New Lanark Guest Blog
by Bridget Guest, Manager of the Quaker Tapestry
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” I hesitantly asked the visitor who was in tears in front of one of the Tapestry panels… she was alright – just a little overwhelmed by the emotion of seeing something she had been longing to see. The visitor, a woman of about my age, was from Australia and had heard so much about the Quaker Tapestry but the experience of seeing the panels ‘in the flesh’ exceeded all her expectations.
The Quaker Tapestry definitely has a wow factor – but, I hasten to add, doesn’t always bring on a flood of tears! The vibrancy and richness of the colours are not possible to portray in print or film – you really do need to see the embroideries.
‘Inspirational’ is the word most often used by visitors to describe it, with the ability to ‘speak’ to people in different ways. As one person, on a third visit, explained: “The first time I saw it – I read all the written information in the panels and the inspirational quotes; the second time I enjoyed the storytelling quality of the panels and was surprised at how much of the social history I didn’t know; and this time I have actually noticed the stitches!”
I have been working with the Quaker Tapestry since 1994 when we established the permanent home for the exhibition in Kendal, Cumbria. With a background in art, design, illustration and a love of all textiles, when I spend time with the panels I am usually examining the embroidery stitches. Just how many colours of wool does it take to create an evocative sunset, what brilliance produced a three dimensional engine funnel or created a perspective in a landscape that allows you to see for miles?
It wasn’t until February 2001, that I became absorbed by the stories and social history within the Quaker Tapestry. We were exhibiting the Tapestry at Beverley Minster the hometown of Ann Nichols, one of the four main teachers who enabled the 4,000 men, woman and children to create the 77 Quaker Tapestry panels between 1981 and 1996. Ann is such a wonderful storyteller and has the ability to gently reel-in her audience. She had gathered a class of 9-year-old school children around her and one of the panels. You could have heard a pin drop as they sat with open mouths on the stone floor of the dimly lit Minster, listening to the tale of Richard Sellar, a young sailor from Scarborough who was press ganged to fight in the 17th century Dutch War.
A 19-year-old Quaker, Richard refused to fight and as a result he was made an example of by the captain with punishments such as keelhauling and hanging by his thumbs from the yardarm and whipping “until the blood ran red over his back”. Ann’s years in teaching had given her the skills to enthral the children as they listened to every gruesome detail. Children of their age had illustrated and embroidered the story at the bottom of this panel. Little hands went up to answer her carefully crafted open questions about how they might feel if those gory things had happened to them. I was also enthralled at Ann’s delivery and I hadn’t noticed that my partner Roy had grabbed a blanket from the back of the shop to creep up behind the group of children at the end of the story and surprise us all by throwing the blanket over them with a loud shout of “here comes the pressgang!!” Needless to say, the screams of fright, surprise and laughter helped to lighten the mood.
Richard Sellar’s story stayed with me for several weeks and Roy and I were inspired to write a song about him. This led on to other research and song writing until we found we had an album of songs inspired by the Quaker Tapestry entitled ‘Universal Chorus’. In another life Roy and I sing as a duo on the Folk scene and our claim to fame is that we sang the title song from the album on the BBC TV programme Songs of Praise in 2002!
Over the years the Quaker Tapestry and its stories of remarkable people have inspired all sorts of people to produce: poetry, song, theatre, other textile projects small and large, Scottish dances, music, sculpture, university students and lecturers, films, books and TV programmes… to name a few!
See the Quaker Tapestry at New Lanark in August – but beware…. this community textile has the ability to inspire and change lives! Exhibition open at New Lanark from Tuesday 11th to Saturday 29th August.
Come along to hear Bridget tell you more about the fascinating stories of the Quaker Tapestry and anecdotes of the people who made it. It may inspire you to do something wonderful.
Bridget’s talk – Friday 28th August 2015, Robert Owen’s School for Children, 6.30 for 7.30pm. Tickets £4, available by calling 01555 661345 or online.
Quaker Tapestry Museum in Kendal is open February to December each year for more information about this and embroidery workshops visit the website: http://www.quaker-tapestry.co.uk