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Portrait
Tricia Wilson Nguyen

by Catherine Amoroso Leslie

Tricia Wilson Nguyen. Photograph
courtesy of Tricia Wilson Nguyen.

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The embroidery bug bit Boston engineer/embroidery designer Tricia Wilson Nguyen when she was seven or eight. After her mother discovered that Tricia had been "furthering" her embroidery projects when she was out of the room, the two often worked side by side at Embroiderers' Guild meetings; Nguyen started teaching embroidery herself while a freshman in high school.

Halfway through her first year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Nguyen's roommates discovered the embroidery that she had tried to keep hidden, and soon she had taught some twenty of her housemates—men and women—her skill. Together, the group then stitched a series of large friendship quilts along with a 3-foot (91.4-cm) long wedding sampler designed by Nguyen. Many of those stitchers are still stitching, and several have become accomplished teachers in their own right.

Nguyen continues to teach embroidery and is the owner of Thistle Threads, which produces needlework kits inspired by historical objects thanks to her firm belief that embroidery always is worked in the context of the culture of the embroiderer. Ukrainian, Norwegian, and English Tudor and Stuart embroidery, and American samplers, as well as European and Asian national costumes, are primary influences on her own embroidery designs.

In addition to her degree from MIT, Nguyen holds master's and doctoral degrees in materials science and engineering from the University of Michigan. Recently, her interest in electronic textiles—using metal threads to make electrical devices, including key pads, heating blankets, antennas, and computer cables-has led her to studies of goldwork, needles, and history, and to collaborations with manufacturers and museums.

Catherine Leslie: What is your idea of perfect needlework happiness?
Tricia Wilson Nguyen: The "Aha!" moment. Research, whether in the laboratory or in the stacks at a library, often gives that thrill when something that has been eluding you becomes clear, especially if you know that not many others have seen all the pieces of data that you have. I have been fortunate to have had many of these moments in my scientific career and also in investigating historical textiles, goldwork techniques, and in tracking down how older embroidery materials were made.

CL: Which living needleworker do you most admire?
TWN: Shay Pendray. She was my mentor when I was a teenager and started me on Japanese embroidery. Later, I learned that she had been a scientist in her earlier life, which didn't surprise me at all. She takes a very logical and professional approach to the needlework industry. I admire her analysis of where we are and where we should be going to bring the joy of needlework to a wider circle of people.

CL: What is your greatest extravagance in needlework?
TWN: Books and travel. You can't have enough books on the subject, especially if you are interested in historical embroidery. My husband and I have traveled extensively, and it seems that my suggestions of certain small hamlets to visit always seem to have a wonderful needlework connection—go figure!

CL: What is your favorite needlework journey?
TWN: The journey that I am on now. My love of historical embroidery is crossing paths with the engineering skills and research on electronic textiles that I have amassed. I never thought that would happen and don't know where it is going, but I do know that both loves will be on the same train from now on. That is exciting!

CL: Where would you like to live?
TWN: I would love to live in the textile vault at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Can you imagine being able to see all the wonderful pieces in storage and the research that could be done?

CL: What is your current state of mind in terms of your needlework?
TWN: I am trying to bring to fulfillment many ideas that will serve both the experienced embroiderer and concurrently allow a new generation of young people to find needlework approachable. Our industry often reaches out to new stitchers or young people in a way that gives them a lower-quality design aesthetic or doesn't break down the barrier to learning the techniques. We embroiderers have a "language" that we don't try to make understandable, and we fear the media that our younger generation is used to dealing with. Some of my new business ventures are designed to overcome these issues.

CL: Which needlework talent would you most like to have?
TWN: I have always been interested in lace making and would like to try it someday.

CL: What is your greatest regret in needlework?
TWN: Not going to Japan as a thirteen-year-old to study Japanese embroidery when given a chance to be the first American girl to do so. My parents, understanding my personality better than I did, said that I should go to college instead and that I could always study Japanese embroidery later. They were right, of course, but it is always interesting to think about what other paths your life might have taken.

CL: What is your most treasured needlework possession?
TWN: My grandmother, mother, and aunt are all very talented quilters and embroiderers. We get together from around the United States and create several original quilts a year together. Even now that my grandmother is legally blind, we divide up the tasks so everyone can contribute and share the thrill of creativity. The ability to work together and share our experiences across the generations is the most treasured possession I have.

CL: What do you regard as the lowest depth of needlework misery?
TWN: Not being able to stitch. I injured my right hand working on a large army project last year and have had to stay away from stitching for a long time now while I heal. It has been agony. To satisfy my need to work with textiles, I have refocused my drive into research and reinvention of embroidery materials.

CL: What is your favorite part of your work?
TWN: The ideation stage—that is the most creative part!

One of Tricia Wilson Nguyen's designs.
Photograph courtesy of Tricia Wilson Nguyen.

CL: What is the quality you most like in a needleworker?
TWN: A sense of adventure-too many embroiderers want to reproduce the teacher or designer's project exactly. I absolutely love it when someone changes my colors or extends my designs, no matter how it changes my original intent. It shows their ability to think outside the box and approach their work creatively. I am never offended.

