NEWPORT, Maine — In the first of more than 100,000 steps, Donna Provost concentrates on the eyes.
Stitch by tiny stitch, she pushes a needle up through a microscopic hole then plunges it down through another. Even with a bright light and a thick magnifying glass mounted between Provost and her work, the pinprick-size holes are so close together it would take scientific equipment to measure the distance. The first of 125,440 stitches in the pattern is barely a speck in an expanse of white.
Before long, one of the eyes begins to emerge from threads in 18 different colors. Up close, squinting and with your nose almost touching it, Provost’s work is rows of tiny x’s. From a few feet away, it’s as clear and vivid as a photograph.
“Once you’ve got one eye done, you’ve really got to get that other eye in there,” said Provost, describing the process she used to create cross-stitched portraits of all eight of her grandchildren and both parents. “I like to do the eyes first. That way they’re watching you while you finish the rest.”
Each portrait consumed more than 800 hours, a fact Provost knows because she has kept track of her progress. All told, the 10 portraits contain 1.25 million stitches covering more than 22 square feet, a mind-boggling accomplishment that took Provost more than 8,000 hours to complete.
“Doing this might be a job for someone else, but for me it’s relaxation,” said the 69-year-old. “What I want is something that’s hard to do.”
The cross-stitched portraits represent only a fraction of Provost’s body of work, which includes countless crocheted and knitted pieces and several dozen quilts. In every piece, the theme is the same: attention to detail.
“Easy projects I don’t want any part of,” she said. “When I’m doing this, I’m alone with myself. I enjoy my peace and quiet.”
Provost’s love of crafting started at age 7 with the support of her “Auntie Bea.” The first thing she ever crocheted was a scarf. By age 9 she had made herself a white cardigan sweater with roses on it.
“I’ll never forget that sweater,” she said.
A neighbor liked it so much that she paid Provost $10 to make another — $5 for yarn and $5 profit.
That sweater was one of the only pieces Provost has ever sold. She has given quilts and blankets to virtually everyone in her family and most of her friends. When she finished therapy earlier this year after having double knee replacements, she gave quilts to three physical therapists.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give people gifts,” she said. “You make them with love.”
Some of Provost’s pieces mean more to her than others, such as a lacey, cream-colored blanket of very fine cotton. The thread, a gift from Provost’s sister, was 80 years old when she made the blanket 20 years ago. “That blanket is probably my masterpiece,” said Provost.
Asked what keeps her going, Provost said she never starts a new project until the one she’s working on is finished, and she never goes to bed without knowing what she’ll accomplish the next day. Using those rules, she has devoted an average of five hours a day to crafting for more than 60 years.
After she finishes her current project — a cross-stitched pillow with a flowery design — Provost will turn back to quilting. For the first time since she was 9 years old, she’s considering selling them to fund more projects. Among those projects is a lifelong ambition to learn how to paint, but first things first.
Since finishing the cross-stitched portraits of her grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren have been born. She’s waiting for them to grow old enough so their features will be recognizable for their entire lives. Then she’ll have another 900,000 stitches to sew, each one a tiny piece of what will someday be her legacy.
“I want all of them to have a little piece of me forever,” she said. “If you have a goal in life, it’s never too late to reach it.”