Story of oil, as told in thread in 16,000 hours

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Artist and film maker Sandra Sawatsky hadn’t embroidered since she was 16 years old when she embarked on a 220 foot tapestry on the history of oil, inspired by the Bayeaux Tapestry.  It ended up taking her 9 years and 16,000 hours to create and it’s called the Black Gold Tapestry.

How did she get started?  How does anyone start such a massive project?  How do you rope yourself into such a lengthy commitment?

In the months before starting the project, she took an embroidery class and enjoyed it.    She stitched some of her own drawings and realized, “I’m really good at this” and wondered “what could I do with this embroidery that I’m enjoying doing?” and the Bayeaux Tapestry drifted into her brain.

Her idea was to make a piece inspired by the Bayeaux Tapestry, and so her piece is the same size, 220 feet (about 67 meters).

Of course, the Bayeaux Tapestry was made by a group of women embroiderers, while this project was done by one person, with 5 years spent on the stitching alone.  I said that that sounded monastic.  She laughed and said, “It was!  I don’t know how I managed!” 

As the idea began, Sandra did what many of us do, and began to run the idea by friends and family.  She talked to a few people and their support was encouraging enough that she began to look into raising money for the research and drawing phase. 

Research was needed because her topic for this epic-length embroidery was to be a social history of oil, because she wanted to make a statement about global warming.  First she would have to learn the history, decide what to depict and how to tell the whole story visually.

She secured a grant in 2008 that provided support for her to spend a year researching and creating a cartoon, or a full-size drawing of exactly what she would stitch. 

“There was some funding for my time, I was able to take a year off to research and do the drawing.  Which was huge.  If I hand’t gotten the funding, I probably wouldn’t have undertaken it.”

She said, “I thought that very little capital was needed — just some money for some fabric and thread.”  Of course, her reference point was raising 10 million dollars for a film, because one of her main previous artistic career had been as a filmmaker.

This project appealed to her because sometimes you just couldn’t get a film project off the ground.  On this, she could work alone, and “if it fails, it’s just me,” and that that would be okay.

“I did have a sense that it would be a long project, but the longer I worked on it, the more committed I became.”

Initially, she thought the project would take 5 years, so she was definitely taking the long view.  She came up with the 5 year estimate based on the amount of time she took to stitch the sampler that she made in order to show funders. 

Funding was key to the whole project, and Sandra approached the funding and the production the way a filmmaker would, working in stages and securing funding and partners for each stage as she went.

After the first phase of funding for the research and drawing, she was unable to secure further grants for the project and ran a successful IndieGoGo campaign in order to pay for the fine quality linen and silk and wool yarns that she used for the project. 

She also worked a part time job during one phase of the project, which was a nice way to break up the long days of stitching, that began at 5:15 am.  Running was another key activity that was a useful contrast to the sitting and stitching. 

Sandra wrote on her blog in March of 2010:

“What never ceases to amaze me is how often I long long long to be finished.”

and “I found myself wishing that I could shift this load off onto another’s shoulders. It’s not that I doubt the purpose of the work, it’s that I felt as if I were in the middle of a dead calm in the vast ocean of this thing called a five year project.”

And in May of 2010,  she wrote “The lesson learned here, which bears repeating, is once one is committed to a project and much labour has been spent, the grip it has on one’s psyche is near impossible to escape.”

This struck me as the point in any epic journey when the heroine is tested, where she thinks about turning back, but does not.  I asked Sandra about that.

There’s a point on most film where you wish you could escape it.  “My feature film was just hell once we got to the island” where the filming took place.  I wrote about it in an article online, you can find it.  People on the film said you could sum up the experience up in these three films: Deliverance, Misery and Groundhog Day.”

“Every day, some wacky thing happened,” Sandra added.

Filmmaking trained her for this project in terms of “the suffering, the amount of time and the stewarding.”

In filmmaking, “Never does anything work out how you planned.”  She said that there is no roadmap so you are always problem solving.

“Problem solving was the thing I loved abut the stories I read about in the research,” and “I totally 100% identified with the struggle of getting it done,” that the inventors and innovators (in the story of oil) faced.

She started stitching on the actual 220 feet of linen in February 2012.

Of the stitching she said, “I hardly ever had to take out the stitching.”  I asked her why this was, since in my experience, any sewing project involves some time with a seam ripper, taking out mistakes.  “I have no idea,” she said.  “It was a struggle in so many ways.”  One of those ways was tangled yarn.  She was working with two types of yarn, each with a different twist to it.  Just as she got accustomed to one twist, it would be time to switch to the other yarn with its different twist.

But in terms of the stitching, it wasn’t a struggle.  “It was a really good fit for my skills,” she said.  “It’s never happened to me before,” this stitching without having to pull out and re-do stitches.  “The needle always went where it was supposed to go.  I guess I was meant to do it.”

She likened the experience of choosing the colors of yarn to a piece of music, where you hear a sound and respond.

As a step in the process, Sandra sought out exhibition spaces that might agree to exhibit the piece when it was done.  Her thought was that a letter of agreement to exhibit the piece would be extremely useful in securing funding in order to complete the project.

