From Beauty to Craftivism: The Woodlawn Mansion Needlework Show
Every year, for the past 57 years, a group of crafters have gathered at the National Trust Historic Site Woodlawn Mansion to present their needlework. The first show, which took place in March of 1963, comprised of pieces stitched by just two crafters—and active supporters of the site—named Adelaide Bolte and Pinkie Mathieson. In 1969, Julie Nixon Eisenhower (author, and daughter of President Nixon) and Muriel Humphrey Brown (future U.S. Senator from Minnesota and the wife of Vice President Hubert Humphrey) were exhibitors, and by 1975, the Nelly’s Needlers auxiliary group was established.
The group was named for Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, the first owner of the Woodlawn Plantation, who herself was an extraordinary stitcher—something she was free to pursue because the enslaved women at the house likely did the majority of the sewing and stitching for Nelly's family. Today, this annual event has become the largest, most prestigious exhibition on needlework on the East Coast with a worldwide reputation.
In 2020, the Needlework Show was disrupted by the advent of COVID-19, closing just a few days after it opened. While it was able to re-open briefly in July, I interviewed Amanda Phillips, director of site interpretation and partnerships at Woodlawn-Pope Leighey House, about the history and evolution of the show, including how you can still support the show going forward.
You’ve mentioned that the needlework exhibitions at Woodlawn have evolved over time. What can you tell me about Nelly’s Needlers and the Needlework Show today?
Nelly's 85 + members volunteer their needlework skills, time, and labor to raise funds for the benefit of Woodlawn (close to $1M since they began donating), and they still meet regularly in the Mansion. The Nelly’s Needlers' needlework expertise means that they are an integral part of the Woodlawn exhibit. Members of the group help Woodlawn staff accept and organize all the pieces that come in, oversee the judging (the Show is judged, but NOT juried so absolutely anyone can enter a piece), hang the Show with us, and are a wealth of support, providing numerous volunteers, demonstration teachers, and such.
The Needlework Show has consisted of beautiful, high-level pieces that showcased a variety of technique, style, and designs that range from traditional to modern. Most recently, it has been a focus at Woodlawn to offer visitors to the exhibit a broader experience of what the needle arts might encompass, and also who is contributing work in the space. The high-level and skillful contemporary work is often disruptive and offers a new perspective.
In 2016, we expanded the event into a show and sale, allowing artists to sell their exhibited work for the first time. We also added a theme and special exhibits that began to reflect not just the changes in the medium, but also to ensure that our entrant pool was much more diverse.
Nowadays, stitchers might still submit a piece made purely to enhance the beauty of their home, or to give as a gift, but we also have those who expressly use fiber art to voice their concerns about contemporary and pressing issues in our society. The work now comes in from all parts of the world and from a much more inclusive and diverse group of needlework artists.
How has the use of this art form changed over time?
I believe that since the very beginning, fiber craft and art pieces have been used to tell stories. Those might be represented in a dress, a stool, or a bed hanging. In years past, needlework was also part of what was called generally a “womanly art,” but in fact, still told a story—of family, of heritage, and of place. Older samplers are very descriptive, for example, even though they also acted as an educational tool—teaching someone how to stitch in various techniques.
Today, however, the medium has blown up— with stitchers of all ages, gender, and race beginning to not just stitch for the beauty of their work, but for the content—expressing their feelings, their dismay, their hopes, and their dreams. Political pieces, feminist pieces, and activist pieces are now more commonplace.
Can you describe some ways that the artists this year have used needlework to advocate for causes?
This year, at Woodlawn, our theme pointed to the 100th Anniversary of the 19th amendment, and we received many pieces that were created in relation to that. [That being said,] we also showcase examples of fine needlework, pieces that exemplified a technique or a style, of someone’s flower garden, house, or pet. This year’s Best In Show winner was a winter scene, and the people’s choice vote was a traditional Virginia sampler. Both were incredible examples of needlework technique.
Yet, we also had a piece that depicted the World Trade Center in flames and one of suffragist Alice Paul being force-fed. One entry was stitched on a set of women’s bras, another on a pair of jeans. We hope that entrants will continue to submit pieces that reflect who they are and what they want to say with this medium.
Next year’s theme,“20/20 Hindsight,” is based on the events of this year and the work created in response to those issues, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, COVID-19, police brutality, the fires out West, and the election.
Do you have a favorite piece from the show this year?
I am lucky enough to pick two Director’s Choice prizewinners each year. This year, I picked a piece by Jodi Flacowicz that depicted the hands of a young person and those of her grandmother stitching. I was enamored with the subject matter—needlework is a great example of a craft that transcends the generations. At Woodlawn, Nelly’s Needlers host two workshop camps—one in the spring and one closer to the holidays—where the members teach children of all ages how to stitch. Many have become prize winners in the Show as they grow up!
My other pick was created by Annie Lane, a remarkably talented artist who sadly passed away earlier this year. Her work was a feminist and subversive piece that in her words reflects women as "fearless in occupying space in the world, attacking traditional ideas of beauty, tearing down notions of who they should be while celebrating their oddities and embracing what may be perceived by others as flaws."
How has the pandemic impacted the show this year?
The virus really hit us hard, as it did so many other museum nonprofits in our country. When we shut down our historic site, we had nearly 500 pieces displayed within our Mansion, and the pieces stayed there from mid-March until mid-July when we were able to re-open the Show for two more weeks. We were so grateful for the patience of our entrants, many of whom were really wanting their works of art back much sooner.
The Needlework Show is usually attended by more than 1,200 visitors and of course, with all the regulations in place that helped keep us and our guests safe, we could not possibly expect to have that many people coming through once we re-opened. It was hard on us, as well as on the many small business owners we support in the gift shop during the event, the needlework artists who sell their work through us, and folks like the workshop teachers who depend on the visibility of the Show or exhibit their work in our spaces.
Of course, many regular Show visitors think of us as annual highlight and were also disappointed to not be a part. Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey depends on earned income like so many other nonprofits, and the Show is a big part of our annual income.
The good news is that we are holding, for the very first time in 57 years, an online slideshow of the 2020 Needlework Show as a fundraiser. We cannot wait for those who could not come this year to see all the works that were submitted and a glimpse of the special exhibits! Proceeds from this fundraiser will be critical to helping us recoup lost funding and allow us to hold the Show next year. We really hope that people will support us.