To celebrate Christmas, Tom and Kathleen “Kathy” Balhoff’s children and grandchildren hang handmade beaded felt stockings filled with memories that reflect three generations.
In 1969, Kathy Balhoff’s mother, the late Ella Kempton Plaisance, began the tradition of the stockings, which she made and handbeaded for her 33 grandchildren over 27 years.
She was an expert seamstress who loved to dance, especially ballet.
“As a young girl, my mother was not able to afford lessons or costumes, so she took many small jobs and began to learn sewing skills from her mother,” Balhoff said. “She spent many hours enjoying needle work and beading with her mother.”
Plaisance’s mother, Gertrude Neihs Kempton, a native of Germany, was a talented singer and an expert in “fancy work,” which included embroidery, knitting, crocheting, tatting and lace-making. In 1920, she met and married Benjamin Kempton, an American soldier in World War I. The Kemptons moved from Germany to New Orleans with their 3-month-old daughter in 1922.
After several years, Gertrude Kempton was left alone to provide sole support and care for her four young children.
“By day she worked in a pants factory, but at night she continued her ‘fancy work,’ which was much in demand in New Orleans,” Balhoff said.
When she was 8, Kathy Balhoff began embroidering with her mother.
“I completed my first ‘granny square’ afghan at 12,” she said.
She started beading Christmas projects of all sorts while her husband attended law school at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.
“Tom had long nights of study. I kept him company while sewing and beading Christmas items and gifts like mobiles, Christmas tree skirts, Christmas card holders and wall decorations,” she said.
In 1998, she made her first beaded Christmas stocking for her new daughter-in-law Kristin Bencze.
“The stockings bring back thoughts of my grandmother and mother,” Kathy Balhoff said. “They are my way of carrying on their family traditions at Christmas time.”
This Christmas, she completed her 19th stocking for her newest grandson, 4-month-old Henry Joseph Balhoff, son of David and Leah Blaize Balhoff.
“It’s our tradition for the newest grandchild to receive his or her Christmas stocking after the family’s Thanksgiving dinner,” Kathy Balhoff said. “I have completed one for each of my 14 grandhchildren and one for each son-in-law and daughter-in-law to welcome them into the family.”
Kathy Balhoff starts each stocking with a kit, which generally includes five squares of felt, embroidery thread and sequins. “That’s it,” she said.
The kits generally specify 100 to 120 individual steps, but Balhoff never follows the kits exactly. “I work at creating a three dimensional look that brings life and action to every stocking,” she said.
She adds stuffing to make the characters stand out. She also tries to pick subjects that have something to do with the future owner of the stocking. For every stocking, she incorporates some of the beads from her mother’s old Christmas sewing box.
“She had beads that date back to the 1940s,” Kathy Balhoff said. “And she always put a bell on the toe of each stocking.”
Balhoff’s stockings exude joy with traditional Santas, sleds and Christmas trees.
“I love the sparkle and whimsical look I can achieve with the beaded stockings,” she said. “Christmas is all about bling and sparkle and light. That’s why I use the bright primary colors.”
People ask Balhoff how much time it takes to make one of her stockings and if she might be interested in selling them. She starts on her stockings at the beginning of football season and works on them while she watches games.
“I spend at least 50 hours on each one,” she said, “but I wouldn’t dare part with one. They are priceless to me because I created them out of love for my grandchildren and family traditions.”