Parliament House is currently

The Great Hall Embroidery: a story told by one artist and
worked by a thousand hands

Kay Lawrence (born 1947), Parliament House Embroidery, 1984-1988, embroidered wool, cotton and synthetic thread with fabric applique on twill weave linen, Parliament House Art Collection.

 

The 16-metre-long Great Hall Embroidery tells the story of the settlement of Australia, from pre-European times to 1900. It was designed by artist Kay Lawrence and is the handwork of over 500 highly skilled women from all of the Australian state and territory Embroiderers' Guilds.

 

The work was conceived in 1980 and completed in time for Parliament House's opening in 1988.

 

The design of 31 panels incorporated imagery unique to each state and territory, as well as themes common across the nation. Each guild worked on a section of the embroidery that was about two metres wide.

 

The work asks us to reflect on how the land has influenced our identity

 Kay Lawrence (born 1947), Parliament House Embroidery (detail), 1984-1988, embroidered wool, cotton and synthetic thread with fabric applique on twill weave linen, Parliament House Art Collection.

 

Despite its scale, the embroidery is also an intimate work, designed to be seen at close hand and read in a sequence. Through the overall theme of 'the land as conditioner of values', Kay Lawrence asks us to contemplate how landscape has shaped the Australian character.

 

She commented:

 

I was surprised to discover…the extent to which the landscape we take for granted as 'natural and untouched' has been altered by human intervention—
European agriculture and buildings, displacement of indigenous plants and animals, tree-cutting and so on.

 

I eventually decided to use such changes to the land in my design as the metaphor for the development of European settlement in Australia.

 

The changes in the appearance of the land would symbolise the settlers' attempts to come to terms with their environment and to use the land properly.

 

The embroidery is not only an artistic achievement, it's a technical and logistical one, too

 Kay Lawrence (born 1947), Parliament House Embroidery (detail), 1984-1988, embroidered wool, cotton and synthetic thread with fabric applique on twill weave linen, Parliament House Art Collection.

 

The idea for the work was initially raised with the ACT guild by embroiderer Dorothy Hyslop. While it is said her ambitious plan was met with 'stunned silence', all of the guilds around the country eventually rose to the challenge to work on the piece—a logistical challenge that would foster a feeling of teamwork between women across the country.

 

The embroiderers, many of whom had never interpreted a drawing before, had to adapt their techniques to create the work. Instead of using their usual bright colours and complex needlework, they rendered the design in simpler, detailed stitches and a tonal palette.

 

In all, the women contributed over 12,000 hours of unpaid work and raised the funds for all of the materials, which had to be of the finest quality to ensure the embroidery's longevity.

   

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