A trip across the border into the north of England took me back to the area where I was born and gave me the opportunity to meet up with embroiderer Tracy A. Franklin at her studio in the city of Durham, which also just happens to be the home of Durham Cathedral.
Durham Cathedral is set on a promontory in a loop of the River Wear. The building dominates the skyline and overlooks the medieval city below. The Cathedral is known for its collection of treasures, which include the Maniple and Stole of St. Cuthbert. The Treasures of St. Cuthbert are some of the most significant surviving Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the United Kingdom. Worked with gold thread and colored silks in stem stitch, split stitch, and surface couching, the set of vestments, dating from the early 10th century, is considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery.
The tradition of exquisite embroidery at the Cathedral continues to this day, as Tracy explained to me when I visited her at her studio beside the river.
“I trained at the Royal School of Needlework (RSN) in London, and I teach their certificate and diploma courses. Once the students have completed their courses, many of them continue to come to my classes to keep the momentum going. It’s important to keep them encouraged and keep them involved. They can also volunteer to stitch for the Cathedral.”
As leader of the Durham Cathedral Broderers, Tracy has worked with volunteers on many projects for the Cathedral, but her current project is probably one of the most demanding yet.
“I have designed a cope, which will be displayed at the Open Treasure exhibition at the cathedral. Around the semi-circular hem there are sixteen panels depicting St. Cuthbert’s life with the cross of St. Cuthbert on the hood. The orphreys (borders on an ecclesiastical garment) will spell Cuthbert.”
This sounds like an enormous amount of work—and it is!
Tracy explains, “I designed the cope but sixteen of my students are working on it. Each person is given two identical pieces, one to practice on and one to finish, and we meet up every second week. Even with so many people working on it, it’ll take a while.”
Not all of the Cathedral’s textile projects are so grand. At the very opposite end of the scale to these projects, Tracy and the volunteer embroiderers made tiny banners to be carried by the Lego men in the scale model of the Cathedral, which is a slightly less daunting task than embroidering the cope! The Lego model itself was an ambitious fund-raising project; containing more than 300,000 bricks, people from 182 out of the 195 countries of the world (including me when I visited a few years ago!) paid £1 a brick and placed bricks on the model.
With so much going on, it’s surprising that Tracy finds any time for her own work, but she does. Tracy said, “I’m teaching every day next week, but when I have the time I’m re-learning techniques. The RSN taught me traditional skills, including crewelwork, silk shading, goldwork, and some forms of whitework; in my own work, I consider the color, thread, stitch scale, and technique, and I often use the traditional techniques in more experimental ways. I really enjoy the contemporary approaches and working in new and interesting ways. I don’t want to become stale. The work I do for myself is very different to the work I do professionally. I love to sample, and I share my ideas on my blog or Instagram account (@tracyafranklin).”
Having attended a few of Tracy’s classes in the past, I know just how good she is at sharing her ideas and skills. It’s no wonder her students want to stick around!
Kathy Troup, born in the north of England, has lived in Scotland for many years. She edited a U.K. published stitching magazine for seventeen years and continues to write about the subjects she loves.
Featured Image: Durham Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Visit County Durham.