In Awe of a Master Designer and Stitcher
You think you know a person…
… and then you find out she’s been interviewed by NPR and the BBC, had an offer from the Guinness Book of World Records, turned down that same offer — all over an amazing masterpiece of cross stitch — and you didn’t even know she was a stitcher!!
I met Jo Roberts about 5 or 6 years ago, through the neighborhood association for our weekend property out in the Texas Hill Country. She was the treasurer and I had just volunteered to put together the newsletter. I came to know her as someone extremely energetic, precise, and focused. She knows the proper procedures for running organizations, and can explain them simply and clearly. She has a high-powered job for which she travels just about every week, driving 4 hours each way to and from the airport. Her home in our neighborhood is perched on the side of a rocky ravine, and she designed and built it herself — and by “built it herself,” I don’t mean she hired a crew; I mean, she was the one to move the lumber into place and run the power tools. She and her husband monitor and study the songbirds that thrive there. They also built a house in Canada in a remote area, and that house is totally off the grid. Her husband, Aaron, also volunteers for our association, maintaining the water system and the locks.
So, with that background, you can see why I never even thought to ask whether she had any other hobbies.
But then one day as we association volunteers were emailing back and forth, I happened to mention that I was working on a quilt that day. Aaron responded that Jo’s mom quilts, and that Jo herself had some fame as a cross stitcher, although she would probably never mention it, and that I should Google her.
And oh. my. Google.
Jo had designed and stitched a replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and then self-published a book with all the cross stitch charts. It is 40 by 80 inches, on Aida 14-count fabric. There are a total of 628,296 cross stitches in it.
This article, the Stitch-tine Chapel gives all the details, and has some wonderful pictures comparing Jo’s stitched version to the original. (There was also a detailed article in the magazine of the American Needlepoint Guild, Needle Pointers, in July 2005, but I have not been able to find that online.)
The first thing I did after getting my breath back, was to wangle an invitation to their house, so I could see this incredible piece for myself. They succumbed to my hints quickly, and invited my husband and me over for dinner.
It was a wonderful evening. After a house tour, some time out on the deck watching raccoons and deer, and a tasty dinner of braised short ribs, I got to see the Chapel in depth and take pictures.
Then we all settled down with tumblers of postprandial beverages, and I got to talk textiles to my heart’s content.
I think one of the things that stands out most to me about this piece, is the way that it captures the curvature of the ceiling, even though it is perfectly flat. Even in the detail shots, you can see how the border lines make the fabric look three-dimensional.
Jo did use a computer program in her design, but she couldn’t just scan in a picture of the whole ceiling and have the program do the work. The restoration of the ceiling was complete in 1994, so a number of high-quality art books were available to show sections in detail. However the photos were in different scales, and taken from different angles. Jo had to find ways to meld these images together into one master image. She printed out grids of various sizes on transparencies, laid them over the photographs to find the best fit, and then plotted the stitches into the program one at a time.
Next she had to choose colors. DMC makes 426 colors of embroidery floss, but that wasn’t enough to capture all the shades in the original. Plus Jo has some color-blindness! Aaron came to the rescue and helped pick colors. They used all but five of the DMC colors. However they ended up with almost three times the number of colors that DMC produces — 1,206 in all — by pulling one strand from two skeins at a time, and blending them together.
Now Jo being Jo, she didn’t just grab thread and start stitching. Here is her notebook of the one-inch square stitch samples she made for all the colors.
For this next two pictures, I did not crop out the background so you can see the wall of glass that Jo built into the house, the floors she laid, the shelving she put in, the outlets for the electric lines she ran. My favorite quote from her, as I was talking to her about her design process and all the hours spent stitching, was when she said, “Well, the house slowed me down for a while.”
So let’s talk about the hours spent. Most days Jo spent at least one hour on the project. She had the cloth set up on a frame, like a quilting frame, that she brought with her on all her travels, and set up in the hotel rooms. Aaron had the idea that they would document the stitching by taking pictures after each 20 hours. Toward the end, she really wanted to get done, and spent three hours a day stitching after work, and six to seven hours a day on the weekend. Her total hours were 718 on designing, 68 on choosing colors, and 2,872 on stitching.
