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History and Creation

The year 2004 marked the 500th anniversary of the French presence on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. In the early 1500s, French fishermen ventured across the North Atlantic in pursuit of the large stocks of cod that inhabited the seas around the island and, in particular, the coastal waters of northern Newfoundland that came to be known as the French Shore.

As part of the anniversary, in the small Newfoundland outport of Conche, the French Shore Interpretation Centre opened its doors with an exhibit that told the story of the French migratory cod fishermen and the English-speaking settlers that came after them. [Click on the French Shore Historical Society link to learn more about the history of the French Shore].

Artist Jean Claude Roy working on the design for the tapestry

The anniversary celebration included an invitation to Jean Claude Roy, a well-known artist, to be the first artist-in-residence at the newly renovated Casey House in Conche. Originally from France, Jean Claude lives part of the year in France and part in Newfoundland. [Click on Jean Claude Roy link to learn more about the artist]. Accompanying Jean Claude was his Newfoundland-born wife Christina, who has a long-standing interest in the art and craft of embroidery. She and Jean Claude had been working on the idea of a project to produce an embroidered mural that would depict the history of Newfoundland in the style and dimensions of the famous 11th century Bayeux Tapestry in France. That unique work of art is not technically a tapestry but an embroidered story on linen.

Embroidery is one of the traditional crafts found in rural Newfoundland. Women often decorated bed linens, parkas and tablecloths with embroidered designs. When Christina and Jean Claude proposed the idea to Joan Simmonds and Colleen McLean, two experienced embroiderers living in Conche, they responded with enthusiasm and suggested focusing on the history of Newfoundland’s historic French Shore. From that meeting a partnership was born.

 (from left) Embroiderers Colleen McLean, Cathy Flynn, Alice Dower, and Viola Byrne stitch a piece of the tapestry border.

In spite of such a daunting undertaking, and without full realization of the magnitude of the effort involved, the four were confident they could find the artisans and resources to do the project.

Jean Claude Roy would lend his artistic talent to create the tapestry’s imagery. Christina Roy would pull together the historical research and local stories, colourize the drawings, and write instructions for the artisans on which parts to embroider and which to leave open. Joan and Colleen would recruit a band of local embroiderers, transfer the design to the linen, and oversee the fabrication process at the French Shore Interpretation Centre.

Described this way, it all sounds simple and straightforward. However, in reality, it has been far more complex process, taking many, many hours of work on the part of the participants. Tanja Berlin, of Berlin Embroideries in Alberta, suggested a Jacobean linen twill from Scotland for the background and Appleton crewel wool manufactured in England for the embroidery. The embroidery frame was skillfully made by local master carpenter Gerard Chaytor. Christina compiled research on the history of the French Shore. The Conche partners added local history and stories that would provide a unique and colourful picture of the region. Jean Claude used the material to inspire his drawings, which were then were photographed, emailed to Conche and copied on the linen using a retroprojector. Christina made a second set of drawings showing the selected colours, and also wrote instructions for the embroiderers. Once the stitching team was assembled, they had to adhere to a strict style of embroidery so that no one stitcher’s work looked different from another’s. To be true to the traditions of the craft, the reverse side had to look almost as good as the front side.

After 24 months of work, over 20,000 hours of the artist and artisans’ time, the French Shore Tapestry, so named in honour of its illustrious predecessor, is finished. Some day the ins and outs of how it all came about will find their way into the oral history of Newfoundland and become another fascinating story about the unique place known as the French Shore.