Torah Stitch by Stitch: My Journey

Panel 0232, Genesis 31:47-50

Torah Stitch by Stitch is an international project, the vision of artist Temma Gentles, to give ordinary people (like me) the experience of producing the text of the Torah- in cross-stitch instead of with a quill, ink and parchment. In addition to committing to complete the portion assigned to you, participants were asked to keep a log of their experience. Here is mine.

I am an Accidental Cross-Stitcher

My mom did cross stitch and embroidery for many years. I have a large piece hanging in my home office that she created. It is a girl on a swing, facing backwards, her braids (yes, there are real little braids) swinging in the breeze. My mom always told me it was a picture of me, so when she passed away, my dad gave me that piece. She has been gone 8 years, but I think about her every day, thanks to that piece.

Girl on Swing, Dolores Harris

Girl on Swing, Dolores Harris

However, I am an accidental cross-stitcher. Or perhaps I should say, I am a cross-stitcher with a purpose. In 1980, I started working for IBM and met a women who would become my friend. Her name was Wendy. Wendy was so talented in many ways- smart, a great cook, famous for her holiday desserts, and a stitcher. As our friends began to get married and have children, Wendy’s gift was usually a beautiful embroidered or cross-stitched piece. I have two of her masterpieces- one she created for our wedding, one for the birth of our son. When our son was around eight years old, Wendy was diagnosed with melanoma. She died 5 months later at the age of 44. Life went on around us, and more of our mutual friends were having children. So, in her memory, I took up the task of celebrating those births with cross-stitched pieces. I created about a half a dozen pieces- nothing nearly as elaborate as what Wendy was able to do, but created with the same loving care (I hoped), and appreciated by all. The flow of new babies stopped, and so did my cross-stitching. Fast forward to last summer. Wendy is long gone, our son is is 24, and I am retired. Reading Hadassah magazine one day, I came across a short article about the Torah Stitch by Stitch project. Memories of my friend, her talent, and the feeling of joy and accomplishment from cross-stitching flooded back. I signed up the next day. I shared the article with a group of friends from my shul (Etz Chaim in Atlanta, GA), and got three more takers – Nancy, Pam  and Debbie (Debbie not shown!).

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Pam

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Me

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Nancy

Getting Started

As the saying goes, the first step is always the biggest. As I sat there looking at the pattern and the blank piece of canvas, my first thought was “what have I gotten myself into”. As with construction projects, you measure twice, sew once. In my case, I must have counted those little squares (and boy are they small!), a dozen times before I put in the first stitch. Just take a deep breath and stitch…

There is Always an Oops

Right before I got started, a note came from the community. It suggested using two strands vs three for a cleaner look on the taggim. I read it wrong, and started my piece with two strands versus three for the lettering… and got my friend Nancy started down the wrong path, too. Nancy figured it out soon enough and told me of the error of my ways, but not before I had already completed the first line and a half. Back to the beginning, to add a strand to the existing lettering. Luckily, this worked out, and I did not have to take out all of completed stitches!

Finishing the second line

It took a while to come up with an approach for making sure all the letters were properly aligned, and the space between letters was always correct. Around three quarters of the way through the second line, I started freaking out, as it did not look like it was going to end in the right place (looked like it was going to be a shorter length line). I counted and recounted to see where I had gone wrong, but could not find an error. So I decided to have a little faith- I just kept going and finished the line. It lined up perfectly! Whew.

Getting into a Rhythm

After the first two rows were done, I came up with a technique that worked (for me) of making sure every letter was starting in the right place. I took the paper with the pattern, folded it so that the bottom half of the row I had just completed was visible, along with the row I was working on, and pinned it to the cloth. That way, I could see the pattern for the current letter, and also eyeball the position relative to the letters above it.

Approach for making sure letters are aligned.

Approach for making sure letters are aligned.

These Old Eyes Ain’t What They Used to Be

I am at that unfortunate in-between stage where my eyes are not bad enough for reading glasses, but I have trouble in low light with small letters, ah, should I say stitches! Most of my stitching was being done in the evenings, sitting in the living room while my husband watched TV. I tried putting on all the lights in the living room- too far away to help. I moved a lamp closer to the couch- still no go. And then, I found the ultimate solution- a Costco LED Headlamp- actually three of them for $9.99, including batteries! Does my husband laugh at me every time I put this on? Yes! Do I care? No!! I found I can actually wear it around my neck and adjust the angle so I don’t look quite so silly, but I have to say, it it the perfect solution. Now I can stitch anywhere!

Shining a little light on the subject (from left, Karen, Pam)

Shining a little light on the subject (from left, Karen, Pam)

Seeing the Light at the End of the Tunnel

One row turned into two, then four, then six, and before I knew it, I was rounding the final bend. As I finished the last few stitches, I laid the piece out to admire my handiwork. It looked beautiful! But, at the same time, it needed a little something. I went to the discussion on the web site to check out the birds, borders and other ideas. The birds were beautiful, the borders were amazing (although a little intimidating), but I wanted something that would capture something more personal to myself and the rest of the stitchers from our shul. I needed some inspiration…

The Tree of Life

I read a little more about the designs being discussed on the site, and checked out some of the links. There was mention of turning images into cross stitch. And then, it hit me. Our shul is called Etz Chaim- the tree of life. Our logo is a stylized tree where the branches of the tree spell out “etz chaim”. A quick google search led me to http://www.myphotostitch.com . I uploaded a high resolution version of our logo (as a volunteer on our web site committee, I knew who to call for that!), and two minutes later I had a pattern!

Etz Chaim logo, in cross stitch form

Etz Chaim logo, in cross stitch form

Stitching the etz chaim turned out to be more challenging than the lettering, as it was hard to come up with a plan of attack (do I go across or down? What about the places with large gaps?). I ended up doing a combination of horizontal and vertical, but I did manage to do it without losing my place on the pattern!

Lunch and Learn: Stitch by Stitch Style

In February, Nancy, Pam and I had a “lunch and learn” – delicious chicken salad and homemade bread (thanks Nancy) and my favorite fruit salad recipe. Nancy is making great progress (four rows down, 8 to go!). However, Pam needed help just getting started- she has been struggling to make that first step, ah, I mean stitch. With a little encouragement from her friends, Pam is now on her way!

Our Lunch and Learn: From left: Nancy, Karen and Pam

Our Lunch and Learn: From left: Nancy, Karen and Pam

The End is Near

Thanks to several “ice days” in Atlanta (we don’t do snow here, we do ice, and the city is paralyzed until it melts), I finished my piece.

My final piece!

My final piece!

As I stitched the last stitch, I thought again of my friend Wendy, and how proud she would be of me for doing this. I posted it to Facebook, and tagged my friends Lisa, Nancy and Pam. I am still contemplating a small border, but as I look at it now, it might be best to leave well enough alone. Sometimes, less is more. And I might- just might – sign up to do one more section… Thanks to Temma for bringing this vision to life, and for the old and new memories it brought forth for me. I can’t wait to see how my friends’ completed pieces look, and here’s hoping that the vision of the completed masterpiece becomes a reality for us all- bringing together people from all over the world to create a living legacy.

Karen Keeter Atlanta, Georgia

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