Michelle Arsenault's grandmother taught her how to embroider samplers with neat little stitches. The Laurel native turned her love of stitchery into a career, first in a shop she opened on Main Street in 1989 and later with an online business, stitchingpretty.com, which now attracts needleworkers from around the world.
But once a year for the past 19 years, Arsenault turns the hallways of Montpelier Mansion into needlework nirvana, filling table after table with an exhibit of intricately designed embroidery, crewel, counted cross stitch and needlepoint works.
The goal, Arsenault said, is to encourage the next generation of stitchers, just as her grandmother encouraged her.
"It's an art but it's a lost art," she said.
NeedleArt 2014 continues at Montpelier through Nov. 30. In addition to the displays, six artisans who help organize the annual competition have their own wares for sale and a NeedleArt Tea is set for Saturday, Nov. 15 at 1:30 p.m.
The competition often draws more than 100 works, though this year, Arsenault said, "we capped out at 94."
The theme for this year's competition was "In honor of ..." One room's works include needlework done by someone who is deceased, as well as commemorations of births, weddings and deaths. One piece recalls the late Gail Reinhardt, a needlework designer whose patterns were sold on stitchingpretty.com who worked as the administrator for the Laurel Board of Trade.
Next year's theme is "With needle and thread: Celebrating 20 years of needle art."
"I'm vague on the themes because I want to see what the stitchers are going to come up with," Arsenault said.
All the work must be created with hand-held threaded needle, although there have been knitted and crocheted entries in the past. A best-in-show winner, a red table covering, was created in a style of lace-making that combines crocheting and needlework, known as Romanian point lace. Quilting is not accepted. "That's a whole other exhibit," Arsenault said.
Most competitors are women, but children and men have taken part in past exhibits.
Every year, judges pore over each piece, sizing up each tiny stitch with magnifying glasses.
Arsenault, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Needlework Retailers Association, asks two or three local needlework industry members to judge, often from this group. At the end of a day of judging, ribbons are given for best in show, first place and honorable mention. Visitors to the exhibit have an opportunity to vote for a people's choice ribbon, which will be presented to the winner at the end of the show, Arsenault said.
The exhibit draws about 300 to 400 visitors during its month-long run, Arsenault said.
Arsenault went to Montpelier in 1995 and suggested sponsoring a needlework competition and exhibit. She thought it would be a nice fundraiser for the historic Georgian mansion.
"This house is just the most awesome," Arsenault said, adding that the setting is good for traditional arts.
That first year was a great success with more than 200 entries. Arsenault didn't realize at the time that one exhibit would lead to 19 more — with plans already in the works for the 20th NeedleArt Exhibit in 2015.
"You start something, you volunteer for life," she said, with a twinkle in her eye.
Over the years, Arsenault has learned how to streamline the process. The first year, she was up until 2 a.m., setting up the display of framed needlework.
It still takes up to three days to set up, plus a day for the judging. But now, Arsenault said, she only has to work from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"There are no more 2 a.m. nights," she said.
Her husband, Mark, and twin sons, Michael and Matthew, 24, pitch in, setting up displays.
"It's like a family thing," she said.
Arsenault's mother, Monica DeLorenzo, helps out during the show, too. Crocheted lace pieces made by Arsenault's grandmother are used in the gift shop display.
Arsenault, whose background is in nursing, has been a member of Laurel Rescue Squad since 1980. That's where she met her husband, also a nurse; they were married in 1987.
Despite her medical background, business was in her genes. Arsenault's father, Mike DeLorenzo, owned a gas station that her mother continued operating after his death.
The needlework competition is only one of several projects that bring Arsenault back to Montpelier. Next month, she will decorate a tree with pieces of her silver jewelry for the Ornament Emporium. The ornament sale, held Dec. 8 to 23, is combined with holiday decorations in the mansion.
"One of the best times of the year is when people come to see the needlework," said Ann Wagner, office manager for Montpelier. Not only is the work outstanding, she said, it represents a significant part of women's education years ago.
"Needlework was very important for their daily living," Wagner said. "Samplers are how young girls learned their alphabet, reading and the skills they'd need for the rest of their lives."
Over the years, styles of needlework have changed and, Arsenault said, she's seen plenty of changes in the past 19 years. Samplers have gotten popular again, and a style known as the Quaker sampler that features simple color schemes and cross stitching has attracted a lot of attention. Arsenault said many stitchers are also picking up a trend of using overdyed threads and fabrics with varying shades of color.
"There's needlework for all ages," Arsenault said.
Organizing the annual competition helps keep Arsenault at the top of her game.
"It keeps me focused on needlework," she said.
Arsenault might have been a little disappointed in the quantity of entries this year — but not the quality. "The pieces this year, all of them, are awesome pieces," she said.
The exhibit is open daily (closed Wednesdays and Thanksgiving Day) 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $6 for ages 19-59, $5 for seniors, $3 for ages 5-18.