History, high-tech woven into jacket

Museum reproduces 17th-century embroidery

Tricia Wilson Nguyen looks at the embroidered reproduction 17th-century jacket modeled by Elizabeth Rolando. With the aid of more than 250 needlework volunteers, the jacket took three years to finish. Tricia Wilson Nguyen looks at the embroidered reproduction 17th-century jacket modeled by Elizabeth Rolando. With the aid of more than 250 needlework volunteers, the jacket took three years to finish. (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / December 10, 2009

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Three years ago, Plimoth Plantation approached Tricia Wilson Nguyen, an MIT-trained engineer specializing in, of all things, historic needlework, to see if she would help lead an ambitious project. The museum wanted to re-create a lavishly embroidered 17th-century woman’s waistcoat as the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibition on how America’s founders dressed themselves.

“I told them they were totally crazy,’’ said Nguyen, who lives in Arlington.

She knew it could take hundreds of people thousands of hours to do the intricate needlework, using a centuries-old embroidery stitch few people know. As if that wasn’t enough challenge, the materials needed - silver gilt threads, hand-cut sequins - had been out of production for centuries and would have to be reinvented.

They may have been crazy, but three years later the historic jacket is done, and today it will be unveiled at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth (though, in a sign of 17th-century aesthetics colliding with 21st-century realities, financial woes have forced the museum, at least temporarily, to cancel the exhibition).

To finish the jacket, all it took was cutting edge technology and more than 250 needlework aficionados and history buffs who flocked there from all over the world, at their own expense, to help stitch the jacket. There was the Air Force captain just back from Afghanistan, a trio of monks, a husband and wife team who spent their 36th anniversary stitching sequins, and many more.

“It’s very heartwarming the way it’s brought together communities of people who love some aspect of costuming but whose paths never crossed,’’ said Nguyen. “It’s captured the imagination of anyone I’ve ever shown it to.’’

It certainly captured the imagination of Plimoth Plantation’s colonial wardrobe department. They thought it was a glorious example of the kind of jacket worn in the early 1600s by upper-class English women, a tier or two below the aristocracy, who displayed their wealth and position through lavish, elaborate clothing.

Plimoth’s jacket was based on two jackets in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It is a tight-fitting linen waistcoat heavily embroidered with curling vines, silver gilt stems, gold sequins, gold and silver metal lace, and a wild assortment of flowers, birds, three-dimensional butterflies and (for some reason) pea pods.

Nguyen seemed the obvious person to shepherd the project. A needlework fanatic since childhood, she has a doctorate in engineering, researches and teaches historical embroidery techniques, and owns three businesses, including a consulting practice in electronic textiles, a high-tech twist on using metal threads to make electrical devices. She saw the similarities between high-tech fibers and 17th-century ones and thought it would be an interesting challenge to reinvent the old ones and, while she was at it, the gold sequins, too.

One of the first things she did was start a blog on the jacket at and put out a call for volunteer embroiderers, which quickly took off on the Web. “People came out of the woodwork,’’ said Nguyen. There were embroidery aficionados, history buffs, lacemakers, costume lovers.

“I had people saying to me, ‘Please, can I just do a worm?’ I expected people to want to do a rose, right in the middle where everyone could see it,’’ she said. “But I had a very humble response. Even if they knew if that part would be under the armpit, they were happy to do it.’’

Nguyen and a handful of assistants decided they would not turn anybody away, no matter what their skill level. The less experienced embroiderers, including children, would be assigned to simpler shapes; more advanced ones to complex designs.

And people came by the hundreds, from as far away as Australia for marathon four-day stitching blitzes.

Among them was Paul Griffith, an Air Force captain from Virginia who came to Plimoth Plantation with his wife just two days after he had finished his tour of duty in Afghanistan. He enlisted as a sequin-stitcher.

“It’s hard to express in words the magnificence of being involved with something that is so historical and such a work of art,’’ said Griffith, a new convert to embroidery. “Our kids and grandkids can go to a museum and say ‘Grandma and Grandpa worked on that.’ ’’

“I kind of figured I’d do one session, but by the end of four days I was totally hooked,’’ said Deb Autorino, a Wall Street systems analyst who used vacation time to make “eight or nine’’ trips to Plymouth. She described her work on the jacket as a life-changing event, “an embroidery-changing event, that impacted my life.’’

“I was a cross-stitcher and a very happy cross-stitcher,’’ she said, “but it opened up a whole new world of threads and stitches.’’

Meanwhile, Nguyen had been putting her background as a materials scientist to work, analyzing the jacket down almost to the cellular level. She did a “forensic examination’’ of the gold spangles on a similar jacket at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, studying their corrosion pattern under a microscope; then she worked with the museum’s blacksmith to retool them. Working with historic textile manufacturers in Europe, she found a way to recreate the 16th-century gilt silk thread, which has since been put back into production.

“The workmanship is pretty spectacular but what’s even more amazing is the kind of research Tricia’s been able to accomplish,’’ said Pamela Parmal, the MFA’s curator of textile and fashion arts. “She approached it more like an empirical scientist than an art historian.’’

But a few months ago there was bad news. Because of budget and fund-raising shortfalls, the museum was forced to cancel the exhibition that inspired the jacket in the first place. Although Plimoth Plantation would still own the jacket, it will spend the next two years at the Winterthur museum in Delaware, which has a collection of textiles and needlework. After that, it will return to Plymouth in hope the exhibition will be revived.

But even this did not dampen the enthusiasm of those who embroidered the jacket. The stitchers gave it a name, Faith, since it took “a leap of faith’’ to make it, Nguyen said.

Today at a celebration at Plimoth Plantation, the jacket will be modeled by a corseted Colonial role player in a candle-lit room, the better to appreciate the shimmering spangles, plaited gold braid, and gilt silk thread.

Nguyen is convinced that it is the most ambitious undertaking in embroidery since Queen Elizabeth ll’s coronation robe and contends it is as fashionable now as it was in the 17th century.

“It’s very stylish,’’ she said. “I hate to say it but, God, it looks great with jeans.’’