Ed Nute Photography
Exquisite embroidery from the 17th century has just about nothing in common with cutting-edge military technology. But Tricia Wilson Nguyen has found a way to tie them together.
Nguyen started embroidering as a child. She also has a PhD in materials engineering, with degrees from MIT and the University of Michigan.
Blending her two fascinations, science and sewing, has evolved into a lucrative career that illuminates how the history of the past can inform the products of the future. She consults on high-tech e-textiles projects, and also on centuries’ old museum pieces.
"I can’t seem to give up the opposite ends of the spectrum," she says. "Living in the 17th century world and the complicated threads they were making, and living in the 21st century world."
She’s been known to sit at her spinning wheel to craft thread for a historic embroidery project, and then wind copper around a nylon core to create a prototype thread for military experimentation.
She’s put textiles under the microscope for art museums to puzzle out the techniques applied to centuries-old garments. And then considered how those stitches and thread might inform new textile-based advances in health monitoring devices.
Her largest project to date was completed in 2009, at the Plimoth Plantation, helping recreate a 17th century embroidered jacket, a project launched with hopes that the artisans would be able to suss out some of the practices lost to history.
"I try to understand from the process — what does that tell you about the actual history of the past," she says. "People making these jackets at the time, they weren’t just making this for themselves, it was a business."
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In recent years, her embroidery has revolved around boxes called caskets (though they aren’t used for bodies or funerals). These are curiosity cases, resembling what modern women might think of as jewel boxes, with tiny drawers and secret compartments.
Seventeenth century stitchers, often schoolgirls, covered the boxes in detailed needlework, some of it it raised, some of it truly three dimensional. Some featured Biblical motifs. Ribbons and seed pearls dot the work.
Nguyen created an intense casket course, well over a year, delving into the history of the designs and stitches, encouraging students to create their own designs. The full package of two courses, with supplies, will cost more than $3,000 for a finished casket.
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If it sounds like a master degree in stitchery, much less a master class, she says that’s purposeful. She wants students to not only make a casket, but design their own — one woman took all that classical knowledge and created an ode to Harry Potter.
Colleen Humphrey of Concord, Mass., is among her students. She’s done embroidery “on and off” since she was 3 — she’s 55 now.
"This is definitely a class for embroidery and history nerds, nerds of course being a compliment in my vocabulary," she says. She figures her casket project could take 10 years. But it’s about process, not completion, for her. She calls it a masterpiece in the works.
There’s not a lot of education offered in this country between basic embroidery and experienced stitchery like those that produced by craftspersons of yore, Nguyen says. That’s a space she’s striving to fill.
But you don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars to try your hand at higher-level embroidery.
Nguyen sells kids based on some of her historic work.
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The kits don’t come cheap, though, at more than $300 for a small project.
"It’s a connection with the past," Nguyen says. "It’s a connection to women in different time frames. I think there’s a lot to be said about the creativity. That’s one reason why I encourage my students to not be beholden to the historical objects we’re creating, to let their fancy go."
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