E Is For Excellence & Embroidery

By Betty Kropf

Stitches Magazine

May 1, 2002

The annual Stitch-Off competition has long been regarded as the commercial embroidery industry's premier event for showcasing cutting-edge talent. It has also been described as an educational tool, one that serves as a visible reminder that the industry has moved beyond the boundaries of placket shirts and six-panel caps. From framed artwork to high fashion to home décor to promotional products, today's embroiderers are “all over the map” in terms of ingenious application of thread to cloth, or whatever medium happens to catch their fancy. (Toilet paper, soap and paper are just a few of the novelty applications we've seen in recent years. Who knows what it will be tomorrow?) But wherever embroiderers get their inspiration, nowhere is this unbridled creativity more evident than in the winning entries of the annual Stitch-Off contest. With this thought in mind, and in celebration of our 15th anniversary, we decided to bring you a retrospective of some of the more interesting Stitch-Off winners from the past five years. Enjoy, and prepare to be amazed. Again.

It Was A Very Good Year

The judges for the 1997 Stitch-Off took one look at Nancy Sedar Sherman's Jewish prayer shawl and pronounced it a technical treat, which is why it came as no surprise when Sedar Sherman was announced the 1997 Grand prizewinner. According to the artist-embroiderer, the double-sided piece involved 127 color changes, nine hoopings and more than 15 hours of sewing time in its colorful depiction of the city of Jerusalem. The piece, a favorite with the judges and the public alike, was described by Sedar Sherman as a true “labor of love.”

That same year, another recognized embroiderer, Dave Womack, made off with the Masters' prize for his piece, “American Gothic in Thread.” Complete with 136 color changes, Womack's rendition of an American classic was a true exploration of thread as an artistic medium. According to Womack, the goal was to duplicate the original artwork as closely as possible. It was a goal he accomplished with 24 hours of sewing time and 330,000 stitches. “I guess the big thing is just the challenge,” Womack said upon notification of the award. “I like to have a challenge, and that looked like one that would do it for me.” Clearly, it did it for the judges, too.

Based on a different theme, but equally well executed, was the People's Choice winner for 1997, “Life at Sea,” a six-panel screen, conceived and carried out by the industrious and ever-creative team at Sandpiper Embroidery, Wildwood Crest, N.J. The home furnishing project involved more than 1.4 million stitches, 26 designs, 74 hoopings, 47 bobbins, 40 thread colors and 25 hours of sewing time. Once the stitching was completed, the team turned to mounting the embroidered panels onto purchased wooden frames, a task that proved more daunting than anyone anticipated. Ultimately, to avoid puckering, foamcore panels were sandwiched in between the silk layers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

A New Award

Creativity has always been a major factor in the Stitch-Off contest, but as official categories go, it's a relative newcomer to the event. In 1998, the debut of the Creativity award was marked by Renee Brinks' winning entry, “Crescent,” an embroidered floral arrangement, featuring five fantasy Dendrobium orchids, three Asiatic lilies, five Leonida-inspired roses, curly willow and five forsythia branches. Who knew that a nine-needle Tajima could grow such beautiful flowers? In total, Brinks, director of embroidery for St. Johns Knits, Irvine, Calif., spent more than 260 hours creating this amazing entry. From where we sit, it was time well spent.

Not content to walk away with the Stitch-Off's first Creativity prize, that same year Brinks also captured the Grand prize. Her winning entry in this category was a sapphire blue suit created by St. Johns Knits' designer Maria Lopez. Developed for the company's dressy cruise apparel line, the suit was a fantastic, over-the-top creation that consisted of 46,610 stitches for the skirt and 99,420 stitches for the jacket.

Joining Brinks in the 1998 winner's circle was Klebber Mattos with his “Living Legends” jacket-back design, the winner of that year's People's Choice award. The thread-on-leather portrait depicted three of Hollywood's best-known leading men, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford. With its 150,000 stitches and photo-like quality, “Legends” garnered the well-deserved praise of Mattos' embroidery colleagues.

Winners Galore

In 1999, the 13th annual Stitch-Off was a huge event in many ways, but especially in terms of the number of winners. In three of the most important categories, Grand, Masters and Creativity, two winners were selected for each prize. Mike Peterson and Susan Perry each earned a Grand prize, Lee Caroselli and Martha Brown won Creativity awards and, last but not least, Klebber Mattos and Renee Brinks both earned Masters.

Peterson's entry, the large company Grand prize winner, was a rustic menu cover, place mat and napkin, a project developed at the request of a client. It was also the embroiderer's first venture in the home furnishings market, an area for which he demonstrated a natural flair. According to Peterson, it took him 11 hours to embroider the 75,000-stitch project.

Susan Perry took home the small company Grand prize for her “Spring Fantasy” wall hanging, a unique piece that incorporated handmade paper and, according to Perry, originated from her experiments with overlapping two simple drawings of a tulip. Perry said the wall hanging was the perfect vehicle for utilizing her art experience and combining it with embroidery and sewing. It took her about 35 hours to complete the project.

