Dyed and Gone to Heaven – An Online Magazine and Needlework Resource  


Profile of a Dedicated Male Stitcher
by John Downing

"My name is John Downing and I am doing research on Men in Needlework for a lecture I am giving. I have been an avid stitcher for 15 years and samplers are my specialty. I am very interested in sharing my love for samplers and how I began a true passion."

When we received this message from a website visitor, we thought, "Why not feature John on our site dedicated to Men who Do... and Men who Don't... Stitch?" And so, meet John Downing... an ordinary stitcher. But is he? Maybe in the usual sense, since John is not a professional, does not design and stitches only for his own pleasure and satisfaction. But being a male stitcher definitely sets him apart and makes him... well...rather extraordinary!

John was born and grew up in Pennsylvania until age 11. Then tragedy struck - both his parents passed away within a year of each other. It had been his mother's wish that John and his siblings (2 brothers and 1 sister) live at an orphanage called Mooseheart. His mother was diagnosed with cancer shortly before his father passed away. John says, "I believe she knew that she would not make it and so made the decision to have us move to Mooseheart....My parents belonged to the Moose organization and the orphanage was created to provide for the children of Moose members whose parents were deceased.... Mooseheart was created along the same concept as Boys Town in Nebraska. I graduated from Mooseheart in 1978 and continued my college education in Illinois."

Of his interest in fiber arts, John reveals, "I got a taste of crocheting while I was in high school. In the orphanage, we had house parents and I remember one doing some crocheting... I asked her to teach me. Soon after, I was crocheting using the "granny square" stitch...Eventually, I had a nice size afghan and finally quit because of the size!" John also tried doing some embroidery on stamped cotton. Of this attempt he confides, "The needle created large holes and I did not think I was doing a good job, so in my frustration, I gave it back... and never gave it another thought."

After completing high school, John attended Elmhurst College and majored in Speech Pathology. There he picked up a new needlecraft. While renting a room in a private home, the owner became like family. "She took me to a craft shop (she was a knitter) to get some yarn. While she was shopping, I discovered how many craft activities there were and became very excited. I finally picked out my 'craft'... LATCH HOOK! I really got into this and continued for a couple of years. However, I was soon finding many other 'college lifestyle' activities and again, my craft lifestyle soon became null & void." John was extremely involved in all aspects of campus life - working for many offices on campus (Dean of Students, Housing, Library, Union Desk) as well as being active in many other campus based activities (Choir, Student Activity Board, Student Government Board, Orientation, etc.).

After graduation, John undertook further studies in Speech Pathology at the University of Wisconsin. After a year, however, he decided he needed to try something different. Recalling his intense involvement in campus life as a student, he attended a conference that was specifically geared toward employment for people who shared that interest. He was accepted for a position at Eastern Kentucky University as Assistant Hall Director. While employed there, he completed a Masters Degree in College Student Development and Counseling. After that, he moved on to the University of Illinois, working as Hall Director but soon realized that a university of that size was too impersonal; he felt more comfortable in a more intimate environment. This led him to accept a position at the University of Dubuque, IA. Ever since, John has made Iowa his home.

In 1993, John decided to make a career change. He had just returned from a holiday cruise and was looking for immediate work to meet his expenses. He found it at a local restaurant, The Ground Round. John explains, "It had always been my favorite restaurant and I knew all the management and staff, so I applied for a position as a host. Things were moving along nicely... however, I soon became bored... after talking with the Regional Director, I was promoted to management and after a couple of other promotions, I became the Kitchen Manager at the Iowa City location."

About his varied experiences, John states, "I have done many different things and for the most part, have enjoyed all that I have done. But now on to some really fun things - NEEDLEWORK!" John began stitching in earnest at about age 27, while in graduate school. His roommate bought him some stitching projects because John was ill and he knew that John had enjoyed doing latch hook previously. Since John had not attempted stitching since his aborted attempt with a stamped piece in high school, he sought out a fellow student to teach him cross stitch. John elaborates, "I always thought it was too hard - a huge misconception... but after she showed me that it was basically crossing an X, I knew I was hooked! I soon headed out and found craft stores that specialized in cross stitch and other needlework." However, John did not really get engrossed in stitching until he moved to Dubuque, IA." John explains, "By chance, my boss was getting something framed and took me along...The store next to the frame shop was a quilting and cross stitch shop. I was so excited...I was wandering around this fantastic shop in awe! I soon became quite a regular and spent time stitching in the shop and learning to quilt."

After a year of pestering the owners and staff, John began volunteering his free time and learning to run the shop. He met a lot of stitchers and built quite a circle of friends. At the time there was no EGA chapter in Dubuque. John was a motivated member of a group that decided to organize their own chapter. John adds, "After months of preparing, we were accepted into the national organization. Throughout my tenure with the Ground Round, I have relocated to many different cities... and have joined the EGA chapter in each... and, being the only male, I have been spoiled and loved every minute."

