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Topiary3_2 No more bats or band-bashing, here're some more pretty flowers. This is a topiary I designed for my mom and my mother-in-law, whose names both begin with S. I did a pair of pillowcases for each of them in their preferred colors — I think Mom's were dark purple, with the topiary as pictured here, in oranges and lavenders; and I think my mother-in-law's cases were pale mauve with the topiary in pinks and Wedgwood blues. I made all of them when I was in bed recovering from my accident in 1998, and they took me quite a while, but I really loved the projects. I had a lot of Susan Branch books, and I was so charmed by what she was doing. I have similar handwriting and was, at the same time, writing two long scrapbooks detailing my trip to Europe almost ten years previous, so she influenced me heavily. I loved how she just decided to, I don't know, do what she wanted to do. The books seemed so simple and sweet and generous, and also so completely hers.

I drew the pot myself and took the flower part of the topiary from 101 Iron-On Transfers for Ribbon Embroidery by Deanna Hall West. Kooler Design Studio publishes so many great technical craft books. My advice, if you're looking to start embroidery and wanting the "best" book, etc., is not to worry about it too much. Just go to the fabric or book store, and start browsing. It's impossible for anyone else to tell you what you'll like, and I think you need to start by loving the project itself. You'll figure the technical stuff out, but you gotta love the look, the thing, and then you won't care how long it takes, or how "hard" it is, etc. I'm a great believer in just jumping in. Go with your gut and just make something. If you don't like that thing, make another thing.

I can't even count how many hours I spent with this one book, because it was the only one I had, and I was bedridden for months and months, and the things I was able to care about, outside of my own problems, were few and far between. Sometimes those limitations are a fantastic boon to creativity; you make do with what you have, and you don't worry about the rest. I worked dozens of silk-ribbon-embroidered designs from this book, which was a completely random choice and probably something someone else picked out for me, but I know that, in many ways, it saved my life. I required that from it, then. I squeezed it dry.

I don't have any advice on keeping sheets white, or washing embroidery, or any of that stuff. I absolutely do not think about it. My sheets are not that white, I just use regular bleach, and I've never had anything I've embroidered fall apart or run or fade or anything like that. Eventually sheets rip and get gross and I throw them out, but that will never keep me from embroidering them. I don't really believe in saving the good stuff. I believe in using it, every day. I just use it. If it gets wrecked, I pitch it, or turn it into something else. I really do. For me, most of the experience is about the making, and I can be quite cavalier about the finished thing. I'm not suggesting this for anyone else — I'm just saying, this is how I do it, and that (how I do it) is really all I can ever offer.

I hope, if you are just starting to learn something new, that you'll allow yourself the freedom to just start somewhere. I know I'm preaching to the choir here and I don't even like it when I start with the preaching, but I can't stop saying it. I said it here, too. Pick a project that you love, just because it's super cute, or for reasons you can't explain — you gotta have a little passion. When I first learned to knit, I took lessons at a yarn store in Missoula. At that time in my life, I was so stressed out and I hated my job so much that it was almost making me ill. My teacher was incredibly uptight, and she had all of these special rules — we could not use anything but wool, we had to knit our first sweater in the round based not on a pattern but on the special calculations she wrote for us, etc. I was the one person in the class to whom knitting did not come naturally, and I was absolutely holding the class back, except that I wasn't, because they all, including the teacher, just went on without me. My sweater was so thick and tight, made out of Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride (which just seems like such a tragedy to me now — this yarn is great for lots of things, but no one should ever let anyone knit their first sweater out of something as bulky and scratchy and generally terrifying to wear) it seemed like it was felting itself as it came off my very, very tensely clacking needles. If I were in need of, say, a new floor mat for my car, this sweater would be right at home there, but that's about all it was good for.

