Wednesday 22 July 2015

A stitch in time – the Quaker Tapestry

The Quakers have found a wonderful and idiosyncratic way of telling their story and explaining their beliefs, through a tapestry.

They are known for their  rejection of violence and an egalitarian approach to religion, having no priests or bishops, so their tapestry is a counterpoint to the only other similar work that is widely known, the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman invasion of England.

But this old technique is also modern. The idea started  in 1981 with a remark from an eleven year old boy in the South West of England to his teacher, Ann Wynn-Wilson, an accomplished embroiderer, who imagined a series of panels covering Quaker history and beliefs.

Situated in Kendal, at the Friends Meeting House, a listed Georgian building, the tapestry consists of 77 panels, just over 60 x 50cm, embroidered on a woven wool cloth. By the project's completion in 1996 over 4,000 people, including children from 15 countries had contributed to the 77 panels, an international, communal effort.

Although so many people contributed, there is a common theme and appearance to all panels. All have a simple theme, such as a prominent person,  often with a quotation, Quaker contribution to science, the slave trade, banking and so on.

The time and skill taken over each panel is obvious, invoking the use of icons in other faiths and the visitor is given the impression of a faith that may not be well known having made a tremendous contribution in so many areas. Elizabeth Fry, the great prison reformer, the Cadbury and Rountree families who added a social conscience to the industrial age, with schools,libraries, retirement homes and even homes with gardens.

It is sobering to recall that workers in Quaker owned businesses often had better conditions 150 years ago than many workers today. Likewise, who could look at the panels on banking and bankers and not feel that the world would be a radically better place if Quakers were put in charge of the financial sector?

Service to others is another thread running through the exhibition, especially with relief work and the Friends Ambulance Service and the Nobel Peace Prize, which was accepted with humility.

These noble principles and sacrifices were not always recognised, there has been widespread persecution of Quakers and many panels tell the story of their martyrs, those imprisoned and tortured.

Not all panels are on display, there are always some exhibited elsewhere, and this reflects another part of the Quaker approach. This is not a series to be cast in stone, but an ever changing, living document, and it is one that speaks through the ages in a way that not only leaves viewers appreciating the extraordinary levels of skill, but also moved by the clarity and simplicity of the message from these tapestries.

There is a short film about the tapestry at the entrance to the exhibition, a fascinating introduction. tucked in, at the back of the exhibition is another film about the Quakers, that you can watch from the traditional wooden benches.

Don't forget to take a look inside the Meeting Room, where the Friends gather three times a week for worship, the chairs set out in a circle in a sparsely decorated room, apart from a lovely wooden bookcase, whose library shows the diversity of views and interests people find inspiration in, and before leaving, try the cafe, with gorgeous food at reasonable prices, it is just an extension of the values displayed on the tapestry.

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