Sprawled across a vast table in a sunny room at Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Minneapolis, the huge sheet of rumpled linen allowed only fragmentary glimpses of a big picture. There, George Washington stands beside a miniature Independence Hall. Here, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sign a document. Dancers in frock coats and colonial gowns cavort to a fiddler's tune. Clerics of various denominations preach and baptize in one corner. Opposite them, men in judicial robes clutch papers. Here and there children fish and play, a covered wagon rumbles west, and Indians watch from distant mountains.

All of the incidents were stitched onto the 16 feet tall by 25 feet wide Irish linen using bright wool yarns. Bent over embroidery hoops, several women worked steadily on a recent morning, their fast fingers and sharp needles putting finishing touches on an encircling border of cattails, native flowers and religious symbols. With just days to go, the Plymouth "needlers" were rushing to finish the embroidery, called the "Summer of the First Amendment," in time for its unveiling and dedication Sunday.

"We come down at dawn and go home at sunset," joked stitcher Betty Workinger.

The women's project is the fourth and final hanging in a series designed for the church's Guild Hall by British artist Pauline Baynes, who is most famous as the illustrator of books by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The series was started more than 40 years ago by the late Elaine Marsh, then an associate minister at Plymouth, and two members of the congregation, Mary Carson and her husband, Paul, who has since died. The Carsons commissioned four Baynes designs that church members have enlarged and translated into wall hangings, each with a seasonal theme tied to church history.

"Mary was always very proud that our embroideries don't depict war, which is a common theme in European tapestries," said needler Dawn Wanous. "We have Minute Men and patriots but basically it's peaceful and about religious freedom."

"And about freedom from religion, too," interjected Workinger.

Religious freedom, summer motifs

The First Amendment is a core concept among Congregationalists. A ribbon of words from the amendment is even embroidered along the bottom of the hanging: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"We definitely believe in the separation of church and state," explained executive minister Jeffrey Sartain. "Politics should be informed by spirituality, but the church needs to be separate from the influence of the state."

The summer theme completes a seasonal cycle that includes three previous hangings: an autumnal scene depicting a colonial-era Thanksgiving celebration that was finished in 1974, a Christmas scene completed in 1992 and a springtime "renewal of life" image from 1995.

Started in 1971 the first embroidery was finished in about three years; this one took a decade to complete, with help from up to 40 "needlers," as they call themselves. More than 100 women have participated in the project over the years, however. Yes, all the stitchers are women. Early on a man showed some interest, but he faded quickly, the veterans say. Before setting to work, each had to complete a sampler demonstrating mastery of 47 different stitches -- split, chain, stem, double herringbone, satin -- and so on.

"That weeded out a lot of people," said Wanous, who coordinated the current effort. "If you weren't interested in completing your sampler, you weren't up for the project."

Embroideries, not tapestries

Technically, the Plymouth hangings are embroideries rather than "tapestries," a more common term for large-format wall hangings. A tapestry is a fabric in which scenes are created by weaving, while the Plymouth pieces are made by embroidering onto existing material.

The women are aware that they're creating a legacy that will live in their church long after each of them is gone. But they say it's the little things that keep them coming back week after week -- a compliment from a friend, the satisfaction of seeing a pretty bit well done.

Absolutely no food or drink goes into the work room, but they do share birthday treats and the occasional gourmet lunch in the church parlor.

"No gossip is allowed, but we talk recipes and books, lots of books," Workinger said. They worked on the embroidery as many as four or more hours each week. Two groups convene on Mondays and one on Thursdays. Many are retirees, but the Monday evening group includes people who come right from their day jobs in offices or classrooms around the metro area. At least five of the needlers have worked on all of the hangings since the project's inception 41 years ago. One of them moved to Vermont a while ago but returns to Minneapolis every year and spends two weeks stitching at the church.

"I made the mistake of listing her as 'inactive' on a needlers roster, and, boy, did I hear about it," said fellow-stitcher Karen Reed.

Now that the fourth "season" is finished, needlers have different ideas about what's next.

"After 32 years of needling on Monday nights, I've decided retirement sounds very exciting," said Reed.

Wanous has bigger ambitions. "I always say we go to heaven," she joked.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431