Association of New Zealand Embroiderers' Guilds

1974 –

Association of New Zealand Embroiderers' Guilds

1974 –

Theme: Arts and crafts

This essay written by Fiona McKergow was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Fiona McKergow in 2018.

1974 – 1993

The Association of New Zealand Embroiderers' Guilds (ANZEG) was founded to co-ordinate and promote the needlework activities of local embroiderers' guilds. By 1991 there were 58 guilds with a combined membership of 3660, all but two of them women.

The origins of the ANZEG can be traced back to London in 1906, when a group of past pupils of the Royal School of Needlework established the Society of Certificated Embroideresses; it was renamed the Embroiderers' Guild in 1920. New Zealand's first significant contact with the London guild came in 1939, when it lent a collection of embroideries for the Women's Section of the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. Although a number of New Zealand women were individual members of the London guild, the first affiliated branches were not formed in New Zealand until the late 1950s.

The establishment of guilds in New Zealand was facilitated by the teaching activities of several skilled embroiderers. Kay du Toit, a post-war British immigrant, joined the Otago University Extension as an itinerant craft tutor in the early 1950s. Throughout Southland and Otago, she taught embroidery, millinery, leatherwork and shoemaking to small groups of predominantly female students. Her enthusiasm and 'love of needle and thread' prompted a number of women from these classes to form the Southland and South Otago branches of the London guild in 1959. [1]

Another highly regarded teacher, Scottish-born Helen Moran, had been educated in embroidery and 'ladies' tailoring' in France, the USA and London. From 1928 to 1958 she taught embroidery at the King Edward Technical College in Dunedin. In retirement she was an embroidery tutor for the Otago University Extension, and in 1960 established the Otago Embroiderers' Guild as an outcome of these classes. [2] Liaison between the London guild, its three South Island branches and individual members scattered throughout New Zealand was initially carried out by du Toit. The first combined meeting of the three southern guilds was held in 1966.

In the North Island, Nancy Bennett's work on the restoration and replacement of church linens, vestments and hangings made an impact in many parishes. The post-war reconstruction of war-damaged churches in Europe had led to an increasing interest in ecclesiastical embroidery in New Zealand. Bennett established and taught church embroidery groups in the Wellington Diocese from 1946, in the Waikato from 1955 and in Auckland from 1961. She formed the Auckland Embroiderers' Guild in 1971, by which time guilds had already been established in West Auckland, Wanganui, Wellington, Canterbury and Manawatu. All were affiliated to the London guild.

Local guilds gave embroiderers the opportunity to develop their needlework skills in a friendly, non-competitive environment, sharing techniques, ideas and a love of embroidery. Guild members were predominantly Pākehā, reflecting the strong European traditions of embroidery, and most were middle-aged or older. Each guild developed its own programme of activities, including lectures, slide evenings, tutored classes, and informal work groups. Loan packets, consisting of sample pieces with explanatory notes, were received from London and circulated among members. Displays, exhibitions and fairs were occasionally organised and, as guilds became more established, library books and other resources were accumulated.

By 1970, a need had emerged for an association of embroiderers' guilds, mainly to overcome the isolation felt by individual guilds, but also to foster New Zealand initiatives. In 1974 the ANZEG was formally established in Christchurch, with nine guilds represented. Margaret Austin was elected secretary/treasurer, a position she held until 1980. In 1986 an executive structure was formed under a new constitution, and Kath Des Forges was elected the first president.

The ANZEG, assisted by a host guild, took responsibility for organising the national exhibition and conference, held biennially since 1974. It also organised residential workshops, first held at Massey University in 1975 with financial support from the QEII Arts Council. The association aimed to foster unity among the guilds and wider public appreciation of embroidery. In 1980 the half-yearly magazine Threads began publication, with Peggy Nattrass as editor until 1986.

From the outset, the ANZEG attempted to steer embroiderers 'in a more art-ward direction', as there was a widespread tendency to focus on technique rather than design. [3] This imbalance was gradually redressed through classes in design at residential schools, the influence of visiting overseas experts and experienced local embroiderers, and wider opportunities for formal training. In 1985 the prestigious London City and Guilds classes were first run in New Zealand by a local tutor, Helen Marshall. However, most embroiderers still lacked training in design, and established artists were often commissioned to design large or costly projects, such as the City of London Commemorative Hanging in 1990.

The initial influence of the London guild was significant; it encouraged high standards, but more importantly it urged embroiderers 'to adorn cathedrals and public buildings, to be inventive and enterprising'. [4] During the 1970s and 1980s, many public buildings – churches, town halls, libraries and schools – were enhanced by the work of local guilds.

A more professional approach to embroidery began to develop from the mid 1970s. In 1976 the Koru group, an association of twelve exhibiting embroiderers, was formed in Wellington with the help of Betty Logan, a respected embroidery tutor. The group expanded, and exhibited on 21 different occasions throughout the 1980s, presenting innovative embroideries on varied themes.

The emergence of professional embroiderers, experimenting with an exciting range of textile techniques and media, combined with the achievements of local guilds, encouraged greater recognition of embroidery as an art form. In 1982 embroiderers were given a 'boost into the art world' with an exhibition at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. [5] In 1989 Threads cited the move from 'church halls into art galleries' across the regions as clear evidence of the improving status of the embroiderers' art. [6] Two highly visible projects enhanced the public profile of embroidery: the hangings for the replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, completed in 1990; and the cope for Dr Penny Jamieson’s ordination as Bishop of Dunedin, also in 1990, when she became the world’s first female diocesan bishop of the Anglican Church.

Embroidery grew tremendously in popularity from the mid 1970s, attracting many young enthusiasts; the first Young Embroiderers' Exhibition was held at the 1992 conference. Although the ANZEG constantly encouraged its members to 'take their craft and make it a fine art', in the 1990s the tradition of embroidery as a relaxing and social activity, for women of all ages and levels of skill, remained a central feature of embroiderers' guilds. [7]

Fiona McKergow

1994 – 2018

In 2018 the Association of New Zealand Embroiderers’ Guilds comprised 58 guilds across seven regions, with a combined membership of 2250. [8] Its organisational structure allowed it to operative effectively at local, regional and national level. Regional representatives formed an important link between the national executive and individual guilds. At each biennial conference, a significant proportion of the membership met for educational and social purposes. The richly illustrated Threads magazine continued to be published twice a year, keeping members informed of events, such as colour challenges, exhibitions and tutorials; providing profiles on notable members and international visitors; and covering other matters of interest, such as book reviews and regional reports.

While many members held strong historical sensibilities and chose to work with traditional forms, such as canvaswork and whitework, others experimented with mixed media techniques, such as dyeing and printing, used novel materials, and explored storytelling possibilities in their work. [9] ‘Extensions’ was established in the early 1990s as an autonomous national grouping of guild members who wanted to extend their embroidery practice into new and challenging areas. From time to time, the work of ANZEG members was featured in exhibitions at public art galleries. This was still a rare occurrence when Laura Hudson’s ‘Homework’ exhibition was held at Te Manawa Museum, Palmerston North, in 2004. By 2018, events such as Jo Dixey and Maree Burnnand’s ‘Traditionally Contemporary Stitch’ exhibition at the Percy Thomson Gallery in Stratford that year had become more common. [10]

From 1994 on, numerous guilds contributed to the creation of substantial embroideries for public buildings, and some of these projects had nationwide importance. In 1994, under the guidance of Sandra Heffernan, over 700 weavers and embroiderers created ‘Whanaungatanga’, a wall hanging for the staircase of Parliament Buildings, designed by textile artist Malcolm Harrison. Embroidered works were created for a wide range of public buildings in the regions, such as churches, hospitals, council chambers, libraries, museums and historic houses. In 2000, the New Plymouth Guild was invited to embroider the name ‘Te Niho o Te Atiawa’ and native flowers on pillowslips for visitors to Parihaka.

Poster for stitch exhibition

Poster for 'Traditionally Contemporary Stitch', an exhibition featuring the work of Jo Dixey and Maree Burnnand held at the Percy Thomson Gallery, Stratford, 19 October - 11 November 2018. Percy Thomson Gallery.

Countless embroidery exhibitions and events, both large and small, were held throughout New Zealand from 2000, indicating that embroidery as a form of needlework practice had ‘enjoyed something of a renaissance’ in the 21st century. [11] At an international stitched textile symposium held in Auckland in 2000, an exhibition at Auckland’s Aotea Centre attracted interest for the ways in which exhibitors challenged the ‘boundaries of the definition of embroidery’. Pene Williamson’s ‘Beginnings’ was a response to tāniko and tukutuku patterns in Māori textile arts, using mosaic stitch and pulled thread work; by contrast, Pippa Davies’ three-dimensional ‘Winged Bowl’ was created by machine-stitching vanishing muslin, a water soluble fabric. [12]

One significant nationwide project was a stitched history of Aotearoa New Zealand in one hundred panels, inspired by the French medieval Bayeux Tapestry. Dunedin businessman Fred Haslam formed the Tapestry Trust of New Zealand, in liaison with Jeanette Trotman of the Otago Embroiderers’ Guild, in 2010. For this project experts at the University of Otago, rather than guild members, were used to determine the content and layout of the metre-wide panels. The first group of completed panels were ‘Shore Whaling’ by the Marlborough Guild; ‘The Foundation of Otago’ by the Otago Guild; ‘Sheep Farming and Breeding’ by the Central Hawke’s Bay Guild; and ‘Gallipoli and World War I’ by the Whakatane Guild. [13] Made from New Zealand-sourced woollen cloth and yarn, they cost approximately $5,000 each to produce and took hundreds of hours to stitch. [14]

ANZEG was aware of the need for renewal, and worked to attract younger members through new initiatives, such as young stitchers’ groups, programmes in schools, and widening its presence online. [15] For all of its members, it aimed to foster creativity, civic engagement, recreation and social connection through a shared love of needlework.

Fiona McKergow


[1] Threads, No. 2, April 1981, p. 4.

[2] An estimated 10,000 women and girls took part in Moran's embroidery classes during her time in Dunedin.

[3] Threads, No. 1, October 1980, p. 5.

[4] Threads, No. 1, October 1980, p. 5.

[5] Threads, No.3, October 1981, p.14.

[6] Threads, No. 18, April 1989, p. 7.

[7] Threads, No. 1, October 1980, p. 5.

[8] Threads, No. 76, April 2018, pp. 62–63.

[9] Willis, 2016, pp. 174–75, 188, 231–35.

[10] Willis, pp. 205–06;

[11] Willis, p. 203.

[12] Threads, No. 41, October 2000, pp. 22–23.


[14] Conversation with Margaret Pemberton, 18 September 2018.

[15]Threads, No. 68, April 2014, p. 28.

Unpublished sources

Southland Embroiderers' Guild newsletter, February 1977–October 1980, ATL

Wellington Embroiderers' Guild newsletter, April 1972–September 1977, ATL

West Auckland Embroiderers' and Lacemakers' Guild newsletter, January 1977–November 1979, ATL

Published sources

Willis, Felicity, in consultation with Kath des Forges, The Decorative Stitch: 200 Years of New Zealand Embroidery, Felicity Willis for the Association of New Zealand Embroiderers’ Guilds, [Hawera], 2016

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