Bradenton 75-year-old young at heart when holidays come around

vmannix@bradenton.comDecember 23, 2013 

MANATEE

The small village was radiant, its glow a mesmerizing luminescence that enveloped the town hall, post office, church, gazebo, bakery and a Victorian home.

People skated on a frozen pond.

Others sledded through the snow.

Christmas trees and snowmen stood sentinel, the background a mountainous white landscape with falling snowflakes.

It was a wintry scene right from a classic holiday greeting card.

Only the setting was aligned along the fireplace mantel in the home of Ted and Helaine Eckstein.

The village is made from thread and fabric, the result of her gifted handiwork.

"Most people can't believe those buildings were made on an embroidery machine," said the retired home economics teacher. "If I can sew every day, I'm a happy camper."

Which is why folks keep visiting the Eckstein home, especially at Christmas.

Over on the dining room table were stacked plates and silverware for a Monday night dinner party.

Another was scheduled for Saturday night.

Eckstein hoped to have an open house, too.

"People have said coming here to see these decorations is the highlight of their Christmas season," said the 75-year-old, who taught 20 years in Palm Beach County. "I just love decorating for Christmas and I love to invite others over, especially people who are alone."

Visitors readily feel the warmth of the Eckstein home.

There are homemade dolls everywhere -- teddy bears by the door, Raggedy Ann dolls on the wall and 700 other dolls showcased in a separate room.

Yet the sparkling village is the center of attention.

"I always make Christmas special," Eckstein said. "I just love decorating for it."

Her 88-year-old husband will attest to it.

The Ecksteins have been married for 25 years and grew up 20 minutes apart in western Pennsylvania.

"She has a different theme for each Christmas -- dolls, trains, bears," he said. "I don't know what she's going to do one year to the next, but she never fails to amaze me."

Take the village display.

It was just going to be one building when Eckstein sat down at her sewing machine last September and it just grew and grew.

"I just started with the church," Eckstein said. "Then I thought, 'Well, I'll make the whole thing.' I got ambitious."

It took two months to create it -- and nearly 20,000 meters of thread.

The snowflakes are free-standing embroidery.

The snow-covered backdrop, styrofoam.

The skaters and sledders, toy lead figures.

When Eckstein is on a roll, she'll spend at least two or three hours daily at the sewing machine.

"It keeps me off the streets and out of the bars," she joked.

The village embroidery patterns come from software programs compatible with Eckstein's computerized sewing machine. Along with thread and fabric, she uses stabilizer, an element that resembles plastic film and keeps the buildings upright.

"It's almost like starch," she said. "After I make each one, they have to be washed out, but you leave in enough stabilizer so it's stiff enough."

Eckstein is a charter member of the Sarasota Gulf Coast Chapter of the American Sewing Guild, a 20-year-old organization of 170 members who are passionate about their craft. Their president is Kathleen Heinick, a professional seamstress and unabashed Eckstein admirer.

"It's inspiring what she does as far as using her ability and her creativity to utilize her embroidery techniques to make a holiday setting," Heinick said. "After seeing what she has done I want to get more involved in my own embroidery."

Eckstein will leave up the village display until Jan. 1, but not much longer.

"I'm already getting itchy to start on another project," she said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.

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