Anyway, needless to say, this experience did not help me, just then. I think it was one of the first actual "craft" classes I took, being self-taught in everything else, and I was so disappointed. I put the needles down and didn't pick them up again for several years. When I tried to knit again, this time with a woman in her 70s named Heather who worked at the Yarn Garden, it was a completely different experience. I wanted to make something special for my soon-to-be-born niece, and Heather said, "Just pick something." And I started saying, "But I can't! I'm not allowed! The other teacher said it could only be wool! And she has to do her super-secret recalculations! Are you going to do the super-secret calculations???" And, of course, poor bewildered Heather (having learned to knit at age 7) was like, "Oh, pshaw. We'll make whatever you love. Pick something. What do you love?" And that is why I love Heather, rest her. I think my blood pressure dropped 20 points systolic. And — zing! — I instantly became a member of the club. I felt freedom and joy. I made a little kimono out of the craziest, cutest, bobble-y-ist yarn you've ever seen, and it wasn't easy, but what's so great about "easy"? Easy is relative. You just need a little space and a little time and a little C'mon baby! Join the human race! There is no secret handshake. You just get in there. If one book doesn't work, get another. If one teacher doesn't resonate, get another. It's all part of how it goes. You don't just stop, you go. I remember an old English professor of mine saying a long, long time ago, "Someday you will read something that will blow your mind. You'll be so excited you'll want to read every single thing about that thing, or by that person, or whatever it is. It will happen." And it just amazed me that someone would promise that. I remember thinking, "My God, it's going to happen to me! It's going to happen!" And since then it's happened a million times, and I get up every morning wondering if it might happen, that day, again. You just gotta believe.

I say all this this morning in part because I got a super-special advance copy of Amy's beautiful book yesterday in the mail, not fifteen minutes before I coincidentally drove out to meet her for another one of our dinners. We talk shop and life and shop, since shop in most ways is our life, but really it's all life-talk, and precious to me. I got home late late late, but I didn't care; up in bed, with my reading light on and Andy snoring beside me (yes, he snores, alas), I read the entire soulful, sweet, funny, wonderful thing, cover to cover.

* Zing! *

Happened again.

Amy. It's really magical. I'm so, so, so proud of you, lady. xo


I adore a good "Zing"... can't wait for Amy's book.

And, thank you for the change of, uh, visuals. *wink*

Your knitting story is really moving. I can't believe the first teacher was such a jerk. I'm glad you finally found someone who was helpful and inspiring.

I loved this post. I think we all need a reminder every once in a while to get out there and just try something new. Because that's what makes life fun and exciting!

How in the heck do you read my mind? I'm suspecting that there was something implanted into those two sock corgis that I bought last year. I'm getting ready to leave on a BIG TRIP in a few days and I'm trying to plan what to take on the long plane ride. Sure, lots of sock patterns and my DPNs, but I'd been wanting to try embroidery for a long time now. As I stood in the aisle in Michaels, I thought, "I sure wish I had Alicia here to point me in the right direction. If we were friends in "real life" I could just call her up and ask." I ended up picking out two kits (I just love kits), one of monograms and one of several patterns of pretty flowers...they remind me of mendhi that Indian women paint on their bodies in henna. I didn't get a book, just grabbed extra floss in colors that I liked, so apparently you really were with me, nudging me along like a little angel with a needle and thread. THANK YOU for being there yesterday and for reinforcing that with your post today.

Great story about finding the right teacher, and I love your topiary!

Your post today resonates with me on so many levels- I, too, LOVE Susan Branch, believe in using what I have and the used up, scratched worn out bits show love, and that being good at something does not necessarily mean knowing and obeying and being buried by all the rules. Your professor's quote is so inspiring and encouraging! I know that it is one of those things that will stay with me now and I will be sharing it with my kids. And that the ZING will happen again and again. Thanks for the uplifting words and your cheerful blog.

That topiary is gorgeous. Your handiness amazes me.

And dinner with Amy Karol? I can only wish to live near either one of you crafty-genius'. You're so lucky to know one another!


