Arts & Crafts / Be Creative!

Retro Tea Towels: A Little Basic Embroidery

In my 20s, before I could afford a place in Manhattan, my first few years in NYC were spent sharing a house in Jackson Heights, Queens with my friends Nyna and Wilbur. They were fun years, and the local Indian restaurants were amazing. We got robbed regularly (six times in one year), but frankly, we didn’t have a lot to steal.

I took the 25 minute subway back and forth to Manhattan at least once a day, and I used the time well. I read plenty of novels, or soundtracked my life with tapes on my Walkman (yes, my Walkman). And for a couple of years, I used this transit time to work on counted cross stitch designs.

For those who don’t know, cross stich uses a fabric that’s woven loosely. You can see space in between the weave, and your threaded needle is pulled through that space. Any number of stitches are used, but the most common stitch is a “cross” stitch. It looks like an X.

I had a thing for vintage floral patterns, eschewing kittens and puppies and sweet homey slogans. I think all of my finished products eventually ended up hanging in bathrooms. Trust me when I tell you that not a lot of people do needlework on the subway. It’s dirty down there and pretty hard to keep the work clean.

I put this little pastime down in my late twenties. And I recently realized that it’s just about the last time I’ve picked up a needle for any reason other than to sew an errant button on a shirt.


A task for this badge asks scouts to learn some common stitches and use them to embroider a project.

I really had to start from scratch. I remembered almost nothing from my cross stitch days. I bought myself an embroidery hoop, some needles, and some thread, and I knew I could turn to the Internet to learn the basic stitches.

But as I scoured appropriate stores for patterns and ideas, I got depressed. I was loathe to stitch a sampler or a pillow with quaint expressions of love, or images of dogs and cats and ponies. I was looking for “retro cool,” and all I could find was “kitsch.”

Until, that is, I stumbled across the “animated kitchenware” collection of Aunt Martha’s Hot Iron Transfers.

Simple vintage retro: exactly what I wanted.

They were sufficiently goofy and retro for my taste, perfect for utilitarian kitchen tea towels.  Aunt Martha must’ve been reading my mind. Turns out the old gal sells some old school towels just ripe for the task at hand.

Sturdy, old-school, and fabulous. They’re *not* stain-resistant, but a little bleach in the laundry works perfectly.

The iron on pattern gives you no guidance on what stitches to use, so it was up to me to play around with the stitches. Given that I wanted to create utilitarian towels, I didn’t want too much stitching. I wanted fun colors and a little oomph. So I bought an embroidery hoop, some needles and thread, and went to town.

Here are some close-ups, and ever stitch referenced below is illustrated here []:

First thing you’ll see is an homage to that cross stitch with those purple x’s. The black border, often clumsily executed, was done mostly as a back stitch, with a little chain stitch, too. The purple/green handle, the top of the kettle, the water droplets, and other fills were a simple satin stick fill. The orange legs were a bit too wide for this stitch, but a Romanian stitch did the trick (it’s kind of like two rows of satin sticking with a line down the middle). The center of the eyes and feet are French knots.

The only real difference on this second one is the use of a long and short satin stitch to fill up that green lid. I didn’t know there really was such a thing when I began, but, again, this website was the perfect simple tutorial. []

It took me MUCH longer to do these simple towels than I thought it would. I stitched them while watching TV and sitting on planes (an homage to my subway days, I guess). Here they are, hanging in the kitchen:

Ta-da. There they sit. And we use them all the time.

Yes, goofy sums ’em up, but use them non-stop. I love the durability of Aunt’ Martha’s towels. They are far from stain-resistant, but an occasional cycle with bleach will bring the white back to new.

As fond as I am of them, I can’t say that I really loved doing this work. It’s not to say I’ll never throw some fabric in a hoop again, but I’ll have to be pretty danged inspired to do it. If you’ve got some ideas for inspired/inspiring embroidery projects you’ve done or plan to do, I’d love to hear about them.


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