Late Summer over Central Otago by Mary Vinnicombe
Late Summer over Central Otago by Mary Vinnicombe

Earth, Sea and Sky
Regional Embroiderers' Exhibition

October 20 – November 12

‘Earth, Sea and Sky’ is the biennial regional selected exhibition for members of embroiderers guilds in the Taranaki, Whanganui and Manawatu region and will include a wide variety of embroidery, including the work of young embroiderers. 

Guest embroiderers are Mary Vinnicombe and Shirley Julian.

Both have a long and illustrious history of creating embroidery.  Now in their 80s and still stitching and creating – a needle in the hand is as natural as breathing to them both – they are members of the New Plymouth Embroiderers’ Guild, although Shirley has also been a member of the Opunake and South Taranaki Guilds in years past before her retirement to New Plymouth.

Over the years they have exhibited widely in national and regional exhibitions and their contribution to this exhibition will include old and new works, demonstrating their passion for embroidery and stitching.

The opening event and award presentation will be held on Saturday 21 October at 2pm.

From Paritutu by Mary Vinnicombe
From Paritutu by Mary Vinnicombe


Mary Vinnicombe
and Shirley Julian
guest embroiderers

by Felicity Willis 

A special feature of the ‘Earth, Sea and Sky’ embroidery exhibition in the Percy Thomson Gallery in Stratford (October 20-November 12) will be the work of guest embroiderers Mary Vinnicombe and Shirley Julian.

Both have a long and illustrious history of creating embroidery.  Now in their 80s and still stitching and creating – a needle in the hand is as natural as breathing to them both – they are members of the New Plymouth Embroiderers’ Guild, although Shirley has also been a member of the Opunake and South Taranaki Guilds in years past before her retirement to New Plymouth.

Over the years they have exhibited widely in national and regional exhibitions and their contribution to this exhibition will include old and new works, demonstrating their passion for embroidery and stitching.

Shirley’s forte is Japanese embroidery and the exquisitely worked silken pictures she has created will be her legacy to her family, although her can-do attitude means  that over the years she has not restricted herself to any one style.

She has been responsible for the creation of a number of large community embroideries, notably in the Opunake High School hall and the South Taranaki District Council foyer. 

Shirley has always embroidered – her mother did canvaswork – and “right from when I was little I wanted to knit and sew. I made my first jumper when I was six or seven and started making my own clothes. I learned how to do fancywork on aprons and caps.” She still has the first pieces of fancywork she made when she was about 12. 

Shirley learned to sew on a hand-crank sewing machine. One of her memorable garments was a circular flared skirt she made to wear to a Bible Class camp.  When she went nursing, Shirley kept right on sewing – when they started a netball team, Shirley made the red gym frocks for the team on an old treadle sewing machine in the nurses’ home.

Flower garden in ribbonwork by Shirley Julian
Flower garden in ribbonwork by Shirley Julian

She remembers making a frock and hat for her engagement when she was 21.  After marriage, Shirley joined the local CWI and took part in the institute competitions – particularly for knitting – and it was through the CWI that the first embroidery classes were held with Joan de Abaffy who travelled down from New Plymouth to Pihama.  Canvaswork cushions were one of the first classes, but “we also did hatmaking, basketmaking – I went to every class available and there wasn’t much I couldn’t do or hadn’t tried,’ she says.

The early 1970s were Shirley’s  ‘crochet years’ when she recovered from the effects of a melanoma which required skin grafts. Her daughters had ponchos and dresses, and all manner of accessories, all crocheted in fine style by Shirley.

In the late 1970s she and her friends started talking about setting up an embroidery guild in Opunake – groups all around Taranaki were doing the same thing with Joan de Abaffy’s encouragement. “Once we set up the guild we went to Association of New Zealand Embroiderers’ Guilds national conferences and took classes. I was fortunate I had the time and the money to go, along with the basic skills to have the confidence and willingness to give everything a go.”

From then on Shirley went to every conference and as a regular member of the Opunake guild there were regular classes in different techniques with local and visiting tutors.

Shirley saw a community wall hanging embroidered by the Kapiti guild and thought “we can do that” and when the assembly hall at the Opunake High School burnt down in 1982, she decided the guild should create a hanging for the new hall. The Egmont Arts Council gave them a grant to cover the cost of canvas and wool and with the assistance of artist Margaret Scott, Shirley had a design drawn up. The wall hanging was finished in 1985 and is still on show in the hall.

Four generations of children on both Shirley and her husband Toby’s family had attended Pihama School so when it celebrated its jubilee in 1985, Shirley designed an embroidered hanging for the occasion which incorporated the school’s progress using old photographs – including her mother-in-law going to school on horseback, school buildings and so on. With the closure of the school, the hanging was shifted to the local hall.

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Her next major work was a hanging for the Presbyterian Church in Hawera to celebrate their centenary. This one included all the old churches that had belonged to the parish.

The final major work was a hanging for the foyer of the South Taranaki District Council offices in Hawera which measures 3 metres by 18 metres which incorporated a number of the historic buildings and features of all the smaller councils which made up the district. 

And through it all, Shirley has continued to embroider and somewhere in the 1990s discovered Japanese embroidery. It is a very exacting technique and students with the Japanese master (who came to New Zealand to teach) were expected stay silent and do exactly what they were told. Her friends thought this was very funny because Shirley has always loved conversation and creating her own original work, but Shirley enjoyed the technique so much she kept going back for more classes every year and worked her way through to Grade 10.

Shirley also took part in the ANZEG’s project to make embroidered hangings for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Her contribution is a magnificent wolf made as a slip and applied to the background.  Many hundreds of embroiderers from all around New Zealand took part in this project.

Over the years she has also made church embroideries including stoles and in recent times has been doing more Jacobean embroidery – which is not as fine or as exacting as the Japanese silk embroidery. She’s also been finishing embroideries for others and has a marvellous stash of embroidery threads and fabrics which she is enjoying creating with.

Like Shirley, Mary Vinnicombe has been stitching all her life. She remembers making her own cooking apron embroidered in chain stitch with her name.

Mary’s mother was left-handed so it was her grandmother who taught her how to use a thimble and do all the basics. Once she had those she enjoyed delving into her mother’s collection of patterns and a “big basket of very gnarled thread”. 

Mary recalls that when she went to teachers’ college, she made herself a blue linen dress embroidered on the bodice with fuchsias.

There is a solid history of creativity and art in her family. Her four times great grandmother, Maria Spillsbury, was a painter and there is a collection of her work in the Tate Gallery in London and Mary is also related to one of New Zealand’s most important domestic architects, James Chapman-Taylor.

After her marriage and children she stitched grub roses on baby gowns and made smocked dresses for her daughters, and later a set for her granddaughters, although by that time she was back teaching fulltime and didn’t have as much time for stitching. 

Mary says she didn’t have much confidence in her abilities and didn’t join a guild until the late 1990s. “I could see people making wonderful things and decided I had to swallow that (fear of not being good enough) and get stuck in.”

Mary took part in as many of the guild workshops as she could and enjoyed the challenge of trying something new. “I’m basically more of a realistic and counted thread stitcher, but I’ve enjoyed stretching myself.”

Mary likes to master a technique and then start adapting and adding new elements to the design and over the years has designed and made more embroideries than she can count, including a personalised birth sampler for each of her 15 grandchildren.

As a teacher at Highlands Intermediate for 20 years, she also encouraged her students to stitch, helping them make wall hangings, including a panorama of New Plymouth.

In recent years much of Mary’s embroidery has been for St Mary’s Cathedral in New Plymouth. At the time of the interview she was working on four linen purificators and was also part of a group making a set of stoles. She has individually made two sets of stoles for ordinands (people who are being ordained as ministers), repaired church embroideries and designed a new set of church embroideries for advent after a class in ecclesiastical embroidery with Jann Joustra, the dean of Waikato Cathedral. Mary stitched most of the set and was assisted by fellow embroiderers Lynn Leask and Pam Darney to complete it. 

Mary says it’s difficult for her to choose her favourite embroidery technique and she has really enjoyed the creative side of her work, for instance her award-winning Taranaki piece which is like a painting, but with thread. The embroidery won at the ANZEG conference in New Plymouth in 2014.

Sometimes an embroidery will take a long time to get to fabric and thread. “It has to look right in my mind’s eye before I commit it to stitch – sometimes it takes two or three months of thinking

Over the years, gardening has also been a passion – the Vinnicombe’s garden was part of the Taranaki Garden Spectacular  for many years – and Mary says that stitching and gardening often seem to go hand in hand.  “It’s a visual thing – the way you see things in both stitches and plants – you arrange them on your background. You can’t always be sure that it will be exactly as it was designed.”

‘Earth, Sea and Sky’ is the biennial regional selected exhibition for members of embroiderers guilds in the Taranaki, Whanganui and Manawatu region and will include a wide variety of embroidery, including the work of young embroiderers.

Everything from wall hangings to three-dimensional pieces, traditional and creative work will be on display and visitors to the Percy Thomson gallery will be encouraged to vote for their favourite piece while they enjoy the colourful and creative exhibition. 

Betty Smythe, 'Poseidons Realm'
Betty Smythe, 'Poseidons Realm'

Felicity Willis, 'Bohemian Bangles'
Felicity Willis, 'Bohemian Bangles'

Heather Clow, 'Run Rabbit Run'
Heather Clow, 'Run Rabbit Run'

Jan Pepperell, 'These are a few of my favourite things'
Jan Pepperell, 'These are a few of my favourite things'

June Gilberd, 'Garden Path'
June Gilberd, 'Garden Path'

Lynne Whalley, 'Earth Fire Water Air'
Lynne Whalley, 'Earth Fire Water Air'

Maree Burnnand, 'A trip around the sun'
Maree Burnnand, 'A trip around the sun'

Shirley Julian, 'Phase 11'
Shirley Julian, 'Phase 11'

Yvonne Smith, 'Jacobean Fantasy'
Yvonne Smith, 'Jacobean Fantasy'

Cyra Lewis, 'Rock Pool'
Cyra Lewis, 'Rock Pool'

Loretta Bailey, 'Earths Beauty'
Loretta Bailey, 'Earths Beauty'

Felicity Willis, 'Landscape with Lupins'
Felicity Willis, 'Landscape with Lupins'

Jill Cash, 'Bark'
Jill Cash, 'Bark'

Karen Murch, 'Wonderful Counsellor'
Karen Murch, 'Wonderful Counsellor'

Karen Richardson, 'Heart Necessaire'
Karen Richardson, 'Heart Necessaire'

Maree Burnnand, 'Cross Section'
Maree Burnnand, 'Cross Section'

Shirley Julia, 'Phase 11'
Shirley Julia, 'Phase 11'

Sophie Willis, 'Millefiori'
Sophie Willis, 'Millefiori'

Delwyn Singh, 'The Colour of Earth'
Delwyn Singh, 'The Colour of Earth'

Ruby Bailey, 'Earthly Secrets'
Ruby Bailey, 'Earthly Secrets'

Fiona McIvor, 'Papaver and Punica'
Fiona McIvor, 'Papaver and Punica'

Judith Belchin, 'Butterflies and Uptown Flowers'
Judith Belchin, 'Butterflies and Uptown Flowers'

Karen Ralph, 'Treasures of the Ocean'
Karen Ralph, 'Treasures of the Ocean'

Karen Richardson, 'Heart Necessaire'
Karen Richardson, 'Heart Necessaire'

Mary Garlick Earth, 'Sea and sky and the beauty of gods creatures therein'
Mary Garlick Earth, 'Sea and sky and the beauty of gods creatures therein'

Mary Vinnicombe, '2008 Neither the moon by night'
Mary Vinnicombe, '2008 Neither the moon by night'

Sonia Bluett, 'Another day in the Sun'
Sonia Bluett, 'Another day in the Sun'

 

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