– Story by Han Tammemagi Photography by Don Denton
One of life’s little pleasures is being initiated to something new. Last week, I felt a frisson of excitement as I entered the very-new-to-me world of needle art.
North Saanich’s Thea Dueck introduced me to a specialized form of needlework or stitching that produces beautiful art called samplers. Okay, I’m male and this activity, which requires considerable patience and talent using needle and coloured thread, is practised primarily by females. But I was drawn in, fascinated.
This form of needlework has a large, dedicated and ardent — almost fanatical — group of followers spread across the world. There are YouTube videos, Facebook and Instagram pages, specialized craft stores, online chat groups where designs and tips are shared, and much more.
Thea is a giant in this universe of needlework with an enormous following. One of the top designers in Canada, she works with four employees and supplies sampler kits and supplies to enthusiasts all over the world, although the bulk of her customers live in the United States.
Her firm, Victoria Sampler, offers about 350 unique designs made by Thea, a package of the necessary threads and explanatory instructions. Most importantly, the kit includes detailed charts and instructions showing how to stitch the scene. To my unpracticed eye, a chart looks like a complex array of hieroglyphics laid out on graph paper.
Thea’s home is decorated with numerous framed “samplers.” A sampler, I discovered, is needleworker jargon for a piece of cloth on which a scene is stitched, often including a poem or saying. I was impressed by the variety of natural landscapes, animals such as dogs and sheep, and people in various activities, as well as by the harmony of the design patterns.
Thea’s samplers were also inspirational and thoughtful, reflecting her warm, friendly and intelligent personality. I was drawn to a vertical sampler in a brown frame that reads:
Sweet gentle eyes,
a cold wet nose
and silken velvet ears
a heart as big as all outdoors
throughout the years
I LOVE MY DOG
Six smiling dogs of different breeds sit near the top of the sampler with geometric designs and scenes of dogs playing with people interspersed among the lines of text and special stitches. What a wonderful sampler for anyone who cherishes their dog.
Three-dimensional art is also possible. Embroidered pin cushions and pillows, for example, are common items. Thea makes “gingerbread” houses for Christmas décor with cloth walls that are decorated with stitched seasonal scenes.
Looking closer, I saw that stitching with coloured threads, also called floss, onto cloth to form patterns, scenes and script is painstakingly intricate work.
“It takes about 20 hours over a few weeks to stitch one like this,” Thea said, showing a framed sampler about 20-by-12 inches with an Easter scene. “Most stitchers follow a design. More difficult and time consuming, is designing a sampler, and then transferring the scene onto a chart.”
This is done using graph paper or a special computer program.
A significant part of Thea’s time is devoted to interacting with the needlework community. Fortunately, she has a very friendly, outgoing personality. Furthermore, she is computer-savvy and adept with social media. She has a website, a Facebook page and is constantly making YouTube and instructional videos. Thea also runs a chat room and recently started the online Victoria Sampler Academy with the goal of teaching advanced stitches (beyond the popular cross stitch). The annual VS Retreat where attendees stitch together with Thea is always sold out months in advance.
Born in Holland, Thea was introduced to stitching by her mother and grandmother. Moving to Victoria at age nine, she enjoyed music and art and was naturally creative. In 1988, at age 40, she discovered she had a knack for not only doing needlework but also for the painstaking job of drawing charts so others could make similar samplers.
“I do more than just stitching; I look for meaning and try to place immense detail in a small space.”
She started Lampost Designs to sell her kits, which focused on Victoria tourism; for example, a typical sampler featured the BC Legislative buildings. The Victoria Sampler company was born in 1993. Thea began to travel and teach more frequently and went to a few trade shows in the US.
“It was a wonderful time of discovery, learning the business and learning new stitches,” she enthused.
I was impressed that she had the skill and drive to transform her hobby into a paying business, since nothing beats earning a living from doing what you love. Fortunately, Thea’s partner, Richard, provided unstinting support and knowledge in marketing and business. Now an international business connected to the world through the internet, Victoria Sampler operates from her home on the Peninsula. Thea lives upstairs and downstairs are offices, storage rooms, video setups and more.
What a wonderful world I’d discovered. Thea and her creative, efficient and successful business, I thought, were a perfect subject for a sampler.
You can check out Thea’s website here.