this month we present an exciting designer from the Southwest...
By Rita Vainius
"Almost Heaven - West Virginia", as in the John Denver song, was Cassandra Prescott's birthplace and first home. Growing up in this rural environment on a farm, Cassie and her sisters had the enviable advantage of being tutored in sewing, knitting and embroidery by their mother and both grandmothers, benefiting from each woman's knowledge and personal needlework style and design interpretation. These pastimes provided a wonderful source of commaraderie and accomplishment that helped to pass the long winters in the country.
By Cassie's junior year in high school, her father's health necessitated a move to a more conducive climate and the family resettled in Tucson, Arizona. The indigenous plant life, the mesas and multicolored vistas, the native peoples and lore of the Southwest would become indispensable themes in her future design work. (Click on the picture on the right for Cassie's FREE pattern.)
But back then, Cassie had not a clue where life would lead her. After high school, she attended the University of Arizona, majoring in business. Instead of completing her education, she got married and applied her business skills in the banking industry before starting a family. In time Nandra (now 32) and David (now 31) were born and Cassie devoted her energies to home and family. In her free time she experimented with local crafts: weaving, pottery and beadwork.
Cassie met her future partner, Tish, while teaching Sunday School. Both had young children and were artistically inclined, so they began to spend time together working on art and craft projects as a hobby. Tish had also been introduced to handcrafts early on; her father owned a business designing and producing miniature accessories for dollhouses such as rugs, framed pictures, silverware etc. Both of them belonged to a women's club, contributing time to fund raising efforts. On one such project, they were selling reproductions by an artist named Ted DeGrazia who made hand painted oval medallions to be strung on rawhide thongs and worn as necklaces. These depicted Mexican children, Native Americans, Madonnas and Angels. Knowing Tish and Cassie to be "arty" and resourceful types, he approached them about translating some of his designs into needlepoint for Christmas ornaments. Both readily agreed even though neither had ever attempted needlepoint! Since they would not dream of going back on their word, necessity became the mother of invention.
DeGrazia was so pleased with the prototypes that Cassie and Tish produced, (after a self-taught crash course in needlepoint ), that he introduced them to the buyer for Goldwater's Department stores, an Arizona chain with a substantial needlework department. This buyer, impressed at first sight, placed an order for a gross! Walking back to the car, Cassie, the math wiz, had to explain to Tish how many pieces made up a gross.
At this juncture they were presented with a dilemma: they had the order but no trade sources for the necessary materials. Fortunately, local shop owners were forthcoming in referring them to their own wholesale suppliers. As they proceeded,, it slowly dawned on them that they could make a business out of what was just a hobby. Though they would never choose to repeat the experience, fulfilling this committment taught them some valuable lessons about needlework, business and production in short order. A bona fide company, "Sundance Designs", was created. The completed kits were initially marketed under the DeGrazia name, but had their phone number on the packaging. This turned out to be an astute business decision. Ted DeGrazia died in 1982, but Cassie and Tish continued to market his designs through arrangement with his widow.
These first models were executed primarily in tent stitch. Cassie discovered that using her crewel embroidery techniques gave more definition to the flower designs. Textured woven stitches simulated basket motifs. Fringes were added for dramatic effect and they experimented with backgrounds and other embellishments. Needlework completed, they framed them using round curtain rings to present a finished look. With each new design, their creativity was more evident, motifs were more varied, and the stitches and techniques became more refined. Word of mouth and orders generated from their phone number on the ornament kits brought repeat business. Cassie and Tish became regular exhibitors at TNNA shows and immediately found fans in the expanded marketplace. This exposure also led to many out-of-town teaching assignments.
In 1979, buoyed by their success, Cassie and Tish opened a retail location in Tucson, christening it "Sundance Needleworks". This became their showroom for threads, handpainted canvases and finished models. Most of these are displayed as framed pieces but many of their designs can be adapted for pillows, bags and other accessories. Classes are held at the shop on most days and there is a varied visiting faculty of expert teachers, with a strong emphasis is on individual attention. Cassie also continues to teach throughout the country, most of these being project classes featuring original Sundance designs.
