FROM THE ARCHIVES: The ‘Tapestry Ladies’: An Archives Mystery

By Freya Harrington, Archives Officer

There’s nothing like a good mystery, and at the Archives we have come across our fair share. Earlier this year, I came across a series of photos showing a number of textiles.

Most I had not seen before, but one – a framed needlepoint depicting the Mother and Child worked in shades of pink, orange and yellow – I immediately recognised from the Archives’ collection.

However, we didn’t have any information about it. Imagine my delight, then, to see the needlework being held up by four women; and on the back of the photo, the handwritten words ‘Your Grace, All our good wishes, from the “Tapestry Ladies”’.

What a tantalising lead! And so began the search for these ladies and their creations.

Although the needlework’s colours and style were very suggestive, the photo with its big-haired, cardigan-clad creators allowed its age to be confirmed as the 1970s.

Other textiles in the photo album also fit this date; the smallest being a white dove against a red background. Then there are two large altar frontals: one depicting the Flame of Pentecost on a bright green background, the other showing the symbols of the Eucharist – the chalice, grapes and vines, and wheat – on a cream background.

These had been photographed in situ adorning the Bass Altar in St Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart. Another clue, a location! Yet if they weren’t at the Archives, where could two large old tapestries be?

A few weeks had passed when we got a call from the Cathedral; they were cleaning out their storage area and had a few things for the Archives.

Lo and behold, what should be delivered to us, amongst other items, but the two altar frontals! Needless to say, we were very pleased to see them and set about condition checking, cleaning, cataloguing and storing them in archival grade dust covers.

It was during this process that two discoveries were made. First, upon inspection, it was clear that although referred to as ‘tapestries’, they were in fact needlepoints: wool thread stitched onto a loosely woven cotton fabric that resembles a small grid.

The second discovery was something a textile conservator could only dream of: on the backs of the works were the names of the women whose hands had made them!

The “Tapestry Ladies” had revealed themselves as members of the Catholic Women’s League from around Tasmania. What’s more, they were dated 1976-77.

One mystery remained, however, in the form of the location of largest textile – shown towering over Fr Bernard Rogers – depicting the Chi-Rho symbol, representing Christ. Meanwhile, an Australian Women’s Weekly clipping from 1978 was unearthed which revealed a special connection between the textiles and Archbishop Guilford Young: he designed them!

Well, perhaps Saint Lawrence – patron saint of archives – was looking out for us because not two weeks had passed when an email from Glenorchy parish arrived asking about a tapestry hanging in St John’s Church… Yes, the very same!

We hope to work with the parish to conserve this rediscovered piece of Church history soon.

Tags: Archives & Heritage Collection