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Area embroiderer Marilyn Lee uses old and new techniques to craft her art

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DEBS — Marilyn Lee quips that she was sewing before she could walk.

"I’ve been sewing for as long as I can remember," she said. "I remember taking a sewing machine outside and sitting under the trees making Barbie dolls clothes."

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Her dedication to the craft has paid off. A master free-form embroiderer, Lee has become adept at creating elaborate, intricate designs on numerous forms, including clothing, quilts and much more.

"People tell me that I’m talented but it’s not like it just happened, it’s been a lot of work through the years," Lee said. "It’s been a lot of sheer determination."

Lee recently was featured in Stitches, a national embroidery magazine, discussing the best piece she ever embroidered.

The piece highlighted a full-length wool coat Lee made by hand, boasting multiple embroidered images, including on the back an elaborate wolf surrounded by roses and wolf tracks. Other images include a sun, blue jay, lady slippers and a showy owl.

"Everything I do is my new favorite," Lee said, laughing. "But in the long run, I think this coat is my favorite."

The coat, which she has worn once, took her at least a month, Lee said, noting that she often becomes so engrossed in a project she can spend up to 16 hours a day working on it.

"I get very, very obsessed," she said.

Many people, she said, say the coat has a vintage feel to it — and that makes sense, considering that most of her work is done on a 1929 Singer embroidery and chenille machine.

The machine came her way about a dozen years ago, when Bill Batchelder introduced her to an older woman who wanted to teach someone to use her three older embroidery machines.

Lee kept two of them, one of which was the 1929 Singer she continues to use today.

"It’s like driving a car, only your doing it with little itty bitty thread," she said, demonstrating how the handle that steers the needle is located underneath the sewing table. "I didn’t think I was ever going to learn how to use it. It’s kind of like trying to back a car up with your eyes clothes."

Batchelder, who operates Bemidji Woolen Mills, said pairing Lee with the woman helped to preserve an increasingly lost art of free-form embroidery.

"I’d say 95 percent of that disappeared with the onset of computerized embroidery machines," he said. "But if you lay a hand-done piece next to a computerized piece, the hand-done work that Marilyn does is far superior."

He referenced a portrait quilt Lee made in 2009 after President Barack Obama was inaugurated. The quilt boasts an image of Obama that Batchelder said was comparable to a watercolor or photograph.

"Marilyn is an unbelievably talented woman," he said.

But while many of Lee’s most treasured pieces have been made with the old-style machine — including a Where’s the Wild Thing-themed quilt for her grandson — she also has begun experimenting with the new technology as well.

She has purchased a six-needled computerized machine and digitizing software. She can plan out each project stitch by stitch and program the plans into the computer.

"Once you have created the pattern, you can use it over and over again," she said.

Lee recently completed her first digitized project, an attractive image of two birds surrounded by pink flowers. The piece feels a little denser than traditional projects, thanks in part to the more than 500,000 stitches used to compose it.

"I love creating," Lee said. "Art can be such an illusion. You think you know what something looks like until you go to try to draw it."

Lee used to sell a lot more of her than she does today — her work provided her income while she raised her children — but found over time that she wanted to focus on her own projects.

"As an artist, I get bored," Lee said. "I would rather just create than sell stuff."

She does do smaller projects for friends and family, and last year for the first time in years, she took part in four or five shows, but more often, she’d rather sit at her machines and work.

"It’s really just the creation that I enjoy so much," she said.

Lee doesn’t work much on her projects in the summertime — she spends the season gardening and canning — but always has new ideas forming in her mind.

"I can just sit in a room and look at the ceiling and I see a face in it or on the wall," she said. "Sometimes I wish I had a light switch so I could just shut off my brain because it’s just going constantly. Just in the leaves of the tree, I can see critters."

This fall, she plans to tackle another art quilt, planning to somehow mix the use of old and new technologies together.

"I love doing different stuff all the time," Lee said. "I’ve done so many different things … and I kind of pull it all together when I’m doing stuff. I learned from my beading, my crocheting, my knitting, ceramics. I pull all those techniques together when I’m creating."

To learn more…

You can view Stitches magazine, page by page, at www. asipublications .com/stitches

Lee is featured on Page 32.

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