By Sue Fenwick
I should have guessed that Marsha Parker, owner of The Scarlet Letter, got her degree in English literature. Like Marsha, Hester Prynne, the protagonist in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, did fancy needlework for a living.
Marsha started stitching when she was 8 years old.
“My mother forced me to stitch stamped pillow cases,” she says. “They were stamped with chipmunks. I hated it.”
Much later, her sister gave her a kit of the Williamsburg Chase sampler and asked her to stitch it for her. She finished the kit for her sister, stitched another for her mother, another one for herself and yet another for her mother-in-law. It finally occurred to her that she could be stitching her own creations.
It was around 1980, and she was living in England. She found a pair of samplers in an antique shop for 8 pounds. She copied the chart, making her own diversions from the original. It was so easy that she thought, “Hmm, I should do something with this.”
She was reproducing charts and enjoying it immensely, but she still had to support herself. She was working in publishing as a picture editor. She also did freelance writing and published a novel, Ghosts.
Then the Scarlet Letter began to grow. She produces reproduction sampler kits of fine antique and historic samplers. The collection encompasses four centuries and many ethnic, social and artistic groups from 17th century aristocratic England to 19th century rural America.
The Scarlet Letter now ranks among the top companies in the industry. Marsha has completed “somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 kitted charts,” she says. She also sells graphs and kits in cotton and silk.
She buys most of the original samplers at auction.
“I usually absentee bid because I can’t stand the anxiety, and you always bid more than you should when you’re under the gun,” she says.
She has a few favorite auction houses around the world.
“I’m not a phone bidder, and I’m not impulsive,” she says. “Just slow and steady. That’s probably where 90 percent of mine come from.”
Today, Marsha lives on 100 acres near Sullivan, Wisconsin, with her alpacas, chickens and cats.
“I am a cat magnet,” she says.
She keeps 20 acres in crops, and the rest is woodlands.
She also lovingly cares for her significant other, Phil.
“We were going to get married, but he had a stroke about five and a half years ago, so now I am a caregiver,” Marsha says. “It was a very freakish thing that happened to him. We had six good years, traveling and scuba diving. He is half Italian and half French, so we would go to Italy and France and visit with his family there.
“Now he is in a wheelchair. It’s very sad. I live on the farm, and he lives in Madison. I am with him four days a week, and the rest of the time he has a nurse. It was really, really difficult in the beginning, but as time goes on, it’s my life, and I don’t have any bitterness.”
Marsha’s caring shows in her meticulously executed reproduction samplers. Not surprisingly, she finds that the most difficult designs are her favorites. Lydia Hart is right up at the top. She also favors A Parrot A Leopard A Lion; Emily Lucille; Memento Mori; and The Lady and the Castle in an Autumn Landscape.
A Parrot A Leopard A Lion
She starts a design by hand, she says.
“I do the preliminary sketches by hand because I like to stick my nose into the needlework, and you can’t do that on a program,” she says. “I go from there to a program. I use PCStitch Pro.”
Marsha uses Au Ver a Soie silks exclusively and likes the soie perlee and soie gobelins. Her favorite needle is called My Favorite Needle, which is no longer made, but the needle is short and blunt and moves through the linen easily. Marsha has six of these needles, which she thinks will keep her supplied for the rest of her life. She keeps them safely tucked away in a special case.
Though she used to use a handloomed linen, she now uses Zweigart or Wichelt, because the cost is not so prohibitive and she likes to stitch her models in the same fabric she puts in her kits. She has a Hardwicke Manor 6-inch round wooden hoop she has used her whole stitching life.
“I have the same hoop that my mother gave me when I was 8,” she says. “I have used it to stitch every piece I have ever done.”
The Lady and the Castle in an Autumn Landscape
Marsha stitches at home “in a big cushy pink chair with low arms, next to an open window overlooking my pond. I don’t use any magnification or special lights. I just use my naked eyeballs. I do have to wear glasses to do everything else in life.”
Marsha has four designs that should be ready by September. Hanna Catharina should be ready this month. The original (described on her website as “a finely stitched German sampler beginning with a single row of alphabets above an immensely intricate collection of symbolic cross stitched motifs”) is on 55-count linen.
Nathaniel Hawthorne eloquently described the scarlet letter Hester Prynne stitched. It seems a proper flattery for the gorgeous work of Marsha Parker: “It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy.”
Sue Fenwick is a freelance writer who lives in Springfield, Missouri. She writes every Tuesday.