By Brigid Morrissey

Marilou’s Singer Featherweight machine is the most basic of machines. “It sews forward and backward — period. It is almost indestructible and can handle any task including sewing over thick seams.” Photos by Melissa Donald

One of the most fascinating aspects of a work of art is the story behind it. Or, I should say, stories. Stories about the process, the artist, or the context behind art can elevate it to another level, but I am most intrigued by the relationship between a piece of art and its creator.

“Would you like to take the tour first? This is it,” says Marilou Jacob after I receive a warm greeting from both her and Mr. Bigg, her 9-year-old Shih Tzsu. She makes a sweeping gesture with her arm as I gaze around the single room. I am standing in the classroom of Needle Arts Center, the business Marilou runs from inside her home. “The commute is terrible,” she jokes.

She painted a sign for her business which is a small version of the popular barn quilts. 

Marilou has filled the classroom with pieces that emit an air of antiquity. Each comes with its own mysterious history, including a 1939 sewing machine and a handmade quilt from 1967 that Marilou acquired at an antique shop for $79. The estimated worth of that quilt? “It could cost anywhere from $800 to $1,000,” she says.

The king size wool quilt in the background was hand embroidered in wool yarn and hand quilted. Marilou found it on the floor at the flea market. 

The cross-stitched patterns and stuffed animals with hand-embroidered faces aren’t the only things in the room with a story. Marilou grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She started sewing at age 6. As her mother worked away on her treadle (a type of sewing machine operated by pressing the foot on a pedal) sewing clothing for the family, Marilou would sit at her feet and practice sewing buttons onto small bits of fabric. When asked what her mother did with Marilou’s finished work, she interjects, “She cut the buttons off. That was long before we pampered our children by displaying their handiwork on the refrigerator.”

The estimated value of the quilt (also shown above), is between $800-$1,000.

By junior high, Marilou was making her own clothes. Her mother’s rule was that if you made clothes, you had to wear them to school. “Boy, does that inspire you to do good work!” Marilou says. And her work was good — so good that she was moved into the interior decorating and costume design class after impressing her Home Ec teacher.

Marilou eventually moved on to Memphis State University, graduating in 1978 with a major in journalism and a concentration in public relations. Like many graduates, she chose a career path completely unrelated to her degree. She pursued interior decorating, but she never stopped her needlework. “I can’t imagine not having a sewing machine going on something,” she says.

Marilou is working on a Quilt of Valor she’ll be giving to her son at a ceremony in recognition of his military service in three tours overseas.  

Fast forward to 1995. Marilou was an empty-nester. Her two children were living on their own, so she was only making clothes for herself. In search of a fresh hobby, Marilou took a quilting class with one of the best in the trade, Donna Sharp, as her teacher.

By the time Marilou retired from interior decorating in 2013, she decided it was time to teach some classes herself. That was the main motivation for her business venture. “I kept thinking, ‘It’s a shame to me that I can do all these things and I’m not sharing them with other people,’” she says. “I need to keep them going. It’s an ancient art, and if we don’t teach these skills, they die.”

For Marilou, the name of her business, Needle Arts Center, was an attempt to encompass everything she teaches. She has contracted out to three other teachers who instruct on a multitude of skills including crochet, knitting, and tatting (a method of knotting lace primarily used for trimming), among others. The teachers must possess qualities besides knowledge and experience with needle arts. “They have to be friendly, positive, and they have to make their classes fun,” Marilou says. “That’s what makes our students come back.”

Photo on left: samples from two of  Marilou’s classes. The yellow bag is made from wrapped clothesline that has been stitched together using a zig-zag stitch. Photo on right: Earring made by Juliet Periera using the tatting technique.

I think Marilou can check the box beside that requirement. Needle Arts Center serves about 150 students, both men and women, ranging in age from 8 to 94. And, about a third of the students who sign up to take one of her classes end up taking another. I don’t blame them. After spending an hour with Marilou and her infectious good humor, I would want to come back, too.

“The students come to class joyful and excited about what they’re doing,” Marilou says. “Our motto is ‘Discover handmade.’ It’s so satisfying making things. It’s more precious, and you can feel the sense of accomplishment when you do it yourself.”

Or, in Marilou’s case, when teaching others to make things themselves. “Life doesn’t end when you retire,” she says. “Our purpose here is to preserve needle arts, one person at a time.”