. The attendant was holding the black canvas with white threads still far from forming an image. 

The mother went on and on about how her daughter had insisted on using six strands, which were thicker than the three strands the daughter's yaya (maid) had started with. The daughter had wanted to give more life to the pattern by bypassing thread instructions and using more strands while the maid had probably known what to do and had given up. Then the mother flipped her soft brown dyed hair and blabbed about how she thought there was no use redoing what had been done. 

I got the impression that her daughter was a high school student at some private school in Cebu. The woman, though, slipped through her long-winded rambling that her child was a medical student at a prestigious school. "She's already a college student and they're still doing cross-stitch. And now the yaya's doing it for her," was her statement but it was not said in a malicious manner. Just a confused mother.

She stopped and looked at me, probably realizing what she had just blurted out. After an awkward laugh, she said how she was hoping that nobody in the store was from her daughter's school. I slightly shook my head and went back to the clear books. I even exchanged amused glances with the woman from earlier. The mother quietly sat in a corner while waiting for the saleswoman to gather all different numbered threads for her daughter.

The store went into a bit of an uproar after that. More students came. It was March and I strongly felt the final exams week of schools in the city. I followed around a new attendant who was picking threads for my dusky cupid pattern. It was a challenging endeavor, this following around. The spaces in between tall racks of jars and hanging merchandise were small. At times, we have to walk sideways to pass through.

My attendant and I found a quiet corner while she checked for the second time the bundles I needed. I saw the woman from earlier who flipped clear books with me paying at the counter for the three patterns she found. I saw a charming horse design, popular as a good luck decoration at home. She didn't buy any threads and cloth. I wondered how many she probably has and how she was storing them.

I went home and spread out my patterns on my bed. I bought four: an angel to satisfy my curiosity about my recent dreams of these dreamy winged creatures; a red hibiscus, a beautiful flower once found in my late grandmother's well-tended garden; a pair of Japanese women in bright red, blue and pink dresses, their faces half-hidden behind equally bright parasols, to satisfy my growing fascination with Japanese culture; and a picture of farmers planting in the rice field to help me remember my late grandfather, a cacao farmer.

These cross-stitch patterns are real to me. They are like maps to guide me through a journey of making my left pointer finger red and swollen from holding a blunt needle for too long, bending my back in time-passing yet reflective concentration, debating with myself on the difference between two threads born two shades apart, and blinking rapidly my poor eyes when comparing stitches with patterns and patterns with stitches.

This may sound off-putting to those who have yet to touch both a short needle and a checkered canvas. When I described to myself the process of cross-stitching, it almost sounded like a sport. But you know, any person can overmatch a sport.

In elementary, I stitched the portrait of Jesus using yards of depressingly adamant metallic gold floss. I wrestled with it and lost many times. I wanted to finish it not because it was a school requirement but because I remembered being fascinated with the picture of the completed cross-stitch and how I wanted to do it by myself for myself. I misplaced a lot of stitches and still, my cross-stitch came out looking almost exactly the same as the pattern.

A few years later, without the dictates of a home economics teacher, I decided to stitch an abstract portrait of the Mother and Child. It was a straightforward simple project, using only a blue thread on a white canvas. But at the time, I kept getting distracted. My mother put me in my place. Like my unsatisfied coach during my volleyball practice in college, she kept nagging me until I nearly reached the tip of my patience. I finished the portrait, thanks to her.

Both projects housed inside expensive frames are hanging in my parents' living room where my mother entertains guests and boasts to them these two frames that are displayed opposite the huge framed graduation pictures of my sister and myself.

Fifteen years and two unfinished cross-stitch projects later, I picked up the needle again and finished a small abstract pink cherub primarily in a single color. I am now working on the hibiscus pattern that I bought recently.

During my adventures and misadventures with the needle, thread and cloth, I learned that cross-stitching requires the humility to follow instructions of patterns, some of which were made by hand by people who more skilled than myself, and the determination to perfect my stitches. One crucial stitch crossed on the wrong part of the cloth can affect the succeeding lines of stitches. This happened to me several times and when I discovered my mistake, I can choose to either redo those lines with regret for the time wasted or proceed bravely and hope for the best.

Cross-stitching also requires the self-discipline to finish the imitation of a pattern. It is a stitch by stitch mental workout. When I resumed cross-stitching just a few weeks ago, I kept asking myself why I was doing this, in the same way as how the mother in the crafts store complained for her daughter. I am already in my early 30s and I am under no obligation to do this. At the start, I could not count the times I cursed myself or the canvas. But I know it was something I enjoyed doing before and I had wanted to revisit those feelings of calm and fun.

Mastering the skill of looking at the pattern and quickly following the stitch without so many follow-ups, I was able to devote more time and sense on reflection while twiddling with a needle. The hobby forced me, practically shook my restless spirit, to face that difficult conversation with myself, to evaluate my life and decide which path I should choose: a calm, peaceful life or a maddening, stressful one?

I have yet to decide. For now, one thing is for sure. The next time I see a new surgeon, I will most likely ask, among others, for his/her cross-stitching performance in college and how he/she feels about it. I can only hope that no maid did it for him/her. 

(This essay by Nancy Cudis-Ucag was first published on on May 24, 2017.) 

Image: Woman Sewing by August Macke (Source: Wikiart)


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