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Emily Holt at work, summer 2011. Looking over her shoulder is the Rev. Thomas Brown of the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, Mass. She said he had no idea the embroidery would take over two years to complete. Photo courtesy Caroline Larson
Emily Holt at work, summer 2011. Looking over her shoulder is the Rev. Thomas Brown of the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, Mass. She said he had no idea the embroidery would take over two years to complete. Photo courtesy Caroline Larson

Heard Up North: Emily Holt

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In today's Heard Up North, we meet a woman who's one of the last experts in ecclesiastical embroidery in America. Emily Holt has spent 60 years illuminating church altars and vestments with specialized and painstaking hand-work.

Martha Foley visited her summer work space in the Thousand Islands, where she was finishing up her latest project. After two and a half years of work, she hopes to have a reproduction of an altarpiece for her church done for Christmas.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

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"Our mother taught us in our family, girls, four girls, to do the simple embroidery stitches very young. And we used to do little pillowcases and handkerchiefs and things. So I saw the minister's stole at church up close one Sunday and I was fascinated with how beautiful the embroidery was on it. And I was just entranced and I said to my mother, that's the kind of embroidery I'd like to learn.

"I was between seven and eight then, and I just wanted to learn it for so many years, and I thought I never would, you could never find anybody! You could go and live in a convent and maybe learn it. So it was years and years until after I was married that we found somebody that could teach it!

The almost-finished frontal is a reproduction of another altar piece at the Westminster church. Each flower required 83 hours of work. Photo: Martha Foley
The almost-finished frontal is a reproduction of another altar piece at the Westminster church. Each flower required 83 hours of work. Photo: Martha Foley
"So much gold and silver really isn't used much in regular embroidery, but the flat silk is very outstanding thread because it doesn't have any twist in it at all,  it reflects the light beautifully. [Each flower] took 83 hours.

"You have to have a lot of time to do it, and you have to have a lot of patience. And I think people like  to do things that will be done more quickly, you know? I love doing it…but they're not useful like doing a needlepoint cushion that you could lean against or sit on.

"One of my nephews came over and said 'Aunt Emily, I want that on my motorcycle seat', when he saw the gold letters, he said 'will you do my motorcycle seat like that?' I said no, it can't stand the wear."   

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