For this week’s #MyLocalMuseum theme of ‘Special Occasions’, we are going to be looking at a very special celebration of our own. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Quaker Tapestry, which was conceived in 1981. To mark this momentous occasion, we are going to be looking back at the history of the panels and how the project initially came about.

Jonathan Stocks age 50 and inset, age 11.

How it all began…

The Quaker Tapestry came into being as a result of a chance remark by an eleven-year-old boy attending a small Quaker Meeting in Taunton, Somerset in 1981. Jonathan Stocks was the only child his age at Anne Wynn-Wilson’s children’s class. Anne had the idea of creating a frieze to tell some of the stories of the early Quakers. After telling them these stories, she asked the children to draw them and colour them in. Anne wanted to brighten up the children’s room. Jonathan, however, felt he had had plenty of practice colouring pictures of bible stories on Sunday mornings and wanted to do something different. He suggested making a collage or mosaic and soon he and Anne had progressed onto the idea of a tapestry.

Anne was an accomplished embroiderer, as at that time she was taking a City and Guilds embroidery course and doing her thesis on the Bayeux Tapestry. She had a moment of inspiration one afternoon while washing the pots after lunch. She had what she called ‘a vision’ – in the fairy liquid bubbles, she saw a number of large individual colourful tapestry panels telling the story of those early Quakers.

In 1982 she mounted a display of work in progress and her ideas and determination aroused an enthusiastic response from many Quakers. Designers came forward, embroidery groups formed and training workshops were arranged.

A work in progress

Enthusiasm for the project spread and eventually more than 4,000 men, women and children in 15 countries ‘had a hand’ in the creation of the Quaker Tapestry. Many did not know anything of embroidery. However, the core 300 or so embroiderers who carried out the main part of the work enabled them to put in at least a few stitches. Other people carried out extensive research on the history depicted in the panels, discovering topics as varied as sixteenth-century trade to the texture of ermine and broadening their own knowledge in the process.

The tapestry tells of Quaker events and insights and is a celebration of the significant contribution made by them. These span from the 17th century to the present day. Stories from the forefront of the industrial revolution, developments in science and medicine, astronomy, the abolition of slavery, social reform, and ecology are all revealed from within the stunning needlework.

Finally completed in 1996, the result is 77 panels of narrative ‘crewel’ embroidery on specially woven wool cloth, with each individual panel measuring 25″ (635mm) by 21″ (533mm). Anne even inadvertently invented a brand new stitch, now called the ‘Quaker Stitch’ after the project.

The tapestry had started out as a children’s assignment. Because of this, Anne had specifically wanted the stiches to be usable by novices and experienced embroiderers alike. For this reason, she also purposely chose a woollen background cloth, rather than the traditional linen. The woollen cloth is far more forgiving of mistakes and allows for stitching to be unpicked, if necessary, without showing the needle marks.

Anne Wynn-Wilson

A lasting legacy…

Since the first public exhibition in 1989 Tapestry panels have been displayed in over 170 venues within the British Isles, Europe and America. It is testament to the passion and shared sense of community of an amazing group of people.

The Quaker Tapestry, its stories, talks and embroidery workshops continue to inspire people to take up the needle and ‘have a go’ at the stitches. As a result, people have taken the concept forward create their own projects, both small and large. Quakers in Australia were inspired to embark on their own selection of stories using the same stitches and techniques. There are many other examples of textiles which the Quaker Tapestry proved a inspiration for within faith and community groups.

In 1994 the Tapestry found a permanent home at the Quaker Meeting House in Kendal, Cumbria. The resulting Quaker Tapestry Museum is now housed within this Grade 2* Listed Georgian building. The local architect and builder Francis Webster originally designed it as a meeting house in 1816.

We look forward to welcoming you in 2021 to help us celebrate the Quaker Tapestry’s 40th anniversary!

Further Information

If you enjoyed reading this blog, check out some of our other blog posts:

Find out about the history of the innocent trades

Discover the fascinating story of the pioneering scientist John Dalton

Learn how Stramongate School helped the First World War effort through gardening and land work

Supporting the Quaker Tapestry

We hope you have enjoyed reading our blog and gained an insight into the history of the Quaker Tapestry.

We couldn’t accept and care for our tapestries and other wonderful artefacts without our dedicated Care and Conservation team.

However we need your help to…

– Create an improved database of the extensive Quaker Tapestry collection of supplementary items

– Develop best practice of the Care and Conservation volunteers through further training

Your donation will help us achieve our goals and ensure the longevity of the exhibition and collection. Please consider making a donation

Quaker Tapestry Facts

The colourful tapestry panels each measure 63.5cm x 53.3cm. They use a mix of five ancient stiches, as well as a new one, invented for the project. Embroiderers around the world now use the ‘Quaker Stitch’.

World traveller and writer Alexander McCall Smith, says they’re one of the ‘six best tapestries’ to see in the world.

The panels help you find out about famous scientists, engineers, bankers, botanists and non-conformists who pioneered industrial welfare, fair trade, prison reform, peace work and anti-slavery initiatives. Many were Cumbrians.

Begun in 1981 and completed in 1996, they’re the work of 4,000 men, women and children from around the world. Some of the panels made journeys of thousands of miles as they passed from one group of people to another.

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“I loved creating my embroidered panel. This was by far the most enjoyable art project I have ever completed and I am so pleased with my final piece.”

Mia Beech, year 9 pupil Lisburn School