Confession: I have never even tried embroidery.
I’ve done some crocheting when I was younger. Took up knitting when I was older, but I have never gotten the hang of working with a needle and thread. The closest was sewing lessons, but all I made was an apron and I was done. The pinnacle of my needle and thread work is being able to sew a button on a shirt really, really good (I mean, like, that button is never coming off again).
I have always loved artisan crafts and admire the skill involved in producing a functional work of art by a master. A friend introduced me to the John C. Campbell Folk School and I love to flip through their catalog of classes each year, but always figured I just don’t have the skills necessary to master any of these classes. Recently though, I’ve become intrigued by Temari balls. I had no idea of their connection to the art of needlecraft until I visited the Embroidery Museum in Louisville, Kentucky when Gwen shared with me how Temari balls were her gateway into the art of embroidery and needlecraft.
Sitting down with Gwen Nelson, past president of the Embroiderer’s Guild of America (EGA) and Cynthia Welch, EGA Administrator, opened my eyes to the beautiful world of embroidery and needlecraft. The EGA operates the Embroidery Museum, which is both a museum and the headquarters of EGA. The museum is small, and when you enter, you feel like you’re walking into a private art gallery. And after you listen to this episode, I think you’ll agree that the amazing work and creativity by the embroiderers in this collection showcase how what started as a functional craft can be transformed into art.
Doll House – created by multiple members of EGA, this is the penultimate doll house. The “tiniest” details are embroidered into the furnishings – from the EGA logo in the chair cushion to the A-B-C sampler on the wall.
Harold Gordon Band Sampler – featuring one of the “men of EGA” Harold Gordon’s love of embroidery started in 1944 when he was wounded and lying in a hospital bed. A Red Cross nurse brought in some embroidery for patients to do (maybe to keep them quiet?). In his later years, while visiting his wife in the hospital every day, Harold re-awakened his love of embroidery and created this sampler. Note his 3-ring binder that is filled with his practice stitches. Since samplers were considered practice pieces, who knew you had to practice before the practice?
Blackwork – a type of running, open stitch where the back should look the same as the front, blackwork is shown in this band sampler (although this is using blue thread). There is also red work (red thread on white fabric) and white work (white thread on white fabric). This is just the beginning of the wide variety of stitches and techniques used throughout the years in embroidery.
Muriel Baker “Stumpwork” – stumpwork is a raised form of embroidery where stitched figures are raised from the surface resulting in a 3-D raised effect. This piece shows that effect in both the figures of the man and woman in the design.
Lucy Chase Canvas – dated to 1834, Lucy was 8-years-old when she completed this embroidery canvas. Lucy’s granddaughter donated this piece to the museum. 8 years old — are you kidding me? The details and shading in this piece are amazing. What was I doing at 8 years old? Probably riding my bike, reading, and just generally goofing off. Certainly not creating works of art.
Hunting Scene – the silk thread in this 1820 hunting scene from Austria brings a sheen to the piece and is an example of surface embroidery where the threads are stitched on top of the fabric or canvas instead of through it. The detail in this hunting scene is fantastic – you could almost feel the hair on the horse and the delicate wings of the butterfly.
Crewelwork – Margaret Parshall, first president of EGA, in the 1940s created this example of crewelwork. I really liked the look of this piece. A beautiful dusty blue color, this technique is also referred to as the Jacobean style, which is a type of embroidery using wool giving the piece a slightly fuzzy look.
Crane on Blue Background – created by Dr. Young Chung, this is another example of surface embroidery. The piece the museum has is about 6” x 6” and is incredibly fine, detailed work. What’s even more amazing? Dr. Chung actually has the original wall-sized piece in her studio (yes, wall-sized). Who has the patience to embroider a piece the size of a wall?
Mourning Sampler – this sampler is unique because it’s obviously a work-in-progress. The designs are at odd angles, you can tell the designer is trying out stitches. It’s a “mourning” sampler due to the harp. Although the artist isn’t known for sure, it has been dated to the 1870s.
Adam & Eve Sampler – also done by an 8-year-old (seriously, these 8-year-olds are impressive) and dated to 1789, this sampler shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Unique to this garden though is a picket fence. I think that’s known as creative license.
