Of Hands and Knees
Dec 27, 2012 07:18PM
● By Anonymous
Nancy Lukoskie shifts her long black hair to the back of an ear, steps lithely in leather boots, tugging at a wool canvas with the strength of a sailor maneuvering a jib in a challenging wind. The freedom of a billowy smock and tight spandex jeans are fashionably luxurious compared to the fumbling long robes her predecessors donned to do the same work more than five centuries ago. In her studio in downtown Easton, Lukoskie carries on the Renaissance craft of designing and finishing needlepoint furnishings—from kneelers and seat cushions to altar rugs and priests’ stoles—for churches as local and intimate as St. Anne’s in Annapolis and Christ Church in St. Michaels, and as international and sprawling as the main altar at the Washington National Cathedral and Trinity Church on Wall Street.
She is considered the only Certified Master Designer and Textile Finisher whose methods link her to the times when the “pillars of the earth” were being completed all over Europe. Lukoskie buoys the captains of liturgical ships—cardinals, bishops, ministers—by cushioning their knees while they save the souls of their faithful. The strength required for the finishing part of her work (mounting a needlepoint canvas to a filling) is not much less than that expected of a brawny old salt. That’s why experienced needlepointers wonder how this 5’5” petite woman can do this heavy physical work. And yet, the Washington National Cathedral (WNC) says it doesn’t know what it would do without her.
“When she joined us, we were already fossils, and this perky young woman came into our midst,” recalls longtime WNC artisan Linda Roeckelein. “We were her mentors. Today it is she who is carrying on the teachings we learned in Europe and passed down through the ages. The cathedral is the hierarchy for needlepointers in America, carrying on a craft that puts you back in time. Nancy’s talent, rarity, and humility is so special.”
It started in 1979, when Lukoskie, now 51, spotted an ad in a newspaper for apprentice needlepoint blocker. Armed with embroidery (not needlepoint) experience, gained while making pillowcases and hand towels with her grandmother, Nancy proved to be a natural and was later lured by the cathedral.
One of Lukoskie’s earlier jobs there was to restore the1957 kneelers in the children’s chapel that took her and her mentors 24 years to complete. She also restored the rug for the main cathedral’s altar, and needlepoint in many of the cathedral’s nine chapels. In 1984, Lukoskie was faced with raising and supporting her children on her own, and so she left the cathedral to start Nancy Finishing.
“The old-way is mostly by hand,” she explains, “and is the only way a woven art that is in constant use can endure.” The training she received originated at the Royal School of Needlework in England and was brought to America via master crafters at the cathedral. Her work is very different from an upholsterer’s because Nancy creates the “fabric” and then mounts it to a filling; an upholsterer uses a premade fabric to cover a cushion.
Improper measuring, inferior canvases and filling materials, poor-grade yarns, and mishandling during finishing can make the difference in appearance and durability. Ironically, as she stretches and blocks a needlepointed canvas, it is her back that stresses and her fingers that scorch in order to protect delicate knees, shroud and keep warm the clergy with symbolic robes, and even protect tushes from the hard wooden seats at the altar during hours-long ceremonies.
Stitching is done on a blank needlepoint canvas imported from Germany. The canvas is made of twisted fibers that form tiny squares for single-stitches. Colorful, scrumptious yarns are from England’s Appleton Brothers, a 150-yearold company that ships yarns as it always has: wrapped in brown paper and fastened with twine. Needlepointers create by hand what a loom or machine might stitch into a printed or machinewoven fabric.
Although Lukoskie is technically called a “finisher,” her work is also about beginnings. She conceives a design that is approved by the church and then painted on the canvas in a method called paintingto- point. The design and colors have to be placed exactingly on the one-eighth-inch squares with tiny brushes so that the needlepointer knows precisely where to stitch. “Getting it right here affects everything that comes after,” says Lukoskie, who has an artist or two helping her with this step.
The needlepointers at the church then add the wool stitches, in the old English warp and weft technique, taking about an hour to complete one square inch with artistry, patience, and technical skill. (Like all of the old-world crafts at Washington National Cathedral—from stone carving and fl oral arranging—needlepoint is significant, and is now listed under the Fine Arts Department.)
The canvas naturally stretches out of shape while the hands of many of the faithful fi ll in the colors with a blunt needle and the yarn. So it needs to be blocked before it is fastened to the filling. “This is where the old technique comes in,” says Lukoskie, who gets help cutting her cushions but “no one does the finishing but me.”
In addition to her work for Shore churches in Maryland— including Oxford’s Church of the Holy Trinity, All Hallows Episcopal in Snow Hill, and Severna Park Methodist—her work is in some 28 states, including North Carolina, and even in Bermuda and England. On Wall Street, she finished 67 pieces for Trinity Church that were delivered a week before the attacks of 9/11. A week later, she was instructing the church on how to clean up the dust embedded into the kneelers she had just finished.
This summer, the Asbury United Methodist Church in Salisbury is undertaking a two-year project to stitch 13 (threefoot) kneelers. Each one will depict a different Shore bird—from a great blue heron to a chickadee—along with seashells, grapes, and bread; all symbolic of the church. Project coordinator Alice Anne Wells says she is hoping to stitch the sandpiper kneeler, “because I’m a beach person.” Wells says the hardest part is finding 13 people to stick to the project. “We had Nancy create silencers for collection plates (no offerings jingle during the church service) that we all practiced on. Of that group we still have several ready to stitch the kneelers, but a few are not with us anymore, so we will be on the lookout.”
Needlepointers receive a certain satisfaction that goes even beyond the devotion of these volunteers to the church and their faith. “Stitchers find a peacefulness, an almost meditative activity where they find answers and certainly a reward at seeing the finished piece,” says Lukoskie. With kneelers taking approximately 45,000 stitches per foot of canvas, a certain amount of patience is, no doubt, experienced.
This kind of devotion and reward in needlepoint projects are what Lukoskie hopes will interest future stitchers. “I am finding that the church work is not slacking, and the need for my work is growing,” Lukoskie reports, but she is only one person, and one is not enough to supply an entire country and keep the art alive.
So, this past fall, she took six selected students from around the country to pass on her trade secrets and teach them in the centuries-old method of finishing she learned in Washington many years ago. “I needed to do this or the art will not continue,” Lukoskie explains.
“I have a responsibility to keep this going,” she expresses. So, taking in—as she puts it in a most Maryland-Shore-like way, “a breath of salty air to replenish and recharge me,” she is ready to turn over her life’s work and put it in the hands of a new generation—as has been done for centuries. And as she does that, her work on the Eastern Shore of Maryland can lead the way for a renaissance in liturgical textiles yet again.
Nancy Lukoskie can be reached in her Easton studio on North West Street at 410-820-0480.
Photos by TOM BAGLEY