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Dundee Tapestry unveiled: Can you spot your favourite city icon on 35 panels?

The completed Dundee Tapestry is on display at V&A Dundee, visually telling the story of the city and its people from 1850 to the present day.

John Fyffe and Dr Frances Stevenson have been heavily involved with the Dundee Tapestry which reveals the city’s past, present and future through eight illustrative themes. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson
John Fyffe and Dr Frances Stevenson have been heavily involved with the Dundee Tapestry which reveals the city’s past, present and future through eight illustrative themes. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

The story of Dundee and its people have been intertwined for centuries.

But how do the city’s residents view their hometown through the rich tapestry of history?

The Dundee Tapestry, which can be viewed for free at V&A Dundee from January 20 to March 28, tells the story of Dundee through 35 beautifully hand-stitched one-metre square panels.

The visually striking history of the city has been created by 140 local volunteer stitchers.

This new free exhibition is the first time that all of the completed tapestries have been shown together since the project’s inception in 2021.

Dundee Tapestry panel spotlighting the jute industry. Image: V&A Dundee

From the mid-19th century to the present day, the tapestry incorporates eight different illustrative themes – industry, women, nature, culture, education, creative, communities and international.

However, it doesn’t just feature well-known themes like jute, jam, journalism, shipbuilding, gaming and polar exploration.

Lesser known tales include that of Dundonian Jimmy MacDonald who voiced Mickey Mouse for 40 years, Dundee-born Anna Dodge (nee Thompson) who became one of the richest women in the world, former Dundee United captain Neil Paterson who won an Oscar and Dundee-born actor William Duncan – known as the ‘Lochee Cowboy’ – who became one of Hollywood’s earliest stars.

Other highlights include a tribute to the ‘Known Inebriates’ book which shows the characters barred from Dundee’s pubs in the early 1900s – immortalised by the late Dundee singer-songwriter Michael Marra in his song Muggy Sha’.

Dundee Tapestry: ‘Muggy Sha’ inspired by the Book of Inebriates in the early 1900s. Image: V&A Dundee

There’s also been hands-on celebrity input with the likes of Dundee musicians Ged Grimes, Kit Clark and Gary Clark helping with some stitching.

Where did the idea for the Dundee Tapestry come from?

The Dundee Tapestry was conceived and developed by John Fyffe MBE of the Weaver Incorporation of Dundee, one of the city’s Nine Incorporated Trades.

He worked closely with Dr Frances Stevenson, senior lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.

The panels were co-designed by Dr Stevenson and Andrew Crummy MBE, the artist behind the Great Tapestry of Scotland.

Many of the volunteer stitchers from Dundee and the surrounding area have been working on the panels since the spring of 2022, with many practicing these skills for the first time.

John Fyffe and Andrew Crummy in the early design stages of the project. Image: Dundee Tapestry

As the finishing touches were put to the panels at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, The Courier went behind the scenes of the project, which explores the city’s industrial heritage, its creative achievements, its biodiversity and its people.

Project manager John Fyffe, 67, is a former pupil of Glebelands Primary and Linlathen High School in Dundee.

He started work in Dundee’s Timex factory aged 16 and retrained as a technical teacher before becoming head teacher at Blairgowrie High School, director of education with Perth and Kinross Council and retiring as the local authority’s depute chief executive.

He explained how he initially conceived the Dundee Tapestry project with most of the funding coming from the Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee, as well as the Northwood Charitable Trust and other donations.

Dundee Tapestry: Botanics and Eden. Image: V&A Dundee

“I was across in Belfast on holiday before Covid-19 and the Game of Thrones Tapestry was on display,” he said.

“I was at the time Deacon of the Weaver Incorporation, and my wife said to me ‘this is what Dundee needs – this is the kind of thing you should do’.

“So I came back, had conversations with the ‘Nine’, and the first port of call was Duncan of Jordanstone and to Frances (Stevenson) who I knew.

