In this post we want to formerly introduce you to Harriet Roberts - our friend, fellow crewel nut, and probably only the second person since the 17th century to stitch what we have come to refer to as The Muncaster Bed Hanging.
Over the past 10 years Harriet has gone from inquisitive customer, to top fan, to becoming our US-based kit tester and embroidery consultant. Recently she has become an integral member of our team and has helped us create the most impressive and undoubtedly highest quality crewel work kit we have ever produced.
Phillipa and Harriet and team at Pembroke house
When this project started around 2 years ago Harriet had stitched almost all of our kits – some more than once - and had been regularly testing new kits for us. In addition to having an eye for detail, Harriet is also a very fast stitcher. Phillipa could send her a kit and she would get right on it and get it done quickly. Her thoughts and her eagle eye would help us correct any mistakes and tweak any glitches.
Then, in true Turnbull style, Phillipa threw a massive curve ball, as Harriet explains:
"Phillipa told me she had a bigger project for me. But, then a GIANT box arrived. If I’m honest, I was a bit overwhelmed! The box contained the wools and linen on which [a design] had been drawn. It was huge and it took me a while to plan how I would attack this awesome project. What I did not realize at the time was that the contents of this box would take me on the most amazing and magical journey."
At 60 x 40 inches (150 x 100cm) (on a linen twill ground of 72 x 60 inches), the Muncaster Bed Hanging was by far the largest design Harriet had ever attempted to stitch. It would eventually use some 105 hanks of Appleton's wool (or 11 miles if you like to be dramatic) and map across over 16 stitch charts.
This, of course, we say with confidence now, but we knew none of it at the beginning. When Harriet received the linen she didn’t get any instructions. We would spend the next two years creating them as she worked her way through the design. All we knew was that we had a serious challenge ahead of us and that we would all need to pull together and take a major leap in skill, efficiency and productivity to get it done.
Two years down the line, with the design just days away from release, Harriet looks back at the journey she has been on with Phillipa and her team...
"I knew when I opened that box that this was going to be a completely different experience from any kit of Phillipa's I had stitched before and I quickly learned that my usual set up wasn't going to cut it. At first I started the piece on my 10 inch seat frame as I would have done with any other kit. However, it became apparent to me that I would need to switch to a large slate frame in order to make the project more manageable!
Harriet in her studio in Memphis stitching the Muncaster Bed Hanging
"I contacted Carrie Roberts at Ecclesiastical Sewing who helped me with a custom-made slate frame large enough for these bigger projects. It took about four hours to dress the frame, but once there, it was so much easier to work on - and keeping it set up in my workroom meant that my stitching became very efficient: The bed hanging was always at the ready. Because the project was so large, covering it with the tradition tissue paper while I was not working on it wasn’t practical. So, I used a pair of turquoise beach towels to cover my work and to protect it while I worked on other sections.
"My husband calls my studio my 'Command Post' as I have everything I need to work on the piece carefully positioned around the frame - three lights, my wools, needles, tweezers, thimbles, scissors, box of black beads (animal eyes), pencils, and a tape lint roller (which works well to remove the fluff from wool which has had to be removed during any unpicking), and my swivel chair.
"To keep organized, I have a folder for each motif in the design, and keep the photographs, drawings, emails, and notes that Phillipa and her team have sent me all together so if I am working on a particular leaf, I am able to look at the shading on the photograph and check with Phillipa to see if she would prefer me to use a different shade of wool or if there is a more historically-accurate color or technique to use on each stitch.
"While stitching, we have so many amazing conversations. They have been lively, funny, educational, eye-opening, and interesting! When I finish each motif, I would scan and email my notes and color charts so that Frankie and Georgie could incorporate them into both the design and the stitch instructions.
In the end it took Harriet two years to stitch what the home team affectionately now calls The Muncaster Monster (all of our kits get a second name, usually Christened by Frankie 😄) and, in that time, the team was in almost constant contact over phone, WhatsApp messaging, Facetiming, and at crucial moments, in person, as each put in their bit. Phillipa was at once a mentor, coach, tutor, and cheerleader for Harriet as she stitched.
Phillipa was right there at every step guiding stitch and colour choices as Harriet tackled each section in turn. Georgie would draft and redraft the design as each motif was tackled, moving from a rough copy to a beautiful, neat one when the final form was decided. Then, Frankie would piece together the stitch charts and assemble the instructions.
