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It was about 40 years ago when Kathy Fenchel spotted a sign above stores along Main in downtown Northville that read — “Free Needlepoint Lessons.” It was a sign of creative things to come.

“I didn’t know anything about it, but I had a friend who did a lot of needlework, so I thought I’d check it out,” recalls the Novi resident. “She (the owner) had a very tiny, tiny shop, and when she found out I was left-handed, she said, ‘I’ll have to get a hold of my husband. He’s left-handed.’ So, her husband taught me!”

Fenchel immediately fell in love with the craft, and has spent decades sharpening her skills. “I like the creative process, and it’s also very relaxing, and something I can do while watching TV, instead of eating,” she said. “And, I like the fact that it takes a long time to create something because it means you’re putting a lot of thought into it. Sometimes you make a decision for a type of thread and stitch you’re going to use, and you put it on the canvas and you’re unhappy with it, so you rip it out and start over with a new idea.”

Fenchel, 68, teaches needlepoint at Homestead Needle Arts in Grand Blanc, and The Wool and The Floss in Grosse Pointe. And, about twice a month, she instructs private lessons in her home. “They’re usually people who are pretty skilled, but just need a little pushing,” she said. “Generally speaking, shops are set up for beginners, and they have nice projects that won’t intimidate a beginner.”

She adds, “I used to teach for the American Needlepoint Guild at their seminars, and the Embroiderers’ Guild of America. They hold them in different locations, and every once in a while, I would make contact at a seminar with a shop owner and they would have me come and teach at their shop.” She’s taught in Arizona, Florida, New York, and Ontario, California, among other places.

Through time, Fenchel has seen the needlepoint industry undergo a number of changes, mainly with the addition of more threads to choose from. When she started, she said there were a lot of wool and cotton flosses and very few metallic threads, but “over the years, it kind of exploded and there are now thousands of different kinds of threads,” however, there are fewer stores around. “Every city had one, but now in the Detroit area, there’s just a handful.”

During the Clinton administration, Fenchel had the honor of being one of two people from Michigan who was asked to create a piece that would be among Christmas ornaments for the tree in the Blue Room inside the White House. She made about a 6-inch stocking, using a template sent from the White House, and her own design — a scene from the “Nutcracker” in pink and black. Where’s the piece now? “I think it’s in a basement at the Smithsonian,” she said.

Her larger projects include a rug she made for her bedroom. “I’ll never do that again,’ she said. “It was very tedious, and because there’s not too much creative you can do with it if you’re going to put it on the floor and walk on it. I like to do things that are three-dimensional.”

Fenchel needlepoints “just about every day,” and some of her finished work is given to family members. That way, she said, it’s like they’re still hers because they’re in the family. Other pieces are usually displayed as samples in the shops where she teaches, but “most” are in her home. She chooses not to sell her work, because “if you figure out the amount of time spent and the cost of the materials, it would be pretty expensive.”

Aside from the time and cost of supplies, Fenchel believes, “If people are interested in needlepoint, even slightly, they owe it to themselves to go to a shop and see it for themselves. It’s a completelynew art form. It’s no longer the grandmother pillows with the ugly roses on them,” she explained. “Now, everything is three-dimensional, bright colors, and different stitches.”

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Kathy Fenchel at kfenchel@mi.rr.com.

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