sewn stories: the rooster in my kitchen

We’re continuing our new series, Sewn Stories, which is all about the garments or textiles that have meant the most in your life, either sewn by you or by someone else. Please join me in welcoming Mithra Ballesteros who is a blogger and stylist. She’s with us today to talk about the rooster in her kitchen. Here’s her story. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we did! And if you would like to contribute your own Sewn Story, here’s how to do it. We also encourage you to share your stories on Instagram with #sewnstories.

rooster needlepoint

In a small corner of my kitchen hangs this framed needlepoint rooster, one of my most beloved possessions. My Persian grandmother stitched it when she was a young girl living in Hamadan, Iran, probably sometime in the 1920s.

sewn stoires the rooster in my kitchen

Her name was Zarrin and she was very talented with a needle. After her father died, she supported herself and her mother with her own handiwork. Then, in 1927, she met and married my grandfather. I think this is a piece she did before her marriage.

After her marriage, my grandmother told her new husband that she wished to study French and music. It was not typical for a woman to play an instrument, or for a married woman to continue an education in any way. But she was his second wife –young, intelligent and beautiful–and he obliged. They made their home in the Jewish section of town away from the judgmental eyes of the Muslim community and my grandfather arranged for a Jewish instructor from the nearby school to come to the house. Zarrin took lessons on the tar, a sitar-like instrument, one day a week and learned French another day.

During this time in Iran, the Shah was on a campaign to modernize the country and he forbade women veiling themselves in public. As a result, many women did not leave their homes. My grandmother, however, went out daily, and the only thing covering her hair was a French hat.

She was an unusual woman. I wish I had known her better. For most of my life, we were separated by oceans. Later, when she came to live with my family in America, I was already in college. But I have this needlepoint. The closer I study it, the more I see.

The instructions on the back are written in Farsi and in French. This delights me to no end because I, like my grandmother, am a lover of all things French. From the diagram that details the rooster’s eye, or “oeil,” it is clear that this was not an easy pattern. I imagine my grandmother taking great care to execute the flinty look in that rooster’s eye.

needlepoint rooster

needlepoint rooster

Despite the complexity, I find no evidence of mistakes or tangled threads. The pattern is as clearly discernible on the reverse as it is on the front. Proof, I believe, of my grandmother’s skill. (Persian rugs are the same way. If you want to judge a rug’s quality, turn it over to examine the knots.)

needlepoint rooster

The last thing I notice is that the canvas is not quite completed. My grandmother leaves blades of grass. Maybe she ran out of thread? I prefer to think that she chose not to finish. Maybe she figured the thing was good enough.

needlepoint rooster

I love her for not finishing. She let the unimportant things go. I like to think we have that trait in common as well.

She would not agree with me though, that her needlepoint merited a frame and a place of honor in my house. Nor a few paragraphs in an essay. She herself quit needlepointing when she had a chance at a more valuable education. It’s only canvas and thread.

As smart as she was, my grandmother couldn’t look into the future and see that one day her vibrant rooster would become the most treasured possession of her college-educated American granddaughter.

photo credit: Renn Kuhnen




  1. Kathy

    It’s beautiful story and a beautiful rooster. We all want to know more about the Grandmother’s story.

  2. Erica

    What lovely needlework and a lovely story. One of my most treasured possessions is a hand-sewn, wallet-sized sewing kit that my grandmother made from silk scraps for my mother when my mother left home to be an overseas student in the United States. I took it with me when I went away to college. I’m saving it for my daughter for when she goes away to college. Even with a busy student life, one never knows when you need to replace a button or mend a hem!

  3. Carla J

    That is a precious story. That is a true piece of art. The colors are amazing. Amazing that the grandfather honored his young wife and let her have those classes. So progressive when you think about it. I would think very unusual for the culture and for that period of time. My own grandmother who is long passed as I am 65 yrs. was a nurse, married a foreign man, and one that was 15 yrs her senior , and she left the farm. Don’t you know she was considered a wild woman! Lol! Thanks, for sharing

  4. Carmen Carter

    What a beautiful story and work of art. How lucky you are to have something to remember your grandmother’s spirit and determination.

  5. Joanne

    Oh how I love stories of old that involve strong women, sewing and other skills. The fact that your grandmother embroidered was also actually a signal to society that she had leisure time and was therefore affluent. I love that she wanted to learn French and an instrument – and that she wore a French hat. Strong and defiant! I’m fascinated by stories of Persia … Claudia Rodin is one of my favourite food writers and in her book of middle eastern food she weaves tales like this in with recipes. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us ( I too have a rooster in my kitchen … also embroidered … but not with as fabulous a tale as this !)

  6. marcia B eason

    I absolutely love this and your story! Thanks so much for sharing it!

  7. Susan Terrill

    This is a beautiful Rooster. I will have to see which Items I have from my ancestors. My mother’s family was Scandinavian and they all knitted constantly especially my great-grandmother who was always making mittens for us. She lived to be about 93 in Jacksonville, Illinois , but she was Swedish and Danish. I was about 10 years old when she died. Her hands were always busy.

  8. Annette Fly

    Rachel what a beautiful story and the rooster is spectacular! I love the vibrant colors! I wonder if it is a technique called needle punch—not terribly common these days which makes your piece even more special.
    So wonderful you get to enjoy it every day—a link to your past and related to something you also love to do—work with your own hands with textiles. Thank you for sharing your story!

  9. Ava

    This is such a touching and amazing story. Its true we never really get the full history of older generations.

  10. Charlotte Colvin

    Love this so much – it’s a beautiful story and what special embroidery. I’m so curious about the bird above the rooster and what it may symbolize (if anything). Many thanks for sharing this!

  11. Glenda Hollander

    Oh my, that spoke to my heart and touched my soul! Thank you for sharing a piece of your life.

  12. Kim S.

    Thank you for sharing this story. Mithra, what a lovely piece of needlework and an even lovelier story. How lucky you are to have your rooster.

    1. Thank you, Kim, for reading and for commenting!

  13. Marion

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. Having a treasure like that is so special and I am so glad you hang it up with pride! It is so beautiful! I have a very special hand knitted child’s dress that my grandmother knitted as the bombs were raining down in Rotterdam during Workd War 2. It links me to my special grandmother and how in adversity, she just kept going and kept on creating.

  14. Megan

    What a lovely piece to have and a great story to go along with it. She sounds like a brave fabulous woman! Thank you for sharing!

  15. Don Hagan

    I loved this story and wished I could seen and photographer her! You are definitely part of her. My mother did things like that and wonder now where are that is with my family being scattered around the country. She should be pleased that you are displaying it in such a nice setting.

  16. Brooke Hatfield

    What a wonderful story Mithra! I can see why it is so speial to you. So precious!

  17. Sara Parvinian

    I always wonderaboutmy grandparents’and the great grandparents’ life’s history and stories !!! My paternal grandma used to tell us stories but I don’t remember one from her or her parent’s lives !!! That saddens me !
    The rooster gives you something to take your imagination back into her story! Something to share !!
    It’s so kind to share the rooster and it’s story with us!
    As a grandmother I am making needle works crafty items and paintings that I hope would be of interest to my grandkids. My stories will be their’s ! And that keeps my heart alive !

  18. LOVELY STORY……….and I have that wooden trophy on your cart!!

  19. Marilyn Brennan

    I was very touched by your story. It made me cry.

  20. Michelle

    What a special piece. Beautiful!

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