Handwork and Symbolism in St. Dunstan’s Chapel

In Cranbrook Archives’ Christ Church Cranbrook Records, there is a binder on two needlepoint projects undertaken between 1957 and 1964, the first of which focuses on replacing the cushions and kneelers in St. Dunstan’s Chapel. It gives insight into the design process, symbolism, and handwork, as well as providing much information that would be of interest to the sociology of gender roles and art.

St. Dunstan’s Chapel, Christ Church Cranbrook. The Chapel’s first service was Easter Sunday 1926; the current configuration of the Chapel dates to 1934. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, August 2021. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The project, a collaboration of the Women’s Auxiliary and the Altar Guild, began in June 1957 when a Needlepoint Committee was convened to oversee the project through its planning, implementation, and dedication. The project was inspired by a similar project at Washington Cathedral where women across the nation contributed 461 pieces of needlepoint to the Cathedral, including altar pieces for Bethlehem Chapel which were worked by women of Michigan.

Twenty designs from the Washington Cathedral project were displayed in the Exhibition of Ecclesiastical Needlepoint at the Detroit Institute of Arts in February 1958 prior to their dedication at the Cathedral. Rt. Rev. Richard S. Emrich commended the idea to all churches in Michigan.

Catalog for the Exhibition of Ecclesiastical Needlepoint at the Detroit Institute of Arts, February 1958. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

St. Dunstan’s Chapel was selected as the most appropriate place for the women of the church to use their handwork for its adornment, since St. Dunstan is the patron saint of Arts and Crafts. St. Dunstan, born in Glastonbury, Somerset, in the tenth century, is commemorated in St. Dunstan’s Chapel with a stone from Glastonbury Abbey where he served as abbot.

Initially, the Committee decided to seek designs for the project by opening a contest for Cranbrook Academy of Art students, with Henry Scripps Booth, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson, Ken Isaacs, and Marion Leader as judges. Harry Soviak (Painting 1957/MFA 1959) won the competition. However, there were problems in implementing the design in terms of types and quantities of wool, and the Committee sought to consider more traditional designs before making a final choice.

Henry Scripps Booth, Ken Isaacs, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (seated), and Marion Leader judging entries from Academy of Art students to the needlepoint contest for St. Dunstan’s Chapel at Christ Church Cranbrook. April 19, 1957. Photograph by Harvey Croze. Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Rachel T. Earnshaw of the Needlework Studio, Inc., of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania was contacted for information on how to proceed. Earnshaw had won first place for her designs for the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Washington Cathedral. Having been sent some information and images of St. Dunstan’s Chapel, she advised on symbolism as well as offering guidance on canvas, wool, and stitches.

In September 1957, Earnshaw sent a sample of the canvases they usually use and a sample of wool which she thought would be very beautiful in the Chapel. After considering a sage green background, the Committee eventually selected red in the same shade as that which is contained in the stained-glass window.

Letter from Rachel T. Earnshaw, September 10, 1957. Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Sample canvas and wool sent by Rachel Earnshaw, September 1957. Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center of Collections and Research.

Earnshaw’s first designs were considered too Victorian for a Romanesque Chapel. She was asked to produce something inspired by an earlier period, and something more stylized. Her revised designs were approved by the Committee in December 1957. Work began in February 1958, starting with a call for work samples to be submitted and displayed in the Guild Hall and approved by three anonymous judges to ensure uniformity of the work.

View of needlepoint altar rail cushions in St. Dunstan’s Chapel, August 2021. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Over the course of two years, one hundred and thirty-four women worked on the project, which comprised one hundred and twenty-three pieces, including one central rail cushion adorned with a cross tinted in golds and two altar rail cushions. The two symbols on the inside ends of the long cushions are the pipes of the organ (giving of praise through music) and a chalice (giving of ourselves). Each also carries symbols of a hammer and saw representing the gifts of labor and work by the men of the church, and a palette and brushes representing the work of the women.

There are two priest’s kneelers with no symbols and two priest’s chair cushions, one with the seal of Christ Church Cranbrook and one with the seal of Canterbury Cathedral, where St. Dunstan last served as Archbishop.

The Litany desk (not shown) bears a horn and quill symbol to represent learning, which is worked in shades of gold with a circular border of Florentine leaves worked in shades of blue and green as in the stained-glass window of the Chapel.

Finally, one hundred and fifteen individual kneelers were worked in red wool with Florentine leaf motifs, a third of which carry one of four symbols: the cross, the Trinity, I H S, and Alpha-Omega.

Kneelers (1958-1960) with symbols of the cross, Alpha-Omega, the Trinity, and IHS, August 2021. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The project was dedicated at a private communion service on Tuesday, September 20, 1960.

Archives help us to tell stories and this is a wonderful one of a community of women taking time to create timeless things of beauty with the work of their hands.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

4 thoughts on “Handwork and Symbolism in St. Dunstan’s Chapel

  1. This is wonderful and that vivid red still looks so good! (And of course I’m so happy to see Ken Isaacs in the photo of the judges while I’m processing his collection.)


  2. Pingback: The Art and Architecture of Christ Church Cranbrook | Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

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