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

Karen Buell

By Rita Vainius

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Stumpwork, a distinctive embroidery technique with the strange name whose origin remains elusive, was popular in 17th century England. Ultimately it fell into disfavor and remained in obscurity for centuries. It is currently enjoying a revival and has been reintroduced with a new spin. Karen Buell's free pattern, Holly and Berries, featuring flowers with raised petals, a wired leaf and berries simulated with wrapped glass pebble beads, provides an excellent example and enticing introduction to contemporary Stumpwork design and its execution.

Karen, whose name is pronounced Car-en in the Norwegian manner, was an Iverson before marriage, her Scandinavian heritage mixed with German and English. Both parents were teachers who encouraged her to express herself artistically. They recognized in her a talent for music and Karen studied piano and flute. In retrospect she states that she has always been more comfortable expressing herself through needlework than music, but she has not abandoned it. Her instrument of choice is now a soprano recorder and she occasionally she performs with other recorder musicians in Renaissance costume. Artistic talents have also passed on to both her children: Scott, a mechanical engineer with two children of his own, and Tena, a social worker continuing her studies in grad school.

Karen's odyssey in needlework began with learning to knit, crochet and embroider from both grandmothers. Because they did not live close by, Karen was left to her own devices and she learned to use books and kits to augment their lessons. This was no simple task as she was taught by them without using formal directions - to make a glove, one would simply trace a hand on paper and begin to knit. But it turned out to be the crewel kits, especially those of Erica Wilson, popular in the 1960's and 70's, which piqued her fascination with stitches, techniques and texture.

Upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Karen taught for a few years before marrying Doug, whom she has known since high school. His job as a mining engineer prompted their move to Northern MN, near the Mesabi Iron Range. Karen reminisces: "When my children were small, I found needlework to be very rewarding. The creative energy I put into it was something I could see at the end of the day. It seemed everything else I did was eaten, soiled or in some way had to be done over again." Because stitching was such a vital part of her life, Karen organized a group of stitchers and arranged for an out-of-town teacher. When this contract expired, her fellow classmates gave Karen their vote of confidence as their new teacher, initiating her professional needlework career. That was 1974. Karen taught at the recreation department and at a small shop, The Owl's Perch. Once her classes were established, she decided to pursue more studies herself, joining the NeedleArt Guild of Duluth and enrolling in workshops. She enthuses about her next discovery: "What a find! Through the Council of American Embroiderers Correspondence School, I took Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced Surface Stitchery and was certified as a teacher in 1979. These courses not only taught the stitches and creative variations beyond crewel or any particular technique, but included design and color while encouraging all work to be self-designed." After certification Karen also became a correspondence teacher until that school closed. When the shop she was teaching at closed, Karen joined an artists' co-op which provided her with classroom space. When the co-op closed, Karen found her own shop, incorporating class space with a small retail area. See a pattern emerging? As each placed closed its doors, Karen tenaciously persisted in finding a new door to open to take it's place. Karen now maintains her primary business location in her own home in Hoyt Lakes, MN; her classes are held at the shop in Virginia, MN and at the Recreation Department, which provides her with an enviable arrangement - where else can you find a small community which subsidizes needlework instruction so that participants need only pay $1.00 per class plus supplies! With this kind of support and Karen's reputation it's easy to see why her classes draw students from as far and wide.

Karen has always had loyal core group of students so that it was constantly necessary for her to create new designs as teaching tools. Along with her talent, her intensive training in creative stitchery gave her the confidence to experiment. By 1980 she had accumulated a sizeable inventory of designs. A light dawned: possibly they would appeal to others. She explains: "Most of my teaching was in counted thread work; Hardanger, Blackwork, Pulled and Drawn Thread work. There seemed to be little of this on the market and perhaps I could fill this niche." Karen began by procuring a mailing list of needlework shops and approached them offering her designs as either chart packs or kits. Not all of Karen's teaching projects make it to market, but every design that does, has been a class first. Karen's students provide a much appreciated "proofing" team. Absolutely essential to this endeavor is Doug, who does all the photography, from the full color print on the cover, to the closeups which supplement the text.

Karen derives inspiration for her designs from the seasonal vistas and scenic vignettes of northern Minnesota; a lone pine tree, a winter landscape, a butterfly, a chickadee - all be found in her work. Researching regional or historic techniques is another passion. In pursuing ethnic stitchery new designs emerge: a Danish Hedebo angel, Schwalm embroidery and Stumpwork. Karen discovered Stumpwork and Schwalm embroidery through the Australian publications Inspirations and Embroidery, Jane Nicholas' book, Stumpwork Embroidery and 2 books by Barbara Hirst. Stumpwork is dimensional embroidery which was often executed as a culmination of a young girl's needlework education to show off her expertise in a variety of needlework techniques. It can include crewel and other stitches, canvas work, gold work and often includes embroidery which is attached to the main piece as a wired structure or a textured applique. The old Danish Hedebo is a whitework technique which is the form most akin to Hardanger. Similar threads are used and cut and filling stitches are also alike. The biggest difference is that in Danish Hedebo, the outline of the design is a curved shape whereas Hardanger designs are primarily geometric and angular. Schwalm embroidery is native to the Schwalm River Valley in northern Germany. It is a surface embroidery, traditionally white-on-white, which includes drawn fillings somewhat like those in Hardanger, old Danish Hedebo and/or Russian groundwork, but often incorporates more surface embroidery. The subject matter of Schwalm embroidery usually consists of hearts and flowers, depicted in a stylized and frequently geometric manner.

The Caron Collection threads have been an integral part of Karen's work for almost 10 years. The more subtle Watercolour threads work wonderfully for her Hardanger pieces and the addition of Wildflowers and Waterlilies has enabled Karen to use the overdyed threads for entire compositions. Karen adds: "I have designed a couple of larger samplers recently and found the silk Soie Cristale threads to be not only beautiful, but enjoyable to work with. Then along came Stumpwork where I find the silk flosses to be a perfect way to blend the fine threads into a dimensional and realistic flower, leaf or berry."
Karen is emphatic about the immense joy and satisfaction she derives from designing, stitching and sharing her expertise with others. Her goals emphasize her priorities: "I strive to make designs which appeal, and to write directions which are clear enough, to guide a beginner through a new technique or design. I do enjoy people and find that teaching is truly "in my blood.'" Stitchers, especially beginners, often prefer projects which can be completed relatively quickly; an ornament fits the bill perfectly, but how many Christmas ornaments can one make? Karen's creative solution was her Danish Hedebo Egg Ornaments, perfectly suited to Easter and springtime decoration. These eggs are so special and unusual, they truly make one itch to stitch.

Karen Buell Designs are distributed by Nordic Needle in Fargo, ND and Norsk Engros in Decorah, IA. She also sell direct to retail customers . A website is a definite goal and would incorporate a series of online classes, though Karen readily admits: "I still like the contact with people in a class setting...It will be interesting to see what the trends are in the future. Will the majority of needleworkers prefer a live class setting, or will the Internet become the avenue for learning? I suspect both will always have a place." And we suspect that Karen Buell Designs will always have a place as well.

Karen Buell Designs are available at most needlework shops around the country. For more information she can be contacted at:
Karen Buell Designs
Lakeview Drive
Hoyt Lakes, MN 55750
phone: 218-225-3102
e-mail: kdbuell@rangenet.com


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