Whenever I discover a craft shop, I am surprised and pleased by the creativity and sense of neighborhood connection inherent in each enclave. Woolworks Needlepoint is no exception. It was an absolute pleasure speaking with partners Amanda Keep and Andrea Fonyo and learning how they met and realized their dream of owning this fantastic business.
Amanda and Andrea both worked for the two founders of Woolworks, which opened on Madison Avenue in 1963. Amanda had come to New York from Bedfordshire, England to attend Parson’s School of Design, where she received a Fine Arts degree. In 1992, upon graduation, Amanda was hoping to find a job that would allow her to use her artistic abilities. She had the good fortune of meeting the then-owner of Woolworks. The former owner taught Amanda everything that she needed to know to be a painter in the needlepoint world, including proportions, half drop, and flat design. Andrea, on the other hand, had always adored Woolworks. She was working as a fashion photographer when a friend who was managing Woolworks asked if she could fill in for someone who was going on vacation. Andrea immediately replied, “Of course I will.” For quite some time following this experience, she continued to work both of her jobs. In 2000, she left her photography job and took over the shop with Amanda. In 2009, they moved to their present, very cozy space on East 81st.
The two women expressed their pride in the fact that Woolworks uses all American materials, saying, “Stem to stern, everything is completely made in the U.S.” They went on to tell me that unlike other needlepoint shops, everything that they sell they create. Over the years, the ladies have been recognized by many magazines including House Beautiful, who referred to them as “The Rolls Royce of Needlepoint.”
“Geometrics tend to sell first,” Amanda informed me. “They’re the learner, the gateway.” When I asked Amanda her favorite kind of designs, she responded “petit point,” a type of pattern using close, diagonal stitches. Glancing around the shop, I discovered not only the many pillows and rugs available to be needlepointed, but a variety of other items that could be embroidered, from eye glass cases to shoes and antique stools. I was most impressed, however, when Amanda began showing me some of the larger pieces that she has created over the years. Draped over the table where she was working was a long, colorful tapestry based on a pattern from an antique afghan rug. She also pulled out an eight foot long piece with swirling fish drawn from a book depicting twentieth century Korean tapestries. This was something that she was working on for a specific customer. Amanda keeps a substantial collection of references. She pointed out a design based on a Victor Vasarely piece, saying, “I pull from everywhere and I steal from the best.” I was delighted to find a pillow sketched from a drawing that Andrea had made as a child. When I mentioned that I would love to see the drawings that Amanda had done as a youngster, she smiled and replied, “When I was young, I wanted to be a gas station attendant.”
While continuing my tour around the room, Amanda shared some of her tips. For example, she always suggests simplifying designs. “Too much detail doesn’t work.” She also informed me that large items, like 8 x 8 rugs, must be done in pieces and sewn together. In addition, Amanda told me that she is able to paint designs on other materials, like silks. Andrea then shared some fun pieces that the women had been asked to design over the years. Dominick Dunne, the prolific writer for Vanity Fair, asked them to design crime-themed pillows, while another woman requested that they make numerous pillows depicting the covers from both the New York Post and the Daily News. I had to laugh out loud when they told me about one with an illustrated Bill Clinton that said “well hung.” Andrea said, “So much that we do is untraditional, but that is what makes it such fun.”
Amanda and Andrea truly appreciate that crafts have begun to make a comeback, since there was a substantial chunk of time when people stopped being interested in needlepoint. Surveying the room full of unique patterns, bright colors, and intricate designs, Amanda remarked, “There was a generational shift and I’m standing on the top of it…but I take things one step further. This is not your grandmother’s needlepoint.”