In 1981 Tish was afflicted with cancer. While recuperating from her surgery, she began to work on her own design ideas and stitch them. She used a unique blend of colors and techniques for her personal interpretation of southwestern motifs. These were a big hit and the stitch guides proved popular also. Initially Tish concentrated on the actual artistic rendering of the design while Cassie exhibited a flair for charting the pattern and working on the more technical aspects entailed. Both women taught themselves to paint and added handpainted canvases to their repertoire. Even Tish's son, Rich, before heading for college was brought into the fold, contributing designs of his own creation.
After valiantly struggling with her disease for eleven years, Tish passed away in 1992. Her husband, Ed, became Cassie's partner and in the years since, the business has continued to prosper. Sundance Designs remains a trend setter in handpainted needlepoint canvas originals and paints and distributes work by other well known designers: Marge Hunter's Damarj" line, Doris Gustafson's Creative Concepts and the art of Diane O'Leary from Family Arts Needlepoint. Their latest design innovation sure to be a winner is right in step with the times: Kathy Meyer's extraordinary Gaughi dolls. These are affectionately referred to as the "beanie babies" of needlepoint.
Cassie's personal design inspirations come from her affinity for the regional historical buildings and architectural elements specific to the Southwest. She roams the surrounding region for unique examples of this genre. A recreation of the historic Mexican town of Tlaquepaque, meaning "best of everything", located in Sedona Az., is a particularly favorite locale. The earthy adobe buildings topped with red clay tile roofs are enhanced by fountains, arches, courtyards and forged iron gates. Clay pots bearing a profusion of native plantlife accentuate this aesthetic survivor of a bygone era. These scenes are well suited to needlepoint adaptation and lend themselves to a variety of specialty threads and an interesting array of stitches. Many are embellished with actual miniature clay pots and simulated cactus, chile reistras (garlands of dried peppers) and birds constructed from fimo and applied to the stitched surface adding dimension, humor and individuality to the scenic portraiture.
Long before Lois dazzled the market with her unique threads and dye techniques, Cassie and Tish knew her from the TNNA shows. The Caron Collection threads have been a real bonus for recreating the subtle coloring of Southwest landscapes and other regional motifs. Watercolours threads used to stitch a blanket for one of their Indian themed designs, appears as if accomplished with 10 needles, each threaded with a different color. Cassie, after all this time, is still amazed how well the colors blend and how the shading seems to just fall into place for the desired effect. In a class where students are all working on the same design with the same threads, finished results will be remarkably different but all stunning.
In true enterprising family spirit, Cassie's daughter, Nandra, manages the shop, Sundance Needleworks, overseeing all day to day operations. The business is currently in a state of flux as Cassie's partner, Ed, plans to retire soon and they have decided to put Sundance Needleworks, the retail store portion of the business up for sale. Sundance Designs will continue as a separate entity. Cassie voices her plans for the future of Sundance Designs, "Our vision... is to continue to offer fine handpainted needlepoint designs for shops with a focus on new designs that will keep up with the trends for thread usage and stitch adaptation. We will also concentrate on creating models and stitch guides which will be used for teaching. We would like to see new and younger stitchers who will help preserve needlearts for future generations." Cassie, guided by her astute artistic sense and dedication to her craft, is sure to play a significant role in inspiring this new generation.
The "Trail of Life" handpainted canvas is available at your favorite needlepoint shop or at Sundance Needleworks.
Sundance Needleworks and Sundance Designs are located at 7038 E. Broadway, Tucson, Arizona 85710
Hours: 10 am to 5 pm daily except Sunday
web address http://www.needleweb.com/shops/sundance
Note: All designs shown remain the exclusive property of the designer and are protected as such under the U. S. copyright law.