Washington National Cathedral is a treasure trove of stone carvings, but it is also home to more than 1,500 needlepoint seat cushions, kneelers, and wall hangings. On Oct. 18, 134 people gathered in the cathedral for a symposium to learn more about the design, craft, preservation, and restoration of fine needlework. The symposium was held in conjunction with a needlework exhibit in the South Transept.
“This has been a long time in the making; this turnout is enormously gratifying,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, cathedral dean.
“We are many things to many people, but primarily we are a sacred space,” he added. “The adornment of that sacred space says a lot about who we are.”
In 1954, the Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre, Jr. — dean of the cathedral from 1951 to 1978 — suggested adding religious needlepoint to the stone building after he saw fine needlework in Europe. Sayre remarked on “those touches of color and quiet evidence of care which brings warmth and love to cold stone.” His vision led to the formation of the cathedral’s volunteer needlepoint committee.
Each piece of needlepoint in the cathedral is unique, involving the combination of a professional artistic designer and volunteer stitcher. Some stitchers, like Nancy Hussey, have done many pieces across decades; she proudly showed TLC a scrapbook with photos and clippings of the stitched works she has provided to the cathedral for 30 years. While most of the needlepoint in the cathedral depicts traditional themes, the space window exedra cushion uses contemporary cosmic imagery derived from the cathedral’s famed Space Window; it shows the blue Earth as it would appear from the moon. The stitcher took more than three years to complete this cushion.
Needlework has a life expectancy of more than 100 years, and no cathedral piece is ever discarded. Prominently displayed at the symposium was a long, horizontal “Sea to Shining Sea” piece of needlework that suffered severe water damage. The cost to restore it is $5,000. The price to repair a standard kneeler in one of the cathedral’s chapels is $1,000; the cost to repair one of the diocesan cushions in the great choir is $1,200. A project to restore these cushions started in 2013. Restoration is a multistep process, including evaluating what the piece needs, disassembling the cushion or kneeler, placing an inset (if needed), cleaning, blocking, and reassembly. If a cushion or kneeler needlepoint piece cannot be restored completely, sometimes it can be made into a wall hanging.
Indeed, like all the artwork in the cathedral, fine needlepoint requires regular restoration and preservation, said invited speaker Nancy Lukoskie, owner of Fancywork Finishing in Easton, Maryland. Lukoskie apprenticed under the cathedral’s altar guild as well as with an established company, June Bug Enterprises, that specialized in finishing needlework for the cathedral.
Lukoskie described finishing the canticle (song) cushions in the great choir, and a special needlepoint project she helped bring to fruition for Beauvoir, the cathedral’s elementary school for preschoolers and children through third grade. Beauvoir children wanted to donate a bench cushion to the Children’s Chapel, known for its baby animal needlework; Lukoskie helped to design the cushion, with the guidance of the children, and one of the Beauvoir teachers volunteered to do the stitching.
Invited speaker Kimberley Ivey, curator of textiles and historic interiors at Colonial Williamsburg, described how the art and craft of fine needlework developed in the United States, building on a heritage of stitching in Great Britain.
“Decorative needlework was one method in which the founding mothers could contribute to their homes,” she said. It was a way women could express themselves creatively in a socially acceptable manner at a time when women stayed home. “These women were true artists, and they deserve to be recognized as artists.”
For example, she said, in addition to seat cushions, women stitched intricate needlework for fireplace screens, which were designed to protect their complexions from the flames as they sat by the fire. Much colonial stitching, including artwork by Martha Washington, was produced in the 17th and 18th centuries.
From the beginnings of its history “needlework has been intricately linked to religion,” Ivey said. Schoolgirls worked samplers, and Old Testament stories such as Solomon and Sheba and the sacrifice of Isaac were popular themes.
“A female’s hands were rarely idle,” Ivey said. Asked by TLC when American women began stitching for churches, she said that trend began in the 19th century. But even before women stitched expressly for churches, “Religious affiliations influenced the look of early American needlework pieces, as did the death of George Washington.” The Moravians were especially known for their exquisite needlework.
Invited speaker Catherine Kapikian, founder and director emeritus of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., described her work commissioning communities to stitch large-scale ecclesiastical needlepoint works for specific religious sites. Author of Art in Service of the Sacred, Kapikian designed the Gerald R. Ford presidential kneeler for Washington National Cathedral, along with many other works for churches and synagogues throughout the country.
In a contemporary version of traditional quilting circles, stitchers in communities come together to help create the works she designs that will hang in their places of worship, Kapikian said. “It’s wonderful for the community to be engaged in the chaos of creation,” she said. “Engagement like this is so therapeutic on so many levels.”
Community-engaged stitching becomes “the work of the people,” Kapikian said, citing a woman stitcher with advanced cancer who wanted to keep working as long as she could. Kapikian showed slides of very different works she had designed for a contemporary Lutheran church, an Episcopal church, a Methodist church, a retirement community chapel, the University of Maryland Chapel, and a chapel at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She said designing includes making a complex full-scale drawing or model with color directions for the entire piece.
“My fingers are itching to start stitching,” one participant in the symposium said. Proceeds from the per-person ticket price of $125, along with donations from symposium patrons, will be used to benefit preservation of Washington National Cathedral’s needlework.
Image of needlework courtesy of Craig Stapert, Washington National Cathedral