Arts & Culture

Stitch Hikers: Why the South’s Hottest Souvenir Is Needlepoint

Crafty travelers and social media hobbyists have put an old-school art form back on the map

Two images of needlepoint artwork, both with a dutch oven on them

Photo: Courtesy of Martin Shreiner

Needlepoint on a hand-painted canvas by Martin Shreiner.

Cabbage Row Needlepoint Shoppe in Charleston, South Carolina, always felt like it belonged on Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley rather than the city’s iconic Broad Street. For years, biking past, I was convinced its colorful window display of pillowcases and Christmas ornaments was an alternative entrance to Narnia or a front for a Southern mafia outfit. When purchased the shop two years ago and later moved down the road to 141 Broad, I imagined little would change. The business would resume its status as another quirky purveyor of niche Lowcountry goods, like boiled peanuts or bow ties. 

I was wrong. 

Stay in Touch with G&G
Get our weekly Talk of the South newsletter.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Due to a pandemic-era surge in embroidery hobbyists and a TikTok obsession with traditional handcrafts, an art form that can be traced back to ancient Egypt is, as the kids say, having a moment. And tourists are buying in, trading conventional tchotchkes for commemorative needlepoint souvenirs.

Calder Clark, a Charleston wedding planner, has something to do with the trend. The tastemaker has always had a solid social media following, but when she started posting about her needlepoint hobby on TikTok last December, she gained over 19,000 followers in less than three months. 

photo: Courtesy of Calder Clark
Calder Clark shows off her needlepoint ornaments.

Clark grew up in Memphis watching her mother do all manner of handiwork, including “a lot of French lace and smocking,” she says. But needlepoint, an eighteenth-century status symbol turned hallmark of domesticity, didn’t appeal to the entrepreneurial Clark. That changed right before the pandemic. “I was in Mexico for a wedding, and there was this woman by the pool stitching the entire weekend,” she recalls. Intrigued, Clark came home, bought a canvas at Cabbage Row, and was hooked. “I made 150 ornaments that first year,” she says.

Now Clark has convinced other people to do the same. Some of her needlepoint TikTok posts boast over 600,000 views, plus dozens of comments from people saying she inspired them to take up surface embroidery or visit Step into the Broad Street store, and you will see her influence at work: Gone are my imagination’s Southern grand dames, replaced by shoppers of all ages eager to take home a Charleston-themed souvenir.

The trend isn’t limited to the Holy City. At Lycette Designs in Palm Beach, Florida, proprietor Jessica Chaney is seeing a similar boom in traveler attention.

“We have customers from Hong Kong, Australia, England,” Chaney says. A big part of the allure is the shop’s locally themed canvases, like its Worth Avenue Clock Tower or the Flagler Museum. In an era when big-box fabric and craft companies are filing for bankruptcy or going out of business, America’s roughly 224 niche needlepoint shops are thriving thanks to this curated approach.  

Among Chaney’s customers is Jessica Rothbeind, who lives in Atlanta and works in software sales. Rothbeind always stops by Lycette Designs when in Palm Beach, Stitches by the Sea when in Delray, Florida, and the Eye of the Needle when in Lexington, Kentucky. “I travel a lot for work, so I always look up the LNS”—that’s shorthand for Local Needlework Shop—“in the area,” she says.

Martin Schreiner, a former opera singer turned tech worker based in Brooklyn and Vermont, discovered Lycette Design’s sister shop in Newport, Rhode Island. Now, he books his hotel accommodations based on their proximity to needlepoint shops. He loves the craft so much that he’s begun painting needlepoint canvases and is plotting a line of Southern sayings inspired by years spent singing in places like Savannah.

photo: Courtesy of Jessica Rothbeind
Jessica Rothbeind needlepointing with her mom and niece.

“I once shared a homestay in Savannah with this lady, and while I was getting ready one night, she asked me if I wanted a dresser. I said, ‘What’s that? Someone to dress me?’” Martin recalls. 

“She goes, ‘Honey, a dresser is a drink you have when you get dressed, and then you have a refresher, and then once you’re done with your refresher, you get a traveler for the car.”  That’s the kind of cheeky saying famous in needlework shops in the South. 

But whether it’s a cute phrase or a timeless decorative piece, a needlepoint kit isn’t an instant-gratification souvenir like, say, a candle or a bag of Benne wafers. 

photo: Courtesy of Susan Battle
A top seller from The Point of It All, a Washington, D.C., needlepoint shop owned by Susan Battle.

“It’s not fast fashion,” Rothbeind says. “It requires hours of dedication.” Perhaps that’s exactly what makes it so enticing. Needlepointing a memento serves as a way to extend the vacation beyond the return flight home. “It’s a way to commemorate a trip that can be passed down,” Clark says. 

Just ask Kat Freeman, a New Yorker who recently took home three canvases from Charleston’s and Hilton Head’s Needlepoint Junction. “Needlepointing until my fingers hurt is my travel love language,” she says.