The Medieval Monk meets a twenty-first-century embroiderer making a full-scale replica of the Bayeux Tapestry
For my first blog post of 2020, I'm going back to the eleventh century. Well, sort of.
Below you will find my interview with the wonderful Mia Hansson, the creator and labourer behind a ten-year project to reproduce a full-scale copy of the world famous Bayeux Tapestry, which was originally embroidered in England sometime in the last quarter of the eleventh century, after the Norman Conquest (1066).
First, though, let me introduce Mia:
Mia Hansson, 45, was born and raised in Sweden, where she was a primary school teacher. In early 2003, she moved to London where she worked in dementia care. In London she also “met a man” and decided to stay in England.
“Here I still am, 17 years later,” she says. “I’ve since left the job in London and moved to Wisbech [Cambridgeshire] with my family. Nowadays, I spend my days looking after my disabled stepson, sewing and writing. What’s not to love?”
Mia is certainly “keeping the needle warm”. Her Nan taught her how to embroider when she was just 4 or 5 years old. “Being a fourth-generation needle worker, I believe it’s in my blood. I do not, however, think I’m a reincarnated Bayeux tapestry seamstress!” – more on that in the interview below.
With a background in Viking age re-enactment, she taught herself how to hand stitch period clothing. As well as making outfits for friends and family, she has also dressed strangers and sent commissioned pieces to both schools and museums in the UK. Some of her work has even crossed the Atlantic to the USA and Canada.
“I’ve come a very long way from when I made my first garment,” she observes, “not trusting a measuring tape and rolling myself onto the fabric and pinning around my body to get the measurements for cutting.” Nowadays, she uses more conventional methods for measuring, although rarely a pattern.
One surprising fact about Mia is that she is “unable to use a sewing machine”, but then that adds to the authenticity of her reproduction work; for, as she says, “everything I make is 100% hand-stitched.”
It is clear that Mia would have it no other way: “I live, therefore I sew. And vice versa.”
The Medieval Monk (MM): A very warm welcome to you, Mia Hansson. I am greatly blessed by you taking time from your labours to talk to me about your remarkable work of embroidery.
Mia: Thank you kindly for considering me for your splendid blog. I’m deeply honoured to be asked and have, of course, set plenty of time aside to answer whatever questions you may have prepared for me. Conversing with you, dear Monk, will give my hard-working fingers a well needed rest.
MM: Bless you! Now, I understand you have been working on a full-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. Please tell my beloved readers about your progress to date.
Mia: I set upon this challenge in July, three and a half years ago, simply because I had nothing else to do and desired a project that I couldn’t finish in a hurry. I think I succeeded in finding such a task.
MM: Indeed! It will take many of my pious, contemplative steps to traverse the length of your work when completed.
Mia: Yes! The original tapestry is approximately 68.4 metres long [over 224 feet], and as I’m embroidering a full-scale replica, that’s what I’m aiming for. In December I crossed the 22 metre mark, leaving 46.4 metres to complete. I’ve allowed myself a total of ten years for the project, which means I’ve six and a half years left to devote to the embroidery. All being well, I should be able to manage, but it doesn’t really matter if I don’t. It will still get done eventually. Being rather competitive, I would like to hit my target on time though.
MM: Now, I have to ask – being an eleventh-century English monk, and somewhat averse to anything that might be construed as a celebration of the conquering of my beloved kingdom – but, really, what made you decide on the Bayeux Tapestry of all things?
Mia: Well, years ago, my embroidery skills were noted by an American friend with a great interest in English history, and he commissioned me to make a small section of the Bayeux tapestry. The aim was to make it the way the original may have looked when it was brand new, before any damage or repairs were made.
To aid my work, he gifted me an excellent book, David Wilson’s The Bayeux Tapestry, in which every stitch is clearly visible.
MM: Ah, yes, an excellent substitute if you cannot see the real thing.
Mia: The commission piece provided me with much joy and it was greatly appreciated upon completion. When I, after a number of years, ran out of Viking period clothing to stitch for customers, and I required something to occupy my restless fingers, I recalled the small tapestry piece I had made. When I say small, I mean a 1.5 metre length. If that short section had given me plenty of pleasure, imagine what the full length would do for my mental well-being.
MM: Well, yes. I tell myself something similar when reciting all 150 Psalms every week: the more psalms the merrier – godly merriment, of course.
