Madeleine Elizabeth Harwell is a junior in high school and has her own line of needlepoint canvases. She started doing needlepoint when she was nine-years-old.
Photos courtesy of Madeleine Elizabeth
When Florida resident Madeleine Harwell was nine-years-old she took up needlepoint. It was a rather unusual hobby for a fourth-grader, but Harwell spent her summers hanging around the yarn shop where her mother worked, and when the store began to stock needlepoint supplies, they piqued her interest. Soon she came to know more about the craft than the adult employees at the store.
“Ladies would come and I would ask her if they needed any help. They’d ask for an adult to help, so I would go get an adult and bring them back. And she would tell the adult what she needed and the adult would ask me to go get it and ask me to help them figure out where everything was,” she recalls. “And often it led the ladies to be quite shocked that I could help them so much.” Those summers helping out in the yarn shop were the first of many experiences Harwell would have in the coming years as a very young participant in a craft typically associate with a much older generation.
Madeleine’s artwork was selected by the Embracing Our Differences art competition twice. Here, she poses in front of her illustration, “March to Your Own Beat.”
Recognition for her art
But Madeleine Harwell was used to standing out. That same year her illustration, “Bee Unique,” was one of 48 out of 6,000 entries selected by Embracing Our Differences, a Sarasota, Florida-based non-profit as part of their annual art contest. The piece was blown up into a large billboard and displayed in a public park for everyone to admire. Harwell would go on to be the first person to ever be accepted into the contest twice when, in seventh grade, her illustration “March to Your Own Beat” was chosen out of 10,000 entries.
This success led to some local commissions, some of which were rather ambitious. A student from her school’s dad got in touch and asked if Harwell could design and paint several murals for his chef incubator business. “It was definitely a learning curve because it was so large,” Harwell says. She took pictures of the building on her iPad, then drew the mural in Procreate. She climbed scaffolding and painted 10 hour days in order to complete the project. “I used my body to measure things,” she recalls. “And as far as straight lines I would use the scaffolding and hold my arm against it and use that to make the lines.”
The specialness of painting needlepoint
Painting a needlepoint canvas requires a different, but no less challenging set of skills and Harwell says she enjoys applying her talent on a smaller scale just as much.
When the needlepoint portion of the yarn store where her mother worked was sold, Harwell’s mother started working at the new shop and brought Madeleine along. The new owner’s daughter had her own line of hand-painted canvases and suggested that Madeleine, who was 14 at the time, try painting some, too, just to try out a new artistic medium. Her deep understanding of the craft proved tremendously helpful.
“It’s different from painting on an actual canvas,” Harwell explains. “For an actual canvas you use large brush strokes, you use a lot of paint to get texture. But for needlepoint, you really have to focus on the shape, the color, and the shading and basically where your lines and color falls because of the thread and keeping the needlepointer in mind as far as they’re going to need to be able to stitch this. At the same time, I try to keep in mind a balance of small spaces and large spaces in my pieces so that people have room to do stitches so that they don’t do three of a stitch and have to stop so that they have a large area to test out stitches. So it’s a lot of different elements that you don’t get with other media.”
Many people new to needlepoint don’t realize that every needlepoint canvas is hand-painted. First, the artist creates the original. Then, it’s sent out to be replicated. Most companies have their canvases replicated either in the Philippines or in China. Each replica is also hand-painted. “The canvases can’t be printed because for canvas, the mesh is so exact that when people go to needlepoint you want a thread, a cross-section, to be a color. You don’t want it to be half and half. That way the stitcher knows where to stitch,” Harwell explains.
“It’s an exact intricate thing that machines have a hard time replicating.”
Besides painting needlepoint canvas, Madeleine enjoys creating many other forms of artwork from painting murals to filling sketchbooks.
The youngest designer
To begin, Madeleine painted 50 canvases and she and the owner’s daughter took her work the Spring Needlepoint Show in Orlando in March 2019 and got a warm reception. That fall, Harwell (with her mother’s support) decided to create her own brand, Madeleine Elizabeth, and offer her canvases for sale at Destination Dallas. “I try to create a variety, from small to large, detailed to pretty simple, so that there’s something for everybody,” Harwell says. The canvases range in size from 2”x3” to 28”x17” and there was also a growth tracker in the collection that’s 5’ tall.
At the shows, retailers were surprised, and sometimes confused, by Harwell’s youthful presence. “Many people would walk into the booths and they thought it was my mom that was the artist and she brought me along to help,” she says. “And so they would start talking to her about the designs and then she would say, oh it’s actually my daughter’s.”
“It’s always funny to see their reactions because they’re always so shocked and then they have so many questions.”
Each needlepoint canvas is hand-painted.
It’s vital to understand the needs of the needlepointer in order to properly paint the canvas.
Harwell is hopeful that needlepoint will catch on among people in her generation. “I think once you get to college and a little after college those are the people who are going to start to notice needlepoint. My cousins came down recently and we just taught them [to needlepoint]. They’re 25 and 26 and they sat on the couch and needlepointed every night. They were really interested in learning.”
School just started and Harwell is a junior, taking a full load of honors classes. She plans to continue painting needlepoint canvases and making other artwork, on the weekends. And after high school? Ringling College of Art & Design is in Sarasota, not far away. “I don’t plan on ending the business Madeleine Elizabeth any time soon,” she says. “I’m keeping it pretty open-ended.”
Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.