TOWNSEND — To needleworkers everywhere, the name Elsa Williams is synonymous with quality.
But who was the Townsend businesswoman behind that name, the woman whose standards of excellence elevated her to prominence as the leading authority on American needle arts?
The child of missionary parents on the prairie lands of South Dakota, Elsa Williams always said that she was first introduced to embroidery on the day she was born. Her parents made her wardrobe from the very best materials, adapting designs seen in the Sears Roebuck catalog. Their philosophy — a busy child is a happy child — motivated the young Elsa to complete an elaborately embroidered banquet cloth and a dozen matching napkins by her 12th birthday. Visits with her maternal grandmother, who lived in New Jersey, furthered her interest in handicrafts.
Elsa attended art school, where she discovered a talent for design. Her studies, further developed by a subsequent career as an art director for a publishing company, lead to the founding of Needlecraft House in 1950, a West Townsend company producing needlework materials sold nationwide. Needlecraft House kits included only the finest threads and fabrics, and were intended to be worked into valuable family heirlooms lasting for generations.
The company occupied a 1774 tavern on Main Street, a former stop on the old Boston to Keene stagecoach run. It was a fitting home for a company dedicated to preserving traditional ways.
In 1966, Needlecraft House sponsored a four-day exhibition of heirloom quality needlework. Women from all parts of the country submitted some 200 articles including draperies, seat covers, handbags, wall hangings and pin cushions, worked in crewel embroidery and needlepoint. Prizes were awarded in 11 categories. Free seminars on the finer points of crewel embroidery, bargello (a little-seen stitchery art), needlepoint, crocheting and knitting were conducted by Elsa herself and two assistants.
When asked which type of needlework was her favorite, Elsa reportedly replied, “The one I’m working on.”
In 1967, a book titled “Heritage Embroidery” was published. That same year Elsa undertook a series of lecture tours that brought her deep satisfaction and inspired thousands.
In June 1972, she was recognized at the White House as one of America’s leading needlework designers, and was chosen by Julie Eisenhower to design and stitch a piece of crewelwork for the White House. The design was later exhibited at a Silver Thimble Show held at the Elsa Williams School of Needlework, established later that same year.
The school was recognized as the only one of its kind and occupied the historic Homer House in West Townsend, which once belonged to the family of American painter Winslow Homer. There beginner and advanced students were taught by highly-qualified instructors from all over the country and learned to appreciate and achieve the highest standards of excellence in the needle arts. To this was added the Elsa Williams way of doing things — only the finest materials and techniques were allowed.
The Silver Thimble Show benefited the North Middlesex Regional School Scholarship Fund and attracted not only the nation’s foremost needlework artists but well-known celebrities as well, among them Rosie Grier, former star of the National Football League.
In 1974, another book, “Creative Canvas Work,” was published. Then in 1975, Elsa sold her company to S.C. Johnson, who renamed Needlecraft House as Johnson Creative Arts.
“The Joy of Stitching,” a compilation of her syndicated newspaper columns, was published in 1978, the same year she and her husband retired to Pebble Beach, Calif.
For her many contributions to the needlework industry during a career spanning more than 30 years, Elsa was awarded the Tribute to Excellence in Needlework Award by the National Needlework Association in 1990.
After a lifetime of searching the world for authentic designs and the best materials available to produce them, Elsa Williams, former Townsend resident, member of the Embroiderer’s Guild of America and the Massachusetts Artist’s Association, supporter of the Girl Scouts, Red Cross, and a benefactor of her church, passed away in 1995.