Trude Owen in her studio, holding one of her embroidered Torah mantles, Cardiff, 1988
The family of embroidery artist Trude Owen (1926-2003) arrived in Britain in 1939, fleeing Nazi persecution in their former home of Brno, Czechoslovakia. Trude was the youngest daughter of a family of four (she had an older sister, three and a half years her senior
) and her parents had run a machine embroidery factory in Czechoslovakia, the venture having been established by her grandfather. It was a family where, in Owen’s own words, “embroidery [had] been around me since my birth”.
The family relocated to south Wales where Owen’s father had the opportunity to set up a factory on the Treforest estate, using four machines sent over from Europe by Owen’s grandfather. The decision to relocate to south Wales was fueled by an initiative of the South Wales Development Agency who were keen to use the expertise of refugees fleeing the Nazis to bolster the local economy. Indeed, of the 78 companies operating on the Treforest estate in 1939, 49 of them were owned and run by refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.
On leaving school both Trude and her sister joined the family business and, upon the death of their parents, continued to run the business along with Trude’s brother-in-law.
But as remarkable as this story of a family fleeing persecution and beginning life anew in another country is - and they are, all of them, extraordinary stories - it is for her “hobby” of hand embroidery which Trude Owen is best remembered today.
Torah mantle made by Trude Owen for the Cardiff New Synagogue, 1998
Owen was first introduced to hand embroidery by her mother, who was herself a skilled needlewoman. Owen recalled:
“I used to wonder why mother pursued her hobby of hand embroidery in the evenings, after spending the day at the factory.”
It was not until Owen was approaching middle age herself (with two teenage children of her own) that, as she describes it, “the mystery was solved”.
Owen took time off from her work at the factory to attend a ten-week needlework course in gold and ceremonial embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework and subsequently discovered for herself “the attraction of hand embroidery”.
“It is not only the stitching, but thinking about the design, working
it out, then doing the embroidery, and finally finishing the piece,
[it] just gives me satisfaction.”
Owen’s first commission was for a Torah scroll cover to be used by Cardiff New Synagogue (now Cardiff Reform Synagogue) where her father was a warden. As ever, the past was close behind. The cover was made to protect a Sefer Torah, acquired from a synagogue destroyed during the Nazi persecution, where the congregation was no longer in existence, many of which had been smuggled out of Europe to a Synagogue in London. The cover is now held by Museum Wales.
Embroidered challah cover, Cardiff, 1970s
Word of Owen’s skills as an embroiderer soon spread outside her home of south Wales and, as she remembers it, “luckily, one commission brought another.” In all she made 7 Torah curtains in Britain and about 10 mantles, as well as “countless” tallit and tefillin bags, challah and Pesach covers. Another two of her Torah mantles were commissioned as a gift for a Synagogue in Nahariya, Israel.
Trude Owen’s work is noted for its precision and wonderful embellishments. Speaking of her own work Owen commented: “I use a lot of Hebrew script in my design as it is marvellously decorative.”
Trude Owen passed away in 2003 but her work, kept in synagogues and museums in Britain, Israel and elsewhere, lives on.
Eifion, JHASW/CHIDC Volunteer.