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The Future of Needlework

A brief, personal history, and a look into a crystal ball.

by Catherine Bracken (June 7, 2010)

(Note: Catherine recently sold her e-commerce business, Discount Needlework, otherwise known as The Cottage, to Leigh Berggren. The site is www.discountneedlework.com. CLN asked her if she had any parting comments/predictions for the future for needlework.)

I have been in the needlework business since 1993. My daughter, now 19, grew up around it, yet has never taken more than a few stitches. She has done scrapbooking (paper and digital), woodburning, stenciling, beading, and a number of other crafts. I donít know why she never had a lick of interest in the thing she had the greatest access to. She learned to crawl in a quilt store and her first job was tying needlepoint knots for the mail order business. Without her, or her generation to be more specific, the needlework business will slowly fade out. 

The last time I read a survey, the average age of needleworkers was over 50. In other words, my peers and my parentsí peers. My mother did crewel in the 60s, and needlepoint in its heyday in the 70s. Growing up, I tried macramť and a bit of crochet. I did not knit, because thatís what grandmothers did. My mother never took up cross stitch, which hit in the 80s, along with the budding quilting revival, which I picked up right after college. 

We joined together in the 90s to start a needlework store, featuring quilting, needlepoint, cross stitch, rug hooking, and crewel. The big-box discounters like Wal-Mart killed us on quilting fabrics, and the discount hobby stores like Michaels and MJ Designs killed us on cross stitch. We only had needlepoint to ourselves, and we had to move to the Internet to keep that alive. I suspect we had less competition because needlepoint is time-intensive and expensive. I suspect cost is part of what kept young people my age out of needlepoint and in cross stitch.

Ultimately, I think time is keeping young people out of most needlearts now. My daughter is a part of the ďnowĒ generation. They want everything now. She can finish most of her chosen projects in a weekend. I am still working on a very large cross stitch piece with beads, charms, metallics, and all the extras. I started it about eight years ago and work on it only on vacations when I can muster the patience. But my eyes are not what they used to be, and it remains unfinished. I doubt my daughter would have the patience even to finish the remaining 10% of the design, much less work on something for 8 years!

Over the years, I have talked about trying to introduce more technology into the needle arts. Iíve suggested creating edgier designs that might appeal to the sarcastic, jaded young people of today. But I canít create patience where none exists. This makes me doubtful that needlework will ever have a meaningful, broad future. The Internet helps niche businesses survive, and needlework will at least live on through the Internet. My daughter loves making things, so I think the industry as a whole will survive, especially if the manufacturers can find ways to help people create crafts quickly but without spending too much money. I know my daughter would not start a hobby where the project takes only a weekend but costs $50. I think cross stitch was popular with the baby boomers because you could do projects that in price-per-hour-spent was very cheap entertainment.

Iím going to be very general about the timelines here, but youíll get my point: Scrapbooking was actually popular at the turn of the last century, and I have seen a photo album/scrapbook decorated by my great grandmother. Scrapbooking lay dormant for 75 years before being rediscovered heavily in the 90s. Needlepoint (Berlin-work, etc.) was big in the 30s, and then disappeared for 40 years until the Maggie Lane et al revival in the 70s. Rug hooking was also popular back in my great grandmotherís adult years, again supported by the hooked rug we inherited from a great-great aunt (she dyed the rags in a claw foot tub, I am told). We saw a little surge of rug hooking over the last 20 years, but it never really caught on big. 

I suspect we need to be prepared, as an industry, for very long cycles between resurgences of trends in crafts. It canít really be forced, as each generation has to discover for itself the aspects of crafting that meld with their current lifestyle. Iím pretty sure thereís another 5-10 years to wait on needlearts. My daughter, I believe, was born in the peak year of the baby boom ďecho,Ē the children of the baby boomers. Her generation will rival my own in size.  They will have the purchasing power to drive another cycle of growth in any industry. But she will need to graduate and settle down in a job, and decide whether she wants to spend her spare time on Facebook or making something. And when she has kids, whatever she makes will have to be portable, because I expect her generation to be mobile and active women. That sounds a lot like needlework to me!

I have passed my needlework internet business to a young lady from the in-between generation (formerly known as Gen-X). She has already brought modern ideas, like social networking, and a spunky attitude to her website Ė see it at www.discountneedlework.com. She is authentically part of the new customer base. Iím just a poser trying to read the future.  I hope she can bring her sincerity, authenticity, and unique attitude to the upcoming generation to create fresh excitement and be part of a new cycle.

Anyway, thatís about all my crystal ball holds. Iíll be sitting on the back porch with a Pina Colada while she goes out to conquer the world. And maybe thatís as it should be.

(Note: Do you think Catherineís crystal ball is accurate or not? Letís start a discussion. Email your thoughts to CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)



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