Dual Threat: The Needlepoint of Rosey Grier

by Travis Boyer

The 1973 craft book Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men can’t be discussed without first noting a few key facts about its author, Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier:

1. Born in rural Georgia, Grier became a famous football player for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s and 1960s.

2. Following his career as a professional athlete, he served as Ethel Kennedy’s bodyguard and wrestled the gun away from Robert F.  Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, during the 1968 presidential campaign.

3. Shortly before Needlepoint for Men’s publication, he starred in The Thing with Two Heads—a 1972 science fiction film in which Grier and a wealthy racist man share a body following a head transplant.

4. In 1974, he performed the song “It’s All Right to Cry” on the ABC television special Free to Be . . . You and Me.

In Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men, Grier comes out about his needlecraft hobby, juxtaposing it with his own defensive-tackle frame. Specifically, the cover photo of the how-to book is meant to rattle the architectures of masculinity, “breaking down those old sex roles,” as he puts it. Welcoming readers with an expression of confidence and eagerness to disrupt convention, the hulky footballer gazes directly into the camera, seated on the floor, surrounded by his accomplishments in yarn. 

In the early 1970s, Rosey Grier would hang out in a Beverly Hills craft store, where he befriended Babbs Shoemaker, who mentored his interest in needlepoint. Inspired by his new avocation, Grier began questioning the gendered nature of craft and connecting with historically male traditions of embroidery like the Bayeux Tapestry and the tapestries from the Gobelins factory and Aubusson.

The language of the book is conversational and friendly, making the reader feel newly initiated into a community of male crafters—with Rosey as your main man and spiritual champion. “Getting a little more interested? Read on, brother! Next I’m going to tell you how to make your way around the needlepoint store.” The book contains a comprehensive list of nearly one hundred U.S. stores such as Clever Needlewoman in Dallas, Handy Lady in Scarsdale, and Titillations in New York, where the novice needlepointer could get started. 

The first-timer can trace original needlepoint patterns such as an alphabet, sports equipment, a moody-looking pool table, and this very specific project suggestion: “If you happen to have a boat, coasters monogramed with your flag initial would be really groovy,” followed by ten pages of sail flags with no color or photos; Rosey wanted you to stitch it up and show him how it turned out, I guess. 

For the male needlepointer, Rosey digs funky offbeat images such as gangsters, samurais, bold geometry, and collage-like compositions that reflect a modern man’s professional or recreational interests. Collage-like designs include a fishing theme, an array of bats and balls, and a dentist motif. Stippled drawings demonstrate how to apply needlepoint to a pillow, director’s chair, or tennis-racquet cover.

Needlepoint for Men fits slyly into the American cultural zeitgeist of 1973. That same year, the first Whitney Biennial featured textile works by Brenda Miller and Jackie Winsor, sports fans witnessed the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and the movie Coffy, a touchstone blaxploitation film, was released—starring Rosey’s cousin, Pam Grier, who plays a nurse turned vigilante.

Rosey Grier’s revolutionary aims are made clear in “Chapter 13: Other Men in Needlepoint.” Grier is brutally honest, discussing the shaming he received for his needlepoint, including numerous harassing phone calls. Naming and quoting friends and football players, Grier charges them with a kind of tacit homophobia: “cut that crap, Ro, you’ll have everyone who thought football players were rough and tough, looking at us like we are sissies or something else.” 

Don’t cry. Rosey has all the answers. In time his shade-throwing football buddies all end up in his ever-growing sewing circle: “Every one of them does needlepoint now.”

Dedicated to his son, with a touching poem, the book concludes with a treatment on how to foster a boy’s engagement with craft by commanding fathers to take their sons to the craft store. Needlepoint’s basic techniques are aggregated into a very personal manifesto about the power of fiber art, friendship, and overcoming gender repression. With defiant optimism, Grier effectively exploits the media of his time and power of his personal fame to show he can needlepoint wherever he wants to, and you can too.

Travis Boyer is a New York–based artist, curator, and textile educator.