Growing up, Maureen Price of Eldersburg watched a bit disdainfully as her mother and grandmother transformed small scraps of fabric into beautiful quilts.
"I thought there's no way in hell I will ever sit there and do all those tiny stitches," Price says with a throaty laugh.
Still lithe and lean at 43, her dark hair glossy on her shoulders, looking younger than her years in faded jeans and chunky, high-heeled black boots, it's hard to imagine a woman like Price bent over a quilt frame, needle in one hand and a well-worn thimble covering one of the dark-painted fingernails on the other.
But there she sits, surrounded by needles, embroidery floss and other modern accouterments of stitchery, turning out wee Christmas ornaments, one by one. She follows a small pattern on a graph in front of her and then mentally transfers the cross-stitcher's hieroglyphics of slashes, X's, dots and hyphens, transforming a plain piece of fabric and some red and white thread into a tiny candy cane.
Like Price herself, the setting for this homespun scene doesn't seem, at first glance, to ring true. We think of needlewomen at home, sitting in front of a roaring fire, or at least a blaring television. They should be plain, with at least a touch of gray in their hair. Their lives should revolve around pursuits similar to the quiet nature of needlework: reading, playing the piano, feeding the cat.
But on this day, Price and 19 other women are seated in one of the well-appointed conference rooms of the Turf Valley Resort and Country Club outside Ellicott City. It's the group's fourth annual "My Friends and Eye Stitcher's Weekend," a retreat for modern needlewomen begun by members of the Westminster-based My Friends and Eye stitcher's guild.
The women have just finished a sumptuous supper of beef bordelaise, roasted vegetables and homemade rolls -- though majority opinion is that the beef was a little tough. They are laughing, with gusto, about whether this will be the year they finally watch the infamous John Wayne Bobbitt adult video -- "after the reconstructive surgery," a blushing Denise Vizzini confides with a giggle -- that Ples Henline claims to bring each year.
But soon, after raspberry nut cake and coffee, the video debate, as usual, is abandoned, and the women return to the I-shaped conference table and their stitching.
It's the stitching -- and the knitting, the crocheting and the pulled thread work -- that brought them here after all. This now annual "pajama party" was only a notion until Linda Wirt finally did something about it. She began calling area resorts. Williamsburg and Ocean City were fast crossed off the list; too many distractions. But Turf Valley, just minutes from most guild members, has proven perfect.
For $105, the stitchers are served -- served, they all emphasize -- three meals. They sleep in rooms that blessedly do not include spouses, children or pets. And they stitch until their hands and eyes give out.
After the chores
In the Bible, the Psalms tell of "a time to rend, and a time to sew." These women usually have neither.
For 363 days a year, they are wives and mothers; aunts and daughters. They serve meals and keep the house clean, chauffeur children to social and school activities and take elderly parents to important doctor's appointments.
Many have jobs that demand 40 hours of their week and then some. They are attorneys and administrative assistants, technical support staff and small business owners who go in early and stay late, often carrying work home and tackling it through tired eyes after nightly chores.
Fifty-one weekends of the year, some must cater to college-age sons and daughters while others direct scout camp-outs or sweat their way through youth baseball, soccer and football games.
Almost daily these women -- whose ages range generally from late 30s to mid-50s, along with a a septuagenarian or two -- rearrange their schedules to suit someone else's needs. They are used to the sacrifices by now and make them without much protest -- though they sometimes still marvel among themselves about husbands who direct complex decisions of international corporations, but can't remember where they left their car keys, or children who speak long and loud about striking out on their own, but apparently believe that means mom still does all the laundry.
It is for all these reasons that the 36 hours they set aside for themselves each year have become so sacred. "My Friends and Eye Stitcher's Weekend" is their artistic marathon -- the one chance they get to create in peace.
"You can sit and do this all day and no one interrupts you," said Darlann Kauffman, a 53-year-old mother and grandmother. She and her husband own their own construction company. When she is not tending to the paperwork and bookkeeping, answering phones and scheduling jobs, Kauffman cross stitches and knits, quilts and paints. Still, there's never enough time. Here, it's different.