Cast of Characters: Donna Howard: Our Lady of the Crochet Needles
A hands-on approach to life
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
If you thought crochet needles had gone the way of typewriters and rotary telephones, think again.
Donna Howard, a 51-year-old divorcée and mother of three who grew up at Esplanade Avenue and North Miro Street, could easily lay claim to the title “Crochet Queen of New Orleens” – even though she now officially lives with her parents in Metairie.
Howard’s work are marvels of yarn, hand-woven into everything from hats and stockings for infants to the standby doilies so prominent in New Orleans homes in the 1950s to “prayer blankets” for the ill, disabled or just plain prayerful around town.
“It’s like somewhere in my early life an entire generation missed out on the art of crocheting and sewing,” Howard says. “Today, it’s basically a lost art. Not a whole lot of people know how to do this anymore. It was there in my younger years, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t. Back in my grandmother’s day, when I was about 10 years old, I’d sit and watch her for hours. Her hands moved so fast. I was fascinated by it.” Howard continues, “She taught me a few basic stitches and I became more and more interested. When I got to high school I got a book that taught crochet. I expanded on what I had learned and began to learn more and more stitches. So I guess you could say I’m basically self-taught.”
Howard spends her time taking care of her mother, babysitting, teaching the art of crochet around town and sitting before the television in her living room watching the likes of “NCIS” and “Law & Order” while churning out yarned crochet art, looking at the TV screen and rarely looking down at her own hands, like the grandmothers of old.
She sells her work on her website (3projects.blogspot.com) and donates still more to charitable organizations, like the patriotic shawls and blankets and other paraphernalia she crafts for the World War II Museum. The museum then donates the items to Veterans Administration hospitals and veterans homes around the country.
“It’s always about giving something back, creating something others can enjoy,” Howard says. “There are so many people out there who enjoy and can use the finished product. I put in a total of about maybe four hours a day crocheting. But if I’m working on a big job or an assignment from somebody or some organization, I treat it just like anybody would treat a job. I put in as many hours as I can.”
And at the end of a long session of crocheting when her fingers are worn out and her head is on her pillow, images of yarn or projects yet to be often still dance in her head.
“I can be lying in bed at night and I’ll think of a design. It comes alive right in front of me. It’s vivid and I know I can do it. As soon as I can, I make the design and I put in the work to make it real.”
One such recent design was honored by a major magazine with a considerable cash prize.
“But it’s all about the work itself,” Howard says. “Starting with a ball of yarn and two needles and making something that’s a product of nobody but you. Knowing that this did not and cannot come from a machine that’s guided by a computer. I just have a feeling that crocheting is coming back, coming back into style. I know I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.” She continues, “It’s an art form. When you see these items, you’re seeing something that is the product of somebody’s life and experience and talent. This didn’t come from a machine and it can’t be replicated by a machine. If you see something in a store that’s crochet, that means somebody somewhere sat down and made this by hand.”
Her father, Bob Peyton, shakes his head, laughs and chimes in with how he never understands how his daughter can cook, take care of kids, teach, volunteer, take care of her mother and still find time to produce such a large volume of work.
“But then,” Peyton says. “She never stops. If there’s something she wants to do, she’s going to do it. Three years ago she and I shared a stage at UNO. We graduated together, on the same night. We both got degrees in general studies. She was 47 at the time and I was 78. There’s always something new in her life.”
Take, for instance, the priestly vestments of Howard’s son Bryan, a newly ordained Catholic priest stationed at Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero.
It would never do for Father Howard or the church to go out and buy those vestments. Not when there’s a woman like the priest’s mother around who’s handy with thread, yarn and needles.
“I made all of Bryan’s vestments,” Howard says. “The stole, the chasuble. There are reds and greens, rose and whites ... One of his vestments is highlighted by rows of fleurs-de-lis that took a month and a half to make. But I enjoyed it so much. Bryan may be the only priest in the world whose mother is his personal tailor.”
And, of course, word got out.
When an associate of Howard’s son realized that one of his frayed vestments had seen a good amount of use, he had to make a decision: buy a new one at considerable cost or have it spiffed up.
It didn’t take long for Father Bryan Howard to make a telephone call: “Hello Mom … I have a friend, a priest friend. He has this vestment and it’s seen better days. I was wondering …”
“She never stops,” Peyton says. “Before you know it, she’ll bring crocheting back and it’ll be as popular as texting.”