#MakersMonday: Reta Evens Simons

Today’s maker has been a storied presence in my life since before my memory began. She entered the world as a wheat-farmer’s daughter on the Canadian prairie, and she came south to Pennsylvania on the smallest of chances – her father said she could go to school in America if it rained at harvest time. Many years later, she wrote the story of her life, naming it for that rain.

My grandmother’s expressive face on the cover of her memoir.

After the rain, after a long journey by train and years of schooling and servanthood in America, she married my grandfather Keneth. My father was their first child.

I remember a photo of Reta on my grandfather’s desk. It was probably taken in her 40s or 50s, on a visit to her brothers who were still on the farm in Alberta. In the photo, she’s standing near the grain elevator, wearing a cotton blouse and skirt. Perhaps she held a hat, or a purse, but what I remember about the photo is her hands. They looked just like my father’s hands, larger than I expected, veined, strong and capable. Reta could do almost anything with those hands.

She taught herself patternless dressmaking. My parents have a beautiful photograph of her wearing a blue evening gown, exquisitely tailored, with a blue satin train, that she designed and sewed. Dad told us stories of a dress she dyed, carefully shading the color from a deep violet at the hem that faded by degrees until it was so pale it was almost white at the top. Imagine that shading process – what a good eye she had, and a steady hand.

Reta taught herself to paint, too. Everyone in the family has at least one of her oil paintings, or a water color. Here is mine.

We also have things Reta embroidered. I have two cushions with birds embroidered on them – currently packed away because the corgi does not share my respect for heirloom embroidery. Another piece she embroidered hung on the wall in my parents’ house. The quote, as it turns out, is originally attributed to a Quaker missionary. I saw it on our wall, in her graceful stitching, every day of my life. That made it hers.

“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Etienne de Grellet, QUAKER MISSIONARY

Farm girl that she was, Reta also had a way with little animals, and she raised more than one abandoned baby squirrel. Just this year, an aunt sent me an old home-movie clip, with no sound, of my grandmother playing with one of these babies. It struck me, watching it, that it’s the only time I’ve seen her alive, in motion, more like the person Dad remembered with such affection. Reta died of cancer just a few months after I was born.

But of all the things she made, my father was the best. Reta raised a good man, brilliant, kind, appreciative. Like her, he strove to do all the good he could. He never forgot he could live each day only once.

At Reta’s graveside, the presiding minister read the parable of the talents, ending with “Well done, good and faithful servant.” God bless her, entering into the joy of her Lord.

#MakersMonday: Interview with The Cross Stitcher

When I was in second grade, I was given a cross-stitch project as a birthday present. It was a little prayer with Noah’s-Ark-themed ornamentation around the edges like a frame. I still have it. It’s still not finished. It is therefore with great respect and delight that I introduce you to Natalie at The Cross Stitcher, who not only begins to embroider, but finishes!

Tell us about your work. What do you create?

I’m a fiber artist! I create faith-inspired, contemporary embroidery art and weavings for the home. That’s a fancy way of saying, I stitch and weave crosses, which is exactly how the name, The Cross Stitcher, came to be. However, now everyone thinks I cross-stitch instead of embroider, (*face palm*). That’s what I get for trying to be punny! I also create Pascha basket covers, enamel pins, stickers and offer DIY step-by-step embroidery kits in my shop so that YOU can learn the beautiful art of embroidery as well!

HOw did you learn to do this kind of work?

Art has always been a very important part of my life. In my free time in college, you could often find me drawing or painting. There was a class in high school called “textile arts”. The name alone just sounded so intriguing. The class was full, and I wasn’t able to get in. Since then, I’d always wanted to try my hand at something with fibers. They just seemed so fun! I was drawn to the idea that you could actually touch your medium and constantly work with it in your hands. After a quick trip to Michael’s to buy some supplies, I started searching for videos of how to embroider. Everything I learned about embroidery and weaving, I learned from the internet! It didn’t take long for me to realize, “wait a minute…this is JUST like drawing or painting!” There’s still the basic concept of blending colors and filling in lines. Once I made that connection, I was off to the races.

Weaving came a little bit later. I had received a lap loom for Christmas 2016. However, I wanted to focus primarily on embroidery and starting my shop. When I get into something, I get INTO IT, so I actually asked my parents to keep it at their home until I was ready to use it, because I knew it would be too big of a temptation at my own place! Two years, 1 cat, 1 marriage, and a move to another state later, the loom made the long-awaited journey from Tennessee to Pennsylvania. I’ve been weaving for a little over a year now!

What do you find satisfying about being a “maker”?

Oh man, EVERYTHING. One of the reasons I started this business was because I couldn’t stop making things. Which is cool, until you have 40+ pieces of your own work in your small apartment…then it’s creepy. But, I just have this innate desire to create. It’s how I express my thoughts and emotions and relate to the environment around me. One day, I realized how truly thankful I am for this drive and ability to create. That’s when the idea of The Cross Stitcher, came to me. I wanted to do something that was an offering back to God, of the talents He’s given me, and to do so in a way that is glorifying to Him. That’s why almost every piece depicts the cross and why I designed the business to also function as a ministry, with 10% of all profits going directly to the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).

I incorporate so much color and boldness into every design, because I want to create pieces that resonate with both Christians and non-Christians alike. We are designed to appreciate beauty, and for some, I feel like this is a good common-ground starting place for understanding our faith.    

What’s your favorite memory associated with practicing your craft?

I love knowing who these pieces are going to. A woman recently commissioned an embroidery for her mother and she told me that when she opened it, she cried. It’s moments like that, that I can’t really fathom. It was a Latin cross with butterflies around it, and it touched her in a uniquely special way. Or when a Matushka with small children says that she’s been saving to purchase a piece for herself. It’s hard to wrap my head around someone wanting to do that with my work. Or to give it as a Christmas present. It’s moments like that, that are extremely humbling and help me to remember that my hands are merely the vessel, the means to do the work, all the beauty and inspiration behind the piece comes from God.

SHARE A PHOTO OF A FAVORITE PIECE, AND TELL US THE STORY THAT GOES WITH IT.

This was a piece I made during the Christmas break of 2017. I didn’t have much time to stitch the previous semester due to a heavy course load, and I was so excited to finally create again. These are the times when I feel like I am most creative. I started with my familiar outline of the Byzantine cross, but instead of stitching flowers on the outside like I normally do, I broke out the watercolors. There was no plan of what flowers to put where, or how the cross itself should look. I just started creating. This type of process is what gives me life as a creator and keeps me constantly excited about my work, Glory to God!