At about the halfway point in the project she had taken the drawings and stitched sampler  around to various exhibition spaces and had gotten agreements that they would show the piece, which had been encouraging.

When she had the first panel done and was able to secure a meeting at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and rolled out the lengthy panel, on the spot, their eyes, their faces — “they were stunned,” they said, “we have to show this,” she said.

I asked Sandra, now that it’s done, do you feel like you were on a hero’s journey?  Do you feel like you’ve triumphed over a great challenge?

She said, “I think as I was doing this, and I’m nobody – I was thinking, if this thing gets of the ground, if I can complete it,” that it could really impact people’s thinking about global warming.  “What as one person can I do?”  By finishing it, I was saying, “Yes, I can do something.  And that’s what I really hoped for, to inspire someone.”

“People sometimes feel, ‘what can I do, as an old person?’ “  And as she’s now 60, she also wanted to show that yes, you can do something.

She was thinking about impact and influence.

She feels that she couldn’t have done this sooner in her life.  She remembers thinking years ago, “I probably won’t do my really big thing until I’m 60.”

She started film school at 25 and her film career at 38.  She knew she was going to be an artist at age 3, and after art school, she painted, she had some shows, she says.  She had ambitions, but not a plan.  “I wanted to express ideas that could be universal.”

She wrote on her blog in 2013, “A long time ago I wrote that it takes a life time to find out what one is capable of doing. And it’s true. There are so many things that I have done that I had no idea that I would do. Making this tapestry is right up there with those surprises in life.

Who knew after a suspended adulthood where I went to school forever, put off having children until it was nearly too late, and lived for pleasure through my twenties and thirties where shopping, travelling, cafes, restaurants and dancing were foremost on my mind that I would become monk-like in my habits? Like Penelope at her loom waiting for Odysseus to return, I will be at my embroidery frame stitching for another seven years. Oi.”

By October 2015, Sandra was stitching for 9 1/2 hours per day!

She wrote:

“Here’s the thing about discipline it doesn’t come naturally. Nobody is born with discipline. It has to be motivated and it starts with small steps.

Dedicating the long hours needed to stitch the rest of the tapestry so it will be finished in 2017 has been done incrementally. On the first panel I worked about 5 hours a day – 5 days a week. It took 14 months to do. I proudly showed the finished panel to a curator and he said, “Gee couldn’t you do it faster? Couldn’t you finish the whole thing in 4 years?”

I could not stitch faster but I could put in more hours. Which was a bit tricky as I had a work contract that took up 3 hours of my day each day. Which meant something had to give and what gave was evening spare time. As the hours of stitching upped, the time to read, write, sew, garden, watch movies and anything else that took up time was pared down.

When the second panel was two-thirds of the way finished I met with the Glenbow Museum and upon agreeing to do the show I knew I would have to up the ante again. Since I had an end date in sight I clipped out more spare time and added it to stitching time. I completed the 2nd panel in 7 months.

I had 3 years to complete 5 and a half panels.

Getting up 15 minutes earlier and working 15 minutes more at the end of the day added an extra half hour to the 9 hours I put in to the stitching working day. I also started to stitch on weekends, anywhere from 5-8 hours Saturday and Sunday and this made it possible to finish the third panel in 6 months. And now I’m nearing the finish line with the 4th panel within the 6 month targeted deadline.

Gabriel Coco Chanel famously said, “There is time for work and a time for love. That leaves no other time.” Much as I love spare time, time is precious and the hours to finish the work is a dedicated game of discipline.

Game on.”

She did it, she finished it and the exhibition opens at the Glenbow Museum on October 7, 2017.

I asked, What was it like for you when the tapestry was done, when you no longer had to stitch from 5:15 am to 10:15 pm? 

“It hasn’t felt like it’s done.”  “I had to finished the borders,” after the panels were stapled to the frames.  And she’s even making an another sampler, one that visitors to the museum can touch, because, “they want to touch it,” she said. 

She admits that there were about three days after she finished the stitching where she didn’t know what to do with herself. She likens it to that empty nest feeling when kids go off to college.

The sampler for visitors to touch is made with wool and silk thread, like the real thing, and includes dinosaurs, a 1962 Ford Thunderbird, and a motor hotel.  She wanted to capture the glamour of that time period, the 1960s heyday of the motor hotel with a pool.  “That was part of the selling of the car,” this traveling. 

You can see and touch this epic project, the Black Gold Embroidery by Sandra Sawatsky at the Glenbow Museum in Alberta from October 7 to May 2018. 

If you can’t get there, you can be inspired from a distance and Sandra’s advice to fellow artists is, “The crazy ideas are probably the best ones to pursue because nobody else is having them.”  She approached this project in small steps and advises the same approach for others. 

She says, “my advice to all who want to pursue a dream is to obey your ideas and break everything into small do-able chunks.  A 220 foot embroidered tapestry is do-able – one foot at a time.” 


Exhibition information:

Information on the inspiration piece:

Sandra Sawatsky’s blog:

Black Gold Tapestry Website:


MooreWomenArtists welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy