This story may have more loose ends than most. But though a tapestry not yet complete, the Pittsburgh needlepointing tale is beautiful even in design.
In 1951, Barbara Trellis, a self-described creative type, graduated from the previously known Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University.
“When the needlepoint craze started, I jumped on the bandwagon and took all sorts of courses,” said the octogenarian.
As Trellis’ mastery increased, she began teaching the millennia-old art form to students. First hired by Bell Telephone to provide instruction on sewing and millinery to interested employees, Trellis eventually ventured out as a freelancer. At one point, in the early 1970s, “I was teaching classes at three shops in the city,” she said.
Around 1982, Renée Ramo entered a Squirrel Hill store where Trellis was employed.
“I just decided to take a class, and I loved it,” Ramo said.
Several lessons later, the Squirrel Hill resident was hooked.
She joined the Embroiderers Guild (now called the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh) and began teaching needlepointing in her home and at McKeesport High School through an evening continuing educational program. Even during a residential hiatus in Chicago, Ramo tacked together an instructional stint.
“It’s a wonderful way to relax and a wonderful way to keep your hands moving,” she said.
Like her initial instructor, whom Ramo called “probably the best guru for Judaic needlepoint,” the septuagenarian devoted multiple hours to religious adornment. So too did Joan Weinberger.
During the “late 1980s,” the Upper St Clair resident served as Sisterhood president of Beth El Congregation.
As a project, the women’s group needlepointed covers for the suburban synagogue’s Torah scrolls. “Then a year later, we did a chupah (wedding canopy),” said Weinberger.
The Beth El undertakings were similar to Trellis’ Shadyside doings.
Beginning in 1980, the artisan forged a relationship with Rodef Shalom Congregation. Assisted by members of the Sisterhood, the partnership produced Torah mantles in 1982, four high-backed alter chairs in 1984 and Ten Commandments panels (each comprised of 10 panels measuring 50 inches wide by 12½ feet tall) in 1987, according to Martha Berg, the congregation’s archivist.
But of all of her makings — including a 6-foot tall and 8-foot wide menorah that took a year to complete — the banners in Levy Hall are among Trellis’ favorites. “They are so big, and they fill the whole back of the wall,” said Trellis, who went on to receive commissions from other area congregations.
“For those, I have received such accolades because of their size. But when people get up close, they see there’s so much more to it.”
Now 87, it has been three years since Trellis last stitched. “I can’t. Unfortunately, arthritis has taken over my fingers,” she said.
Apart from the fact that needlepointing provided a creative and professional outlet, the craft is “very relaxing,” said Trellis.
Atara Kentor agrees.
“You can sit down and spend time with yourself, think of what you want to do and what needs to be done,” said the Squirrel Hill resident.
Forty years after first learning from “some people in the dorm,” Kentor has produced talis and tefillin bags, challah covers and pillows for her many family members.
She even taught her grandsons, 9 and 7, how to take up the task.
There is an interest among younger people in needlepointing, said Loraine Kambic, an employee at Needle Point Breeze. Although some customers will venture into the Reynolds Street store “bringing in things to have them cleaned and redone,” there are also “people of all ages, including men,” who practice the craft, she said.
That is pleasing news to practitioners who have watched knitting and crocheting sometimes surpass needlepointing during cycles of popularity. But what those teetering on tatting or some other skilled embroidery should realize is that needlepointing has much to offer, said its proponents.
“It gives me enjoyment making these projects for myself and others,” said Weinberger, who apart from Judaica has created pocket books, purses and even area rugs for her house.
“Needlepointing becomes a social mechanism,” said Ramo. “People are face to face, talking to each other, and we’ve gotten so far away from that.”
But even when exercised solitarily, “on long car trips, it keeps me from backseat driving,” added Weinberger.
“I was a happy homemaker raising children, and when I started with the needlepointing, it started a career,” said Trellis, a past president of the Fiberarts Guild who said that when Rodef Shalom first approached her in 1980, she was “an unknown entity.”
In aiding all of the different people and projects throughout the congregations, “I enjoyed working on something that would outlive me.” She added, “It would be my legacy.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz