Alice Le Duc, of the prominent Hastings family, once wrote to a friend: "We embroidered dragons — a great many dragons and people seemed to like them and also flowers that had never bloomed anywhere, and birds … " (from "Women Creating, Women Providing," by Ann Braaten, July 2006 Minnesota History magazine).

These dragons, flowers and birds were among the many designs that Le Duc and her sister Florence created during the 34-year operation of Hastings Needle Work Company. In 1888, the two sisters, who lived at the historic Le Duc estate, started what was "one of the first cottage industries that Hastings ever had," said Margaret Goderstad, senior educator at the estate. "Those women were way ahead of their time."

More than 1,200 of the needlework patterns exist today, and this spring the Dakota County Historical Society is holding Arts Challenge 2013-2014, a juried competition based on the original designs. Area crafters and artists have until March to choose one of 16 patterns and to re-create the design in any medium — beading, felting, photography, mixed media, and so on.

Florence Le Duc came up with the idea of starting the company after living briefly in New York City and taking classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At that time, the Arts and Crafts movement was underway, which Braaten, a professor at North Dakota State University, said developed as a reaction to increasing mechanization.

Also, according to Braaten, as societal values regarding the education of women shifted, educational facilities began creating curricula they considered appropriate for women. "This included allowing women to study the decorative arts, including embroidery and china painting," she said. "These art forms were considered to be 'ladies' arts, meaning that they were appropriate and expected creative outlets for women of high social standing."

The company, featured in a 1903 article in House Beautiful, produced embroidered lampshades, table runners, purses, and other pieces and shipped them to major cities throughout the country. Alice Le Duc, a "very fine artist," according to Goderstad, created most of the designs, and the company eventually hired about 15 other women to work on projects. The women, she said, developed specific talents — one might focus on leaves, another on roses — and would collaborate on projects.

"It was just really amazing," Goderstad said. "Many important ladies wanted their work."

Third contest

This is the third needlework challenge. For past ones, people have entered wood carvings or garden designs based on a pattern. Others have created beaded crowns or purses.

"We've had some really neat things," Goderstad said.

Dottie Bronowski of St. Paul Park said that she is doing a beading project with one design and that if she has time she also might knit a sweater with a border featuring another design. "For me," she said, "it's a chance to combine the older antique designs and the modern."

Sally Anderson, of Hastings, a Dakota County Historical Society board member and volunteer, said the society took care to choose designs suitable to all kinds of media. Anderson said that in previous challenges she embroidered a handheld fan decorated with a peacock.

"The peacock was a favorite motif for Hastings Needle Work," Braaten said. "Of the 800 patterns at the Minnesota History Center, I estimate that 60 of them feature peacocks."

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.