Embroidery and Heritage: The Royal School of Needlework

The international centre of excellence for hand embroidery, steeped in history with unrivalled expertise.

By British Fashion Council

Hampton Court PalaceOriginal Source: The Royal School of Needlework

THE ROYAL SCHOOL OF NEEDLEWORK

The Royal School of Needlework is based at the magnificent Hampton Court Palace in south west London and also teaches across the UK  and internationally. With over 200 courses, the RSN has something for everyone, teaching a wide range of techniques from stunning Gold and Crewelwork to Blackwork and Silk Shading. In addition, the RSN offers hand embroidery services at its Embroidery Studios in Hampton Court Palace. 

Royal School of Needlework StudioOriginal Source: Royal School of Needlework

The highly skilled team create beautiful bespoke commissions for the future as well as restore historical textiles and bring heirlooms back to life. Customers come from all over the world, including fashion designers, places of worship, private individuals and the Royal Family. The RSN’s close links with royalty started when it was founded and still continue today with Her Majesty The Queen as Patron.

The Queen's Coronation Robe (1953)Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework

HISTORY

Founded in 1872, the principles of the RSN were two-fold: to revive a beautiful art which had fallen into disuse and, through its revival, provide employment for educated women who would otherwise find themselves compelled to live in poverty. The RSN began operating in a small room above a bonnet shop in Sloane Street, London, initially employing 20 ladies. The school grew and by 1903 the RSN was able to open a new purpose-built centre on Exhibition Road, close to the V&A Museum, employing around 150 workers. The RSN moved to Hampton Court Palace in 1987 and now teaches over 1,500 students each year.

The Coronation of King George (1910)Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework

MILESTONES:

1875 - Received its royal prefex when Queen Victoria became the first Patron

1880 - Published the Handbook of Embroidery, a key influence in the art of needlework, and still in publication today

1902 - Made Coronation regalia for Edward VII

1902 - Embroidered a dress for the House of Worth

1910 - Made Coronation regalia for King George V

1935 - Embroidered the trousseau for the Duchess of Gloucester

1953 - Made the Robe of State for Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II for which the RSN was awarded a Coronation medal

1981 - Embroidered slippers for HRH The Prince of Wales and a monogrammed lace pillow for Lady Diana Spencer on the occasion of their wedding

2011 - Worked for Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen on HRH The Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress

2013 - Embroidered the Red Carpet Green Dress worn by actress Naomie Harris at the Oscars

2014 - RSN Degree students collaborated with E. Tautz menswear for Autumn/Winter 2014 Collection with embroidered shirts, ties, badges and bomber jacket

2015 - Collaboration with Nicholas Oakwell Couture. Hand embellishment for a couture dress and designed exclusively for GREAT Britain Campaign launched in Shanghai

The Queen's Coronation Robe (1953)Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework

THE ROYAL SCHOOL OF NEEDLEWORK & THE ROYAL FAMILY

The Royal School of Needlework’s Royal Connections go back to its earliest days in 1872 – and continue to work with Sarah Burton on The Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress in 2011.  In 1953 the RSN was privileged to embroider the Coronation Robe of State which featured 18 varieties of gold thread.  The Goldwork embroidery took 3,500 hours to complete between March and June 1953 and was worked by 12 embroiderers in shifts, 7 days a week. Although it was known that the RSN was embroidering the train, the whole operation was carried out in strict secrecy. No staff member who worked on it was allowed to give any hint of what the design looked like. The design was worked on purple silk-velvet and measured 6.5 metres long from the shoulder to the edge of the robe. It was embroidered with emblems such as wheat ears and olive branches representing ‘peace and plenty’ and included the ER cypher. Only senior members of staff were allowed to embroider the ER cypher and crown at the centre of the train. The RSN showrooms (based at that time at Princes Gate, Kensington) were closed to the public and police with guard dogs were posted outside for the duration of the work which lasted three months. On Coronation Day, the embroiderers were given a ticket for the grounds of Buckingham Palace and seated in the Palace forecourt to view the procession. The RSN has embroidered Coronation robes and regalia since 1902, including the Coronation Robes of Edward VII, George V and George VI.

The Official Royal Wedding Photograph (2011) by Hugo BurnandOriginal Source: The Royal School of Needlework

THE ROYAL WEDDING DRESS

The embroiderers of the RSN contributed their technical embroidery expertise to create the bespoke lace on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, veil and shoes and enable Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen to achieve her artistic vision for the bride. The lace design and process was influenced by traditional Carrickmacross lace which originated in Ireland in the 1820s. Carrickmacross lace uses an embroidery technique called Appliqué and the lace is worked by applying organdy fabric to a delicate net background and edging each motif with fine cord-like thread.  Sarah Burton sourced a series of lace motifs to create a unique design, applied by the RSN and arranged to fit each part of the dress. Each lace motif (some as small as a 5 pence piece) was applied with minute stitches every two to three millimetres. One of the hallmarks of the RSN is that the embroiderers can work collectively on a project yet it will look like the work of one person. 

Catherine Middleton walks down the aisle (2011-04-29) by The Royal School of NeedleworkBritish Fashion Council

The team for this project comprised RSN Studio stitchers, former staff, tutors, graduates and current students. Hands were washed every 30 minutes to keep the lace and threads pristine; needles were renewed every 3 hours and only short lengths of thread were used, each no longer than 30cm. To maintain an even appearance, no securing knots were used and it was important that the back of the work looked as neat as the front, another RSN hallmark.

Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework, Dr Susan Kay-Williams says: ‘We were absolutely delighted to be called upon to work on this unique and eagerly-awaited commission. Our involvement with such a very special event continued our long tradition of work for royal occasions.”

Naomie Harris at 2013 Oscars in Red Carpet Green Dress (Copyright AMPAS) (2013)Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework

RED CARPET, GREEN DRESS

Red Carpet Green Dress is an international dress design contest founded by Suzy Amis Cameron, environmental advocate and wife of Director James Cameron. In 2013, designers across the world were set the challenge of creating an Oscar worthy dress made sustainably which would be worn on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. The winner of the Competition was Ghanaian fashion student, Michael Badger, and the dress was worn at the Oscars by Skyfall’s Naomie Harris.

Red Carpet Green Dress Bodice Pattern, 2013, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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PATTERN MAKING

Legendary designer Dame Vivienne Westwood mentored competition winner Michael Badger through the creation of his design in her London-based studio. After Westwood’s couturiers logged 120 hours on the gown, it was then transported to the RSN.

Red Carpet Green Dress Designer Embroidering, 2013, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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HAND EMBROIDERY

Using a selection of vintage gold threads, beads and sequins the RSN spent some 680 hours using traditional stitching skills to interpret Michael’s concept in a contemporary way. All embroidery was done by hand at Hampton Court Palace which delivered a major reduction of carbon footprint and showcased the importance of hand embroidery as a sustainable art form.

Red Carpet Green Dress Embroidery Close-Up, 2013, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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GOLDWORK

The design was based on ‘volcanic lava’ which lent itself well to using Goldwork embroidery. Goldwork is an ancient technique associated with ceremonial pieces and uses a variety of gold and other metal threads. Beads, sequins and gold foil were added to give texture, depth and to catch the light.

Model wearing E.Tautz and The Royal School of Needlework creation on the catwalk (2014)Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework

COLLABORATING WITH E.TAUTZ 

This unique collaboration between British menswear brand E.Tautz and the RSN launched at London Collections: Men. Inspired by the painting ‘The Rakes Progress’, by William Hogarth, the E.Tautz Autumn / Winter 2014 collection showcased garments embellished with intricate hand embroidery created by the RSN Degree students. 

E.Tautz Inspiration Display at The Royal School of Needlework, 2014, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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DESIGN IDEAS

Working with E.Tautz Creative Director Patrick Grant, his Design team and Degree staff, students were given the autonomy to develop individual responses to the E.Tautz design brief. Following original designs supplied by E.Tautz and colour palettes developed between the design team and academic staff, each student was then able to apply their knowledge of design and embroidery towards the creation of each motif and its placement on the garment.

E.Tautz Embroidery Design Ideas, 2014, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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The Royal School of Needlework Degree Student working on E.Tautz project, 2014, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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HAND EMBROIDERY

The students worked directly on key pieces for the collection including two shirts, a waistcoat and a contemporary twist on the classic biker jacket. Every motif, letter and symbol was a bespoke creation designed for each of the specific garments within the Collection.

The project took over 300 hours to complete and contributed to the students’ professional development and portfolio.

Nicholas Oakwell Couture Dress (2015)Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework

NICHOLAS OAKWELL & THE GREAT BRITAIN CAMPAIGN 

The RSN hand embellished some 200,000 ostrich feathers onto a stunning gown created by the British couture fashion designer Nicholas Oakwell Couture for the GREAT Britain Campaign. The Nicholas Oakwell Couture gown was commissioned by the UK Government to showcase British Couture design at the GREAT Festival of Creativity in Shanghai in March 2015. The gown was showcased on a world tour in June 2015 covering Paris, Milan, Berlin and the Americas before heading back to the UK.

The Royal School of Needlework making the frames for the Nicholas Oakwell project, 2015, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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PREPARING THE FRAMEWORK

The RSN team comprised of current students as well as graduates, RSN volunteers and staff, totalling around 70 - all of who worked continuously to meet the tight timeframe.

The Royal School of Needlework Degree Student working on Nicholas Oakwell Couture project, 2015, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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LES PETITES MAINS

The team stitched between three and 12 groups of feather fronds at a time onto 25 dress panels over a period of six weeks. Following the Haute Couture tradition of 'les petites mains' (which literally means “small hands”), the RSN embroiderers collectively brought this Haute Couture creation to life.

The Royal School of Needlework Student working on Skirt Panel for Nicholas Oakwell project, 2015, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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THE DEGRADE EFFECT

The expert team hand stitched separate fronds of ostrich feathers to the layers of delicate silk organza. The ostrich feathers (sourced from a British farm), coloured in 18 hand-dyed shades were stitched following an intricate grid design to create a ‘degradé’ effect in colour and density.

Cheryl Wearing Nicholas Oakwell Couture at the 2015 X Factor Final, 2015, Original Source: The Royal School of Needlework
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THE FINISHED DRESS

The dress was proudly worn by singer and television personality Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the 2015 X Factor UK final. The “Best of British” theme was the perfect event to showcase the beauty of the GREAT Britain Dress.

Nicholas Oakwell said: “I wanted it to make a big impact, so volume and colour became the starting point for my design. I also wanted it to involve as much of the British couture industry as possible, from the creation of the dress to its presentation. This was an opportunity to highlight some of the amazing companies and organisations in Britain working in the industry and it was my chance to work with them.”

Credits: Story

As a registered charity, the Royal School of Needlework relies on the generosity of individuals, companies and trusts to continue teaching the traditional skills of hand embroidery and ensure these techniques are passed onto future generations. For more information, please visit www.royal-needlework.org.uk or call +44 (0)20 3166 6932.

This online exhibit was created by the British Fashion Council in collaboration with the Royal School of Needlework. All models and photographers have been credited where known. All rights belong to the Royal School of Needlework unless otherwise stated.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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