Friday, April 12, 2024

Judith Coolidge Carpenter Herdeg – The Grandmother of Cabinet of Curiosities (1939 – 2024)

I met Judy Herdeg at the instigation of Linda Eaton, former curator of Winterthur Museum and a personal mentor and meeting her changed my life and for many of you – she did too but you don’t know it.  Judy passed away on March 26, 2024 after a long illness.  She was the type of person who was so extremely generous that you would want to know of her but also the type who never thought she had done much of anything as her generosity came from a deep place and needed no limelight.  It is not an understatement to say that there would be no Cabinet of Curiosities without Judy.  She was truly the grandmother of what has been seen as the new renaissance of the practice of 17th century embroidery. 

Judy’s interest in embroidery started as a young mother in 1970 when she happened upon an issue of the Connoisseur in a dentist’s office.  Inside was an advertisement for an embroidered casket from a dealer.   I think many of us remember when we first saw one of these delights and we came under their spell.  There is something about a box with almost a dozen small compartments of different sizes, bottles and inkwells that is encrusted with embroidered stories on the surfaces of strong women that just grips our imagination.  Judy was similarly entranced in that moment and had to write to the dealer who, fortunate for us, responded with large, bright prints of the box sides and insides.  She wanted it but for the price; it was too high for her life at that time and so she resolutely decided in that moment that she would have one – but that she would make it.  This was the origin story of a great embroiderer and friend to a large network of people engaged in the study and resurrection of the craft. 


Judy spent almost 30 years collecting photographs, going to museums, and becoming knowledgeable about 17th century embroidery.  This came naturally to her – become an expert and then remake it from a place of knowledge.  She and her husband John (and great supporter of her passions in the decorative arts) had spent a decade (1963-1972) moving and restoring a mid-eighteenth-century house, the William Peters House, and a lifetime filling it with English and American treasures of the period.  To walk into the home later in their life was to be in a living, breathing museum of the past.  It was magical and when John would insist on candlelight at night – pure delight for those of us who want a time machine for a moment to see needlework in a period setting. 


She borrowed the embroidered cabinet of a friend and had a fine cabinet maker study it and make a replica wooden case.  Along the way, she learned embroidery and completed many projects like bell pulls, chair covers, a fire screen and more; determined to build up her skills for her masterpiece casket.  This took her to small classes at the Royal School of Needlework and after she left a demanding position, a summer camp for embroiderers in New Hampshire for several years.  Always preparing and thinking.  She had decided that she would represent her entire family on the box in a 17th century style with the house, now called Shangri-la, on the top and started on the small panels of the box.  By 2000, with raising children behind her, she had started to collect needlework to fill the house and provide pieces for her to research.  Because her interest was in the how they were made, she didn’t discriminate and would often pull out a ‘poor relic’ to show another interested researcher.  One such piece she had framed on the wall of a bedroom was an early 1800’s genealogical record sampler from Newburyport, Massachusetts; at the moment the only piece of its type of an important set of samplers but badly in tatters.  She would love to tell the story of opening the nearby blanket chest at an antiques show and pulling out ‘the rag’.  Immediately her sharp mind knew what it was and she stuffed it back in and quickly paid the dealer for the box so she could get the treasure she saw inside.  These pieces proved as valuable to those of us researching as those displayed in fabulous condition.  


This is about the time we met in the early 2000s.  Judy was looking for more instruction in the technical areas of embroidery and I was in the middle of the Plimoth Jacket project, an effort at Plimoth Plantation to reproduce faithfully a 1620s embroidered English waistcoat.  Judy immediately became a friend of the project, donating to the cause as well as coming to Plimoth to embroider on the piece and immediately bonding with the other stitchers.  She became one of the small number of embroiderers who produced the now museum piece.  This project formed a community of embroiderers who had often been studying and stitching, but without the fellowship of others who really enjoyed the details of the 17th century.  Judy blossomed in her love for embroidery with this new set of friends.  Previously she had been heavily involved in communities such as the Colonial Dames, garden societies, and many other museum and decorative arts organizations; but clearly it was this group of lovers of embroidery that just really touched a place which had previously been a lonely passion and not widely shared.  Many embroiderers of niche historical interests can relate to the experience of finally finding your people and being able to discuss details, share projects and materials, and enthusiastically express their interest over some dusty looking relic of the past.  John once confided in me how much this community of stitchers meant to her. 


If you knew Judy, she knew what you needed.  Many of us could expect a phone call from some dealer’s booth at a show with the exhortation that she had just found a missing piece that you ‘needed’.  I always found that the photograph that accompanied the call was the proof that Judy did in fact know what I needed and they hang all over my home and are some of the crucial pieces which answered questions I was researching.  She liked to downplay her knowledge built up over decades of study and could be heard to say ‘well I always thought…’.  That was a key phrase to stop what you were thinking and saying and consider another possible avenue of explanation.  A product of her generation, she would be so gracious in pointing out some information that another might not be familiar with and should be.  She taught me that you needed to totally embrace the full history of the period and other areas of the decorative arts to even begin to know needlework.  


Judy and her husband John were great supporters of Winterthur and Judy specifically of the needlework area.  Their close friend Linda Eaton hosted THE symposium for needlework for about twenty years and Judy always hosted a full house party at Shangri-La for the teachers and researchers as well as other needlework illuminati who attended.  This was the party of the year to be at in the needlework world, one where dealers and famous collectors sat next to makers and historians; making connections that forwarded the field in leaps and bounds. Often Judy would take the cases off the caskets and plop one into your hands to take it to a table where a half dozen experts could examine it with magnifiers and pretty much write a paper amongst the diversity of expertise peering at it together.  Out would come the relics and pieces not yet framed to spread out and be visually dissected.  Nothing was too precious as it could unlock knowledge.  She and John hosted countless events for guilds, museums, and independent embroiderers in their home and collection.  Their sharing of their collection to the up-and-coming academics and conservators is legend.  Judy donated many of her pieces to Winterthur for the joint program with University of Delaware, training the next generation of textile conservators and curators.


In the early years of our friendship, Judy joined with me to visit museums and auctions to examine caskets and allowed me to measure and study her caskets as I was intent on launching a course to bring casket making back to life following the success of the Plimoth Jacket.   This was a joint interest as many aspects of her own reproduction were stymieing her progress as she wasn’t sure where to source many of the parts she needed to finish her box, once the embroidery was complete.  And in fact, it wasn’t obvious how they even attached the embroidery.  It was this joint interest that drove our study together and how valuable her love of relics was.  My engineering background combined with our joint study of her pieces answered so many questions and enabled the measurements and testing needed to allow the papers, the silver stamps, and the tapes to be made as well as the gluing method to be determined.  Judy allowed the hardware to be removed from one of her relics so they could be used to make the molds for all our hardware for cabinets and tens of thousands of brass moldings were made from them.  And one weekend, she allowed me to fly an almost 400-year old bottle of hers with its pewter cap pieces to Boston to go through extensive scientific scans using lasers.  This enabled us to make CAD files and 3D replicas which were used in making the caps and molds for hand blown bottles.  She understood that every casket needed its jewelry and wanted to make that happen.  These were all aspects of the project that could not be done through museum study.  


