On a muggy, drizzly Wednesday morning in May, twelve women gathered at to evaluate more than 600 pieces submitted by needlepoint artists across the country.
Now in its 49th year, Woodlawn’s annual needlework exhibition will feature hundreds of pieces. Each piece is stitched with a handheld threaded needle.
Maggie Bunch of Stafford has been a member of Woodlawn’s needlework auxillary club, Nellie’s Needlers, for 17 years. She has been coordinating the show for the last three years. A petite woman who is passionate about the delicate needle arts, she has a firm hand in making sure the judging process and show run smoothly.
That morning, the three judges swarmed around a traditional Swedish costume, submitted by an artist with dual citizenship in Sweden and in the United States. The costume fit well on a mannequin; the three judges discussing the detail of the dress.
Bunch approached the judges and observed for a moment.
“You are judging the fine hand sewing,” Bunch firmly reminded the judges. “Not the weave.”
Pieces fall into three categories. Original design is a unique pattern that is a product of the stitcher’s own mind and hands. Rendition/Collective is a unique arrangement of known motifs with originality in color, spacing, and placement. Commercial pieces are works using a designer’s pattern. Techniques include embroidery, heirloom, miniatures, samplers, canvaswork, cross stitch, and beadwork.
‘It’s like an Oscar for me.’
Three judges are handpicked by Bunch every year. The slate of judges changes on a yearly basis because a variety of opinions benefits the show, Bunch explained.
All of the judges are certified through national organizations including the National Academy of Needle Arts and the American Needlepoint Guild. Certification is a rigorous process that takes one to two years to complete. The National Academy of Needle Arts requires trial judging, 30 book reports, a lengthy written exam and a verbal critique in order for a judge to become certified.
Judge Judi DiCarlo of Boston is certified through the National Academy of Needle Arts, as is judge Teresa Frank of Tacoma, Wash. Frank completed the certification process in one year and became certified in 2011. She was a trial judge at last year’s needlework exhibition at Woodlawn and returned this year as a certified judge. She said the experienced opened many doors for her.
“I know people who have been judges for a long, long time who haven’t been asked. I’m fortunate to have friends push me to trial judge a year ago,” Frank recalled. “Then to be invited back as a judge, it’s so, so exiting.”
Pat Weed of Ohio is in the process of getting her certification through the American Needlepoint Guild. She was a trial judge at this year’s exhibition. Trial judges are in the process of completing their judging certification, which often requires candidates to trial judge at 3 to 5 shows. One trial judge is invited to shadow the judges at Woodlawn each year. Afterwards, they receive a critique from the certified judges that goes into their file and is part of their certification process.
Bunch is sure to pick high-quality judges. Judges evaluate each piece and judge by consensus. They will award ribbons for pieces winning first, second, third place and honorable mention in the each technique, category, and division, as well as judging the major awards like Best in Show.
Sometimes, judges will run into pieces of work made by someone they’re sure they know, so they step back from judging that particular piece.
“The show’s reputation is based on the integrity of our judging,” explained Bunch. “So we make sure our judging is up to the highest standard.”
Lucy Lyons Willis is a life-long Alexandria resident who owned Crossed Canoes, a needlework shop in Belle View. She has been involved at Woodlawn for the last 30 years.
“I’m very honored to be asked to judge here,” she said. “It’s like an Oscar for me.”
Willis closed Crossed Canoes in 1994 to focus on teaching.
“The caliber of work entered here is so high,” she said. “I’ve always told my students, ‘You have to enter. Don’t every say you’re not good enough. Even if you don’t win, you never know, you may inspire someone who has never stitched before.’ ”
“We need to get kids involved,” Willis continued. “Kids know how to push buttons, but not sew one on.”
After lunch, Bunch and Weed cleaned up the table, and quickly dissembled the folding chairs and tables. There was more judging to be done that afternoon.
Nellies Lend a Helping Hand
The Nellies, as they are called, volunteered during the three days of judging to set up the pieces for judging, organize them, and put them in the appropriate room where they will be shown starting May 12. Each room is a designated area for certain categories, for example, the Lewis family living room is the Christmas room, where Christmas-themed pieces and stocking will be displayed.
The Nellies also track each piece to make sure it goes in the right room and, afterwards, they make sure it goes back to the artist that created the piece.
The Nellies run the Tea Room lunch during the Exhibition. All of the proceeds from the needlework exhibition support the preservation of Woodlawn.
The 49th Annual Woodlawn Needlework Exhibition kicks off May 12 and runs until June 10. The exhibition is closed on Tuesdays. For more info, visit http://woodlawn1805.org/49th-annual-needlework-exhibition.
Editor's Note: A prior version of this story incorrectly stated that Lucy Lyons Willis was a Nelly. She has been involved at Woodlawn in other capacities, but not as a Nelly. We regret the error.