History of the Otago Embroiderers' Guild

At the 1984 Southland Embroiderers’ Guild regional meeting, Invercargill, Gay Eaton proposed that an annual school of embroidery be established in Wanaka the third weekend of March each year. This proposal gained much support as it was difficult for smaller guilds to be able to offer their members a wide range of techniques and styles of embroidery. At that time Gay was both the President of the Otago Guild and the Southern Regional Education Officer for the Association of New Zealand Embroiderers’ Guilds.

Very much earlier both Mrs Kay du Toit (Sheffield) and Miss Helen M. Moran were able to visit country groups and those women living in isolation. This was under the auspices of the University of Otago adult education programme. Unfortunately this scheme of providing country women with embroidery skills by these two talented tutors had been discontinued by about 1960.

Because Gay taught embroidery at St Hilda’s Collegiate School, Dunedin, she was often asked by her country pupil’s mothers for help to complete embroideries begun by a family member, or where they could go for needlework tuition. Thinking about all this under the shower one morning the idea popped into Gay’s head that it would be worthwhile having all those interested, in one place and to offer classes in a wide range of needlework skills. She also proposed that those attending the embroidery school did not need to be a member of a guild. This was to introduce isolated country women to a guild and a way to add to the membership of our southern guilds. Wanaka seemed to be the ideal place to hold the school as most enjoyed to visit that very beautiful region and some would have holiday homes, so accommodation would not be a problem.

The first Otago Embroiderers’ Guild annual school of embroidery was held 15 – 17 March 1985 at the Wanaka Area School, Tenby Street and since then it has always been held the third weekend in March. Registration forms had been posted to the regional guilds late September 1984 and Gay had also sent many of her school pupils home with one. Registration forms had also been available over the holiday season to the general public viewing the Display of Embroidery that she had placed in the window of the Wanaka branch of the Otago Savings Bank, Helwich Street. This school of embroidery created a great deal of interest. Registrations came in steadily and by early March eighty eight had been received along with some lovely letters from country women most appreciative of the opportunity to attend. It was the first time for many years that embroidery classes had been so accessible to all those interested.

For the first three years the main Otago Guild committee made all the arrangements, selected the workshops and engaged the tutors. They were keen to make sure that a wide a range of classes were offered and that no technique would be considered to be more important than the others. The committee at that time decided to keep the class costs the same for all students, whether guild members or not. Accommodation was to be left to each student to arrange for themselves, from camping grounds, cribs, motels and tourist hotels.

The workshops & tutors offered at the first OEG Wanaka embroidery school were:

Design, Colour and Stitch with Diana Parkes, Wellington

Linen embroidery including Hardanger with Dorothy Barton, Gore

Designing with fabric and thread, Margaret Sharpe, Dunedin

Gardens in canvas work, Jan Wilson Dunedin

Bobbin Lace with Nan Smith and Belle Thornbury, Winton

Because of the demand for places in the ‘Gardens in canvas work’ class a sixth workshop with Margaret Jeffrey, Balclutha was added to cater for the extra students.

In the newsletter Gay sent to the regional guilds, she asked each to bring information about their guild to the March school as this would be a good opportunity to build up their membership. A display of students and tutors work was exhibited in the school library on the Friday evening. This was open to the general public and had been advertised in the town. Phyllis Aspinall had arranged with members of the Wanaka Art Society to sit with it. A Saturday evening buffet meal was held at the Wanaka Lodge, and this was followed by a slide lecture with Diana Parkes in the Presbyterian church hall. The weekend was completed Sunday evening by the very generous offer of a meal and hospitality at Betty and Les Swift’s home. About 20 participants gladly accepted. Setting up the Wanaka area school for adult classes was quite a task, as many of the classrooms just had furniture for little people and some of the young children’s desks and chairs had to be used. How Wanaka has grown since those days. Over the weekend there were 5 hours teaching each day, with an hour and half for lunch to give time to view the display of work and visit Threads Needlecraft which was at that time situated in the village mall.

As a follow on from the March school, on 25 May 1985 The Otago Embroiderers’ Guild offered a wide range of Embroidery Clinics at the Kaikorai Valley High School Hall, Dunedin. These first Mayday clinics were to give another opportunity of spending time with the March school tutors and gaining further help with the project started or other projects begun earlier. Because of distance Diana Parkes was the only tutor not able to be at this event. May was decided upon as the best time for this follow on as country parents were returning their children to boarding schools and would give them the opportunity to attend. Since May 1985 he Otago Guild has continued to offer this annual May Day event. It attracts embroiderers’ from the South, North and Central Otago and keeps our members busy preparing small projects for the many work table options offered.

