Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A man in stitches


His fingers flew with ease across the cream-colored square of mesh linen.

A needle between his index finger and thumb, he carefully weaved the colored thread through and back the tiny openings in the cloth. Through and back, through and back - over and over.

“And that is how it is done,” said Jim Oughterson. “Cross stitching is nothing more than ‘Xs’ - this is not difficult, not rocket science.”

But a look around Jim’s and his wife Kay’s Washington Court House home reveals that his cross stitch talents might just be closer to rocket science than he thinks. It certainly doesn’t look easy.
Throughout the Oughterson home are framed examples of intricate, detailed cross stitch work that Jim has done over the past 23 years. Each one looking more like an oil painting than a cross stitch of cloth and colored thread.

Jim appears an unlikely person to master such a delicate skill.

Back in 1989, he and his two young daughters were renting an apartment while he served as superintendent at the Caldwell Exempted School District in Noble County.

Jim said that when his work day was done, “I was just coming home and falling asleep. I didn’t like that.” Jim said he needed something to do, something to stimulate his mind and concentration.

“I saw my daughter, who was nine at the time, doing cross stitch and I thought, ‘I can do that.’” So he did. After serving 10 years as superintendent, he retired in 2003 and return to Washington Court House, where he and Kay call home. He had previously been assistant superintendent at Miami Trace, where Kay retired after teaching 32 years.

Looking back to that time when he first did cross stitch, Jim said, “I thought I was doing something productive with my life. It also teaches you patience.”

He said his first cross stitchings were “just caricatures of little girls” and he gave these to his daughters, who he gives a lot of credit for getting him started.

The Cross Stitch Passion
From that day in 1989 when he did his first simple cross stitch pattern, Jim has done between 75 and 100 cross stitchings. And while his first ones might have taken just a few hours, his more elaborate examples - and there are many of these - can take months and 200 hours of work.

And of all those cross stitchings, he has sold only three.

He sold one to local art dealer George Stove for his gallery; one went to Dr. Doug Martin; and a third was done on commission by an Ohio woman who had heard of his “famous cross stitch work.”

“She asked how much I would charge, and I told her, ‘How about $1.50 an hour?’ and she agreed. It took about 200 hours to do.”

Most of his cross stitchings he displays in his home or gives away for charity auctions. His Christmas holiday cross stitchings are highly prized at events such as the annual Washington Kiwanis Club Christmas Auction. Jim, who is a Kiwanian, usually stitches and donates four to five such works of art each year for the auction, all beautifully framed. They often fetch several hundred dollars each for charity.

“The Santa one (a popular cross stitching subject) took about 150 hours to do,” he said.

But which of his many cross stitch works took the most time and effort? The purple iris, his favorite. “That one had DMC and Anchor brand floss (thread). It took about four and a half months to do and more than 300 hours.”

How Does He Do This?
Sitting on a couch in his family room with the afternoon light shinning in from large picture windows on each side of a fireplace, Jim said, “I usually sit like this, with the TV on,” demonstrating his cross stitch style.

“Cross stitch is nothing more than a series of Xs. There are different ways of doing it, but this is how I do it. I am a ‘back-stitcher.’ That is a fancy way of saying ‘outlining.’”

He said this back stitching gives the picture its shape and form and texture.

The backing material, the ‘canvas’ for the cross stitch, is usually cotton, a blend, or linen. Linen is the most expensive.

All - or at least almost all - cross stitching results from a pattern. The pattern, which can be bought either in stores or online, gives a roadmap for what colors are used for each stitch on the sheet. He said using a pattern is part of the “experience” of cross stitching.

“I start in the center of the pattern. To find where that is on the material, you just fold it into four sections, and when you open it, the point in the middle is the center,” he said.

“I work from the center and then move down. I am right-handed, but I stitch like I am a left-handed person,” he pointed out.

An avid, and frequent golfer, Jim says he still tries to cross stitch every day. “But I don’t cross stitch at night much. I do it more in the morning and afternoons, because of the light,” he said.

The Beauty is in the Details
So how does he get his cross stitchings to look so much like paintings?

“The material goes from 11 count to 18 count, and in linen, it goes to a 36-count,” he said. An “18-count” for example means there are 18 holes in the material per linear inch. The more the holes to thread through, the greater the density. “The higher the count, the more it gives the look of a painting.”

And one more thing: He points out that you don’t call it “thread” - it is technically called “floss” when you are cross stitching.

He said the more complicated patterns can take more than 150 hours of work. And he never repeats a pattern more than once.

Once he has finished the cross stitch, he then hand washes it - in cold water, using Ivory dishwashing detergent. He adds white vinegar to help “set’ the colors.

He then irons it.

Jim is quick to admit that he does not do the framing himself. He works with someone else to professionally frame the cross stitch, which he says in many ways is the most important part of all.
“It is all about the presentation. The matte color and frame are always a personal preference, but I have seen some great cross stitchings that have had terrible framing,” he said. “People have to know what they are doing when framing.”

Surprisingly, he has taken his cross stitch art to the Ohio State Fair competition only once. He won third place. “I was thrilled,” he said. At the Fayette County Fair, he is more successful. He wins something almost every year, and has won Best in Show seven or eight times.

Now Let’s Give it a Try
What advice does Jim have for those wanting to give cross stitch a try?

“I would start out by going to a store that carries a lot of cross stitch material. The people who work there can be very helpful,” he said. He also recommended starting out simple.

“Start with a simple pattern, one that isn’t too complicated or has too many colors,” he suggested.
He also said, “Don’t be intimidated by it.”

Does cross stitch require any certain skills?

“I would say the only skill you really need is patience.” When asked how he would rank his own cross stitch skills, he thought a second, “Average.”

And he also urged people to not fret or worry too much. Nodding toward his many framed cross stitchings on his walls, he said, “And there isn’t a picture here that doesn’t have a mistake in it.”
Jim said that as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer people cross stitching.

“It seems that it is getting harder and harder to get new patterns, and there are fewer and fewer craft stores in business where you can get the floss,” he said.

Kay Has Her Favorites
And what does Kay think about his cross stitching hobby?

“I think it is very therapeutic for him. When he gets stressed out, he can pick up his cross stitch and it releases the stress,” she said. “I think that is why he started it in the first place.”

She and Jim have been married 21 years. When asked if at any time the hours he spends on cross stitch bothers her, she was quick to say, “Not really. Jim has always had the right priorities and knows that when other things need to be done, he does them. He has always been very considerate about that.”

Kay said she knew going into their marriage that he has this hobby. “I was really just curious about it. The one thing that surprised me was how much time it takes to do them.”

Kay is very proud of her husband’s cross stitch pieces, and the reputation he has gained for his works, especially the holiday ones that she says are her favorites. But has she ever considered taking up Jim’s cross stitch passion?

“Well, I would like to, but I don’t think I have the patience,” she admitted. “I am pretty high-strung. My mind is always racing ahead on things to do.” She says she may not have the patience, but she does have a deep appreciation for the skill needed to create what she calls works of art. ”They look like paintings.”

Her husband believes that her favorite of his cross stitchings is “Nantucket Rose,” and she agrees that is one of her favorites. But she says she has a number of “favorites” including the Christmas pieces and one showing a girl reading under a tree.

What Kay hates about his hobby is simple - parting with the cross stitch pieces. “I hate seeing him give them away. I want to keep them all.

But our home just can’t accommodate them all.”

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