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The Long Thread: Dawn Cook Ronningen

Dawn Cook Ronningen, Historian, Needleworker, and Needlework Tool Collector

Piecework Editorial Staff Aug 9, 2021 - 6 min read

The Long Thread: Dawn Cook Ronningen Primary Image

Dawn Cook Ronningen stands in front of a gallery wall in her studio. Her collection includes textiles and needlework from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the needlework tools used to make them. Photos courtesy of Dawn Cook Ronningen

How did you become a needleworker?

When I was about seven years old, my grandmother gave me a dime-store hoop, embroidery floss, and a stamped dresser scarf to embroider. I remember being just as intrigued with the threads and colors as I was by the stitches she taught me. She also gave me a set of crochet hooks and taught me to crochet. She insisted I learn to read a pattern. Using yarn and following a doily pattern, I created my first crochet piece. I think learning to follow the crochet code in the written instructions also encouraged my love of numbers.

In college, I worked part-time at a needlework shop. I became interested in historic embroidery and reproducing the stitches. My favorite projects involved designs with numerous stitches and colors. I started with eighteenth-century band samplers on natural linen. The shop hosted a Hardanger trunk show and that inspired me to learn Hardanger.

How did you become interested in collecting needlework tools?

Because I admired handwork, I wanted to learn how each piece was done, and exploring the process led me to the supplies and tools. As I researched the needlework tools, I discovered details that led me to explore the education of girls and women. As I discovered how the tools were made, I learned about other handwork, such as carving, joinery, and painting and inking techniques. Each discovery led to another and more techniques and tools.

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Reproduction of an antique sewing roll from Dawn’s collection, handsewn in nineteenth-century fabrics. Antique accessories shown include mother-of-pearl thread winders, sterling silver scissors, silk needle book, and an antique gold pin with sheath.

How does collecting influence your own needlework?

I appreciate how quality supplies and tools influence every project. The tools themselves are often pieces of art to enjoy while stitching. I like to explore how tools from a previous time might have been used to create a piece. There are artisans today making new, finely handcrafted needlework tools that are worth collecting.

A tool that has been used by others has a previous life, and I like to explore what that might have been. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century embroideries in my collection have led me to study regional styles and the types of frames, needles, and thread-storage options available during those periods. Then I enjoy reproducing the piece. It brings it all full circle for me, so I can share it with others.

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A doily from Dawn’s collection made by her grandmother in 1983. Linen and 70-weight thread. Unknown pattern. Also shown (left to right): Handstitched pin-ball reproductions made by Dawn and based on antiques from her collection, and an antique pair of Brookes & Crookes English scissors from her collection.

Do you have other textile hobbies?

In addition to researching, I have not met a textile hobby I have not embraced. I do all kinds of hand embroidery, quilting, crochet, sewing, tape weaving, and thread work. I have a pattern business with my daughter, who drafts all of our historical patterns.

Tell us about your future projects.

I have several upcoming projects I am excited about! Most recently, I started offering virtual events, which have been popular with individuals and guilds. Also, I see more books in the near future.

Cook-Ronningen's Drawstring Bag

Dawn Cook Ronningen's sweet drawstring bag from the Fall 2020 issue of PieceWork is perfect for holding mending tools or a knitting project. Photo by Matt Graves.

What tips can you offer beginning collectors?

Collect what speaks to your heart and brings you joy. When I first started collecting, I wasn’t able to spend a lot, but it was a great time to read and study needlework and related tools. Armed with knowledge, I enjoyed flea markets and auctions, finding treasures that others missed. Needlework tools are small and often mixed in with other items, or they might even be misidentified.

What are your favorite things about needlework?

The most beautiful objects were, and can be, made with simple materials. A needle and thread are so basic, but when you understand the potential, it opens an entire world. For me, color, texture, and history are exciting to explore and study.

Dawn Cook Ronningen is the author of Antique American Needlework Tools (Schiffer, 2018). To learn more about Dawn and her needlework tool collecting, visit collectorwithaneedle.blogspot.com.

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