A stitch in time

Morag Loves Company unveils a double-documentary on the French Shore Tapestry

Tara Bradbury tbradbury@thetelegram.com
Published on July 27, 2012

Twelve women. Three years. Dozens of stories. Twenty thousand hours of the most detailed, intricate needlework possible. The result? A stunning 222-foot long tapestry detailing the history of Newfoundland and Labrador’s French Shore.

The tapestry was officially unveiled in Conche two summers ago, and filmmaker Barbara Doran of Morag Loves Company was there. She and co-producer Jerry McIntosh have completed a television documentary on the project — “Phantoms of the French Shore”/“La tapisserie du French Shore” — which will air on Radio-Canada Zone Doc this evening, CBC on Saturday, and on the Documentary Channel Monday.

“I knew about the Cap St-Georges French, but the French Shore I knew very little about,” Doran told The Telegram. “Jerry saw a little clip on the web of the tapestry being made and he said, ‘I think this is a great idea for a documentary.’”

The tapestry project had come about because of French artist Jean-Claude Roy, who first came to the province as a 17-year-old, working aboard a ship, and his Newfoundlander wife Christina Roy. Jean-Claude was an artist in residence in Conche, on the Northern Peninsula, when Christina began collecting the stories of the French — who fished in the area for 500 years — from local residents.

Christina, an embroiderer, had long admired the famous Bayeux Tapestry — which depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066 — in Bayeux, France. She was inspired to create a similar tapestry to tell the story of the French in Newfoundland and, after she approached Joan Simmonds, director of the French Shore Historical Society, with the idea, the project began. Every day for six months of the year, for three years, Jean-Claude would illustrate a story from those compiled by his wife, and she would colour them, choosing colours she knew would be available in embroidery wool.

The couple would send the images from France via email to 12 women in Conche who had been hired to stitch the tapestry — Anne Byrne, Viola Byrne, Angela Chaytor, Alice Dower, Elaine Dower, Kelly Elliott, Annie Fitzpatrick, Cathy Flynn, Elizabeth Gardiner, Sharon Foley, Colleen McLean and Margie Wiseman — who would project the image onto a piece of linen and trace it, then start on the painstaking task of embroidering it by hand.

“A lot of these women were putting in almost full days at the fish plant and then going and sitting there and doing this intricate work, some of it so intricate that one woman wore two pairs of glasses,” Doran said, laughing. “I’m delighted that we had the opportunity to do this film to honour the women in Conche.”

“It not always easy to do a drawing based on words,” Jean-Claude says in the film, about his role in the project. “I put a lot of the things I do in my paintings. I put in the sun, my composition and all that. I went about the tapestry as if I were doing my drawings for my paintings, and that didn’t always work out.

“The women were really wonderful. To see the patience they had. I saw them going up and down with their needles all day long. Fortunately, we had a great team. On your own, you’d need an entire lifetime to do it.”

Using the Bayeux stitch, a new technique for the experienced embroiders, the Conche women completed a richly detailed visual history of the area. In some cases they were stitching stories that were unknown to them; in others, they were using needle and thread to tell the stories of their own relatives.

There are scenes of Maritime Archaic Indians, Inuit, Vikings and English and French settlers, and the battles that took place between them. There are depictions of love and loss, of fishing, animals, resettlement, out-migration and a family life common not only among the French in this province, but in all local outports.

“Like a lot of coastal communities, their stories were full of tragedy, of people who died in shipwrecks or who fell overboard,” Doran said. “There was one story that was particularly emotional for all of us, and it was told to us by a survivor. This woman was in labour and the midwives thought she was going to die, so they sent for the priest. There was no doctor. Three men went out in a boat to get the priest and it was icy and windy and the boat capsized, and all three of them drowned. The woman and child survived. That’s the kind of life they lived.”

Jean-Claude, Christina and the embroiderers are also depicted on the tapestry, at the end, as a way to bring history up to date.

Visiting Conche while shooting the film, Doran was blown away by the phantom presence of the French in the area; hence the documentary’s title. There are graves bearing Frenchmen in the community, wrecks of French ships under the harbour and French surnames, but not a single person in Conche speaks French, she said.

“That kind of dropped me to my knees,” she said.

“France didn’t want any settlers on the French Shore, so what they would do each year is the men would come over in the spring. They’d salt their fish, they’d barrel it, and they’d bring it back to France in the fall. While they were gone, they hired local guardians, mainly of the Irish population, and the guardians looked after their boats and so on over the winter.

“Because the French never settled and they never married, the language was never passed on. Some of them jumped ship and stayed, but that’s what happened, and that in itself is fascinating.”

Doran and McIntosh shot the film twice: once in English, and again in French. Most of the people they interviewed were bilingual; the ones that weren’t, they had dubbed, along with the narration.

“La Tapisserie du French Shore” will air on Radio Canada Zone Doc at 10:30 tonight local time, while “Phantoms of the French Shore” will be shown on CBC TV Saturday at 8:30 p.m. It will air again at 9:30 p.m. Monday on the Documentary Channel.

A trailer for the film can be seen online at http://bit.ly/OesUZf.


tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury