Opelika woman embroiders history into art
By Katie Jackson
History may be made one moment at a time, but Abby Snelling is capturing it one stitch at a time.
Snelling, who grew up in Montgomery and Birmingham but now calls Opelika home, is founder of Grey House Embroidery, a fiber art business that uses needle and thread to record architectural history. It’s an idea that sprang from Snelling’s shared passions for history and embroidery, and one that began to take shape in 2018 after Snelling and her brand-new husband, Garrison, moved into a charming grey house in historic Opelika.
At the time, Abby was on a year-long hiatus from her classes at Auburn University and had lots of time on her hands. Garrison, who worked from home, suggested she needed a hobby, so Abby took up embroidery. Though she had dabbled in needlecrafts with her grandmother, Abby had a lot to learn, so she began to teach herself using YouTube videos and other resources.
“It was so relaxing, and I fell in love with it,” she said. Soon Abby and a friend were gathering at the grey house to do craft nights together. As they worked, their conversations often turned to discussions about how they could weave their beloved hobbies into a business; but just what that business might look like was unclear.
An idea began to take shape, though, after Abby returned to school in 2019 to complete her history degree and undertook a senior project focused on Opelika’s history as a textile town. Already well established as a cotton shipping town, its textile manufacturing story began in the early 1900s when local investors pooled their money to build the Opelika Cotton Mill. By the mid-1920s, after town leaders convinced textile giant Pepperell Manufacturing Company (later known as WestPoint Home) to come to town, Opelika was a textile manufacturing hub and remained so for another half century or longer.
“I learned a lot about Opelika’s history through that project,” Snelling says. She also became intrigued by the remnants of its textile history, such as a handsome old mill smokestack and water tower that still stood in Opelika. She also found photographs of many long-gone buildings representing that history, some of which were featured in the 1978 film “Norma Rae.”
One that especially intrigued Snelling was the huge Pepperell Mill building, which had been shuttered since the early 2000s. Though the abandoned structure burned to the ground in 2013, looking at its photo Snelling could imagine its former presence on what was by then a vacant lot. She wanted to capture it and other parts of Opelika’s textile history with her own needle and thread, which posed a bit of a challenge.
“Most traditional embroidery is very delicate and free-form with lots of curved, flowing lines,” she says. To embroider buildings, however, required the use of straighter lines and finding ways to highlight the textures, colors and fine details of these old structures. “Figuring out how to add those details using thread, which is pretty much two-dimensional, was like solving a puzzle.”
Snelling had the solutions to that puzzle at her fingertips. Embroidery employs several basic stitches — chain, feather, back, running, and French knot among them — but also an array of other, more intricate stitches, all of which can be used to create different effects. In addition, embroidery thread, often called floss, comes in hundreds of colors that can help reproduce the nuanced colors of each structure.
Through trial and error, Snelling began creating works of historical art, beginning with the iconic image of the smokestack and water tower. She then began creating pieces of other buildings, including the long-gone Clements Hotel, a newly constructed Art Haus nonprofit building and the storefront of Griff Goods, a sustainable clothing shop located in historic downtown Opelika where Snelling works part time.
Eventually, Snelling wants to create enough pieces for a show to highlight the past of this vibrant little town she has come to love.
Through Grey House Embroidery, Snelling creates commissioned pieces, most recently capturing images of buildings on the campuses of Auburn, Florida State and University of Southern California. She also teaches embroidery one-on-one and in workshops. (To learn more, follow her on Facebook and Instagram @greyhouse_embroidery.)