Being crafty is a big part of the holidays. Whether it’s a hand-knit sweater waiting under the tree, garlands of popcorn and cranberries or those ubiquitous decorations that schoolchildren make out of dried pasta, cardboard and gold spray-paint, homemade treasures abound at this special time of year.
This Christmas, Canada Post offers Canadians a chance to create crafty holiday cards and letters with a three-stamp issue featuring Christmas-themed work in cross-stitch, one of the oldest forms of embroidery.
Cross-stich dates back to roughly AD 500 and was discovered in Upper Egypt. Practiced in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-906) and in Spain under the Moors (756-1492), it’s said it was brought to England in the 16th century by Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. The earliest surviving sampler – stitched by Britain’s Jane Bostocke in 1598 – features flower and animal motifs, patterns and an alphabet missing the letters J, U, and Z, a common convention at the time.
Traditionally, cross-stitch was used to embellish dishcloths, household linens and doilies as a way of demonstrating family wealth and status. In the 17th century, as women learned how to write, cross-stitch samplers became a means of practicing their letters and numbers.
In cross-stitch, X-shaped stitches are arranged in a pattern to form a picture. Many different varieties of cross-stitch have developed over the centuries: Italian, Celtic, Irish, Ukrainian, Montenegrin and long-armed being a few examples. The double cross-stitch, also known as the Leviathan or Smyrna style of stitching, is the combination of a regular cross-stitch and an upright one.
Mercerized cotton floss, formed of six loosely twisted strands, is the most common choice for embroidery thread. Alternatives include pearl cotton, Danish flower thread, silk and rayon. Woolen, metallic and other specialty threads are used, most often in complicated works by expert stitchers.
Designer Hélène L’Heureux’s concept to create stamps depicting Christmas symbols drew from actual miniature works of embroidery. “The cross-stitch technique is well suited to this approach,” she explains. “The Christmas imagery needed to be quite minimal, since each piece of needlepoint contained a specific number of stitches and each stitch was carefully weighted. Also, each thread colour was deliberately chosen to achieve a particular effect. A lot of care went into the execution of these designs – for example, the distance between stitches had to be consistent and the pattern had to be precisely followed.”
Says Stamp Design Manager Alain Leduc, “It’s always a challenge to come up with fresh ideas for Christmas, because there is a certain set of images that say ‘Christmas’ to Canadians – and that’s it. But the interesting work happens when we take those traditional images and depict them in a way that is fresh and new – using different media or a different approach. In this issue, we not only brought in the medium of embroidery but also created stamps with imagery that crafty types can relate to and may want to try and recreate as decorations for their own tree. Perhaps we’ll be an inspiration to them.”
Three stamps are available in this issue for mailing within Canada, to the U.S., and internationally. The Official First Day Cover is cancelled in Winnipeg, the home of the Embroiderers’ Association of Canada.
Claire Belzil, who created the needlework featured on the stamps, connects the art of embroidery – and these designs – with the effort her female relatives put into making a house a home. “With these stamps, Canada Post gave me a chance to think about our grandmothers and mothers who took the time to decorate their clothes and houses with embroidery – even if the monetary value of these items fell short of the time it took to make them. These memories seemed particularly appropriate for Christmas.”