Men do embroidery too! A day at the Royal School of Needlework
PUBLISHED: 12:06 16 August 2017 | UPDATED: 12:06 16 August 2017
Contrary to common belief, an increasing number of men are taking up the centuries-old art form of embroidery. Surrey Life's Pete Gardner visits the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey to take up the challenge
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2017
Someone once said that the pun is the lowest form of wit – strangely, the subject of embroidery seems to lend itself to this kind of humour, so I shall try very hard not to indulge.
Anyway, I think I have been well and truly stitched up by the editorial team at Surrey Life, who have been needling me to write a yarn about this [That’s enough!! – Ed].
My mission was to visit the beautiful surroundings of the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace to try and get a sense of what is involved in the art of embroidery and I was offered a taster session to see why more men should be doing it and to fly the flag for us budding maestros…
The words ‘Embroidery for Men’, at first glance, just don’t seem to sit comfortably together – it has never, in my mind, been one of those things that we chaps get up to in the privacy of the shed, let alone in public but how wrong I am.
Coincidentally, the very morning I was due to set off, the button came off my shirt as I was dressing and I spent far too long in a panic trying to sew the thing back on. Fast forward to later in the day and I can now thread a needle and knot the cotton in a flash – all thanks to a true master (yes – a man) of the art of embroidery, Owen Davies.
Owen, whose mother was a dressmaker, is a textile artist and teaches at the school. Following up an advert in the local careers office in Kingston, Owen worked his way up through the courses and, after graduating in 1994, became a tutor and is proud to be the first member of The Worshipful Company of Broderies to earn a living from embroidery since the Middle Ages. “I feel I am safeguarding skills that are part of our heritage, and needlework really should be part of the schools’ curriculum,” he says, adding: “You’ll never find a bored embroiderer!” This is echoed by the school’s ethos of keeping the techniques of hand embroidery alive by modern teaching methods, exhibitions and a busy commercial studio, where the wedding dress of the Duchess of Cambridge was created (next time you’re in Canterbury Cathedral take a look at the altar frontals, which are all done by the school too).
A resurgence in Victorian times saw embroidery adopted mainly by women, but it seems men are taking up the challenge now in increasing numbers, including one 76-year-old student here at the school.
Following the First World War, the school found that teaching stitching to returning soldiers was an active therapy. It was, however, with no small amount of trepidation that I attempted my very first ever ‘stab stitch’…
For my taster session, Owen had prepared for me a linen twill, a ring frame, hoops and barrel clamp, a couple of chenille size 20 needles and two-ply wool. On the linen was marked out a beautiful image of a leopard, copied from a fabulous hanging of red crewelwork on linen dating from the 17th century and now owned by Owen.
Now, here’s an interesting thing. It is widely known that we men are completely unable to multitask. No argument, it’s just something that girls have known for decades. I have female friends, who are able to juggle texting, measuring out ingredients and reading a book all at the same time without a glitch, while we struggle to walk up the stairs carrying a cup of tea. Embroidery, though, is brilliant for us gents. You see, there is no multitasking involved – once you are comfortable and have threaded your needle, it is just you and the linen.
As Owen points out there is a mathematical structure to this and as long as you follow the guidelines (literally in the case of stitching a pattern) you will find that time passes very quickly as you concentrate on the needlework.
Owen very kindly praised my efforts at crewelwork (one of dozens of styles of stitch) and my attempts at sewing spots on the leopard without once drawing blood or otherwise disgracing myself.
With a range of options at the school it was not surprising to see a busy gaggle of students in various studios – I did wonder how they managed to concentrate however, with the most fabulous view of the palace gardens through the windows. Courses are varied in discipline from day classes and taster sessions to the more structured modules contained in the certificate, diploma and three-year degree level.
Christian Derrick, or ‘Kit’ to his friends, is a 26-year-old student from Thames Ditton with an interest in custom-made clothing and is studying for the RSN Certificate in Technical Hand Embroidery. “I was always interested in fashion and making things,” he explains. “The quality of hand-embroidered clothing is so much nicer than machine-made items and I felt I needed more skills to help me.”
Another student, Devvrut Patel, from Kingston, is in his first year of the degree course concentrating on hand embroidery for fashion in textiles, involving a very complex looking ‘blackwork technical stitch’. With a three-year, full-time course ahead of him, Devvrut loves it here. “The Palace is an inspiration,” he says, “The tutors can answer anything you ask and it just makes you happy every time you come in here.”
There is no doubt this is a very special place. Unique in its setting and as an International Centre of Excellence in hand embroidery, I left, feeling I had touched on just a tiny fragment of what happens here. Owen handed me the piece of unfinished embroidery I had started earlier with a roll of wool and my special needle. I am determined to finish it at home and won’t rest until it’s done. As a man, after all, I am a bit of a sew and sew…
Need to know
The school offers over 200 courses ranging from taster sessions and day classes to certificate and diploma courses in Technical Hand Embroidery, as well as a BA Hons in Hand Embroidery for Fashion, Interiors and Art. Also available are Future Tutors programmes, bespoke and private lessons, exhibitions and tours.
Contact the Royal School of Needlework on 020 3166 6932 or visit royal-needlework.org.uk for full details.