Lee Caroselli, the large company Creativity prizewinner for 1999, got the idea for her entry, an Indian war shirt, after she was inspired by similar pieces she had seen. In total, the design consisted of 20,000 stitches and took 12 hours to complete.

Martha Brown's original intention for creating “Sunflower” quilt may not have been to win a prize in the 1999 Stitch-Off, but that's exactly what happened — the judges awarded her the small company Creativity prize. What actually inspired this embroiderer to create her prize-winning quilt was the desire to have something nice to pass on to her family. According to Brown, she created the quilt without a pattern, just playing it by ear; and oh what a lovely tune it turned out to be. It had more than one million stitches and took Brown a full year to complete.

That same year, continuing with his interest in living legends, Klebber Mattos entered a stunning leather jacket-back design that featured an embroidered image of the great golfer, Arnold Palmer. It was a design that earned him the 1999 large company Masters award. The design consisted of 210,000 stitches and 16 colors and was completed on a 12-needle, singlehead Tajima machine. Mattos also walked away with the 1999 People's Choice award for his embroidered wedding hat.

Renee Brinks, another former Stitch-Off winner, distinguished herself in ‘99 with her “Peanut Memories” candy and candy dish. As winner of the small company Masters prize, Brinks' only complaint was that she had to eat lots of candy as part of her research!

Millennial Stitchers

The 2000 Stitch-Off was an interesting mix because the winner's circle included several new names in addition to more familiar ones. In the Grand prize category, Linda Hamm of Nature's Art, Eastsound, Wash., and Paul Mead of Mead's Artwork, Pensacola, Fla., both earned awards for their undeniably first class entries. The central design on Hamm's bright red wall hanging was a freehand bear appliqué, surrounded by a black border with red-stitched salmon. The whole project took more than 80 hours to complete.

Mead's winning entry, which also earned the embroiderer a first-place prize in the jacket- back category, was a marine-life wonder with 290 color changes and a total of 34 different thread colors. The digitizing alone took about 69 to 70 hours to complete.

In the Creativity category for 2000, prizes went to Jeni Jordan of Seattle for her Mardi Gras mask, and Wyetta Woltz and Rheading Grenier of Sew Fun, Great Falls, Mont., for their “War Pony” bag. According to Woltz, the team chose Ultrasuede® fabric for their creation because they thought it would be the perfect choice for a sophisticated purse embellished with embroidery. The purse featured three stock designs from Great Notions, Dallas, and the project's total stitch count came to 70,000.

Jordan's Mardi Gras mask, one of the more “dramatically” different entries in that year's contest, was the result of Jordan's interest in taking 3-D embroidery to the extreme. A 13-year veteran in costume design, Jordan brought all of her experience to task in the creation of the felt and tissue lamé mask, a project that also incorporated a wooden dowel, feathers and wire.

As for Klebber Mattos, he must have figured, “What's a new millennium without a new trophy?” because, for the 2000 Stitch-Off, he conjured up his “House in the Woods,” a tribute to the artist Thomas Kinkade. Not only did it win the Masters prize, but it also earned him the People's Choice.

Nancy Sedar Sherman returned to the winners' circle in 2000, earning a Masters prize for her stained glass shawl, a piece created for her Bat Mitzvah. The embroiderer used a sparkle organza backing and Madeira threads to complete the 108,478-stitch design, which included 108 color changes and 40 appliqués. In total, it took 48 hours to create.

And One To Grow On

The 15th annual Stitch-Off, held in 2001, ran the gamut in terms of theme and style. John Deer and Janis Ravins of Punch Perfect, Barrie, Ont., won the Grand prize for their impressionistic interpretation of “Rustic Building & Bridge.” According to the prizewinning embroiderers, they were seeking to develop a single stitch that could run continuously into the next color when they stumbled across the technique that resulted in their Grand prizewinner.

The 2001 Masters award went to Paul Mead for his bold, framed fish entry. In total, the design took 130 hours to digitize and 500,000 stitches to complete. The design's central marine motif was finished off by colorful tile-like squares, convincing the judges that here was the work of a master embroiderer.

Another masterful work in the 2001 Stitch-Off was the “The Silver Mustache,” by Marcus Davis of Allabout Digitizing & Design, Southport, N.C. With its ingenious use of color, shading and texture, this Fauvist reproduction of artist Ralph Steeds' self-portrait was the logical choice for the coveted Creativity award.

The People's Choice for 2001 went to Ed and Deborah Carye of The Embroidery Experience Inc., Whitman, Mass., for their “02383 Quilt,” a single-color design depicting landmark buildings in the city of Whitman. The original quilt was raffled off in commemoration of the city's 125th anniversary, but its creators were so pleased with the end result, they made a second one to enter in the Stitch-Off.

Looking back over five year's worth of Stitch-Off winners, it's almost impossible not to appreciate the vast amount of talent that exists in our industry. Whether through innovative ideas or technical excellence, Stitch-Off winners speak to the rest of us about ingenuity and perseverance. They symbolize our desire to create and our will to succeed. They inform us that anything's do-able if we invest the time and energy in it. They reinforce our notion that this is what it's all about.

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