MARY GOSTELLOW does not look like what she calls an "embroideress." She looks more like a model - which she was in Beruit. Or an actress - she played Alice in Wonderland in school because of her long blondie hair, but she dropped the rabbit or something into the orchestra pit and that ended that.
Gostelow at 36, looks younger, is tall, wiry with that fair fogborn English complexion, blonde hair that looks as though it were cut with embroidery scissors, strong face bones, large eyes. Her hands are always busy with needlework. "I like doing little pieces of needlework, because I can do them while riding the bus, or talking or watching television.I manage to do a great deal of embroidery on trans-Atlantic planes.
She emits a great bubbling up enthusiasm about everything, from food (consumme with snails, home-grown vegetables) to her seven books - and the two more to come.
Her newest book is "Mary Gostelow's Embroidery Book." She always uses the full title, with obvious relish over the star billing. She pops into Washington now and then to lecture at three or four places, before going on to points north and west. Not so long ago, she stopped long enough to discuss her life over a cold buffet at the Madison Hotel. (She greatly admired the pickled vegetables.) She seems to fly from her home at Milton Abbas (two hours from London) to the United States, or Australia or Canada at the drop of a needle or an honorarium.
Embroidery is the magic carpet that has flown Gostelow round the world and then some. She is a consultant to the American Needlepoint Guild and a member of the Embroiders' guild of America. She often appears on television programs. "I love to get some male interviewer who is obviously growling that he'd rather interview a Mount Everest climber than a lady embroideress. The next best challenge is the speech before the club when they warn you about the men in the first three rows who always go to sleep."
To titillate such, she has a great fund of stories, including speculations about the judgment of Solomon theme, with its harlots and naked babies.
"We have a great history of needlework in Britain," said Gostelow. "A magnificent heritage. It's all a part of the way people lived in those wonderful country houses. Mr book to come out in the fall tells about the needlework, the furniture and the people in 12 British houses, as well as 12 American historic homes and their needlework and residents.
"But though we're proud of our needlework at home, Americans are much more interested in needlework today. We haven't had the great revival of general interest in textiles as you have had."
Gostelow herself learned to sew and draw as a small girl, while she was being brought up in a boy's boarding school - her father was a classic professor. Normally she didn't go to school with the boys, but she did take one course in social graces. "I learned how to take a woman to dinner, to ask her father for her hand, and all sorts of useful things."
She went to high school in the United States, then back home after her mother died to help her father with the three younger girls. She went on to work at the Daily Telegraph for five years, first as an assistant to the editor, later as a woman's page writer. Ten years ago, while working briefly in a boy's school as a secretary, she met her husband, Martin Gostelow, a science teacher, and something of a traveler.
They went off to Beruit, where he taught school, and she put out an arts and events magazine for a hotel, as well as a spot of modeling for photographers on the side.
"It was really in Beruit that I became interested in the history of needlework," she said. "And those beautiful tribal stiches."
Back in England, she and a friend went blueberry picking one day, and the friend told her all about her publisher. That was in 1973 - and here she is six years and seven books later. "The first book took the longest to be published. You know the one about the book taking as long as a child - well, my first took as long as an elephant gestation."
The Embroidery Book, ($15.95, Dutton) was an alternate Book of the Month Club Cooking & Crafts Club book and the Better Homes and Gardens Book Club. Her other books also have sold well.
Gostelow does most of her work in the early morning - sometimes as early as 2 a.m. "I've developed a technique of rolling out of bed so I won't disturb my husband." She does the clear sketches for her books herself, (more than 800 in the current book). Her husband does the photographs.
Her husband, when not traveling and photographing with her, teaches science in the school established in the old abby. He's also won the title the "Brain of Britain" by winning a sort of British Information Please televised contest.
The Gostelows, in between their flitting, enjoy the bucolic life in an 18th century thatched cottage in Dorset. "The house is tiny. But we made a guest house out of the stable block and its always booked up. We love to have company. They get their own breakfast, but I love to cook dinner for them. We have vegetables out of our own garden."
Despite Gostelow's air of fun and games, her latest book is full of solid information. It gives simple, easy to read definitions of 35 or so different stitching techniques. Even if you have no plans at all to stick a needle in your finger, many need a book that at last straightens out the difference between applique, reverse applique and molawork. The index is a particular pride of Gostelow. "I always do indices myself. They are the most valuable part of the book." In the index, for instance, you can find where counted thread work is explained and graphically presented.
Gostelow explains in each case how different stitches and techniques began. For instance: "Bargello, also known as Florentine embroidery, or variously as Byzantine, flame, Hungarian point or Irish work, is characterized by parallel rows of differently colored stitches worked in zigzag, wave or flame shapes to cover the entire ground fabric. . . .
"The name Bargello comes from a set of 17th century chairs in the National Museum in Florence. Built in 1255, the Palazzo del Podesta was converted into a prison and assigned to the head of the police, the bargelli, in 1574. It was restored and opened as a museum in the middle of the 19th century. The chairs, furnished with silks worked in what is now known as Bargello style, are supposed to have been purchased from a Senor Menicetti in 1886.
"One theory is that the embroidery technique originated in a workshop established in the 11th century by Gisela, Bavarian-born queen of Stephen I of Hungary."
On the subject of applique, Gostelow writes: "Applique, or applied work signifies that at least one piece of fabric has been placed over or under another and is held in place with embroidery stitches.
"Inlay Applique. Often worked for church embroideries, this has the design set into rather than on the ground fabric.
"Reverse Applique. Known sometimes as Decoupe, this consists of a motif cut out from the main ground to reveal another fabric underneath. Mola or 'San Blas' applique. The mola technique, especially associated with the Cuna women of Panama and Colombia, is related to the standard reverse applique form. Two or more layers of fabric, the same size, are held together with tacking. A design is cut down from the uppermost to the bottom layers in steps forming a contour map design. The bottom layer of fabric is not cut at any time." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Joel Richardson - The Washington Post