A stitch in time that almost wasn't
My late grandmother left behind an unfinished embroidery project that, thanks to the help of a total stranger, became a gift that money couldn't buy.
Editor’s note: This week’s post is a celebration of a few things, including the publication of the second issue of The Feminist Kitchen zine. Paid subscribers get a copy as part of their subscription — those zines should be hitting your mailboxes any day now! — and I’ve opened up single copy sales through my online store.
This issue’s theme is fabric, and this post certainly fits the theme.
Thank you so much for your support, as always.
How many unfinished crafting projects are out there?
Tucked away in boxes and plastic bins, under beds and in the back of that closet that’s hard to get to in the guest bedroom, these patchwork quilts, knit hats and scarves, cross-stitch Christmas stockings and wall hangings quietly await their needle-wielding heroine.
Someone to see their value, their potential. Someone to pick up where someone else left off.
There are many reasons crafters leave behind unfinished projects, death, disease, and failing eyesight, among them.
I’m not sure what caused my great-grandmother to leave her hexagon charm quilt in that trunk so many years ago, but I do know how I felt when I finished it for her.
After I finished her quilt, I became somewhat obsessed with trying to find another unfinished quilt that I could lend my time and meager talents to. I’d occasionally find hopefuls at Austin Creative Reuse, but I didn’t know anything about the original maker, so my heart couldn’t really get into it.
Then I heard about Loose Ends Project, a network of crafters who complete strangers’ projects when the original crafters can’t.
I signed up a couple of years ago with the hope that I would become a finisher, but after a few months in the Facebook group, I realized that there were untold more finishers than projects to finish. I’d be waiting for a project for a long time.
Then I remembered the bluebirds.
When my grandma Mimi died in 2016, she left all of her sewing stuff to me — a tabletop machine, boxes of fabric, bags of yarn. Shirley was a woman who always had a project. She didn’t stop at needlework, but I think it was her favorite. In the 1980s, she owned a punch needle craft company that is prominent in my early memories because my dad worked there with her when we lived in Florida.
When she died, I gave most of her knitting supplies away, but I kept a few of the wooden embroidery hoops and an unfinished crewel embroidery kit that featured two little bluebirds sitting on a flowering tree.
I held onto this little relic because I thought I’d teach myself crewel embroidery via YouTube and finish it for her.
Last March, an idea popped in my head: What if I submitted the project to Loose Ends instead?
That’s how I found myself, in December, driving to Waco to meet up with a woman I’ll call Claire.
Claire had also joined Loose Ends with the hope of bringing some joy and maybe even closure to families (and crafters) who were in grief, no matter if they had lost a loved one or they’d lost the ability to do a beloved craft.
Loose Ends quickly matched me with this fellow crafter this spring, and we exchanged emails about the project and its maker. I didn’t know much about its origin, but I gave her as many details as I would have wanted to know about a project I was taking on. I told her about our family and Shirley’s relationship to my dad in the years after he found out that she was his mom, not his sister. I explained about the craft company and how much her death affected my Aunt Leesa.
A few days later, I packed up the embroidery and any thread I could find that might have come with it. Claire got the package and let me know she’d be taking the embroidery on a cruise, which Shirley would have loved. (Mimi loved cruises.)
Then I waited.
In November, I emailed Claire with a gentle inquiry about the embroidery. I didn’t want to rush her, but I really wanted to give these little bluebirds to Leesa for Christmas.
She was delighted to get a deadline, and a few weeks later, we booked a time to meet for lunch halfway between our Texas homes.
On a rainy December day, I drove up Interstate 35 to meet Claire, whom I didn’t know at all but with whom I felt like I would be connected to forever thanks to this random group.
We easily found each other in the lobby of the restaurant and hugged. I didn’t cry right away, but teary emotions were in my throat the whole time. She had her family with her, so I got to meet her sisters and husband. We all sat down for lunch and chatted. She revealed the completed embroidery, bound neatly in a wooden hoop, ready to hang on a wall. I clapped my hands and probably squealed. I showed her pictures of the people who would be ultimately receiving this gift. I tried to convey my deep gratitude. They bought my lunch. We all went on our way.
Two weeks later, I plotted my surprise. Leesa’s family had a run-in with COVID over Christmas, which dashed my plans for a Christmas Eve surprise, but a few days after New Year’s, we all went out to dinner, including my cousins, Chris and Carlee, and their dad, Carlos.
After we’d finished our pizza, I pulled out the gift bag and handed it to Leesa. I explained that this was Mimi’s embroidery and that someone we didn’t know spent the year finishing for her. For us.
I think it hit Leesa first. The gratitude. The grief. The love for our late elder. The pain of her absence. The joy of memories with her.
We were all drying our eyes, soaking up this precious moment of pure vulnerability. We are a close-knit family, but even this moment felt special. Not every family gets to experience moments like this, and we were having it thanks to a complete stranger, a big-hearted woman who knew that this not-so-small act of kindness might lead to feelings as big as these.
I pointed out one last detail:
“Look, she even signed Mimi’s name.”
If you have a project you’d like to submit to the Loose Ends Project, go to their website and fill out the form. There are thousands of finishers waiting to be assigned a project. If you’d like to become one of them, you can find that on their website, too.