Perhaps the most famous and best-preserved expression of a significant historical event through the medium of embroidery is the Bayeux Tapestry.
While the Bayeux Tapestry is perhaps the most celebrated embroidered tapestry in the world, it’s not the only embroidered tapestry in the world. In recent decades especially, many communities have joined together to tell their own stories with needle and thread.
If you’ve been following along with me over the years, you may already know that I have A Thing for these community tapestry projects. I’ve written about a number of them here on Needle ‘n Thread.
Community heritage tapestries are grand initiatives that involve a lot of different people in various levels of the community, from historians, to artists, needleworkers (whether skilled or beginners), educators, fundraisers, and other volunteers. These embroidered tapestries develop over several (or more) years. The result is often a museum quality piece that becomes a springboard for other community initiatives. In many cases, heritage tapestries become an attraction that draws people to visit and learn about communities that they might not otherwise encounter.
Heritage tapestries are a powerful way to get a whole community involved and enthusiastic not just about needlework and art, but about their own history, their own story, their own particular struggles and triumphs as a community, and to hand that story down to future generations. They have a unique way of binding a community together.
Not long ago, Linda Suter reached out to me to tell me about a tapestry developing in the Shenandoah Valley, in Winchester, Virginia, that celebrates the story of their community from the Civil War to contemporary times. I asked her if I could share their journey with all of you, and they kindly sent along a write-up and photos.
So, sit back, relax, and let’s delve into their story of how their tapestry developed, where it is now, and where it’s going! The following guest article is written by Linda Suter, with very little editing. I hope you enjoy it! (You can click most of the photos for larger versions.)
The Shenandoah Tapestry Project was first envisioned by a ladies social club in Stephens City, Virginia. The Multicultural Club Collage (the Club) is a creative, artistic group of ladies who are needle arts enthusiasts, though few are professional embroiderers.
The roots of the current initiative go to 2012 when the group was contemplating to start a community project celebrating the area we live in – the Northern Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, its history, people and nature. The question was how to do this.
The Club came upon a painting (above), commissioned by Margaretta Barton Colt, author of Defend the Valley, and done by Page Huff Dillon. This painting spawned the idea of interpreting this artwork into a tapestry of fabric and thread. We believe what makes The Shenandoah Valley Tapestry unique is that it is based on an original artist’s painting, not a design specifically created for embroidery.
Page Huff Dillon and Margaretta Barton Colt had donated the copyright for the painting to the Winchester Frederick County Historical Society (WFCHS) who made large poster size prints of the painting to sell and raise money. So, the Club contacted the Society and received permission to interpret the painting in the form of a tapestry. For two years the Club tried to get this project off the ground, until we finally engaged the Winchester Chapter of the Embroidery Guild of America (EGA). This joining was the catalyst needed.
The project group evaluated several approaches for getting the job done. The Sunbury Millenium Embroidery (one of the UK’s famous tapestries) served not only as an inspiration, but as a model. Sunbury Embroiderers helped us with many technical questions.
The poster print of the painting was taken to a special printer (one that prints and copies large blue prints). We got a copy enlarged exactly proportioned to the painting to the size we needed – 51”x76”.
This enabled us to make tracings of different elements – buildings, trees, animals, etc. – for our stitchers. The tracings were transferred onto slips of kona cotton, congress cloth, even weave, plain weave, etc. depending on what each stitcher decided to do.
Duck was chosen as a background fabric. We were challenged by the size – how do we stitch onto something so large and awkward to work on? After an unsuccessful attempt to keep the tapestry as a whole cloth, we decided to divide it up into 9 different panels, or neighborhoods, which made it easier to work on. Each of the elements would be stitched onto slips and appliqued onto the background duck for each panel, then at the end all the panels would be stitched together.
The underlying idea of this project is to celebrate the diversity of people and stitching styles in our community by coming together in a collaborative project for the community. Everyone was encouraged to create their building (or tree, or animal) with their own individual interpretations. The end result is a tapestry that is as unique as are the diverse mix of styles and techniques used to create each building, or animal, or tree, or other element.
The very first stitching completed was in 2014 – a historic building, the Log Cabin.
The cabin was stitched onto a plain weave beige fabric using Appleton crewel wool, fabric, wool fabric pieces, cotton floss, craft twine, and other specialty threads. This is a free style interpretive mixed fabric interpretation that reminds one of a rustic, old log cabin. Perfect!
With 36 different buildings to stitch, it took quite a while to get them all assigned to volunteer stitchers.
For cross stitchers, we used a program that allowed us to color copy a photo of the house or building being stitched into a cross stitch diagram, and these were used by all the cross stitchers among us.
Others used fabric pencil coloring, cotton floss, kreinik, fabric, crewel wool, ribbon, fabric paint, wool felt, floche, and other specialty threads.
Some are using machine embroidery, most are hand stitching.
The background duck fabric was painted with a light color wash of green. The road is a Moda Marbles fabric, the sky is painted, the sun is appliqued fabric, and the clouds are a specialty gauzy thread.
Having started with buildings, we then focused on trees, followed by people, animals and further finer details and embellishments. There was something for everyone to stitch, no matter the level of their experience.
Stitchers and Partners
From the initial start of a small Club, to the engagement of the Winchester EGA, we grew from a few people to about 80 or so. We partnered with other EGA chapters, and we spread to gather in members of American Needlepoint Guild (ANG) as well.