“When we talked it through,  we realised the concept should not be to produce a tapestry that was just heraldic by nature – because nobody gets out their bed to go and see that, or the museums right across the country would be full.

“We thought this has to be about the people of Dundee through their eyes.

A small selection of panels were displayed at V&A Dundee in 2023 as work progressed. Image: V&A Dundee

“But at the same time, by getting people involved from across the community, it would help with social isolation, it would help with bringing people together and help bring back peoples’ self-confidence.

“We as educationalists would also learn from the process as well.”

How were the 140 volunteer stitchers recruited for the Dundee Tapestry?

John explained that the 140 stitchers were recruited through “open house” public appeals, speaking with women’s groups and through “word of mouth”.

While most of the mainly female stitchers were recruited from Dundee – including many with no previous experience – the furthest away was a group of four in Mull, while another group got involved in the Lothians.

When discussions began, the concept team originally thought there might be 10 panels.

But as conversations progressed to identify core content and create a structure around eight themes, it became apparent that even by concentrating on the period from 1850 onwards, there was scope for many more, eventually deciding upon 35.

John Fyffe and Dr Frances Stevenson have been heavily involved with the Dundee Tapestry which reveals the city’s past, present and future through eight illustrative themes. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

Working with people like the late Dundee University historian Eddie Small to “bounce ideas off each other”, they hired Andrew Crummy of Great Tapestry of Scotland fame to help with design.

The concept of inter-linking circles and shapes came from discussions involving him and Dr Frances Stevenson.

When it came to content, the more research that took place, the more they realised difficult decisions had to be made about what to leave in and out.

The “trickiest one” was for international Dundee, said John.

So many nationalities have settled in Dundee and become part of the city’s social fabric.

Dundee Tapestry: Dundee International. Image: V&A Dundee

After a lot of thought, they created an international panel which features ‘my home’ written in 20 or so different languages.

But it was also through research that some of the “gems” came out.

What are the best ‘gems’ featured on the Dundee Tapestry?

“Take the Ninewells panel, stitched by Muslim women in Dundee,” said John.

“What was surprising for us, through the research, was there’s never been nine wells in Dundee.

“We had debate about Jimmy MacDonald – the voice of Micky Mouse.

“Go on Wikipedia, and it says he was born in Cheshire.

“But if you go to the Disney archive in Florida, it says Jimmy MacDonald, Dundonian, who was the voice of Mickey Mouse for over 35 years.

Dundee Tapestry: Music. Image: V&A Dundee

“Another story that captured the imagination was Dundee-born actor William Duncan – known as the ‘Lochee Cowboy’.

“When he was two or three, he emigrated to the USA. He ended up in Hollywood.

“By the 1930s he was earning $1m per year in silent movies.

“I don’t want to put the guy down, but when the talkies came in his accent became an issue, so he ended up in cowboy movies in the background.

“I’d imagine his parents had strong Irish Lochee accents when he emigrated!”

John was also captivated by the story of Anna Thompson who, at one point, was the richest woman in the world.

Born at West Port in Dundee, she emigrated to the USA near the turn of the 19th/20th century.

Dundee Tapestry: Creative Dundee. Image: V&A Dundee

She met push-bike seller James Dodge who formed the Dodge motor company.

When her husband died only 11 months after his brother and Dodge-cofounder John Francis Dodge, she became a substantial owner of the Dodge company.

She and John’s widow Matilda sold the company in 1926 for US$146 million (equivalent to $2.41 billion in 2022), which was the largest cash transaction in history at the time.

Other stories include Dundee-born astronomer Williamina Fleming who also emigrated to the USA and is noted for her discovery of the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.

Also featured is Errol-born Victoria Drummond, Britain’s first female marine engineer, who was named after her godmother, Queen Victoria.

Dundee Tapestry: Whaling. Image: V&A Dundee

She became the first woman member of the Institute of Marine Engineers and was awarded an MBE and Lloyds war medal for bravery at sea during the Second World War.

Why did Dundee Tapestry co-founder have particular interest in ‘Known Inebriates’?

South-west Scotland-raised Dr Frances Stevenson classes herself as an “honorary Dundonian”.

She came to Dundee in the late 1980s to study textile design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, became project director for textiles at the college where she still works, and raised her daughter in the city.

Leading on the design side of the tapestry, she described the research as a “complete education”.

She had a particular interest in the panel featuring Dundee’s ‘Known Inebriates’.

Dr Frances Stevenson, Associate Dean of Duncan of Jordanstone lays down a stitch at Verdant Works in August 2021. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

Through contact with Andy Pelc, a former textile design lecturer colleague at Duncan of Jordanstone, who with his band The Woollen Mill, played with the late Michael Marra, Michael’s widow Peggy gave her the actual police records of ‘Dundee inebriates’ he’d used to inspire the writing of his song Muggy Sha’.

“The police records named these women who had been banned from every single pub in Dundee,” said Frances, who worked on the drawings of the women supported by stitchers who also researched the pub logos and beers of the time.

“If they were found drunk, the town council would put their faces up on bars, like wanted posters.

“Most of them were mill workers. Most of them were under five foot.

“Most of them were banned from bars for being inebriated.

Close-up of ‘Muggy Sha’ inspired by the Book of Inebriates in the early 1900s. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

“The thing is in one way it’s a very sad story, the kind of lives they were living and the hard conditions they were working in.

“But on the other side there’s a real kind of joy in it – they were independent around 1900-10.

“They were making their own money. I know the mills were employing them because they were cheaper than employing men etc.

“But they were independent as a result of it. They weren’t doing the domestic duties – the men were doing that.

“And they were going down the pub on a Friday night and spending their wages.

“That’s probably not the good side of it.

“But at the same time, there’s something really kind of celebratory about the role pubs played in bringing working class people together.

“And these pubs are still here and they’ve not changed much.

“I find that absolutely fascinating that these pubs are probably still the way they were.

“It’s a real piece of history and Michael Marra’s lyrics are brilliant.

“They are really sad and funny at the same time.”

What did stitchers enjoy most about working on the Dundee Tapestry?

Catherine Gardiner, 78, of Monifieth, worked on three panels including one featuring RRS Discovery.

Encouraged by her daughter Lindsey, who lectures at the art college, she got involved with just minimal cross-stitch experience after seeing a piece on TV seeking stitchers.

“It’s been absolutely brilliant,” said Catherine, a Dundonian who stitched for up to nine hours per day for eight months.

Stitcher Catherine Gardiner puts the finishing touches on one of the tapestries. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

“I’m always interested in history and anything that’s going to educate you where you live.

“You basically just got the bag of threads and that was you.

“You were told the outside thread had to be such and such a colour and inner ring such and such a colour but after that you were on your own.

“Sandra, who I worked with, did the Discovery.

“She finished the ship and I worked on other bits.

“She basically did right and I did left. We had a week each.

Dundee Tapestry: Scientific exploration. Image: V&A Dundee

“It was also great meeting other ladies we didn’t know beforehand and got friendly with them.

“A great experience. I’m glad I did it.”

Younger people have also been involved with joinery and painting apprentices at Dundee and Angus College building all the frames at cost price as part of their course.

Meanwhile, a competition was established inviting undergraduates on Duncan of Jordanstone’s interior design course to produce a way of curating it as part of their final year project.

What can visitors expect when they visit the Dundee Tapestry at V&A Dundee?

Visitors to the V&A Dundee exhibition will be able to scan QR codes to get the full stories behind the panels.

However, when the exhibition is over, there are also ambitions to display individual panels around city libraries and in empty shops.

A display is also planned for the Scottish Parliament in October while it’ll also be accessible online as a research resource.

Other plans include a colouring-in book for children and possible legacy spin off projects involving Dundee’s twinned cities.

*All 35 panels of the Dundee Tapestry can be viewed for free at V&A Dundee from Saturday January 20 until Thursday March 28.