A Needlepoint Story

Needlepoint Christmas Stocking

I love the look and feel of needlepoint and embroidery.  The whole process of selecting a pretty canvas the bright colors and textures of the woolens or silk threads is creative and fun.  And, of course, deciding on which decorative stitch to use for Santa's beard or a particular flower is a creative exercise.  Some of my favorite canvases in the shop are for Christmas stockings.  The one pictured at the left is called Wilderness Santa.

I just finished listening to A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier.  This historical novel centers around a young post-WWI woman who was left a spinster because of the dearth of men in England after the war.  Some referred to these women as “Surplus Women”.  By the end of WWI, more than 700,000 British men had been killed.  As a result, there were 1.75 million more women than men in the UK.  Many of the "Surplus Women" ended up as secretaries, teachers, clerks, nurses or governesses.  The pay was much less than men earned and many just managed to scrape by.

Like many in her situation, the protagonist in A Single Thread had to find inexpensive and interesting things to do that helped her connect to a community and build a social network of common interests and support.  She found that community at Winchester Cathedral in a group of embroiderers called “borderers.”

Winchester Cathedral

The story was fascinating and made me curious about the embroidery described in the book.  The pieces completed by the broderers were referred to as embroidery; however, the descriptions sounded more like needlepoint.  The ladies (yes, only women participated in the Winchester group at the time) made cushions and kneelers for the Winchester Cathedral.  I love embroidery, needlepoint, and crewelwork and I recognized the names of many of the stitches in the book.  What surprised me was that some of the stitches referred to needlepoint while others sounded like stitches that I associated more with embroidery.

Winchester Cathedral Choir Stall Cushions

The fabric used also confused me.  I usually think of needlepoint as worked on a stiff mesh canvas completely covered in woolen, silk, or cotton threads and and embroidery as worked on Aida cloth or linen which serves as part of the background.  Because of this difference in the supporting fabric and the coverage of the threads, it seemed more logical that cushions and kneelers would be more durable if needlepoint rather than embroidery were used.

The story inspired me to investigate the techniques used and to look for pictures of the cushions and kneelers.  I found what I was looking for on several websites.  What I found surprised me and reminded me that I have a lot to learn about needlework.  The cushions and kneelers were worked on a heavy cotton canvas-like duck cloth or wool fabric rather than the typical 14 or 18 count mesh.  Woolen threads were used to completely cover the fabric.

Louisa Pesel, a featured character in the book, was a real person and was considered an embroidery expert during the early 1900's.  In 1931, she was asked by the Bishop of Winchester Cathedral to design and organize a group of women to sew cushions for the chapel attached to his residence.  The group produced 56 cushions for the choir stalls and more than 300 kneelers.  The designs and colors were unique and based on the history and legends of the Cathedral and the country.  Each embroiderer worked her initials into the kneeler or cushion that she made.

The best reference for the story and pictures of the Winchester Cathedral cushions is Tracy Chevalier's website.

This interesting story of needlework reminded me that what we do today is a continuation of a great tradition of stitchery.  When a person stitches a pillow or Christmas stocking, it is a gift of the heart and spirit that can last for generations.  The cushions in Winchester Cathedral are still in use today.