The Rooster in My Kitchen

In a rather small corner of my rather large kitchen is this framed needlepoint rooster. (Photo above of front and back.) It is 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.

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, nor 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 soon, 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. Women were forbidden to veil 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. We were separated by oceans and then later, when she came to live with my family in America, I was in college. But I have this needlepoint. And the closer I study it, the more fascinating it becomes.

It is almost more lovely on the back than the front. I can’t see knots or evidence of any tangled threads. The pattern is just as clearly discernible on the reverse. This is, I believe, proof 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. The pattern should be just as finely wrought on the back as it is on the front.)

And that rooster’s eye — the detailed instructions for it make me laugh. He has a flinty look. Also I notice that there are a couple of areas that are not completely filled in. I’m not sure what stitch she used to create the thick pile on the front but that steely-eyed bird — he represents a lot of work. Typical! I can imagine her getting to the doggone mountains and grass and just figuring that the thing was good enough. God love the woman for not finishing. She was a talented seamstress but it’s just scenery. She let the little stuff go.

Lastly, I am delighted that the instructions are in both French and Farsi. It seems apparent that my grandmother and I shared a love of things French.

But she would not share my opinion that her canvas is worthy of framing, or of writing about. She herself stopped needlepointing when she had a chance at a more valuable education. She knew that the domestic arts could only get you so far.

If you are a regular reader, you may remember that a couple of weeks ago, I listed a fishing lure needlepoint in the shop. It sold to someone who told me that she loves needlepoints because that was her mother’s favorite past-time. Her home is filled with them.

So next time you want to shop for a piece of art, think about shopping in your attic. Pull out something made by someone who shares your DNA. Look at it closely, and think about what was going on at the time that it was crafted. Imagine the young Persian woman with the needle who has no idea that her vibrant rooster will one day become the most treasured possession of her American granddaughter.

Photos by Renn Kuhnen. Originally published at on August 14, 2015.

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