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
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,
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
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
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
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
Dubuque Area Lifetime Center
3505 Stoneman Road
Dubuque, IA 52002
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
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
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
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,
Glenda Sue Vize
319-556-7400 or firstname.lastname@example.org