CL: What do you most deplore in needlework?
TWN: Our own devaluation of the art form. As women, we should be representing our work with dignity and demanding respect from the rest of the world. I have found in my engineering career that if I speak about needlework and what I do with my head held high and show how it has influenced my engineering inventions, others will respect it. My work in embroidery is on my list of accomplishments when the president of my engineering company introduces me to generals in the Pentagon, a fact that they use to justify spending large amounts of research and development dollars on our work. Now that's respect!

CL: Who are your heroes in needlework?
TWN: Mary-Dick Diggs and Lamora Haidar. Mary-Dick Diggs was a warm, intelligent, and talented embroiderer who made significant contributions promoting the learning of skilled techniques. She always pushed me to perfect what I was working on, and her fantastic mind could remember obscure facts about the families of the hundreds of students she mentored. Lamora Haidar, the owner of Access Commodities, is virtually unknown to the average stitcher, but it is her knowledge of historical embroidery and her drive to bring back high-quality materials that have made possible much of the variety of materials that have reappeared in the past twenty years.

CL: What is your greatest fear when doing needlework?
TWN: My greatest fear is that I will never return to the level of skill I once had. The enjoyment of being able to turn what is in my head into a reality through my hands is a real thrill.

CL: Which historical needleworker do you most identify with?
TWN: The anonymous professional embroiderer from the sixteenth or seventeenth century—I have been constantly flabbergasted by the imaginative use of materials and invention of new stitches that I have seen under magnification. There was a love of experimentation with ways to make new threads and stitches to get new effects that pushed these embroiderers, making their repetitive work interesting and challenging for them. I set a particular challenge for myself with every piece I design, which allows me to grow even when the piece is destined for commercial use. If I stop challenging myself, it would become work.

CL: Which stitches do you most overuse?
TWN: Tent stitch. It is a great ground for goldwork and works up in half the time as cross-stitch so I can get to the really juicy parts!

CL: What are your favorite stitches?
TWN: My favorite stitches are the complex detached and goldwork stitches of the seventeenth century. They are challenging, interesting, and use materials that are difficult to find. When you successfully work these stitches, you really feel a sense of accomplishment.

CL: Who are your favorite needlework writers?
TWN: Tomasina Beck [author of numerous needlework books, including The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day (1999)] is one of my favorites. Not only is she a good writer, but she uses such wonderful visuals. I am a visual person and love to see as many pictures as I can.

CL: If you could change one thing about your needlework, what would it be?
TWN: I would spend more time on "masterpieces," pieces that really highlight and stretch my abilities. My current limitations and watching my talented and creative grandmother lose her sight make me realize that we should all try to make at least one masterpiece a year that shows the best we can achieve. Those pieces are very satisfying.

CL: What is your favorite needlework technique?
TWN: Right now, it is sixteenth- and seventeenth-century goldwork, in which the gold passes through the fabric to form the stitch. Most of us know of a handful of stitches done this way, such as plaited braid. In fact, there are at least thirty. I have been collecting these stitches and trying to figure them out along with researching the gold threads and needles that made these techniques possible then. I had some wonderful "Aha!" moments in Europe recently when I found old documents that confirmed my suspected needle design.

CL: What is it that you most dislike about your needlework?
TWN: That I only have so much time to devote to it and my research. I have so many ideas in both my fields of study that I have to convince myself that I am on the ten-year plan for finishing many of the ideas so I don't go crazy!

CL: What is the most marked characteristic of your needlework?
TWN: My needlework usually encompasses the use of high-quality materials, unusual techniques, and new technology for instructional materials.

CL: If you could choose to do any needlework project, what would it be?
TWN: I would choose two: a traditional mid-seventeenth-century embroidered casket with all the trimmings and a contemporary wall hanging that uses my knowledge of electronic textiles. The wall hanging would have stumpwork butterflies whose wings flapped and zones where touching the soft textile would activate lights, movement, color, and sound.

CL: What do you consider your greatest achievement in your needlework?
TWN: Bringing together science and historical needlework from many angles. In my professional career, my knowledge of metal-thread embroidery, historic textiles, and the structure of old threads has allowed me to solve many problems in the emerging field of electronic textiles. In fact, the ancient art of making twisted threads in Japanese embroidery provided the solution for a manufacturing problem in the Malden Mills Heat Blanket. In my embroidery career, a knowledge of metallurgy and mechanics has allowed me to deconstruct the goldwork stitches of the seventeenth century, identify the structure of the thread needed to reproduce them, and prove what types of needles were used for this type of work.

CL: How would you like to be remembered?
TWN: As someone who helped reinvent the industry by bringing back techniques and materials from the past using new technologies. I am a real fan of digital technologies being used to make teaching difficult techniques easy. I am also quite involved in analyzing needlework supplies we once had which are too expensive to make with traditional methods and applying new technologies to make them again today. In the next year, I will be launching several new product lines that are the fulfillment of this work.


About the Author. Catherine Amoroso Leslie is an assistant professor in the School of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.

Portions of this interview appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of PieceWork.
Interweave © 2005. All rights reserved.

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