I would simply look on, mouth agog and thanking the heavens that I could no longer add any value whatsoever to this process, which has moved on so much since we created the Glasgow Bedspread some 3 years ago.
Phillipa, Laura and Harriet with the nearly finished Muncaster Bed Hanging
It can't be underestimated how much work each of these stages involves and credit has to go to each member of our team for the part they have played in bringing this design to life.
Georgie drafting a leaf shape on the rough version of the design outline
This is the first time that we have followed this method of development - with an 'apprentice' stitcher working up our main sample. Apart from the fact that Phillipa just doesn't have the time to stitch every sample we need, developing a large kit in this way was very important for other reasons. As Phillipa explains:
"Harriet is the fastest stitcher I know and we could depend on her to get this project done. With our retreats and the festival coming up I just couldn't dedicate that kind of time to stitching the design. But more importantly, we wanted to gain the in-depth, practical experience of a how a stitcher who had never seen this design before would approach and tackle it. We need to know how they feel every step of the way, where they feel a moment of doubt, a moment of joy, and what their personal goals are.
One of the magnificent tumbling leaves on the original hanging
"My personal mission has always been to enable anyone to enjoy stitching, to thrive in finding their own way, and to LOVE LOVE LOVE the process of creating their own piece of history. We need to change attitudes regarding our work, be proud of the results we achieve and share our wins and woes in true fellowship. With Harriet's experience of stitching this kit, we feel we can weave a deeper understanding of every stitcher into our instructions.
"I have lived on remote farms with small children and craved the materials to make something beautiful and whenever I received something in the post it lifted my heart. It is really important to us all to receive something that makes us feel positive, and we need our stitchers to know that we understand this.
"I really feel that the intensity of the process we have been on with Harriet has manifested in the quality and clarity in the instructions included the final kit. I wouldn't want an inexperienced embroiderer to stitch this design in the way Harriet has but that's the whole point. We have done it this way so they don't have to."
Outline for the same section as it appears on the linen
Harriet goes on "As Phillipa and I have joked before, this project is my doctorate in stitching! I have learnt so much from working on the Muncaster Bed Hanging with her and I feel so privileged to be stitching such a magnificent piece underher guidance. Through our conversations I learn so much more about crewel work."
"I have been fortunate to have spent time in previous years with Phillipa at Muncaster Castle itself. This has helped hugely while wewere communicating about the design as I was able to understand the intangible context, the atmosphere ofthe castle, the particular smell of the old linen, the light, and the incredible presence ofthe original Jacobean embroidery.
Harriet (far left) viewing the Muncaster collection with Phillipa and other students during the 2014 Lady Anne's Needlework Retreat
"When I saw the original bed hanging again at Muncaster Castle in October this year, I saw it with totally different eyes. I have the greatest respect for those who created the original embroidery, and I do feel I had their company as I stitched this piece.
The original embroidery which is one of four large bed hangings. Our kit recreates a section of the lower left of the above piece.
"It's what I love to do and it also comes with a huge amount of pride, which was particularly poignant when we showed the nearly finished design to Phillipa's retreat group during the All England Tour in September and then afterwards to the Pennington Family of Muncaster Castle."
From left to right Laura, Phillipa, Harriet, Frankie and Georgie viewing old and new together for the first time
As well as gaining approval from the family, this visit was a crucial final opportunity to check the stitches and colours and correcting any differences which may have occurred, for example, due to the difference in natural light in Memphis and the west coast of Cumbria.
Iona and Peter Frost-Pennington viewing the recreated embroidery for the first time. It was Iona's mother Phyllida Gordon Duff Pennington who first inspired Phillipa to study this bed hanging some 20 years ago.
"The pride I feel in having stitched something so magnificent is incredible and I wish for others to feel that. This embroidery has been a huge part of my life and I feel it is a small, privileged group of people who originally designed and embroidered the Muncaster Bed Hangings. I am proud to be part of that club and hope that it grows and becomes a community, giving new life to this wonderful design."
The full Muncaster Bed Hanging with some sections still to stitch
We salute you Harriet - your skill as a needleworker, your dedication, your discipline, and your kind heart. Thank you for throwing yourself in to this project and for producing a truly magnificent embroidery.
The Muncaster Bed Hanging Advanced Crewel Work Kit will officially go on sale on Wednesday 20th November. Pre-orders will be available to our interest list from Friday 15th November. You can sign up to this list here.