Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Do you know about Mary Rhodes’ contribution to needlepoint?

I always find it interesting to look back at the history of needlework and learn just how we got to where we are today.  And in that vain: Are you familiar with the work of Mary Rhodes?  Mary is known for more than just the Rhodes Stitch, which is one of her creative stitches that is given her name.  

Mary worked under the tutelage of Constance Howard in England, the same woman who helped shape the trajectory of work by Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn.  She taught needlepoint from the 1960’s to the 1980’s and it was Mary’s students who brought contemporary needlepoint to the United States, along with her many books written on the subject.  Mary confronted and spoke against poor choices, misconceptions and bad techniques that created substandard needlepoint and consequently shaped the way people stitch today.  She complained that a book written around 1900 caused many needlepointers to drop the use of the tent stitch in favor of the dreaded “square stitch” - the cross stitch over two canvas threads and its many variations.  Compensation was not widely employed at that time, which led to designs that were interpreted in a rigid and angular manner.  Mary advocated that the square stitch should not be used in working linear designs where curves abound, instead, the tent stitch should be used.  

She was also concerned that needlepointers tended to use stitch variety for the sake of variety, rather than for the sake of the design, which produced “ludicrous effects” because of the indiscriminate mixture of texture.  She explained that stitchers often mixed many different stitches in a single piece of needlepoint, then described this mixture’s potential to destroy the balance and unity of the design.

Mary focused on stitches - she explored and gained knowledge of how different stitches worked together and the textures they produced.  She demonstrated and pushed for the resurgence of the use of the tent stitch in a skillful manner.  A rich texture could be achieved by combining tent stitches with other canvas stitches and by using effective variations in color and tone.  Mary felt that the knowledge of how stitches were best used in conjunction with one another to interpret a design was much more important than the simple knowledge of how to work individual stitches.

The use of textural effects is one of needlepoints most important features.  Now you understand why she created the stitch named after her - the texture!

Here is one of her needlepoint pieces:

Mary Rhodes
Lute, unknown date

Lute, by Mary Rhodes, is a wonderful example of an abstract design based on line and shape.  The shape of the lute is created with the tent stitch, the background is rice stitch and the couched lines represent the strings of the lute.  These simple stitches allow the emphasis to be placed upon the beauty of the design.  The colors are deep and rich, which enhance the impact of the central area of brilliance.  Both large and small sequins are used with silver metallic thread couched down to provide a spectacular sweeping curve from top to bottom.  Three large sequins are placed at the convergence point of the multitude of lines.

I never had the opportunity to take a class from Mary, and unfortunately, she died many years ago.  However, more can be learned about this remarkable woman and the history of needlework by reading one of her books, especially the last three books in the list.

Rhodes, Mary. Dictionary of Canvas Work Stitches. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1989.
---. Ideas for Canvas Work. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1970.
---. Needlepoint The Art of Canvas Embroidery. London: Octopus Books, 1975.
---. The Batsford Book of Canvas Work. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1983.


  1. Thanks for this. I need to get Art of Canvas Embroidery out and reread it. I think I might be experienced enough a stitcher to appreciate it now, which I certainly wasn't when I bought it 30 years ago.

  2. Some of my favorite books. Mary Rhodes is one of the foundations of our art.

  3. Thank you! I discovered Mary Rhodes' books back in the 70s. I was, and am still, amazed by her work. Her design, use of color & stitches & even leather & found objects is still work to inspire! And she worked back when available materials was extremely limited.

  4. Thanks for reminding me -- I was beginning to think I was the only one left doing needlepoint after those fun days in Sheila's shop, Needlepoint Unlimited. Hoping to teach a class this fall.
    Susan Gibson-Grafe

  5. Hi

    I have a large needlepoint made by my grandmother who I think was taught at night school in the 1960s by Mary Rhodes. Does anyone know what area of the country she taught in?