The Genesis of Collections

by Susan Dawson
Originally Published Summer 2000

Embroiderers seem to have a number of characteristics in common. Collecting seems to be one of them. Some collect unfinished projects, others a wall full of “trophies,” great pieces done at seminars or a wonderful project taught by that special teacher. Still others collect tools, threads, and/or books. What do you collect?

Many of us collect embroideries. It starts simply enough. Maybe we started a collection through an inheritance or a memento given by a special friend or relative. My mother-in-law had saved doilies and table linens that she and older family members had made. As each child married, the wife received some of these. I thought it was a wonderful gesture … it was several years before it dawned on me that I also had things from my family. They were part of the miscellaneous items my mother sent me off with when I got my first apartment. They included table clothes and napkins she had made in a time before I was born, when she still embroidered. I had heirlooms that I did not even know about.

Gradually, as we study embroidery, each of us learns to appreciate the rich variety of embroidery around us. Suddenly we begin to see it and then notice that some of it is available for sale. I remember a closing banquet at one of the first Assemblies I attended, before the Academy was the Academy, where a crazy quilt was auctioned off. It suddenly dawned on me that needlework was not always treasured and retained by families; that I did not have to wait for gifts or random occurrences; and I did not have to rely solely on my own labors. Instead, I could purchase finished embroideries!

This is a dangerous realization. Embroidery is available for sale. Quality work is available in every price range from a few dollars for finely worked hankies to the most elegant double-sided panels running upwards of six figures.

Gradually, a few pieces lead to a few more. Each piece has a story or several stories. There is the work itself, which attracts us because it is interesting and beautiful. Then there is the cultural context. Why are molas made in pairs? Did you know that a figure wearing glasses in a mola is probably an evil figure? If you are lucky, as with my family pieces, there is also a personal story. My great-grandmother was a great embroiderer. One of her crazy quilts is in a museum, but the quilt I have was made as she was going blind; it was one of her last … the work is not as fine as she had once done but I understand the perseverance behind it and love it for that. Over time it is not enough just to have a lovely piece a work, each piece requires research, an attempt at understanding.

Do you have a special piece of embroidery that you love? Do you know something of its history? I would love to hear about your work and I am sure those who attend Assembly would love to see it. Your treasure could enrich all of our lives. Please consider sharing your treasure(s) by having it exhibited in the Exemplary.