Each year the project grows in numbers – at first by a lot. Now we still add members, little by little. We believe the new participants add fresh enthusiasm and help us keep the project going.
We also partnered with the Handley Regional Library in Winchester, which itself is one of the main buildings in Page Huff Dillon’s painting.
The Library has become a home for the project, where we hold our monthly meetings. The Library has a large archive department where we were able to work with the archivist, Becky Ebert, to discover a lot of historical information about the individual buildings, people and life in the Valley. Becky Ebert also helped us organize house tours and special programs during our Tapestry milestone celebrations.
The other primary partner of the Tapestry project is The Village at Orchard Ridge (a retirement community in Winchester), who offered us the use of their sewing room. We use this room not only to come together and stitch, but also for our Tapestry stitching workshops and seminars.
We are using the Winchester Frederick County Historical Society as our fiduciary so that we are a fully sanctioned 501-3c non-profit. We have created a house adoption program to solicit donations of $250 for each house. The adopter gets a signed photo of the stitched house. The money will be used for mounting and for future conservation of the tapestry.
These events keep us focused on completion points in the tapestry. They encourage community attendance, and they celebrate the stitchers working on the Tapestry. We work hard to celebrate our milestones twice a year, in spring and in the fall, when the lovely Handley Library auditorium becomes the meeting point for everyone who supports the project. We have had Page Huff Dillon as the speaker, while Margaretta Barton Colt came to launch the project and participated at several of our milestone celebrations.
In 2016, we introduced the Shenandoah Valley Tapestry Artists’ Awards to celebrate stitchers’ outstanding artistic accomplishments at each of our milestone celebration events. The awards are nominal (i.e. ribbons or tassels) because the main purpose is to acknowledge the wonderful work the stitchers are doing.
At our last celebration we had the “Tree of Tree” award as well as some other artistic and creativity awards. We all vote – it is fun – and the winners are excited to have their work recognized.
Other Tapestry milestone celebration events have been the completion of all the houses, celebration of the trees, and celebration of the people in the valley. Next year we will have a celebration for the animals of the valley. These milestone celebrations really keep the motivation up.
At the initial kick-off celebration on November 14, 2015, our Take-a-Stitch Station was set up. We selected a subject (the Handley High School), traced it onto plain weave, put it on a large frame and mounted it on a System 4 floor stand.
We then provided some needles threaded up with green thread and offered people to take one stitch on the bushes surrounding the school.
Once they take the stitch, they sign the official archive Record Book that will be kept in perpetuity in the Handley Library archives and they also receive “I Took A Stitch in Time” button to wear with pride!
We’ve had pre-school children and senior citizens, boys and girls, men and women taking maybe the first stitch in their life. We had a little girl put the needle in the top, crouch down under the frame to find it, and then push it back up. It has been such a joy to see all these people participate.
We have somewhere over 1,000 different stitchers from all over the USA and other countries who have taken a stitch in time. We have the Take-a-Stitch Station at all our celebration events. We have taken it to the Embroidery Guild of America National Seminar and plan to do this at the American Needlepoint Guild National Seminar next year. It is a great promotion for our project.
Where We Are Now
We have been fortunate to have a member on our team who is a professional museum curator and conservator who made a frame for our tapestry. It is a museum quality frame covered with archival fabric onto which we can mount our tapestry.
Although we are nearing completion of the individual panels, we still have a way to go. We had our initial “fitting” of the 9 panels coming together. We are in discussions on how best to join them at the seams and determining what needs tweaking.
At the same time we are working on embellishments – trees, animals, flowers, the clouds in the sky, grass, etc.
The Tapestry project had an unexpectedly pleasing off shoot – a children’s stitching program being held at the Handley Library called Stitch a Story. It is held one Saturday a month and both children and their parents love it. In fact, some of the children have stitched trees onto slips that are being appliqued onto the Tapestry. Isn’t that wonderful?
Where We Go Next
On November 18, 2017 we will hold a celebration at the Handley Library about the people and Life as it was in the Valley. At this celebration we will display all nine individual panels and have a presentation about the people and their lives in the Valley. There are so many people depicted in stitching on the Tapestry and their stories are sure to be interesting.
In Spring 2018, we have selected our milestone event to be celebration of the animal world of the Valley. There are even more animals than people on the Tapestry and this celebration will bring to light animal husbandry, wild life, pets and more.
We also have a feature article that will be published in an upcoming EGA Needle Arts magazine. And a brand new endeavor is to have each stitcher write up a little story about their stitching experience in preparation for publishing a book about the Tapestry.
We hope that the Tapestry project will be finished by the end of 2018.
This is Irina Galunina and Nina Vasallo – the two ladies who started it all with an idea!
We would also like to thank our wonderful volunteer professional photographer, Olga Chernyatyeva.
Follow The Journey!
Although the Shenandoah Valley Tapestry Project doesn’t have their own website, you can still follow all their adventures online through the Shenandoah Valley Tapestry Project Facebook page – it’s quite active, you’ll find heaps of photos and updates on all their activities.
Their next big activity is November 18th, when they will be celebrating the two-year anniversary of the tapestry project in a program called Life in the Valley. If you’re interested in checking them out, keep an eye on their Facebook page for the information on that event!