Mia: On top of this, I heard of someone else who had made a half-size version of the original and, as I said, I’m rather competitive. Why do it half-size when it can be done full-scale, and why take fifteen years when it can be done in ten?
MM: Why indeed? Now, over the last few centuries, various folk have put forward ideas about who actually produced the original embroidery work – no, blessed ones, it was not Queen Matilda – but I’m not interested in that debate today. However, I really would like to know if your own labours have given you any insight into the original process.
Mia: I actually have some inside information on this matter –
MM: Ooh, do tell.
Mia: – being in touch, as I am, with someone who believes herself to be one of the original seamstresses, reborn over and over again. Please trust me when I say that I’ve done my very best to disprove her claim, but failed.
MM: Well, I think I may actually be lost for words. So, pray continue.
Mia: Details she has told me seem to be perfectly sound and not of the kind to be easily made up, although the part about her being reincarnated may be hard to digest, depending on your personal belief.
MM: Well, even though I am myself a devout Christian monk of the eleventh century, I will refrain from judgement. Just this once, mind you.
Mia: Having no issues with that myself, I have chosen to believe her and that has taught me the following: the tapestry was made by women of various ages, not nuns; they were all from England, apart from this particular lady, who came over on a ship with Queen Matilda and was sent to work on the tapestry, never to see the Queen again; and they worked under Odo’s instructions in the crypt below St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.
Due to the tapestry not being mentioned in any document for 400 years after it was believed to have been created, nobody knows for sure who made it and where. I may as well believe this lady, who claims to have first-hand information. That is more than any historian has.
MM: I’m thinking that embroidering in a crypt might prove to be rather a gloomy experience, but I will leave my doubts aside for now. So, Mia, have you found certain parts of your embroidery particularly challenging?
Mia: Oh, absolutely! I’m a perfectionist and I don’t take kindly to mistakes, not even ancient ones. Because I aim to create a replica true to the original embroideresses’ work, prior to any damage and repair, I scrutinise every detail and in doing so, discover a vast amount of human errors, even a spelling mistake.
Bear in mind that I’ve only completed one third of the length so far, which means there is much more to come. Being of a certain disposition, my natural instinct it to correct the obvious mistakes, but my pledge is to honour the creators of the masterpiece, so I can’t do that. I’m finding this incredibly difficult.
MM: And do you have a favourite section?
Mia: I do, although, to be more accurate, I really mean a motif. There is no point in having a favourite section, because I would only stitch it once and then move on. Instead, I love the ships and the horses, because they make such a great impact with their large areas of colour. A horse’s rump and the hull of a ship are my absolute favourites.
MM: Whatever floats your boat, to use one of your twenty-first century idioms.
Mia: Ah, a monkish pun!
MM: I have plenty of those.
Mia: Saying all that, horses and ships are also laborious to stitch. So, when I stitch a fleet of ships, I prefer the horses; and when, on the other hand, I stitch a team of horses, I long for a ship dipping in and out of the waves.
Beautiful, ornate trees are right below the ships and horses on the list, while houses with spindly walls and tiled roofs are at the very bottom. I loathe tiles.
MM: Oh yes, there’s little aesthetically pleasing about a roof tile. I’m with you, there.
Mia: Chain armour is no favourite of mine either, although it can be very interesting.
MM: In what way?
Mia: Well, lately I’ve noted serious eleventh-century drama when stitching this kind of armour.
MM: Ooh! I’m all for a bit of eleventh-century drama. Pray, continue.
Mia: The lady stitching from the upper side of the tapestry used roundish rings while the woman working from the lower side made her armour square. Imagine when they met in the middle!
MM: Oh dear! I dare not think what might have happened between quarrelling, needle-wielding embroiderers!
Mia: Well, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when they clashed, because I’m absolutely certain that they did. Nobody in their right mind would accept incorrect work from someone else, especially not when the item is a joint effort.
MM: Quite right! Now, I’m sorry to have to ask you the next question, but I’ve come under pressure from the other Monk of this website, who tells me it’s relevant to his research. So: have you kept/are you keeping in your replica all the original Bayeux Tapestry’s naughty bits?
Mia: Naturally! If a task is worth doing at all, it is worth doing correctly. I mentioned earlier that I painstakingly replicate the seamstresses’ errors, so of course I also stitch what they have done right. The naughty bits are part of the Bayeux Tapestry and they are very much part of my replica. In this sense, my work is more accurate than the Reading piece.
