More than 20 years ago, Teri Sanford Pharis walked away from a successful career in the tech industry and entered the more calculated, yet slow-paced world of needlecraft.
Today Pharis owns a premier needlepoint store in the South Valley.
“This is not your grandmother’s needlepoint store.” exclaims Pharis.
Long farm tables welcome seasoned stitchers and newcomers to Madonna Needle Works in Morgan Hill, where they can congregate during informal stitch and bitch sessions.
Filled floor to ceiling with hand-painted needlepoint canvases and a wave of rainbow colors, the store is a sanctuary for stitchers looking for a friendly place to relax and destress while working on their favorite project.
Inspired at an early age by her mother Joan Sanford—who at 84-years-young is still actively stitching—Pharis discovered a love for French embroidery and crewel work.
She took up needlepoint in the ’90s while working as a marketing director for a consumer electronic company in Cupertino and taking classes with Lyn Dougherty, owner of Exclamation Point needlework shop.
As Pharis worked on her master in business, she worked at Exclamation Point part time before she opened Madonna Needle Works in 1999 in Morgan Hill.
At one time, Exclamation Point, was the longest running brick and mortar needlepoint shop since Dougherty first opened its doors in 1977 in Saratoga. Since then, it has had several owners and survived a moved to Santa Clara in 2011 before a 2017 relocation to Oregon where its current owner Melanie Vancil offers needlepoint and cross-stitch supplies online.
The loss of Exclamation Point shop hit the needlearts community hard. From Morgan Hill the nearest needlepoint shop is Old World Designs in Menlo Park, which is roughly 40 miles away and Elegant Stitch in Modesto is 75 miles away.
“If you like color, fiber, texture, working with your hands—you know it’s an artistry.” says Donna Collins of San Jose, a regular at Madonna’s who has been stitching for the past 42 years.
Craft stores typically carry the most popular colors and in just one or two weights and in a handful of fibers because it’s too expensive for a shop to carry the full line of multiple thread vendors, but the selection at Madonna’s is mesmerizing.
“Purchasing threads, especially, is a very visual and tactile thing,” says Roberta Pabst, president of the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the Embroiderers Guild of America (EGA). “We like to see and feel what we are considering using in our art. We put the colors next to each other and spend lovely hours choosing just the right threads. These things would not be possible without this shop—it is the only one of it’s kind for many miles.”
Historically needle arts has been a means for women to demonstrate their talent, skills and wealth through the complexity of design and the use of expensive fibers like silk and gold threads. Elaborately decorated clothing announced their wealth and status in society. Spanish blackwork was made famous by King Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. Stumpwork and goldwork are the highest skill level that enhance needlepoint, cross-stitch and embroidery.
In the late 1800s orphan girls practiced their ABC and numbers on perforated paper with red thread before creating samplers on uneven cloth. These “Redwork Samplers” were the girls’ resumes, the better the stitch quality helped procure better employment upon leaving the orphanage.
Needlearts seemed to increase in popularity during turbulent times as a means of expression. During the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, women marched in the streets demanding equal pay. At the other spectrum, the resurgence of needlepoint and quilting soared due to Erica Wilson’s PBS needlepoint series and Wilson’s books. Wilson enthusiastically presented needlepoint as Julia Child’s did for French Cooking. Wilson was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Needleworks. In the early 2000s, women supported soldiers serving the Afghanistan War by knitting socks and helmet liners. By 2017, Women on the March for Science created solidarity in protest with knitted pink pussyhats.
Throughout recorded history people have expressed themselves with various kinds of mark-making.
“People use the needle arts to show love, to entertain themselves, to have something non-electronic to interface with, to spend time with friends sharing what they are doing,” says Pabst.
A growing trend is subversive cross-stitch, where new stitchers, regardless of age, race, political persuasion, sexual orientation, or social status, are recognizing the importance of self expression. Cross-stitch pattern books, like “Feminists Icons” by Anna Fleiss and Lauren Mancuso depict portraits of strong women; “Feminist Cross-Stitch” by Stephanie Rohr depicts patterns with clever anti-patriarchy quotes embellished with traditional floral flourishes. “Subversive Stitch” by Rozsika Parker offers a historical review of women’s role in embroidery.
