A Stitch in Time

The craft of embroidery is alive and well at Bryn Mawr College

An embroidery design circa 1760

By Meagan Thomas 

At Bryn Mawr College, the art of embroidery is a secret trend.

“I just don’t think people do it in groups” said senior Margaret O’Hare, 21, speaking to the trend. Each embroiderer seems to know a few others, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to do it collectively the way students might with knitting circles or other clubs.

“It’s harder to do in public,” said senior Beckie Bull, 21.

O’Hare said she hadn’t seen anyone collectively embroider at all.

“Except when my friends wanted to learn and I taught them,” she said. Seeing it makes other students want to try it, which O’Hare used as an opportunity to teach her friends. Most of the people she knew who embroidered have graduated, but she still sees it around.

As to why it might be less visible, Bull offered a potential reason.

“I actually once got in trouble for embroidering in a French class,” said Bull, “Because in sewing you have to look at your work and so the teacher thinks you’re not paying attention.”

Fifteen of the most popular stitches used in embroidery

If it’s hard to see, one might ask how anyone knows where to find it at all. Each embroiderer knows a few other links in the chain, like an underground network about which no one has all the information.

“I do know other people here who do embroidery,” said Bull, though she agrees that it’s not as collective.

“A supervisor at [the dining hall] would bring embroidery to our meetings,” said O’Hare of her on-campus job. It would give her something to do while she listened. There are students who brave practicing it in class. They make door signs, samplers, and other projects.

Social media is another way to spot the patterns, no pun intended.

“I’ve seen people who do it on Instagram,” said O’Hare. “People post pictures of it.”

There is social encouragement for the work, though it’s not as outward. Bryn Mawr has a knitting club, which encourages participants to bring any handicraft they choose.

“People are allowed to bring it to the knitting club,” said O’Hare, though she doesn’t participate often. She prefers to work on her embroidery when the inspiration strikes her.

Bull also brought up the knitting club, but seemed less certain about its opportunities for embroiderers.

“I heard there was another club for sewing stuff,” said Bull.

Both students came to embroidery in very different ways.

“I think it’s just something that I remember seeing people do,” said O’Hare. “I thought it was cool.” She started in high school, and would practice little flowers, and, once, a phallic pattern for a friend who requested it.

Bull started even earlier.

“I think somebody must have given me… those little kits that you see at Michaels,” said Bull. “I basically only did kits like that until this year, and then started designing my own stuff.”

She uses an online tool to make patterns, and then hand-embroiders them. Currently, she’s working on a project making bookmarks to sell at the College’s Staff Appreciation Holiday Fair.

“When I was in Jordan this summer, I saw embroidered bookmarks in one of the shops I was at and I was like ’Hey, I could do that,” said Bull.

The bookmarks come in two patterns, an owl or a lantern, symbols of Bryn Mawr, and say “Mawrtyr” on them. Bull made them in students’ class colors. The work is intricate and even, yielding uniform creations of someone who spends a long time practicing.

“It takes longer than even I anticipated,” said Bull. “I’ll probably have 30 by the time we get to the fair”

With different origins for their interest in embroidery, it presents an interesting question about why so many Bryn Mawr students practice it. It could be that Bryn Mawr students see a link in the chain and forge a new one, learning from each other. It could also be that Bryn Mawr has an environment that attracts people who are already crafty.

It could even be that since embroidery is traditionally a women’s art, it has more of a foothold in a historically women’s college.

What’s clear is that the students who do it are excited about it.

“You can just kind of do whatever you want with embroidery,” said O’Hare. She likes the freedom of making her own designs without the pressure to be good at it.

“I do it for fun,” said Bull. She started her bookmark project because she knew she was going to be doing it anyway, and thought she may as well make a project out of it.

O’Hare also uses her talents to spread her craft.

“I usually make them as gifts for other people,” said O’Hare. “Embroidery is a good personalized gift you can give someone.”

When Bull was mentioned to O’Hare, she was surprised.

“I didn’t know she did embroidery,” said O’Hare.

Meagan Thomas covers arts (and, in this case, crafts)