The piece was finished in 2004, and has been on display in several shows. In Austin, Texas, Jo was present with her piece to answer questions. I asked her what she heard most often from viewers, and she laughed and said, “‘C’mere! C’mere!! Look at the back!!’” which of course was something I had said too!
When it was on display at the Tennessee American Needlepointers Guild seminar, Jo got the idea to publish her charts as a book. One version is full color, spiral bound, and it is available here at Lulu.com in paperback or as an e-book; and there is also a companion book with the charts in black and white, and in a larger scale. (They are much less expensive at Lulu.com than through Amazon.)
One thing I didn’t know before, is that counted cross-stitch is one form of needlepoint. The American Needlepointers Guild says that needlepoint is “anything done with needle and thread on a readily counted ground.” Jo has tried weaving and quilting in the past, but prefers the needlepoint arts, because she enjoys the space for creativity within the structure of the counted background. She would love to see needlepoint get the respect that quilting gets.
Jo enjoyed the different aspects of this project, both the designing and the stitching. She said that all that time working from the photographs of the Sistine ceiling, gave her time to really notice and appreciate the depths and details of Michelangelo’s work. She has ventured into stitching designs from her own photographs as well. When I was there, one of the pieces in progress was capturing a misty morning and the dew on a spider’s web, and she is working that on Aida 18-count fabric, I believe. (Maybe smaller. There were about 40 threaded needles, each laid on a tiny little magnet, labeled with the thread color number. I was a little overwhelmed and did not write down the fabric count number.)
She especially likes the challenge of translating one art form into another. She is creating a piece from a photograph of the ruins of her grandfather’s home town, after World War II. This one has different stitches to bring out the different textures.
She said she would love to do another large piece, based on Islamic art this time.
For me, it was just an amazing evening. I got to see such a variety of stitched pieces, as well as quilts made by Jo’s mom, and I got to talk about the history and philosophy of art and textiles for hours. It was like my very own personalized TED talk!
Well, blew me away and I wasn’t even there! How lucky you got to talk to her and see that piece! Thank you.
Glad you liked it! I saw the piece about 6 weeks ago and it took me this long to process it and think about how to write about it, it is really amazing.
Amazing work — still chuckling at her comment that the house slowed her down a bit! 🙂 Her house looks beautiful!
It is, and it was inspiring to see the things they thought of in building and designing it — no cookie cutter plans there.
WOW! So inspiring! Just this evening I was musing about whether I could ever be more productive in my making life, like some people, or if I will always be a meanderer. 🙂 Now I know I need to get cracking. Thanks for this.
I think of you as extremely productive! She is Canadian too — maybe those high standards are a Canadian thing! 🙂
Well I don’t know about that but thank you! 😦
Oops I meant 🙂
Life is full of suprices – and this was a very good one! Thanks for sharing ❤
Yes, you are right, it was a wonderful surprise, and I enjoyed getting an in-depth look at the piece and at her process! So glad you liked it!
That was definitely my reaction too.
And that is also my reaction to the jewel box blanket you are crocheting, it is gorgeous!
Beautiful is all I can think to say and that is NOT describe it.
I know, I ran out of words too. 🙂
Words fail me on this one. Awesome and overwhelming come to mind. What a talented lady!
She really is. And nice too!
Wow, I cannot believe the intricacies of the planning, nevertheless the actual skill, patience and work that Jo has put into this beautiful treasure…
Not to mention her building skills… one incredibly talented lady.
Thank you both for sharing.
I think she and your grandmother would be kindred souls — doing so much, so well, in so many areas!
I’m sure you are right…<3
I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
Thank you, Chris
Just completely unbelievable!! This is a true artist, in every way. I sometimes think that the reason the needlepoint arts are overlooked is because so much of what we see is based on the kind of dorky kits people buy at a big-box craft store. We don’t see a lot of personal designing and creating of unique pieces, and certainly we don’t see spectacular renditions like this work of Jo’s. After reading about her and her accomplishments, I feel sort of lazy and underproductive . . . 😉
Yes, she had that effect on me even before I knew about the cross-stitch! But she is so far ahead in the productive race that there’s no use in me even trying to set foot on the track, thankfully.
