In Stitches: Celebrating an Intricate Craft

Longtime Raleigh resident Nancy Brenneman is always stitching — and more than 100 of her needlepoint ornaments adorn her Christmas tree.
by Katherine Snow Smith

Nancy Brenneman is always stitching on something. The longtime Raleigh resident started with needle and thread when she was around 9 years old in Alexandria, Virginia, where she grew up. Her parents collected antiques for their home and knew all about needlepoint — they even stitched the seats of their dining room chairs — and passed along their expertise to their daughter. Over the years, she’s stitched cummerbunds for her husband, rugs with Peter Rabbit scenes while pregnant with her two children, and stockings for her two grandchildren, along with countless graduation presents and baby gifts. 

But her biggest collection is her handmade Christmas ornaments. Brenneman started making them about 15 years ago, whenever she had downtime — in the carpool line, in the evenings, watching sports, pretty much anywhere. 

Today, her Christmas tree is filled with more than 150 detailed ornaments. “I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I love the different stitches and beading for the Santas. There are great ways to do a beard, and you can do puffs for the fur and cinch knots that give depth and texture,” Brenneman says. “I like to stitch the snowflakes with a frosty, metallic white
so they look icy.”

Brenneman is always on the lookout for ornament canvases on her travels, whether it’s a Christmas pattern or a souvenir of the destination, like a colorful cowboy she picked up on a family vacation to Big Sky, Montana, and the Eiffel Tower she found in Paris. “I have a lot of energy, so people ask me how I sit still for so long,” says Brenneman. “Stitching is very relaxing to me.” 

The best canvases don’t require Brenneman to go far, she says:, the brick-and-mortar store on Hillsborough Street, has a great selection. In addition, Brenneman has attended several needlepoint retreats hosted by shop owner Nancy Young. “From each of those, I have a loose-leaf notebook explaining some of the stitches,” says Brenneman. “There are hundreds of stitches and some of them are very involved.”

Her son Carter Brenneman remembers watching his mom make a cummerbund for his dad — it featured an alligator with a red bow on its tail — when he was around 5 years old, and many of his favorite memories with his mother involve stitching. “Every year we go to the Masters. There’s a lot of downtime, so while we’re sitting on the 6th or 10th green, she pulls out whatever project she’s working on,” he says. “It’s always a good conversation starter with those sitting around us.”

Carter has more than 20 needlepointed belts and a handful of cummerbunds made by his mother. “I wear them with pride since I know the love and hours that went into them,” he says.  “It means a lot more to have a belt made with her hands.” 

This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue of WALTER magazine