Stitch after laborious stitch, a group of needleworkers has re-created a bit of the fabric of Akron’s history.
The stitchers spent eight years reproducing a 17th-century set of embroidered bed linens that once decorated the Manor House of Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, the home of tire magnate F.A. Seiberling and his wife, Gertrude. When Stan Hywet opens for the season April 2, the newly completed linens will be on display in the Cromwell Room, a stop on the estate’s Nooks & Crannies Tour.
The complex process of reproducing the bedding involved researching the crewelwork stitches used on the original linens, reproducing missing portions of the design, creating a pattern and commissioning the creation of historically correct fabric and yarns.
Oh, and stitching — 5,410 hours’ worth, to be exact.
Little is known about the original Cromwell linens, other than that the Seiberlings’ decorator, Hugo Huber, bought them from New York antiques dealer Schmitt Bros. in 1916. At the time, the Seiberlings were building their country estate and striving to emulate the grand manor houses of England, so antique bedding on an old four-poster bed undoubtedly fit the look they were aiming for.
The linens — a bedspread called a counterpane, dust ruffles, bed curtains and valances — were discovered in storage during an inventory in 1982, by then badly worn. When the Stan Hywet staff consulted a textile conservation firm in 1984, it discovered the linens were made in the 1600s, although where couldn’t be determined. Probably they were stitched by the members of a manor house staff, said Diane Blinn, a Jackson Township resident who worked on the project.
Unfortunately the cost of repairing the linens was prohibitive — $6,785 at the time, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 in today’s dollars.
Enter the Stan Hywet Needlework Guild.
The group of needleworkers had done other work for the estate over the years, including a set of crewelwork bed curtains for Gertrude Seiberling’s bedroom. So when Stan Hywet approached the guild in 2004 about the possibility of reproducing the linens, it seemed like a logical fit, Blinn said. The group also saw the project as a way of giving back to Stan Hywet for playing host to its meetings, she said.
The group not only supplied the labor, but it also picked up the $5,548 cost. Proceeds from the Stitchery Showcase, the group’s annual needlework show, paid for the project.
Reproducing 400-year-old linens, however, was no simple undertaking. For one thing, the group wanted the reproduction to be historically accurate, right down to the indigo dye on the yarn. For another, it wanted the stitching to be consistent, even though many hands would contribute to the work.
On top of those challenges, there was a mystery to solve. At some point a damaged section had been removed from the original counterpane and the bedspread seamed back together, so some of the original stitching was missing.
The group spent two years researching and preparing before the embroidery work could even begin. It commissioned Thistle Hill Weavers in Cherry Valley, N.Y., to spin and dye the yarn and weave the linen and cotton twill fabric, albeit in a broader width than would have been produced in the 17th century.
A narrower fabric would have had to be woven by hand, which would have been expensive, Blinn explained. So the needlework guild opted to have the fabric machine-made and then cut it down into panels that matched the width of the originals, she said.
Getting the wool just right was a challenge. The original wool was too thin, Blinn said, so it had to be sent back so two strands could be twisted together. That meant the stitchers had to be careful about how they threaded their needles so the yarns wouldn’t twist incorrectly as they worked.
The yarn’s dye proved problematic, too. It kept rubbing off and turning the stitchers’ hands blue, so it had to be sent back repeatedly for redyeing.
The group decided in the planning process to vary from the original linens in a few ways, Blinn said. It changed the size of the counterpane, fashioning it in a size that allows it to be positioned on the bed in different ways to cut down on damaging sun exposure and creasing. It also made the side curtains in a uniform size — the originals were different sizes — and created extra valances so they could be rotated for conservation purposes.
Creating a pattern for the crewelwork was a laborious process, but also an inventive one. “There was no handbook to this,” Blinn noted.
First, members of the group laid clear Mylar on the original linens and traced the stitching with a marker. Then member Joyce Feucht transferred those markings onto tissue and added a design for the lost section, which she devised by studying the original and figuring out what was missing.
Finally, the tissue pattern was transferred to the fabric, using a jury-rigged light box devised by suspending a sheet of Plexiglas between two tables and lighting it from below with spotlights borrowed from Stan Hywet’s holiday lighting display. When the tissue was laid on the Plexiglass, covered with fabric and lighted, the pattern became visible through the fabric and could be drawn onto it with fine-point markers.
Before the crewel embroidery could begin, though, stitchers needed to be chosen for the project. Members had the opportunity to audition by stitching a sample, and only those who used a similar stitch length and tension were chosen.
For the next six years, stitchers met at least once a week and sometimes more in Stan Hywet’s third-floor dormitory to work together on the project. “Sometimes just two of us [would show up]. Sometimes six or seven,” Cuyahoga Falls resident Carla Waggoner recalled.
“I was up here by myself a couple of times,” fellow stitcher Candy Marang of Norton said. “That was boring.”
They’d spend eight hours or more stitching, but their conversation made the time pass quickly, Waggoner said.
The stitchers couldn’t wear gloves while they worked, so instead they washed their hands frequently and wiped off the sweat as they worked to avoid dirtying the fabric. They stored the linens in plastic totes to protect them from dust and pollen, and they were careful to clean the tables before each work session.
The stitchers embroidered the counterpane in halves, and then joined the halves together and embroidered over the seam. Almost miraculously, the crewelwork designs matched perfectly when the halves were sewn together.
Altogether 29 stitchers worked on the project, including a few visiting needlework instructors who were invited to add their handiwork. The signatures of all 29 names are stitched into a seam of the counterpane, along with the start and end dates of the embroidery and the total number of hours they logged.
“It was definitely a labor of love,” Marang said. “And time, and research, and trial and error.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.