Currently, Shannon Downey is leading the craftivist movement with Badass HERstory project which urges people to put down their devices and express themselves in a 12” square—creating blocks which will later be stitched together to create a 3D structure.
Local organizations are working on outreach programs to help connect people with needlearts like the San Francisco School of Needlework and Design and local EGA chapters.
“Here at San Francisco School of Needlework and Design we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in handwork,” said executive director Laura Maloney. “We have been pleasantly surprised by large number of millennials who attend our classes looking for a way to connect with their creativity through handwork and find joy in the meditative practice of needlework.”
As charming as Madonna Needle Works is, the store has ridden out numerous storms over the last 20 years: recessions, store relocations, and consumers scaling back on crafts due to time or money constraints.
And the recent sale of the Sutter Hill Shopping Plaza, Madonna Needle Work’s current location at 15790 Monterey Road, has hit Pharis especially hard because the strip mall’s increased property taxes has aggregated a 23 percent increase in rent and communal expenses.
Though the store boasts having the largest selection of hand-painted needlepoint canvases, cross-stitch and thread supplies in the U.S., it is in danger of closing—it is the last bastion of needleart shops within a 40-mile radius of Morgan Hill.
In order to meet the staggering rent increase, Pharis is reaching out to customers with a plea to raise $20,000 by February 2019 in order to keep the business afloat.
In exchange, for every $100 gift certificate purchased she is offering an additional 10 percent discount on merchandise. A Go Fund Me page Needlework – What a Great Hobby was started to reach a larger audience.
To keep current with trends, Pharis regularly attends The National Needlearts Association (TNNA) conventions to connect with leading needle artists who work with designers in creating home decor and clothing for the latest trends for pillows, chair seats, cushions and clothing, purses, and ornaments.
For the the adviced stitcher and the novice alike, Madonna Needle Works supplies materials for embroidery, cross-stitch, crewel, hardanger, silk ribbon, tatting, stumpwork, and goldwork. Pharis and her staff impart valuable advice in helping their clients to select the right fibers to create the desired texture and recommend advanced stitches to elevate the overall effect of the piece. Bottom line they help up your game. The tactile experience, guidance and customer service is that something you can’t get online or with a store with limited inventory.
Beginners often impulse shop at large craft chain stores and are faced with “how to” questions. Often they give up or leave the project unfinished. Initially YouTube videos are great resources, however don’t provide critiques on your tension, thread laying nor thread direction. Pharis recommends beginner classes as a foundation to learn the basics.
“Independent needlework shops matter to the continuation of the craft. They provide our students access to all types of interesting and unique fibers to inspire their creativity,” says Maloney.
With the holidays fast approaching, shoppers on the hunt for gift items will be pleased to learn some customer favorites, including hand painted canvases with Christmas or Halloween themes, stockings, holiday-themed canvases, Asian-themed canvases, three dimensional projects, home decorating projects, beautiful totes to personalize with needlepoint bands. Anyone in search of a gift for at the shop will find Pharis and her team helpful in directing them to items of interest or with help customizing a kit.
Gift certificates take out the guesswork however if the crafter you have in mind complains of eye strain or back pain, owner Pharis recommends lighted magnifying lamps, table or floor stands to ease their pain.
For those who want a quick project while traveling, ornaments, gift card holders to stitch, small kit projects are available. Kits are available for adult beginners and young children 6- to- 12-years-old. Pet lovers can have their favorite pet portrait converted to hand painted canvases starting at $250. Needlepoint dog collar kits are another favorite. Luxury items include imported linens for cross-stitch and goldwork supplies. Pharis has a network of finishers across the country who can transform finished canvases into pillows, framed works, decor pieces or ornaments.
Pharis recognizes with an aging stitching population, many needle arts are at risk of fading away so she is actively targeting millennials through social media and works with local chapters of EGA, conducts classes, round robins, trunk shows and donates supplies to local schools in an ongoing effort to revitalize interest in needle arts that has captivated earlier generations.
Classes offer guidance, build friendships and answer questions which are not covered online.
“The opportunity to create something beautiful with your hands while socializing with friends and family is rapidly disappearing,” explains Pharis, “There is a great joy when sharing ideas, learning new stitches, techniques and a deep satisfaction in completing something that you can look at, use and share.”
Madonna Needle Works is located at 15790 Monterey Road, Suite 300, Morgan Hill madonnaneedleworks.com.