Laura Hawley: Painting with thread

Photos by Alisha Jucevic/The Herald
Laura Hawley of Jasper started needlework in the 1970s and has completed more pieces than she can count. Almost seventy pieces hang throughout her house, capturing intricate geometric designs, scenes of nature, cathedrals, gardens and more.


JASPER — Intricate images created with needle and thread adorn Laura Hawley’s walls in her villa at St. Charles Health Campus, each one a piece she handmade. Right now, an intricate image of Santa Claus is stretched over her lap frame.

Hawley held a needlework piece of an eastern blue bird designed by Tania Berlin. This particular style of needlework is often called needle painting.

Hawley works needlepoint, a needle and thread craft that utilizes different types of thread to create images on a canvas. Hawley began learning the craft in 1976 when she lived in Lafayette. Now she’s created more pieces than she can fit on her walls and has amassed a  collection large enough to fill a coffee table-sized chest and the space under her bed.

“I’ve always enjoyed doing things with my hands and sewing, doing different craft things,” Hawley said.

Hawley moved to Jasper from Lafayette last year to be closer to her daughter, Mary Ann Mehringer. She retired from the Purdue University libraries a few years ago. Since moving, Hawley’s learned that counted thread cross stitch is popular in Dubois County, and Hawley knows how to do that. But she prefers needlepoint, a more complicated type of needlework. In cross stitch, crafters use DMC embroidery floss, the cheapest and most readily available thread. In her needlepoint, however, Hawley uses all sorts of threads: DMC floss, velvet thread, fuzzy or textured threads, cotton, silk, metallic, you name it. It takes a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to hold all the threads she needs for a single project.

Hawley held one of her favorite pieces titled Venetian Delight designed by Ro Pace. "It was a challenge" she said. "And I happened to like those colors." Stitching for four to six hours a day, this piece took Hawley about six months to complete.

“Anytime I pick up another pattern, I invariably have to order more threads,” she said.

Over the years, Hawley has amassed quite the collection of supplies. She’d like to be able to use some of them up, but every pattern calls for specific threads and colors, and Hawley rarely has everything she needs. And creating her own patterns to use up her scraps is out of the question. She claims she’s not creative enough.

“I really just enjoy working on pieces where they tell me exactly which thread to put where,” Hawley said.

Many of Hawley’s pieces came from classes and seminars she’s been to over the years. She has three squash-shaped dolls that the instructor called gourd ladies, a golden tree with beads woven into the thread and a recreation of a photograph of a sunset the instructor snapped in Japan, to name a few. A piece she really likes — she doesn’t have a favorite — depicts Sacagawea.

A needle point piece of Sacajawea designed by Dorothy Lesher and stitched by Hawley hangs on Hawley's living room wall.

Despite Hawley’s vast collection, needlepoint is not an easy craft to learn. It took her years to become skilled enough to complete a project on her own. New needlepointers, Hawley said, need classes. The nice thing for today’s beginners, she said, is that designers have gotten much better at creating clear designs.

“But you still have to be taught how to work with the different threads,” Hawley said. “There are tricks. Some of them unravel on you very, very quickly.”

The biggest challenge, Hawley said, is really just getting the supplies. She doesn’t know of any stores in Dubois County that sell needlepoint supplies. She thinks there may be one in Evansville and one in Louisville, but she hasn’t ventured out to check. Most of her threads now have to be ordered online or through a catalog. Hawley is a member of two needlepoint guilds — the Embroiderers’ Guild of America and the American Needlepoint Guild — and often orders threads and patterns through the magazines the guilds send throughout the year.

“It’s still nice to go into a shop and hold the threads,” she said.

A lot of the shops, though, have gone out of business. Needlepoint, like many classic crafts, is a shrinking art. Every year, Hawley said, the guilds report smaller membership. It’s something retired women do, Hawley said, and the younger women just aren’t picking up the skill. For one thing, Hawley said, it’s not kid- or pet-friendly. For another, more women are working and lack the time the hobby requires.

“I hope it doesn’t go away entirely,” Hawley said. “But it’s one of those things that change with the times.” 

Hawley has always had a love for crafts and even remembers stitching clothes for her dolls when she was a young child.

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