September 18, 2019
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Cross stitched burlap item remains a mystery

Ardeana Hamlin | BDN
Ardeana Hamlin | BDN
This cross stitch on burlap was found in a thrift shop in Seward, Neb., 20 years ago.

When I lived in Lincoln, Neb., in the 1990s, one of my favorite pursuits was haunting thrift shops in the city and in the small towns surrounding it. I never had any particular quest in mind, but my eye usually snagged and held to vintage needlework and supplies. No surprise there.

One of my best finds was the cross stitch textile whatever-it-is I found in a tiny thrift shop on Main Street in Seward, Neb., on the early spring day I drove to Branched Oak Lake, a man-made body of water where as many as a dozen bald eagles roosted in the cottonwood trees along the lake’s edge, scanning for yummy waterfowl, no doubt.

The textile, which cost 50 cents, measures roughly 24 inches by 17 inches and is made of rough burlap, the kind that once might have held grain, though nothing about the piece indicates the material might have served that purpose. The piece is sewn by machine into what looks to me like a pillowcase, which seems unlikely since burlap is not a fabric that invites one to loll on it. The item’s seams are bound with bias tape to prevent fraying and the open end is finished on the inside with a band of brown satin ribbon nearly 1 inch wide. The ribbon has two places where pieces were added, as if the seamstress had measured incorrectly the amount of ribbon she needed to finish the opening, cut it and had to “piecen” it, as my mother would have said, to make it the correct length.

But before this bag or pillowcase, or whatever it is, was stitched together, one side was decorated with cross stitch images in red, brown, blue, green, white, pink, orange and gray. Some of the yarn used for the embroidery is worsted weight and some is sock weight.

The maker stitched the letters M and E on it — which spoke loudly to me because ME is the abbreviation for Maine, the state I was homesick for, though the letters are, perhaps, the maker’s initials. The maker also stitched the number 1912, which may be the year the piece was embroidered. There is no way to tell.

The largest figure on the piece is a donkey or mule wearing a saddle and yellow bridle with a green lead line that appears to be fastened to a figure shaped like a squirrel’s tail. On either side of the donkey are figures of ducks, one done in two shades of green, the other just green. Along the short seam of the piece, placed so it appears to be standing on its head, is a running rabbit done in gray. A windmill in yellow and green is beside it. The maker also stitched two green squirrels (one with an orange and green tail) holding acorns, a small white dog, a small red bird, a green and red tree, a green and red vine and a small rabbit done in several shades of pink and maroon, colors that remind me of the ombre yarns of the early 1960s. The lower left hand corner has an L-shaped band design, vaguely floral in intent, done in blue, red and yellow. The designs, especially the donkey, remind me of designs popular in the 1940s.

The reverse side of the embroidery is neatly done, which makes me think it wasn’t stitched by a child.

In general, the piece looks as if it were stitched by someone who knew how to embroider and sew, but whose yarn types and color choices were limited, and for whom fine fabrics, such a linen, were not easy to come by.

Whenever I look at the piece, questions come to mind: What exactly is it; who stitched it; did she live on a farm near Seward; did the windmill signify that her family originated in Holland; did she have a dog; was her first name Mary; what was her life like?

Did she stitch the piece to while away a long winter evening when the determined, frigid wind blew relentlessly out of Canada across the Nebraska prairie, burying the lonely road to her house in drifts 10 feet deep?

None of my questions will ever be answered, but I like to think of her, the lamp burning brightly on the kitchen table, the stove throwing off heat, as she counted the threads and placed the stitches, making something pretty to brighten her house out of a rough, drab piece of burlap.

Of this I am certain — she had no idea her embroidery would find its way to Maine and survive into the 21st century.


Cindy Proulx, case aide at Child and Family Services, an office of the Maine State Department of Human Services, invites knitters, crocheters and quilters to donate handmade hats, scarves, mittens and blankets for the staff’s Holiday Gift Project to benefit children of all ages and families in need in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. For information, contact Proulx at 561-4220, toll-free at 800-432-7825, or email

The Wednesday Spinners, who have been meeting for 37 years, will show their work during November at the Blue Hill LIbrary. The show will include handspun yarn, knitted and woven accessories, home furnishings and felted masks. The group will demonstrate spinning 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14. An artists’ reception open to all will be held 3-4 p.m. the same day.

Children and teens are invited to the Portland Public Library, 4-5 p.m. the first and third Monday of each month to Sit & Knit. Bring a work in progress or start something new. The sessions are open to those of all skill levels. Basic knitting instruction will be provided. Organizers say they have plenty of yarn to share, but bring your own knitting needles. Crocheters are encouraged to attend. Children under 8 must be accompanied by an adult.

Call Ardeana Hamlin at 990-8153 or email Don’t forget to visit her blog at

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