We spoke recently before she passed about how much fun it had been, we spent about a decade giggling over pieces of embroidery together and trying ideas out.  One day we ran over to her daughter’s peacocks next door and stole feathers to replicate their use in stumpwork bugs and see if that was the source of the feather material used in the past (result… don’t think so).  We would share pictures from our last separate adventures and spend hours looking at some dress on the phone trying to figure out how it was worked.  Sometimes her desire for a certain thread for her casket would have me flying to Europe to prototype it with an ancient textile maker, providing some of the impetus for the variety of threads you all can stitch with today.  Judy also introduced me to a large network of collectors of 17th century embroidery and we traveled together to see the collections of corporate magnates and well-known actresses, enjoying their hospitality and the access to their lovely pieces.  She allowed me to use all the photography of her embroideries in my course and convinced many other collectors to do the same.  It was her whole hearted support of the idea that the new stitchers of these boxes should be transported to see what we saw and make their own discoveries; elevating so many stitchers to researcher.  Hundreds of the students in that class have now gone on to take this new concept of researcher-embroiderer and go off and do their own investigations as well, many becoming teachers as well – and take Judy’s lead in supporting museum collections.  The ripples of her generosity will go on for generations.


Judy and John’s importance in the decorative arts isn’t measured in a wing of a museum being named for them (maybe there should be!); that wasn’t the type of philanthropists that they were.  They both were way more important to the fields they loved than a name on a building.   She and John were both connectors of the type described by Malcom Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point.  They occupied many different worlds and recognized the importance of bringing them together to enable important new ideas to spread; part of the critical piece to make a tipping point.  Judy was a crucial connector in the needlework field.  


After her beloved husband died in 2021, the needlework community continued to rally around Judy with special zoom meetings of ‘casketeers’ as the pandemic wore off.  Judy showed us lovely projects she was working on in between her dogged work on the casket.  Finishing the casket became a group effort as a long-term condition in remission came back and started to sap Judy’s stamina and later her ability to embroider.  If there was anyone of the over a thousand casketeers whose casket MUST be finished, it was Judy’s. The two doors were all that was left, and also very emotional for everyone including Judy as the figures represent her and her late husband.  So for the last year of her life, Judy became director of a small army of embroiderers who all contributed their hands to finish the casket.  Conference calls, zooms, and in-person meetings were held with Judy to understand how she wanted to work each motif.  Threads and samples of techniques flew across the country.  Genie made lace, Canby worked a velvet panel with Judy’s name and dates of the casket work, and Ann embroidered the delicate silk dress that the figure of Judy would wear.  Karen carefully made replicas of the beloved King Charles Spaniels who always greeted us at the door.  Deb did the last of the gluing of the panels and put on the tapes and then Karen and Dave took the casket to Alan to replace all the hardware once again.  I had the task of sometimes figuring out how we would do something as there were many novel problems presented especially with separate pieces that needed to be worked remotely from the ground fabric, interpret Judy’s ideas and make samples for her approval and then write instructions and source the right materials.  I also had the pleasure of working the family arms, John’s special silver suit as well as pulling all the doors together with the different elements; and finishing off the random motifs.  It was a labor of our collective love for her and John.  It was also a blessing in disguise as we could repay the generosity she had shown us all collectively and keep us all in regular contact with her as her illness progressed.  


Judy’s three children and extended family who are represented on the sides and back adore her casket.  The panel inside says it all and records the 53-year journey from the origin of the casket to its finishing:  Judith Coolidge Carpenter Herdeg 1970-2023.  What the embroidered panel can’t say is the important legacy that Judy has had in the embroidery community from how she touched and helped curators, conservators, collections, projects, future publications, the explosion of technique among embroiderers, and countless stories attached to the other embroidered cabinets destined as family heirlooms and future museum collections that her passions spawned.  


A Memorial Service will be held on Sunday, June 9th at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE, a reception at Judy’s home in Mendenhall to follow. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions be made to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (“Textiles—in memory of Judith C. Herdeg” / Development Department - MFA Boston 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02115).  A special fund has been set up to support public symposiums for embroidery.


  1. What a beautiful article you created on this wonderful woman. I will be sure to come back and read the article again so I can absorb it in full.

  2. RIP Judy~ we will miss you dearly XOXOXO.

  3. Sympathies to Judy's family. The needlework world has lost a treasure, friend, and mentor whether they were fortunate enough to have known and worked with her in person or not.