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A stitch in time

A legacy project that began in the early 1940s was added to by New Zealand author Tessa Duder last night.

Mrs Duder was at Tairawhiti Museum to talk about her new book First Map: How James Cook Charted Aotearoa New Zealand, so Gisborne woman Bonnie Dwyer took along a yard square linen tablecloth her great aunt Betty MacKenzie had embroidered with signatures of dignitaries and celebrities.

Mrs Dwyer invited the New Zealand author to add her signature to the tablecloth.

The signature will become a permanent addition when Mrs Dwyer embroiders it into the fabric.

The embroidered signature tradition began with Mrs Dwyer’s great aunt Betty.

“In those days, when women didn’t work, they had to do something with their time,” says Mrs Dwyer.

“They were arty and crafty. Betty MacKenzie was a skilled needleworker.”

Her great aunt would take the tablecloth to places and events such as the theatre, and have the material signed. She then embroidered the signatures into the cloth.

Among the earliest names stitched into the tablecloth are war-time Prime Minister Peter Fraser, radio broadcaster Aunt Daisy, Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell and New Zealand operatic singer Oscar Natzka.

As her great aunt Betty grew older, Mrs Dwyer started to do the embroidery and continued the tradition.

In the early 1970s, Mrs Dwyer sent the tablecloth to her brother who managed to get New Zealand middle distance running great Peter Snell to sign it.

The tablecloth is also embroidered with such names as Gisborne artist, the late Graeme Mudge, celebrity chef Alison Holst, All Black Buck Shelford and disgraced Australian Rolf Harris, who included a cartoon of himself as a kangaroo.

Because Mrs Duder’s book is the story of explorer James Cook’s remarkably accurate 1769 chart of New Zealand, Mrs Dwyer had her sign her name close to that of actor Anthony Hopkins.

Hopkins was in Gisborne during the early 1980s for the filming of Mutiny on The Bounty.

At an event after a Tim Finn concert in Palmerston North, the musician also signed the tablecloth.

Actor Sam Neill, who was also at the party to celebrate Finn’s 50th birthday, approached Mrs Dwyer.

“He came up and said ‘where’s the tablecloth?’ He asked if he could sign it, too.”

LEGACY PROJECT: First Map: How James Cook Charted Aotearoa New Zealand author Tessa Duder (right) signs a tablecloth in which the signatures of dignitaries and celebrities have been embroidered into since the 1940s. Gisborne woman Bonnie Dwyer will continue the tradition when she stitches in Mrs Duder's signature. Picture by Paul Rickard