Currently, John is completely immersed in pursuing his stitching passion. He explains, "I really do not have other artistic interests other than learning new needlework techniques. This past year, I have learned to needlepoint which has been very interesting. But my true love is counted work and samplers." John came to his love of samplers by chance. He elucidates, "While I was working at the University of Illinois, I stopped in a cross stitch store and came across my first sampler pattern called, One Generation. I fell in love with that piece and have been 'sampler bound' every since." Samplers also fit perfectly into John's home decor which he classifies as contemporary country. When John glimpsed a picture of a home in an EGA magazine, which showed a multitude of samplers displayed on a living room wall, it provided the impetus for him to complete a collection of his own. John adds, "I thought that it had a great look and I knew I wanted my wall to look like the one in the magazine. So I went to work and can now say I have a 'wall' of samplers!"

Back then, John was doing all his stitching on Aida. A friend told him that she used only linen. He declares, "I thought she was nuts, until she had me try my hand at a piece... after that I was hooked on linen and have never gone back..." When the guild in Dubuque sponsored a class using linen, John signed up, "I decided to take that one giant step and learn something new. I am so glad that I did, because once I started using linen, I have never gone back to Aida." John finds stitching to be an enormously therapeutic activity, especially during stressful times in his life. He admits, "This past year was very stressful for me due to a new position at work and so I stitched a lot!!"

Just as John "graduated" to using linen, he also discovered other fibers to employ. He explains, "I use the Caron fibers in my work and enjoy the smooth touch and blended look they give to a piece... I love the texture and appearance these fibers bring to the linen... I even take samplers and convert the fibers to silk to give them a richer look. Overall, I believe that the Caron Collection has given more direction to what I can accomplish and enables me to create my own look."

In conclusion John says frankly, "This is basically my history in needlework and I tell people (in jest only) that the reason the good Lord has not taken me yet, is because he put me on this earth to stitch and I just have not done enough stitching yet and I plan to devote many more years to my true passion."

John has exhibited his needlework at various seminars, openings, etc. When a museum in Waterloo, IA mounted a show called "His Story: Man Made Quilts and Other Needlework," John, being the only male member of the guild, was asked to exhibit several of his samplers. He has also been featured on "Neighborhood News," a program on a local news station. John is currently preparing for the presentation he will give on May 6, 2001 to the Mississippi Valley Sampler Guild featuring "Men in Needlework." He adds exuberantly, " I am very much looking forward to that."

John Michael Downing
1566 5th Street
Coralville, IA 52241

Announcing a New Sampler Guild - Mississippi River Sampler Guild of Dubuque, Iowa
The Mississippi River Sampler Guild, of Dubuque, IA, is a nonprofit educational organization whose purpose shall be to promote the art of sampler making, both historic and contemporary, the study of sampler history, and the preservation of antique samplers.

Meeting Location
Dubuque Area Lifetime Center
3505 Stoneman Road
Dubuque, IA 52002
Phone: 319-556-3305
Meeting Time:
First Sunday of the month, 1 PM ­ 4 PM

2001 Schedule of Events:
April 1, 2001
­ Open House, meet founders, learn about goals and year long plans, Motif Sampler
May 6, 2001 ­ Lecture and Presentation: "History of Men in Needlework" and Motif Sampler
June 2, 2001, (Saturday) ­ Field Trip to The Scarlet Letter, designer of reproduction samplers, in Sullivan, WI, and a side trip to Delafield, WI.
July 1, 2001 ­ Mississippi River Sampler Guild Name Tag, Motif Sampler
August 5, 2001 ­ "History of Pincushions" and "Pincushion Challenge" for September meeting, Motif Sampler
September 2, 2001 ­ Members will present their own unique design and stitched pincushion for the "Pincushion Challenge," Motif Sampler
October 6, 2001 (Saturday) ­ WORKSHOP and LECTURE ­ Nancy Sturgeon, Threads Through Time ­ Lecture is "Samplers and Their Stories" and Workshop is "Miniature Silk Gauze Sampler"
October 6, 2001 (Saturday) ­ 5:30 PM ­ Fall Dinner Cruise on the Mississippi River (Guests are invited)
October 7, 2001 - WORKSHOP and LECTURE ­ Nancy Sturgeon, Threads Through Time ­ Lecture is "Samplers from the Carrie B. Neely Collection of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL" and Workshop is "Reversible Blackwork Sampler"
November 4, 2001 ­ Stitching Mini Whitman's Sampler Tin pattern, Motif Sampler
December 2, 2001 ­ Christmas Party, Motif Sampler, Ornament Exchange, Basket Full of Goodies Raffle

Programs For 2002 - We have already started booking programs for 2002. If you are a teacher and would like to contact our sampler guild, we would love to hear from you. For complete, detailed information on 2001 guild programs or membership information, please contact:
Glenda Sue Vize
319-556-7400 or gsvize@aol.com

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: No part of this feature story nor the included designs can be reproduced or distributed in any form (including electronic) or used as a teaching tool without the prior written permission of the CARON Collection Ltd. or the featured designers or contributors.


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