I once thought about living in a dollhouse when as a child I curled up in a comfy armchair to read The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The “borrowers” were a tiny family, who would have loved the miniature rugs and tapestries designed by Phyllis Stafford, instead of the paper rugs and postage stamps which adorned their floors and walls.
Many years ago, Phyllis bought a dollhouse for Jennifer, her youngest daughter. As her daughter’s interest in the dollhouse waned, Phyllis’ fascination with the dollhouse increased. She furnished it with exquisite miniatures, but she was unable to find authentic-looking miniature rugs and tapestries. So, she made them herself.
Phyllis had learned needlepoint and other textile arts from her mother, a meticulous craftswoman. When it was time for college, she did not want to go to the University of Vermont where so many of her Burlington, Vermont classmates went. Instead, Phyllis was interested in fashion and a larger life, so she chose to go to the Chamberlain School of Retailing in Boston, one of only two schools that taught retailing at that time. Her teachers were buyers from the big department stores, editors from Women’s Wear Daily and fashion newsmakers from Paris. The students learned about fine china, costumes, painting, architecture and color while studying the textiles and artwork in the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Afterwards the students interned in the city’s famous department stores.
In 1954, when Phyllis arrived in Suffield, she was married with three children. She met Alfred, her husband, in Boston when he was a student at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. After graduation and military service during the Korean War, they were looking for a small town with a good school system that needed a dentist. They chose Suffield, partly because of its Polish roots, since Albert’s mother had been born in Poland, and he spoke fluent Polish. His first dental practice was on Main Street over the funeral parlor, by the fire department.
Phyllis had little time to think of a career in retailing. She became a mother of ten who enjoyed family life, although she was able to find time to join the Suffield Woman’s Club which she enjoyed. Mrs. Nicholson, the funeral director’s wife, invited her to join. She helped with the Girl Scouts, was a docent at the Phelps-Hatheway House and also sewed the clothes for her children.
The dollhouse started it. Phyllis began thinking in colors and design. Daughter Jane showed Phyllis a tableau in Turkish tile of a boy feeding a donkey and dared her to replicate it in miniature. Phyllis found she could visualize the tableau without drawing it. Using her lessons in color, she easily matched the hues she saw. The outcome was a stunning miniature work, accurate in detail. Phyllis won the bet with Jane and continued to convert life-size examples to miniature masterpieces – oriental rugs, Persian carpets, Aubusson tapestries, and artwork exhibited in fine art museums and art auction catalogs. Her rugs have the sheen of a real wool carpet. The intricate designs are astonishing in such a small scale. For her husband, Phyllis copied the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, an icon of the Virgin Mary which is associated with Poland. A rendition of it is at St. Joseph Church.
Within a very short time, Phyllis began designing and selling miniature rug and tapestry kits in addition to selling her own needlepoint artwork which has sold for as much as $5,000. Her passion became a business.
Many years later, Phyllis sells 49 kits on her website, needlepointminatures.com. She has won numerous awards, and in 1994 became a Fellow of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans. To become a fellow, works of an artisan are critically evaluated by the high standards of guild members. The honor is given to those whose work is the epitome of excellence. But, perhaps Phyllis’ greatest thrill is the inclusion of some of her rugs in the Kathleen Savage Browning Miniature Collection at Kentucky Gateway Museum Center in Maysville, Kentucky. Collected over four decades, the permanent collection features the work of the most talented miniature artisans in the world.
Today, Jane works with her mother in the business. An artist herself, she also needlepoints and with her sister Jean, mans the booth at the Guild shows where Phyllis’ works and kits are displayed. Because of Phyllis’ influence in the Guild, the shows are close by. The next one is in Windsor, Connecticut on September 8-13, 2020. And to give it extra gravitas, the director of the show is affiliated with the Wadsworth Atheneum, a recognition that true works of art will be on display.