History can be made one moment at a time, but Abby Snelling captures it one point at a time.
Snelling, who grew up in Montgomery and Birmingham but now calls Opelika home, is the founder of Gray House Embroidery, a fiber art company that uses needles and thread to record architectural history. It’s an idea that grew out of Snelling’s shared passions for history and embroidery, and began to take shape in 2018 after Snelling and her new husband, Garrison, moved into a charming gray house in the Historic Opelika.
At the time, Snelling was on a year-long hiatus from his classes at Auburn University and had plenty of free time. Garrison, who was working from home, suggested she needed a hobby, so she took up embroidery. Although she had tried her hand at crafting with her grandmother, Snelling had a lot to learn, so she started learning on her own using YouTube videos and other resources.
“It was so relaxing and I fell in love with it,” she said. Soon, Snelling and a friend were meeting at home to have craft nights together. As they worked, their conversations often turned to discussions about how they could weave their beloved hobbies into a business; but what that venture might look like was unclear.
An idea began to take shape, however, after Snelling returned to school in 2019 to complete her history degree and took on a senior project focusing on Opelika’s history as a textile city. Already well established as a cotton shipping town, its history of textile manufacturing began in the early 1900s when local investors pooled their money to build the Opelika cotton mill. In the mid-1920s, after city leaders convinced the textile giant Pepperell Manufacturing Company (later known as WestPoint Home) to come to town, Opelika became a center of textile manufacturing and the east remained for more than half a century.
“I learned a lot about the history of Opelika through this project,” says Snelling. She was also intrigued by the vestiges of its textile history, such as a beautiful old mill chimney and a water tower still standing. She also found photographs of many long-gone buildings depicting this history, some of which were featured in the 1978 film “Norma Rae.”
One structure that particularly intrigued Snelling was the massive Pepperell Mill building, which had been closed since the early 2000s. Although the abandoned structure burned down in 2013, looking at its photo, Snelling could imagine its former presence on what was then a vacant lot. She wanted to capture it and other parts of Opelika’s textile history with her own needle and thread, which was a bit of a challenge.
“Most traditional embroidery is very delicate and free-form with lots of curved, flowing lines,” she says. Embroidering buildings, however, involved using straighter lines and finding ways to bring out the textures, colors, and fine detail of these ancient structures. “Finding out how to add these details using thread, which is pretty much two-dimensional, was like solving a puzzle.”
Snelling had the solutions to this puzzle at his fingertips. Embroidery uses several basic stitches – warp, feather, back, run and French knot among them – but also a range of other more complex stitches, all of which can be used to create different effects. Additionally, embroidery floss, often referred to as floss, comes in hundreds of colors that can help replicate the nuanced colors of each structure.
Through trial and error, Snelling began creating historic artwork, beginning with the iconic image of the chimney and the water tower. She then began creating pieces featuring other buildings, including the former Clements Hotel, a newly constructed Art Haus non-profit building and the storefront of Griff Goods, a sustainable clothing store in the city center. history of Opelika where Snelling works part-time.
Eventually, Snelling wants to create enough pieces for a show that highlights the past of this vibrant little town she’s come to love.
Through Gray House Embroidery, Snelling creates commissioned pieces, most recently capturing images of buildings on the campuses of Auburn, Florida State University, and the University of Southern California. She also teaches embroidery in private lessons and workshops. For more, follow her on Facebook and Instagram @greyhouse_embroidery.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.