Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Mary Cuthbert Bush Digges (18 August 1934–23 November 2001), Japanese embroidery master, was born in Norfolk and was the daughter of Ralph Everett Bush, owner of a construction company, and Louise Cecelia Trice Bush. Educated in local schools, she later studied at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., and at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. She married John Joseph Maria Digges on 19 November 1955 in Norfolk. They lived for a time in Baltimore, Maryland, before settling in Norfolk to raise their six daughters and two sons.

Bush began embroidering at an early age and completed her first signed and dated piece when she was six years old. By the 1960s her embroidery had become a vocation. Mary-Dick Digges, as she was known both familiarly and professionally, joined the Embroiders' Guild of America soon after its formation in 1958 and later served on its finance committee and chaired the Master Craftsman Committee on Crewel Embroidery. She received certification as a master craftsman in several types of embroidery, including counted thread, canvas, and crewel, which employs worsted yarn in its freestyle designs. Digges taught various forms of needlework, including goldwork, and she was later certified as a teacher by the Elsa Williams School of Needlecraft, which opened in Townsend, Massachusetts, in 1972.

Digges and her sister founded the Tidewater Virginia Chapter of the Embroiderers' Guild of America in 1973. Digges served as its president for the next six years. She also served as a director, second vice president, and chair of the executive committee of the Virginia Guild of Needlewomen, while regularly teaching classes and new instructors. About 1974 Digges and her family moved from Norfolk to Williamsburg, where she opened a needlework shop as well as another in Richmond.

In 1984 Digges became fascinated with Japanese embroidery, a thousand-year-old technique that spread from China to Japan, where it was used primarily to decorate kimonos and obis. Japanese embroidery, using silk and metallic threads on silk fabric, has three facets: technical skills, sensitivity and awareness of the natural world and the meaning of colors, and spiritual understanding. Digges traveled to Japan in the mid-1980s to study the art with master Iwao Saito at the Kurenai-Kai community near Tokyo. Earning the status of master requires learning approximately fifty different stitches that cover twenty phases. After several years of study, Digges completed phase ten and qualified as a teacher, after which she achieved the master level. She helped Saito's daughter and son-in-law open the Japanese Embroidery Center near Atlanta, Georgia, in 1989. After further training at the center in 1990, Digges began teaching Japanese embroidery throughout the United States as well as in Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand.

In 1988 Digges established the Embroidery Research Press Inc. in Roswell, Georgia, which published some of her own work, instructional books by the Saito family, and Kurenai, the journal of Japanese embroidery. Her own work included Bell Pull Finishing (1988) and Lady Evelyn's Needlework Collection (1988), an inventory of the extensive collection belonging to Lady Evelyn Stewart Murray, a pioneer in the study of needlework techniques. Digges also edited Waverly Honor: A Workbook of Embroidery Design (1989), a mid-nineteenth-century compilation of patterns, including alphabets, floral works, coronation cord embroidery, lace designs, and whitework instructions.

Digges regularly displayed her needlework at the biennial exhibitions of the Embroiderers' Guild of America and at exhibitions sponsored by chapters across the country. The Japanese Embroidery Center also has examples of her work in its collections. In 2001 the Embroiders' Guild established a scholarship in her name for the study of crewel and Japanese embroidery and of stumpwork, embroidery with raised designs that was popular in the seventeenth century.

Mary Cuthbert Bush Digges died of cancer at her Williamsburg home on 23 November 2001 and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery. The National Academy of Needlearts honored her in 2002 with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sources Consulted:
Birth date in Social Security application, Social Security Administration, Office of Earnings Operations, Baltimore, Md.; publications include Digges, "The Art of Kurenai-Kai," Embroidery 42 (1991): 220–221; information provided by Kazumi Tamura (granddaughter of Iwao Saito) and Judy Jeroy (student and friend of Digges), both 2008; Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Portsmouth Star, 20 Nov. 1955 (portrait); Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, 8 Nov. 1992; obituaries in Newport News Daily Press, 25 Nov. 2001, and Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 26 Nov. 2001.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Emily J. Salmon.

How to cite this page:
Emily J. Salmon,"Mary Cuthbert Bush Digges (1934–2001)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Digges_Mary_Cuthbert_Bush, accessed [today's date]).

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