By: Kim Hasty
Long before a global pandemic led to social distancing and the need for everyone to stay at home, David Phillips was already enjoying the hours of peace and quiet he found sitting in his trusty recliner wielding a simple sewing needle, a leather thimble and skeins of colorful thread.
As a lawyer with Cumberland County’s District Attorney’s office, his workdays often include constant conversation. His unlikely hobby of meticulously embroidering baseball caps takes him away from a schedule that can otherwise prove hectic.
“I just enjoy it,” he said. “It’s nice relaxation.”
Phillips has always been his family’s unofficial tailor, somehow managing to replace tiny buttons and mend tears and holes despite large hands that made coming to terms with needle and thread a challenge. A Disney cruise vacation with wife Andrea when children Anna and Sam were youngsters broadened his skills from mending to monogramming.
“We hadn’t been on that many vacations,” he said. “We bought black luggage. We figured out that was not the best luggage to buy. I decided to put everyone’s initials on them so that they stood out, and it worked pretty well.”
A lifetime love of the beach provided the inspiration to continue his newfound hobby. As a boy, he and his family spent summer vacations with his grandparents, Elva and Harry Schmulling, at Nag’s Head on the Outer Banks, along with a slew of cousins, aunts and uncles from up north.
“Nag’s Head was the place,” Phillips said. “They’d rent three or four houses side by side and we had a blast. We’d have a big ole time.”
Those memories provided a natural inspiration for his new hobby. On one of his early projects, he stitched a couple of sprawling green-roofed Nag’s Head cottages, sand dunes and blue ocean, on a baseball cap for his grandmother. He took a look at the finished product and decided to add a fishing boat adrift on the water.
His grandmother loved it.
“It’s fun seeing what I can do,” Phillips said. “I like colors. I like the beach; I like the ocean, nautical. But I’m no Guy Harvey.”
Maybe not, but it would take a trained eye to tell the difference between some of Phillips’ work and that of the famed marine wildlife artist and conservationist whose popular designs are featured on a variety of clothing items.
But Phillips is interested in relaxation rather than retail. He embroiders caps for family and friends but has yet to charge anyone a dime.
“Charging money would be meaningless because it takes so long,” he said.
One of his recent creations went to Mary Perivolaris, whose family owns North Atlantic Fish & Chips restaurant. She showed him a bracelet that features a charm intended to warn off the legendary Greek evil eye. Phillips spent some 50 hours duplicating the design onto a cap, adding a Greek flag to the back.
“He’s very talented and very patient,” Perivolaris said. “It’s a really cool, beautiful hat. People stop me all the time and ask me about it.”
Another favorite went to his father-in-law as a Christmas present. It featured his father-in-law’s classic 1956 four-door Oldsmobile, lovingly known as “Maude.”
“He did an amazing job,” Andrea Phillips said. “We won Christmas that year.”
Over the years, Phillips has worked on improving his technique. Rather than sketching the design onto the cap to use as a pattern, he instead begins by using tiny, meticulous stitches to outline the design freehanded. He found that a leather thimble is the only way to keep the needle from wearing on his large fingers, though he still has calluses at the tips. The thimbles must be replaced whenever Kenny the dachshund manages to sink his teeth into one.
His other tools include a pair of needle-nosed pliers and a basic cigarette lighter. He makes three knots when his thread grows short, trims it off close the bottom, then seals the knot with a quick flick of the lighter. That trick came as a result of his military training as an Army infantryman.
“I don’t know if it’s so much talent as the ability to look at a design and reproduce it in a different scale,” he said.
Either way, he’s landed on a hobby that’s not only relaxing but popular.
“Oh, people love them,” Andrea Phillips said. “They’re always asking where they can get one.”