Village Belle – stunning in both the size (29” x 19”) and the emotion radiating from the female figure, this is an amazing example of the power of embroidery in the hands of contemporary artist Liesl Cotta De Souza. The subtle shading in the background is a form of “needle painting” and this technique also brings out the flesh tones and the richness of the fabric in her dress.
Ebikhil – this seems like an odd piece at first. On the front side is a man framed random threads just tangled and interweaving a frame around the central figure. Flip it over though and all those random threads suddenly forms people, mountains, trees, fish, a sunrise, and numerous other animals. I cannot even begin to figure out how to the creator figured this out and made this work. Mind blowing.
Audrey Francini Bench – another example of crewelwork, works by this artist are sold at auction for thousands of dollars. Proof that this craft has arrived as a legitimate art form and is recognized as such by others.
Wall Tapestry of the U.S. – Made of multiple panels worked on by stitchers across the U.S.A., each person worked on the part of the U.S. they were from and then the pieces were put together over six years. All different techniques are shown. My favorite? The gopher is pretty cute, and I’ve always been partial to beaded snakes.
Chinese portrait – when I first saw this piece, I actually thought it was a black and white photograph of a woman from the 1940’s. I thought maybe it was the artist that created the piece next to it. Nope. Created in 2000 by the artist Huijun, this is an embroidered portrait of her grandmother from a 1940s photograph. The technique used in this piece of silk embroidery is a style from China called Su Embroidery that was celebrated, banned and then resurrected. What makes this style so realistic? The silk thread is split and then split and then split again so it’s barely the width of a human hair. Wow. For more information on this form of embroidery, check out this article from the Art of Silk.
Tiger – a stunning example of thread painting by Jan Jellins, I could not get a good picture of this piece due to reflections on the glass. However, it’s aptly named “thread painting” because it literally looks like a painting. The tiger is fantastic and very life-like and stares right back at you. As Cynthia noted in the episode, there are six different colors in the eyes alone.
Florentine Sampler – if you’re a little intimidated, this piece should reassure you that not everything needs to be perfect. Listen to the episode to hear Rand Duren from EGA share why he likes this piece, which hangs right by his desk at work. Just a little reminder everyday that we’re not always perfect, but we’re still beautiful. And if you want to see a picture of the Florentine sampler, EGA actually has notecards available to purchase online using the colorful blocks from this design.
“Needlework done with the Mouth” – If you listen all the way to the end, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible story of how Martha A. Honeywell made this piece. An incredible story showcasing how someone’s love for the craft didn’t stop them from creating beautiful, delicate pieces despite a physical handicap.
The Embroidery Museum highlights my love for artisan crafts. Combining both the functional and artistic sides, embroidery embellishes and personalizes everyday objects. Not just for “little old ladies sitting on their front porch” this museum showcases where the craft started, how people engaged with it over time, and contemporary artists that are pushing the boundaries of what it can be. I am so thankful that I found this museum and was able to share their stories with you.
If you’re a museum nerd like me, then you have got to add this museum to your “must-see” list and tell them, “I heard about you on the Made in Museums podcast.”
If you love to document your travels to off-the-beaten-path places, then show me where you’re heading or where you’ve been by sharing your stories with me at Made in Museums on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you want to let me know about a curious museum that you’ve visited, and that I should cover on this show, contact me through social media or just send me an email.
Embroiderer’s Guild of America website
Find a Chapter – want to learn more about embroidery or any type of needlecraft? Check out EGA’s website for a list of chapters to find a local chapter close to you.
Classes – EGA offers in-person classes at their annual event, through correspondence courses, or online. Check out their full list and maybe find something that you’ve always wanted to try (there’s even a course for Temari balls!).
60th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee – if you’re in the Louisville, Kentucky area on October 3-7, 2018, then check out their 60th celebration. We talk about some of the activities in this episode, but we don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Travel Guide – I’ve created a travel guide for this museum highlighting the “must-see” items in the collection and any other information I thought might be helpful when planning your visit to this incredible museum.
Gift Shop – as part of supporting these great independent museums, check out the online gift shop. Rand mentions the Florentine notecards in this episode, but check out their great online gift shop to find everything they offer.
If you are visiting the Embroidery Museum, don’t forget to check out the Museum for the American Printing House for the Blind also located in Louisville, Kentucky. Check out that podcast episode and show notes for details.