By March 1986 the form 1 – 7 Mount Aspiring College had been built in Plantation Road, Wanaka. That year, because of the extra classrooms, we were able to offer ten workshops, 1987 it was 12, 1988 it was 14. Over the years setting up Mount Aspiring College for our embroidery school has been a huge task. Large heavy tables had to be shifted from the labs and used in the West Common room for the Display of Work. We then had to find spare classroom desks to replace the high lab tables so that we could use those two rooms for classrooms. Gay was always grateful for the sterling help that she received from Jerry Aspinall. Together they did most of the big shift. Nearly every year since 1987 further classrooms have been added to the school, this has allowed for an increase in workshops. The maximum number has been 21 in 2014. The last 3 years has seen 16 or 17 workshops offered. Fortunately we now no longer need to move desks from one room to the other. Mount Aspiring College does not have an area large enough and accessible to us to hold all the students in one place. However the school is built around a quad and that does give a feeling of being together as a group. 

Our committee rarely changes from year to year. Our committee currently has the following roles. Chairperson, Secretary/Travel & Accommodation, Treasurer, Registrar, Tutor Liaison, Requirements Lists, Catering Convenor, Brochure & Website.

The Otago Guild President is also on the committee during her term in office, her role being liaison between the OEG committee & the Wanaka committee.

The Otago Guild has been very fortunate with the sound support and tuition that Miss Helen M. Moran gave her many pupils, including City and Guild qualifications. She certainly set the standard for our guild. From the early sixties to the early seventies we had the opportunity in Dunedin to study for City and Guild of London qualifications at the Otago Polytechnic. The tutor was the British Mrs D. Allan. At least 5 of our members gained certificate I and two gained the advanced certificate II. After Mrs Allan resigned the embroidery classes, both day and evening continued for a further twenty years until 1992 with Jan Wilson and Margaret Sharpe. From 2000 Jan Wilson has facilitated the study for the City and Guild International programme, 15 have gained certificates and 5 advancing to Diploma level 3. Because of this sound embroidery education programme offered in our city over many many years, we have a good number of Guild members who are able to tutor for us often in a voluntary capacity. This annual embroidery school also gives the opportunity for tutors to up-skill and become proficient in further techniques that the committee ask them to research and prepare work for classes.

By using mainly our own members to tutor we do not have to add too many expensive travel costs to class fees. This allows us to keep the school affordable to allow anyone who wants to come. Keeping the cost of workshops affordable to most has always been important. Another factor of importance is to be able to offer a wide range of embroidery techniques and to reintroduce those that have been long forgotten. Each year we always seem to be able to find yet another little known technique to add to our list of classes. Another important part of the Otago Embroiderers’ Guild school of embroidery has been to give our tutors the opportunity to gain teaching skills. The first workshop that we held for tutor’s was in the second year of the school. The aim of that course was to encourage them to use the whiteboard and teach from the front as well as spending time with each student. The first 5 day masterclass for tutors held over a number of weeks, was with our own Jan Wilson. She encouraged students to extend their horizons, share their knowledge and develop their teaching skills. She holds both an M.A. and M.F.A. in textile art. Since then we have arranged on five different occasions, five x five day Master classes with some of the very best British tutors. We have twice had a five day Master class in Dunedin with Jan Beaney, and twice with Jean Littlejohn. The fifth five day class was with Anthea Godfrey and her mother Margaret Nicholson, the renowned author of Goldwork and the head examiner for the City and Guild of London, Embroidery certificates.

The fourth Thursday in September, from our large mailing list, registration forms are posted to guilds and country students, sent by email overseas and available at our monthly guild meeting. From 2007 they have also been on our website: www.oegembroideryschool.co.nz. Because classes fill quickly we ask students to select four workshop options. Class requirement lists are sent out as an indication that a place in a class has been secured. Over the years we have had many overseas students from Australia, U.K., the States and Alaska.

The Otago Embroiderers’ Guild annual Wanaka Embroidery school has publicised the local guilds; we each have gained further members and new guilds have been formed in our region. In 1985 the regional guilds were Southland, South Otago, Otago, Eastern Southland, North Otago and Queenstown. By 2007 further guilds had been established at Wanaka, Te Anau, Central Otago, East Otago, Maniototo and West Taieri. Over the 28 years of the OEG school of embroidery in Wanaka, we have brought before our students an exciting, rich needlework heritage, offered a wide range of embroidery techniques and styles, and reintroduced a considerable number of techniques that had been long forgotten. Many of the workshops have also kept up with the overseas trends and introduced the various methods of fabric colouring, rich machine and hand stitchery and the latest tools of our art/craft. We plan to continue offering this embroidery school to the women of southern New Zealand and all those beyond who are interested.

Gay Eaton