by Suzanne Labry
Pam Holland’s Bayeux Tapestry Quilt
Pam Holland is recreating the entire 230-foot long Bayeux tapestry as a quilt. All photos courtesy of Pam Holland.It is doubtless safe to say that the most famous piece of needlework in the world is the Bayeux Tapestry, a nearly 1000-year-old masterpiece that depicts the Norman conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings that occurred in 1066.
Not technically a tapestry because it is embroidered on linen rather than woven on canvas, the exceptionally large and remarkably well-preserved artwork measures 70-meters/230-feet long by 49-centimeters/20-inches high and weighs 350 kilos/772 pounds. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage “Memory of the World” and is displayed in full at a dedicated museum, the Musée de
la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, France.
Commissioned to celebrate William the Conqueror, the so-called tapestry consists of nine linen panels stitched together. It presents in vivid detail historic scenes of royal deaths and coronations,
Norman and Saxon cavalries, the tasks involved in preparing for war, Viking ships, and bloody battles.
Top and bottom friezes caption each scene in Latin and embellish the whole further with an eclectic array of images ranging from Aesop’s fables to ordinary farm life. Although no one really knows who created it, the work was verifiably made only a few years after the events it illustrates. It is so accurate in its depictions that historians feel its designer(s) must have been eyewitness(es) to many of the scenes portrayed.
According to the Bayeux Museum, “the Bayeux Tapestry offers original information, found nowhere else, particularly with regards to civil and military architecture, weapons, navigation and elements of everyday life.”
Detail of a panel of the tapestry showing Pam Holland's markings.
While nothing is known about the person or persons who made the original Bayeux Tapestry or how long it took to make it, quilt enthusiasts around the world certainly know celebrated quilter/author/teacher Pam Holland from Adelaide, Australia, who has been working on a quilted replica of the Bayeux Tapestry since 2005.
When her demanding teaching and travel schedule allows, Pam works on her
version between 10 and 15 hours a day. To date, she has employed 160 yards of linen-lookalike background fabric purchased at 28 Walmart stores and 80 yards donated by Cranston for the back of the quilt; over 100 yards of various fabrics used for appliqué
(the original tapestry contains only eight colors, so matching them has been something
of a treasure hunt); 130 spools of 50-weight cotton thread (80 of Italian Aurifil and 50 of Superior Masterpiece).
There are 58 scenes in the original and recreating a single 12-inch-square might require as many as 100 separate pieces of appliqué. She is on familiar terms with her ophthalmologist as her eyes adjust to the challenge, and she has a regular date with a chiropractor to help with aching muscles.
Although Pam can trace her lineage back to William the Conqueror, another association to the tapestry is perhaps more fascinating. On her father’s side, Pam is related to Thomas and Elizabeth Wardle of Leeks, Staffordshire, England. By 1870, Thomas Wardle was the most proficient silk and textile dyer in Britain and Elizabeth was an accomplished embroiderer. In 1879, the Wardles founded the Leek School of Embroidery, which gained a wide reputation for fine workmanship.
Bags of appliqué pieces sorted by usage for the project.Elizabeth Wardle, experiencing a bout of postpartum depression after the birth of her 13th child, was rejuvenated when she saw a photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry. She resolved that England needed a copy of its own, and to that end, she organized the production of an extraordinary Bayeux Tapestry replica produced by 37 women of the Leek Society. Taking over 18-months to make and finished in 1886, the tapestry was an immediate success: exhibited throughout Britain, presented at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and touring throughout the world before finding a permanent home at the Reading Art Gallery, where today it can be seen online.
Pam’s dedication to her quilted version of the tapestry is remarkable in itself. To have worked so diligently on a single project for 12 years attests not only to her commitment but also to her attention to detail and her desire to make the finished piece as close to the original as possible.
“I’m planning to have it completed in time for the Houston International Quilt Festival in the fall of 2018, but I refuse to compromise on quality or technical accuracy,” Pam says. “This project is my Mount Everest. I can’t really explain my passion for it, but I can tell you that it is very emotional for me. I have to be relaxed mentally and physically before I can begin a work session. I go into a different state of mind when I’m working on it and it totally absorbs my entire being.”
Some of Pam Holland's meticulously hand-drawn templates.
Let’s all hope that Pam finishes on schedule. The opportunity to see her quilted version of the Bayeux Tapestry would be reason enough alone for visiting Festival in Houston in 2018!