WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Shirley Marriott’s faith helped her through a divorce and some tough financial times that followed in the early 1980s. It got her through triple-bypass surgery eight years ago and a diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer two years ago.
But who would have guessed that God might also lend a hand with her embroidery?
Marriott, 78, is a professional jewelry designer whose work earned her recognition as artist of the year in 1993 by the Sawtooth Center for Visual Art. She’s also an accomplished painter. But she humbly admits to asking for divine guidance when she encounters an especially vexing problem such as the cloth puckering on her embroidery.
She’ll say a prayer at bedtime after working in her den, sometimes as late as midnight.
“So far my prayers have been answered,” she said. “The problem may be solved at 3 a.m.”
Her embroidery projects are all about faith.
She designs intricate embroidery for liturgical paraments — cloth used to cover pulpits, as pastor’s stoles and as Bible markers. She leads a team of 10 to 12 volunteers in the painstaking process of bringing her vision to life, stitch by stitch.
The group’s first project was a gift for their own church, Home Moravian, in Old Salem. Their work since then has been sold, with the profits going to Sunnyside Ministry, a Moravian outreach that provides food, clothing and other basic life necessities to neighborhoods in southern Winston-Salem.
The group — appropriately calling themselves the Sunnyside Stitchers — has raised about $4,000 for the ministry so far.
“We get so energized,” Marriott said of the group. “Most of the time after we have a meeting, I don’t sleep that night because I’m revving to go.”
Designs for the paraments and other liturgical cloths can be tailored to a buyer’s specifications. For the gift to Home Moravian, the Stitchers created paraments in colors for each of the liturgical seasons — for example, purple for Lent, white for Easter and red for Pentecost — and embroidered designs that include a lamb, a Moravian star, a chalice and flames.
The handmade quality means that the cloths are expensive — prices start at $1,200 for a single parament and $500 for two Bible markers.
The work is labor-intensive. It takes a skilled hand and an eye for details so tiny that many casual observers wouldn’t even notice them. It’s not a job for the easily distracted — or the impatient.
Marriott’s design work for a parament may take three months or longer, then the group’s effort on embroidery and related work another nine months. Then the bead makers work for months, adding one by one the gold beads that create a fringe on the cloths.
Marriott first does the design on watercolor paper, then traces it onto the fabric. She likes to work with fine wool purchased from Holland & Sherry, a British cloth maker established in 1836. The wool sells for $100 to $200 a yard. An appliqu￩ of a material such as silk shantung may go onto the wool, then the embroidering begins, sometimes in gold floss.
The Stitchers pass the work around, often working individually on an item at home. They get together as a group about once a month to chart their progress, discuss any technical issues that have come up and make plans for their next project.
Sometimes, the work is so taxing that it can aggravate even Marriott.
“Every piece we’ve done has its own set of problems,” she said. “We’re inventing the wheel every day.
“I’ve been known to say a few bad words,” she admitted. “Some days I could scream.”
For most of her life, Marriott didn’t even do embroidery.
She had done some embroidering as a young girl and was persuaded to take on a project creating paraments for the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa.
Her former minister at Home Moravian heard about that and suggested she could form a group to do something similar here as a way for people to live out their faith.
Marriott knew what the work involved and was skeptical that there would be much interest.
“I said they’ve have to be crazy,” she recalled. “I didn’t think that young people would do it today.”
To her surprise, 12 other women came forward to help. They all soon found their niche in the project: embroiderers, bead makers, outliner, constructionist.
The group welcomes new members — it’s not limited to Moravians or for that matter, to women. Marriott said she figures if they could find just one brave man to join, others would follow.
Members of the group seem to share Marriott’s conviction that they’re working on something much greater than themselves.
Susan Roediger, the assistant director of Sunnyside, keeps the schedule on track.
“We’re professional women,” she tells the group. “If you don’t get stuff scheduled, it’s too mushy.”
Bead maker Susan Mickey said, “There’s no compromise when I’m doing this. If it’s not right, I take it out.
“Because I am the last step with it, there’s a great deal of angst about it. It’s not a P.E. class, but at the end of it, there’s a certain exhaustion.”
Their work is appreciated.
“This has been a wonderful thing,” said the Rev. Richard Sides, the senior pastor of Home Moravian. “Our congregation has so enjoyed it.”
Tommy Cole, the director of Sunnyside Ministry, where Marriott also works in the clothes closet, said, “She is extremely talented and creative but doesn’t seek attention. She is one of those who just look around to see what needs doing and then goes about doing it in a quiet and humble way.”
Marriott and the others say the work carries a very private spiritual benefit.
“There’s something that happens when I work,” Marriott said. “I don’t know that there’s anybody else around except God.
“I do feel a presence.”
Marriott’s life journey started with more than the usual challenges.
She was born with only one functioning kidney, and as a child suffered from high blood pressure and severe anemia.
The family lived in modest circumstances on Luther Street in the Konnoak neighborhood of southern Winston-Salem.
But she was talented in art, and by age 12 had sold her first work, a Venetian water scene.
She enrolled in Salem College but dropped out in her first term to get married. The marriage produced two children and lasted for 30 years.
After the divorce, “I fought to make a living for myself,” Marriott said. She took a part-time teaching position at Sawtooth while she continued to make her jewelry.
“I think I work out a lot of my frustrations with my art work,” she said. “Heavy baggage is not worth it.”
After about 20 years of being on her own, she married a retired cryptologist who had worked for the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C.
He is her ex-husband’s sister’s former husband.
“I am my own grandma,” Marriott joked, as she explained the complexity of the connection. She had remained close to her former sister-in-law until her death.
Marriott made the ring that she put on Gil “Murt” Marriott’s finger on Sept. 14, 2002. They settled in a contemporary-style home on an acre tract off Country Club Road and share a love of nature.
“I go outside, and I see a piece of lichen,” Marriott said. “I think, my word, somebody great had to create that.”
But health problems have plagued her in recent years.
“This work gave me a direction and a reason to keep on going,” Marriott said. “You feel kind of lost when you’re not doing it.”
She now goes to a cardiac workout on most days before she begins work on her jewelry. She sees her oncologist every three months.
“He has hopes that if I pass the three-year period that I should be in good shape,” Marriott said. “Only a few more months to go.”
As for the difficulties she has experienced, she said: “I don’t even think about them. I just think it’s ordinary life. Roll with the punches.
“I’m a fighter,” she said simply.