It is said that a blank canvas provides limitless possibilities. Judith Carter ’82 created and built her business around this belief. Carter is the owner of Needleworks, an independent, specialty retail establishment just outside downtown Birmingham, Alabama, that sells hand-dyed threads, needlework accessories and hand-painted needlepoint designs made by hundreds of designers.
The shop, which is nestled in a quaint, red-brick building in an area of Birmingham named Homewood, serves as a hub for artisans to sell their one-of-a-kind needlework heirlooms.
Directly across the street sits the shop’s workroom, where many distinctive items made from needlepoint are assembled, including pillows, holiday stockings and decorative ornaments.
In 1999, Carter decided it was time to take a huge leap and work toward a career she was passionate about. So, she took all her previous knowledge — experience gained as a patternmaker for infant and children’s wear, lessons learned as an instructor of apparel production management, and skills gathered as an independent product development specialist — to launch her own company.
She opened Needleworks in 2000. The company employs nine part-time staff members and six independent contractors and serves as a highly specialized niche enterprise that offers everything needlepoint enthusiasts desire.
Carter refers to the formation of her business as a series of events that allowed her to “make lemonade out of life’s lemons.” Having worked in the rapidly changing apparel and textile industry throughout the 1980s, Carter held a number of positions that were either phased out or outsourced to companies overseas. However, through her various transitions, she gained a wealth of knowledge.
Learning to embroider and sew at a young age introduced Carter to the basics of the industry. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in clothing and textiles with a concentration in weaving and surface design in 1978, Carter decided to enroll at SFA to attend graduate school. She said while studying at SFA, she observed the people and management skills that ultimately led to her success.
Carter refers to her time at the university as a unique opportunity to observe professional standards of behavior that she has implemented in her workplace at every opportunity.
“I endeavor to treat my staff and industry associates with the same kindness and respect I observed as a student in SFA’s School of Human Sciences,” Carter said. “I saw that the extra effort in every area mattered, whether it was a technique, subject matter or character.”
Carter said Dr. Gloria Durr, SFA professor emeritus of human sciences, has served as her mentor for more than 35 years.
“As one of her graduate students, I learned skills in time management, event planning, resource management, consumer spending habits and practical financial solutions,” Carter said. “I also learned how to balance career objectives and family life.”
Like most entrepreneurs, Carter stays busy with myriad tasks. She manages the company, organizes visual displays and merchandising, oversees education and training, and handles product development, evaluation, event planning, and what she refers to as “fun stuff like cleaning and restocking the shelves.”
Carter’s husband also plays an integral role in the success of the business by providing much of Needleworks’ structural backbone. He designed the shop’s cabinetry and completed other additions to the facilities he and his wife designed together.
As with any business, Needleworks is constantly adapting. Recently, two longtime employees retired, and two new staff members joined the team. Carter said she hopes to instill her passion and knowledge in the next generation of artists, which is a legacy she will be proud to pass down.
“Every career provides opportunities to share your knowledge and teach future generations,” Carter said. “This philosophy was instilled in me as a student and business professional, and I am always eager to share what I know to help our future business leaders gain success.”