Beautiful embroidery.

this has got to be one of the most special posts (to me) you've written! Made me happy. I hope your readers who are just starting out or are questioning their skill/talent/direction really take this to heart!

oh boy are you wonderful. this is so just what i needed today- and guess what else? that person your professor told you about? YOU are that person for a lot of people!

alicia, this is the best, most fantastic, most encouraging pep-talk for filling a life with beauty and passion ever! =) I'm already chipper today - with this cherry on top, I might just be too much for the world to handle today.

That is just beautiful! I love topiaries. And that is very wise advice.

Love this post, love it love it!!!! Every day I try to look for that ZING, and every day try to throw out one of those silly "can't won't don't" rules that keep us from trying new things.

Might have to print this out and keep it where I can remind myself a bit.

The topiary is beautiful, and I *love* those "zing" moments.

oh wow i think this is the first time writing though i come almost every day. amazing embroidery... and thanks for this post as I am just starting out. i got "sublime stitching" kit and I love it....so small and unintimidating and I started a bland pillowcase which i'm going to beautify and then decided i'd make it a little dress for my little girl!!!

love love your blog!

Nancy said it first. You were definitely a zing for me. I think I told you, 2 days later, I was in a fabric store. I don't think I mentioned I was sick that day but I had plans to go to a fabric store, so I was going. Just had to make something make something make something - no cold would hold me back!

It was the start of a general shifting and turning for me. I feel like I'm so slow to these changes. But reading this everyday keeps me going, reminds me of these things I want to do. Thank you for that!

I read all the way to the bottom of your post. It really resonated with me. There is a new art form I am dying to try but I keep putting it aside because I am afraid I won't be "good enough". This post, even though it is about knitting and embroidering has motivated me to give it a go. Knitting, now, those two needles really intimidate me!

There are many people that have came into my life and are there just when I need them. They always manage to say the things that I need to hear. And I always look forward to meet more of those people throughout my life.

You may have only come into my life virtually, Alicia, but you are one of those people! I've been fiddling here and there with embroidery, but I'm going to go out and start a project I love today.

I liked hearing about the bats and the band but I love that topiary! Your family must love opening gifts from you! It's so inspiring.

I started embroidering when I was 10 or so because my aunt had a store with all those supplies and gave me two kits. I wanted to learn, and I had no preconceived notions about it being intimidating, or not succeeding. I'm not that good, but I like knowing how, and I look forward to making a little time to do something again, soon!

For anyone that loves beautiful things and reading books, those feelings, about having been drawn into someone else's world in a way that makes you catch your breath and want to learn more is an amazing experience! Reading your blog (which I found while looking for flower bobby pins) is always a happy part of my day...thanks for that!

This post was so inspiring! Thank you for sharing it. :)

I have so many embroidery books, but I just get so easily intimidated/overwhelmed/etc. This is a great post. What floss do you like best? Some of my books say to go with wool only, but how much does it all matter?? And I can figure out how to make things sturdy enough to hold up to wear and tear without lots of knots on the back, which so many books tell you not to do. Gah.

OMG...this is absolutely beautiful! Lucky women, your Mom & MIL.

Oh the topiary is lovely!

I agree, you need to have passion and love what you want to learn, to pick something your heart is into, not what someone tells you that you have to do.

I have self taught myself everything too so far, painting, crafts, crochet, and now starting embroidery, I just get that same *zing* and it happens! I want to do that too! So I do it, never thought to myself that I couldn't figure it out, so far it has worked, LOL! I think because my heart is in all that I do.

I can see your heart is in everything you do too Alicia, it shines through and is beautiful! :O)

I agree with the other poster too, I love Sublime Stitching, but yes, that is just me, depends on your likes whether someone else would or not.


I looove looking at that! It's just sooo pretty!

mmmm, I love that feeling when you read or experience something, and it just leaves you with that tingling sensation like you just really touched something in somebody that you can relate too, that inspires you, that makes you feel a part of something...

as if, without even knowing it, someone has reached in and touched a particular part of your heart and set it on fire.

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com