If one thing pairs well with Fort Hunter, it’s history.
The mansion often hosts exhibits with an historical bent, and this month is no exception as the second annual “Needle Art Exhibit” opens in the mansion, which fittingly was once the home of Helen Reily, former president of the Harrisburg Needlework Guild.
Reily lived there from her marriage in 1886 until her death in 1932.
“I don’t know for how many years she served as president, but we have diary entries that mention the work of the guild,” said Julia Hair, Fort Hunter Park manager.
The exhibit, which begins May 6, will feature the work of current members of several local embroidery guild chapters: the Apple Needlepoint Chapter of the American Needlepoint Guild and the Molly Pitcher Stitchers, Susquehanna, Nittany Valley, York White Rose and Lancaster Red Rose chapters of the Embroiderers Guild of America.
Today, members are mostly women, though there used to be some men, said Janet Bex, a member of the Susquehanna Chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America.
“This may be because, historically, women were the ones who embroidered,” she said. “Learning how to stitch was part of ‘women’s work.’”
The historical element first drew Bex to needlework.
“This is just a supposition, but embroidering goes back further in history than before we wrote it down,” she said. “Imagine the conversations between the early hominids: ‘Do you have the right shells sewn to your hide?’ Keeping up with the Joneses was probably woven into our humanity, even back then.”
The art of needlework evolved as many arts do, based on the availability of materials and talent. Then they were passed down through cultural tradition. Embroidery can even reflect societal norms.
“When people used to send their clothes to the public laundry, embroidery was how they marked them,” Bex said.
In this part of Pennsylvania, cross-stitch samplers may be the best-known manifestation of the art.
“Embroidery came to central PA via the Quakers,” Bex said.
Today, the embroidery arts continue to evolve. The 20th century saw the introduction of synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and rayon.
“They didn’t have polyester in the 12th century or anything synthetic,” she said. “Now we do, and we’re doing amazing things with it.”
Active needle guilds in the English-speaking world keep embroidery alive and moving forward. For instance, the Embroiderers’ Guild of America is a national, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the art. At EGA’s national seminar, members collaborate, socialize and take classes.
“People from all over the country attend,” Bex said. “It can be an expensive hobby. Belonging to ESA makes supplies affordable, because members get a bulk rate on kits. Some kits are even free with membership.”
Reflecting the times, members of needle art guilds are starting to go online, as social media makes it easier to connect. They also use events such as EGA’s official “Stitch in Public Day” as recruiting opportunities. Locally, AC Moore holds a monthly Stitch-In, and the Simpson Public Library has a “Tea & Stitches” meet-up every Tuesday morning.
“I can lose myself in it,” Bex said of her embroidery hobby. “I can do it with other people, listen to jazz and be in my own head all at the same time. And when I’m done with a project, I can hang it on the wall and see the accomplishment.”
The second annual Needle Art Exhibit runs May 6 to June 17 at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, 5300 N. Front St., Harrisburg. A Needle Art Tea is slated for May 20. For more information, visit www.forthunter.org.