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Revelling in the detail

Issue 18 | November 2006

Report: Sharon Lee
Photography: Greg Ford

Devoted to embroidery: Dr Morna Sturrock with some of her work, at St Stephen and St Mary's Anglican Church in Mt Waverley, Victoria.

The desire to adorn with thread and needle was passed on by Morna Sturrok's mother. Now she has made it her life's mission to share that gift with others.

When Monash alumna Morna Sturrock (BA(Hons) 1986, MA 1992 and PhD 2004) was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003, a colleague put her passion for embroidery into a fitting biblical context.

In a letter of congratulations, the then Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, Mr Michael Cohen, wrote that Dr Sturrock was following in the tradition of Bezaleel who, in the book of Exodus, embroidered winged creatures on the sacred linen tent.

Dr Sturrock's award recognised her devotion to promoting the ancient craft of embroidery through The Embroiderers Guild, Victoria, which she co-founded in 1960. Dr Sturrock speaks of the guild as though it were her baby: "It was born at my kitchen sink," she says, explaining that she dreamed up the not-for-profit organisation while washing the dishes one day.

"I think my role creatively has been to help bring to birth The Embroiderers Guild and to encourage women at whatever level to come and join us," she says.  "My creativity is in the building up of a group of women, who amount to tens of thousands, to enjoy this activity."

The organisation now has 2000 members and 11 branches across Victoria and, over the past 46 years, countless more have taken part in classes, workshops and meetings. Dr Sturrock says people flock to see the guild's exhibitions, though they get little media coverage -- publicity is mainly by word of mouth.

In setting up the Victorian guild, Dr Sturrock adopted the model of the organisation founded in the UK a century ago. In 1953, while posted to Fleet Street in London as a correspondent for the Melbourne Herald, she took classes in ceremonial embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework, where much finery was being created for Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation.

Since then, Dr Sturrock has specialised in ecclesiastical embroidery. Churches and synagogues in many parts of Australia house her work, and holy men far and wide have donned her vestments.

For the former Anglican Archbishop the Rt Rev Dr Peter Hollingworth (later Governor General), she crafted a mitre, or tall cap. St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne has a gospel book she adorned with gems, while St Paul's Cathedral has a splendid altar frontal. More than 40 years after its creation, it remains her favourite. She made it with her mother, Mrs Ethel Oates BEM, who put a needle in her daughter's hand when she was four years old and later helped her set up the guild, along with a colleague, Lady Geraldine Amies OBE.

Some of Dr Sturrock's works were commissioned, but most she has gifted. All have been created as she has juggled a multitude of career and personal endeavours. During her 81 years, she has been a historian, journalist, author, publicist, local councillor, lay chaplain, mother to four children, wife, grandmother and scholar. She has a PhD in history from Monash and a Master of Theology from the Melbourne College of Divinity.

"We embroiderers manage to do it all. To have our children, look after our families, be out there in the community, be students or career women, and return to this wonderfully satisfying passion," she says.

"Being able to take up my needle and thread is an enormously restful end to the day. Mind you, sometimes I begin the day with it.

Dr Sturrock takes great pride in knowing that, through the guild, her passion has been shared with thousands of others.

"I'd like to think that they have found instruction and inspiration and, importantly, friendship. Because embroidery is the thing that binds us."