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The Seagirt Shire Tapestry

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The Seagirt Shire Tapestry
by Isela di Bari

In July 1999 the Shire of Seagirt, located in the Kingdom of An Tir, became a Barony! The Shire’s history has been immortalized in an embroidery which is now referred to as the Seagirt Tapestry.

This magnificent undertaking, which now measures over 150 feet long, was the brainchild of Master Cathal Sean O’Connlauin, after he was inspired in 1984 by embroiderer Pat Russel from England and later that year by an article written about the Bayeux Tapestry. Pat Russel is a British calligrapher, member of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, an embroiderer with expertise in machine embroidery and applique, and a designer who created the designs for the religious vestments worn at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Dianne. In addition she has worked on numerous altar hangings and church tapestries. Cathal took a 5-day workshop from Russel the summer before the Seagirt Tapestry was conceived. Cathal recalled that the workshop had concentrated on shape and colour in large areas with an emphasis on design and colour balance. “My experience in this workshop gave me the confidence to envision the kind of project which became the Seagirt Tapestry when I came across Mistress Janet of Arden’s article in Elf Hill Times,” Cathal remembered.

Mistress Gudrun, formerly known as Madelene de Vos, recalled at the time she was Mistress of Arts when Cathal drew on paper 40 feet of full sized designs which “he then presented at council and sold the idea to the populace.”

“The idea sounded great, and as I was Mistress of Arts… I undertook the task of organizing the “how” of it,” remembered Gudrun. The plan was to create an embroidery chronicling the local events and history of the shire. They planned to mention Rulers and Officers and such events as the Daffodil Tournament to determine Defender of Seagirt”, the Bitterwaters War and camping event, the Seagirt Secret Touney, and any other events significant to Seagirt. Their Tapestry would also record awards granted to their shire members such as the Award of Arms, Jambe de Lio, and Goute de Sange, as well as membership into the orders of the Pelican, Laurel and Chivalry.

After many conferences regarding the order of events and relative importances, Cathal started drawing the first 30 pieces, followed by 3 more drawn by Eileen Falconer, the next 17 by Cathal and Kate, and later continued under the artistry of shire member Rollande. To maintain the focus for an undertaking of this magnitude and for record keeping purposes, all aspects of the tapestry were channeled through Cathal and Gudrun.

The Shire experimented first on samplers with various yarns, suppliers and thicknesses before deciding that the finer yarns worked best. In their chronicled account of the development of this tapestry, it was mentioned that the designers and needleworkers had thought about spinning and dying their own yarn. However, “we were too eager to begin the project to wait.”

Instead they decided to purchase $30 worth of “thrums”, wool remnants of the weaving process. “Thrums are cut from the loom and come complete with knot that held the threads to the loom. A waste from weaving, they are very good lengths for embroidery but in this case, they came in limited colors, were of uneven thickness and therefore weak for embroidery on our fabric. We dyed some of the yarn to expand the available range, but found we had insufficient light colored thrums to make this practical. We weren’t sure if we could find enough to fulfill our needs (we didn’t at that time know what our needs would be!). We opted for single ply wool on a cone as is used by weavers; $96.76 (of wool) was purchased in the required colors. We purchased colors used in the Bayeux influenced by available colors and our preference for shades plus pink and purple for Viscount Edward and for the cow, plus black and grey for weapons, arms, and heraldic devices. Cathal had already found and purchased (on sale for $35.40) a bolt of 100% unknown fibre for the basis of the work.”

Cathal and Gudrun prepared instruction sheets from Janet Arden’s Elf Hills Times article. After they studied the returned samplers and decided what they wanted as uniform methodology, a more detailed sheet was written and given to the needleworkers.

The first samplers were handed out to experiment with yarns, stitches and colors. It was noted in their records that later the samplers “were a means for perspective needleworkers to learn the stitches and to prove their skill, worthiness, and dedication” to work on the tapestry. Each needleworker was then supplied with a pattern or given the freedom to design their own pattern as long as it used laidwork, couching and outline stitches.

Most of the materials were handed out in May, 1985. Gudrun prepared kits for each embroiderer consisting of one tapestry panel with design and colors marked on it, pre-measured yarns of 18 in. lengths with each color bundled into groups of 50, detailed instructions, and a time sheet for recording the yarns used and hours worked on the tapestry.

The first phase of the embroidery work included 21 embroiderers… 7 men and 14 women.

Group workshops and individual instruction enabled the needleworkers to develop what they called “tricks”. For example, one of the needleworkers known as Enid showed her co-workers how to lay the threads so that they followed the curve of the ship. Another needleworker known as Mark used the second layer of laid work to resemble the lashing on an SCA shield.

Of course, with as many people involved and as many panels being worked, the unexpected was bound to happen along the way. One panel was already halfway complete when it was stolen from a vehicle, wine was spilled on the tapestry, and another panel was returned with bargello stitching rather than the desired laid and couched work. However, there were some pleasant surprises, too! New needleworkers came to help with the same determination as those who had started the project. A variety of border designs from simple to complex were embroidered. And inspite of pierced fingers, sore backs and wearied eyes, there was an evergrowing sense of pride as needleworkers one by one completed the panels and left their individual marks or initials.

Exactly one year and one day after Cathal initiated his idea, this group of needleworkers was able to show the populace the first results of their determination at 12th Night. A.S. XX (1986) in Lionsgate. They proudly dedicated the tapestry to Her Serene Highness Janeltis who, during her reign as Princess of An Tir, had encouraged needleworkers.

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