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Stitching together the fabric of the University

Monday 30 September 2019 2:39pm

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A tapestry of Otago is held by members of the Otago Embroiderers’ Guild (from left) Jeanette Trotman, Jan Letts, Margaret Kennedy, Judy Mason, Shirley Jacquiery and Barbara Smith. Photos: Clive Trotman.

Care, skill, humour and attention to detail are woven into the tapestry created by the Otago Embroiderers’ Guild which tells the story of the University of Otago.

The first professors, the magnolia tree, the Leith overhung by blossom, new buildings in the backdrop, our pioneer graduates, the coat of arms, a tooth, a stethoscope, the Sextet, sport and scholarship are all stitched into the tactile, textile history.


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Some of the stunning details - four of Otago's first significant graduates.

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Otago's first three professors

The embroidered panel is one of 97 in the Tapestry Trust of New Zealand’s History in Stitch project, which started in 2011.

So far, 16 panels have been completed by embroidery guilds around the country. The University panel took six embroiderers from the Otago guild a year to complete, finishing it in time for the University’s 150th anniversary.

Meeting each Wednesday morning at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum to stitch, the group has now moved on to a new panel about electricity generation.

“We just love the project and the stitching, a great camaraderie grows up between people who stitch together,” says trust secretary Jeanette Trotman. “We have a lot of fun and put the world to rights.”

The panels are designed by Otago artists Georgina Young, Alex Gilks, Daniel Mead and Tessa Petley, with hours of research going into each topic. In the University tapestry, hidden history is also brought to life – the panel includes the southern gabled portion of the Clocktower building, which was in architect Maxwell Bury’s original plans but was never added in its original form.

Sourcing New Zealand materials, the loose-weave woollen backing comes from specially-bred sheep from Stansborough station in the Wairarapa, which also supplied the wool for many of the costumes in the Lord of the Rings movies.

The wool is sent to Milton to be spun, then back to Stansborough to be woven on historic looms. The embroidery is then worked in Strand and Appletons woollen threads, and stitches include Holbein stitch, raised hem stitch and, for the blossom, clusters of French knots.


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Stitching at Toitu (from left) are Barbara Smith, Shirley Jacquiery, Margaret Kennedy, Jeanette Trotman, Jan Letts and Judy Mason.

“We can’t do fancy stitches with the woollen material,” says Jan Letts, trust minutes secretary.

The idea for the project began in 2008 when Otago businessman Fred Haslam approached the president of the Otago guild with the idea of stitching tapestries telling the story of New Zealand.

A trust was formed and staff at the University of Otago’s Department of History provided 123 suggestions for topics and events that could be included.

The first panel completed by the Otago guild was about the settlement of Otago, followed by one on motoring which took two years to stitch.

The trust held its first exhibition of 14 of the panels at the Eastern Southland Gallery in Gore in June.

The tapestry will be on display at the University during the week of the 1869 Conference and Heritage Festival, 25-29 September.