Graceful stitching at the altar

An assortment of kneelers and pillows in needlepoint’ there are some done in crewel as well. Note the symbols used throughout the items.

Judith O'Hara Balfe

Graceful stitching at the altar

So much of what we know about religion comes from the written word, but much can be found in paintings, sculptures — and needlework.

Famous tapestries hang in castles and museums around the world, but some of the most beautiful pieces can be found on altars, on kneelers, and in the vestments and hangings found in great cathedrals and in some small country churches.

Father Matthew Calkins, of Grace Church in Millbrook, is justly proud of the altar frontals, pulpit falls, veils, scarves and vestments that are found at Grace Episcopal Church. He recently shared with members of the church, a “festival frontal” that was found in a box in the sacristy.

“Unused for many years due to stains on the silk damask,” he said in describing the treasure. He said the piece was removed and will be remounted on a new frontal that has been ordered.

Grace has an Altar Guild, led by Director Jean Hayes, who along with fellow Altar Guild member Susan Nestel carefully brought out and arranged the many pieces, most of which are placed between absorbent packing and kept in a mapmaker’s cabinet with large shallow drawers.

Calkins said that the “festival frontal” piece was made by Erica Wilson and was her first major piece created when Margaret Thorne Parshall began the Grace Needlework Guild. It was shown for the first time for Christmas services in 1955.

The Thorne name is well known in Millbrook, and for those interested in needlework, the name of Erica Wilson also is probably familiar. How they came together is an interesting story, and a fortuitous one for Grace Church.

Parshall had an interest in fine needlework, gathering together a group of friends, they began doing needlework at her Smithfield home, calling themselves “The Ecumenical Group.” At one point Parshall grew interested in The Royal School of Needlework, and invited one of their graduates, Erica Wilson, to come to Millbrook to teach the fine art of needlework. Wilson taught needlework to the ladies, and the needlework treasures of Grace Church grew, the recipient of many exquisite pieces.

At the time Wilson was persuaded to come to Millbrook, she was sure she was going to a place far from civilization. In a 1973 interview, she said, “I brought a big trunk of my own wool, thinking I was going to Indian Country, where such things wouldn’t be available.”

One of a set of altar cloths and hangings at Grace Church, done by the Grace Needlework Guild which was most active in the 1950;s and 1960’s, even into the 1970’s. The current Altar Guild takes care of the items now, prized possessions of the church, still in use throughout the year.Judith O'Hara Balfe

Wilson found Millbrook pleasant and civilized; she lived and worked with the Grace Needlework Guild from 1954 to 1957, when she married renowned furniture designer Valdimir Kagan and moved to New York City. She opened a shop there, which she ran for 33 years and wrote nine books on various forms of needlework, had a syndicated newspaper article called Needleplay, and hosted two Public Television series.

Some of her designs werepublished by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vogue. She gained the title, the “Julia Child of of embroidery” as well as “America’s first lady of stitchery.”

Wilson died 2011.

A third famous name, Marianna Garthwaite Klaiman, was contacted about the “festival frontal” after discussions with the Millbrook Historical Society and the Altar Guild Klaiman is a textile historian who specializes in the study of Anglican and Episcopal ecclesiastical textiles. She is currently working on sacristies of New York.

Klaiman has been a fashion and collectibles expert at Sotheby’s, a former costume and textile conservator and an independent textile scholar.

On Thursday, March 21, Klaiman visited Grace Church to examine some of the fine embroidered pieces, as well as some crewel work, hangings, kneelers, bell pulls and other items. She shared her knowledge of Erica Wilson and the Royal School of Needlework.

Although the frontal piece was the main attraction, there were so many items for Klaiman to examine — with rich colors, damasks, intricate designs, and patterns with silk and metallic threaded embroidery.

Klaiman was impressed with the items, and she was also impressed with the fact that there was documentation concerning the work.

“The needlework, aside from being beautiful when used during services, also attests to the services of the many generations who contribute to the legacy,” she noted.

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