Photographs can’t do justice to the exquisite stitchery on the table linens, wall hangings and other objects Tucsonan Barbara Esmond has created over the years as a member of The Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework.
The group is named for the fruit that is one of the “seven species” in the Bible. The pomegranate, said to have 613 seeds symbolic of the 613 mitzvot, provides a colorful theme for many of the guild’s designs.
A long-time member of a chapter in Los Angeles, Esmond moved to Tucson almost four years ago to be near her daughter, April Bauer, who has also been a guild member. Although Esmond still attends some guild meetings in L.A. when she visits her sons and their families, she has decided to start a chapter here. She promises that anyone can produce beautiful pieces like hers, even if they’ve never done so much as sew on a button — as was the case with at least one member of the L.A. group.
Esmond had started doing needlepoint before she joined the guild in 1981, but a canvas she bought at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which didn’t have a pre-printed pattern to follow, had her stumped. She sought the guild’s advice after seeing a mention of their meetings in a synagogue newsletter.
At her first meeting, she heard unfamiliar terms such as “blackwork,” “hardanger,” “huck” and “Brazilian.”
“It really intrigued me, so I stayed,” says Esmond.
At her second meeting, a member showed examples of Brazilian, a form of three-dimensional embroidery. “I decided I wanted to make a chuppah out of Brazilian embroidery when one of my children got married,” says Esmond, which she did. Three of her four children and a niece have used the chuppah so far.
As for those other mysterious terms, blackwork traditionally uses black silk, although red, aka scarletwork, is also popular – and perfect for pomegranates. Hardanger uses white thread on a white fabric background, with cutwork, reminiscent of papercuts or lace, while huck is a woven embroidery technique.
In addition to embroidery, guild members may also choose appliqué, quilting and needlepoint projects; pretty much anything that can be done with a needle and thread, says Esmond.
Prior to her first Pomegranate Guild meeting, Esmond imagined members working on pictures of rabbis at the Western Wall, which wasn’t the case at all. “I went and saw they were doing all this wonderful stuff,” she says.
But Esmond got more out of the meetings than just beautiful needlework. She also met wonderful people. “When I moved to L.A.in 1978 I was very lonely. I started a business and I didn’t really have friends, I didn’t know people,” she says. “Pomegranate opened up the world to me.”
Many of the group’s projects, such as challah covers and afikomen bags, fulfill the commandment of hiddur mitzvah, enhancement or beautification of a mitzvah. The pomegranateguild.org website notes that when members sit down to stitch, “They are reviving Jewish traditions … Some create their works as heirlooms for their children; others stitch to recreate memories of ceremonial objects or perhaps of family members lost in the Holocaust.”
But you don’t have to be Jewish to join, says Esmond — the L.A. group had Christian and Muslim members. You also don’t have to be a woman, she adds.
Esmond has a list of 10 or 11 prospective new members in Tucson, and plans to hold the chapter’s first meeting either in early June or in the fall. Dues are $36 per year and include a subscription to the quarterly national newsletter, The Paper Pomegranate. For more information, contact her at 204-3364 or brealjs@yahoo. com.