I think you are right about the kits — plenty of people make quilts from kits too, but they don’t get publicity, the publicity goes to true quilt artists.
Also, I wonder if just the size has something to do with it — quilts are so big and noticeable. When I used to live in a house with 11 foot ceilings, I hung them everywhere because they took up so much more space than regular-sized artworks. And the pieces are usually on a scale we can see with our naked eyes too. With cross-stitch, it’s so tiny.
Who knew you could get so creative with needlepoint? While the Sistine Chapel piece is beyond amazing, I also love the ruins piece. And the amount of organization that goes into tracking all the thread colors! I can’t even keep my box of 24 crayons in color order.
I love that ruins piece too. She also has a beautiful satin stitch piece of brightly colored tulips — her subject matter varies, but her skill and precision always shine through!
I’m with you on the disordered crayons syndrome. 🙂
What dedication she has for her craft. Simply stunning!
I agree! I am so glad to share her work with other appreciative people, I am glad you liked it!
Thank you so much for sharing this artistic treasure and its creator with us. I’ve always thought of crosssstitch as tedious copying from a chart. This is creative as any other fabric art.
OMG! That is quite something! She is an amazing woman!
a very interesting read with great images.
What an extraordinary thing to suddenly discover your neighbour’s ‘secret’ life! Her stitching is incredible, let alone the fact that she managed to fit making this masterpiece into such a busy and demanding schedule. It’s easy to imagine artists create masterpieces impulsively in a sudden burst of creativity but this really shows the value of being organised and methodical and of working regularly and consistently, along with talent and skill of course, Thank you for sharing this inspirational post with us 🙂
Janine, thank you for such a lovely and thoughtful comment! I think you captured Jo’s working style and really, a lesson for all of us, because you are right, it’s easy to wait for that sudden burst instead of just getting to work.
I can barely think of anything to say, other than “OH my GOODNESS!” What a treat to see this in person. And what a wonderful post about it. Thanks for sharing this amazing piece of art.
You are so welcome!
I have seen on the Quilting Army page that you’ve been having some issues lately with overwork and some petty people — doesn’t this piece just totally remove you from that for a while and take you to a whole other level of thinking about art and craft? A little mental vacation.
When I interviewed Jo, I didn’t want to repeat the same questions that NPR and the BBC asked her, and I got some ideas from the questions you were asked on Just Wanna Quilt. They didn’t make it into the post, but I think it did start us thinking on deeper levels and gave us a really good conversation. So thank you for introducing me to that podcast!
🙂 Yes, guild stuff. UGH. Am looking for ways to disentangle, or to deal with it better. All okay. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Quilting Army. I’m finding it very entertaining.
My jaw is on the floor. I came over from Tall Tales from Chiconia to check out your Scrap Happy Day post but haven’t even been there yet. I envy the energy Jo has, to say nothing of her perseverance. Gadzooks! Nor did have have any idea about the Needlepointers Guild definition of needlepoint. Cross stitch and needlepoint were always two different things in my mind. Obviously I’m going to have to spend a lot more time here!
I hope you do! Nothing you see here will be up to the standard of Jo’s accomplishment — but I think we can safely say that for most of life, she is one of a kind! 🙂
Again, I am blown away by your friend’s amazing talent. I almost don’t have words to do justice to her and her intricate work. Thank you for sharing this amazing artist. Like you, she must love what she does.
She really does love it, and every step of it, which I think is unusual. I am looking forward to her seeing all these thoughtful comments about her work!
Wow! Thank you for sharing this amazing post with us!
Jo certainly has staying power! I have some cross stitch I have been working on for a few years, but it wasn’t my design and it’s tiny in comparison!
Jo certainly must be very organised!
I shared her work and her book with my little quilting group, and we were all sitting there pondering our past cross stitch projects, and we were just like you — we have all worked hours and then thought, I don’t have much to show for my time!
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Fabulous work. I’m finally back to reading blogs and I’ve missed seeing yours.
Yes, even though I don’t do half the traveling you do, or a quarter of the work, I have trouble keeping up with reading all the blogs I follow, so I understand completely! I love reading your posts about your lambs, farm group days, etc., and I am just glad for whenever you can drop in.
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