MM: Oh yes, the Victorian replica at Reading Museum! Those sensitive nineteenth-century ladies couldn’t quite bring themselves to reproduce the unmentionables in the borders. I think Dr Monk will be relieved you are being so authentic, Mia.
Now, I understand you take your Bayeux Tapestry to educational events. Would you tell us a little more about this?
Mia: I was six months into my tapestry when I was invited to be the backdrop, so to speak, during a historian’s talk about his own project set in the same time period. I was allocated five to ten minutes to present my work and the audience could view the embroidery during the break.
A year later, I was asked by the Women’s Institute to do an hour-long presentation on my own, from a handcraft point of view. Since then, I’ve accepted private bookings fairly local to my home town, for a smallish fee of £60 plus mileage.
MM: More than reasonable.
Mia: The latest one was in Great Hockham, in Norfolk, on the 19th January; and although the village is small, the audience was large. I spoke to eighty enthusiasts and received lovely reviews afterwards. I have been told that I can be rather entertaining when talking about the dos and don’ts of a replica project.
MM: Ah, wonderful! I will post your contact details for booking enquiries at the end of the blog post.
Mia: Thank you.
MM: My final question, in two, well, maybe three parts – oh, and you have perhaps already told me some of this – oh dear, I’m rambling. Anyway, when do you think you will complete your copy of the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry, and ultimately where are you going to put it when you’ve finished? Do you have a large dining hall it could occupy? It would make for such an interesting topic of conversation – though, of course, we pious eleventh-century English monks don’t talk at the table.
Mia: As I said earlier, the project began in July 2016 and, providing I hit my target of ten years, it will be completed during the summer months of 2026. But I’m very aware of life happening around me, throwing the occasional spanner in the works.
MM: Or broad axe?
Mia: Perhaps! But also, because I accept commissions, both for tapestry work and for hand stitching of period clothing, depending on how time consuming these are, it may well have an impact on the embroidery project.
MM: And what about displaying it in your dining hall?
Mia: Living in a regularly sized, three-bedroom house, sadly no, I have no large dining room in which to display the tapestry.
Mia: Ask yourself though, would you necessarily want to dine while watching warriors losing their heads and limbs?
MM: Well, perhaps not, but life is tough in the eleventh-century. And we have strong stomachs, you know.
Mia: Ha, ha! I should add, perhaps, that though the violent battle – the Battle of Hastings – is a large part of the Tapestry, it lays many years ahead of me right now.
MM: Or many feet – or metres – ahead of you.
Mia: Ah, yes! I do though hope to place my work in a museum or in a wealthy person’s private collection and walk away empty handed, but with my pockets full of gold.
MM: The labourer is worthy of his hire, the Lord said. I have no quibble, there.
Mia: Perhaps Bill Gates will get in touch –
MM: Does he have a large dining hall?
MM: My apologies, I interrupted you. Pray continue.
Mia: I was going to say that the Bayeux Museum, in France, follows my work via my Facebook Group, Mia’s Bayeux Tapestry Story [details below]. As an eleventh-century monk, you may not be aware of this world-encompassing, virtual reality –
MM: Well, it’s all magic to me.
Mia: – but the group has connected over 1300 tapestry lovers from around the globe, several members of the museum staff among them.
MM: Remarkable indeed! But fully understandable, in view of your talent.
Mia: As yet, there are no offers, but I’m not in a hurry. Alongside the embroidery, I’m writing a book in which I am documenting all my experiences along the way, and I hope to publish it when the tapestry is ready to be sold. Should my replica fail to sell, the linen and wool combo will live out its days in my hobby room.
MM: Well, I am quite sure the Lord will bless you. And I am even more certain that my blessed readers would very much like to thank you for taking time out of your busy life to talk to us about this wonderful project. And, of course, I add my own gracious thanks to theirs.
Mia: Again, thank you from the depths of my heart for your kind interest in my work. It’s been my pleasure to share my passion with you and your blog readers.
If you wish to contact Mia Hansson regarding booking queries, you can do so via email at: email@example.com.
Mia’s Facebook group page can be found here.
Update: Bonus pics available
You can now see four more photos of Mia Hansson's replica related to this interview. And an explanation of the 'naughty bits' by Dr Monk. Click here.