Royal School of Needlework course, or What I Did on My Holidays

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This is a post of me showing off because I WENT TO THE ROYAL SCHOOL OF NEEDLEWORK AT HAMPTON COURT PALACE WHERE KING HENRY XII LIVED AND DID A COURSE IN COLOURED METAL THREADWORK YO.

So I had a holiday recently and spent 2 nights in Hampton Court having my first ever formal instruction in any kind of embroidery – in Coloured Metal Threadwork.

So here’s lots of pics of what it was like to study there and what I did in class and my homework!

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That little round window that’s open was our classroom!

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It’s the magical private staircase to the BEST EMBROIDERY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.

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The door! So unassuming! Behind which such skill is kept!

Ok so this was a class that people who had never done any kind of metal thread or goldwork or whatever could do, and this is what we were gonna be making:

This is the one the tutor Lizzy Lansberry had made. So on a wet Monday morning I was nervously huddled in a little room in the barracks of the palace waiting for my class mates and to be collected and taken to class. There were I think 7 or 8 other people in the class. Well, ladies, all ladies. There was a woman from Sweden, one from Hong Kong, one from the Phillipines plus the rest from all over the UK. The whole kit of materials is provided for you, and when we were shown in to the classroom it was all set out with our hoops in seat frames, with two layers of fabric and the pattern drawn on all ready to start. Also 2 pairs of scissors and a velvet board.

But first we (I) had to oo and ah about the views from the windows:

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Sigh.

Ok, so first off we basted our two fabrics together with a techniques I’ve not done before (learning all the things!) where you just use tiny running stitches just inside the lines of your design where there’ll be covered with stitches, and then very neatly on the lines where they will only just be covered. This is a better way than basting like I did with the Snail in straight lines because you don’t have to pull them out at the end.

Then we started padding. We used three layers of felt padding and were taught how to stitch down properly for each layer. We used white felt as it was going to be covered with silver and blue metal threads – if it was goldwork it would have been yellow felt.

Then we couched down silver pearl purl:

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I’m going to assume, maybe incorrectly, that most people reading this haven’t done goldwork before, so what pearl purl is is a tightly wound, round coil of wire. You can get it in different metals and finishes, and widths. We were taught how to handle the thread and how to manipulate and prepare it for stitching (you don’t just pull it out and go). We got some great little tips about placing the wire correctly and how to make sure we couched it correctly and preparing our stitching thread correctly. Always. The. Correct. Way.

Then we went on to learning chipping using wire check. Again, we all huddled around Lizzy as she demonstrated the technique on a student’s work then copied it on our own. This was the rhythm of the day.

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Wire check is another coil of wire but coiled in a triangle shape with lots of edges and angles and you cut off a tiny piece and attach it like a bead, carefully placing each piece so it appears random. This is hard.

And that was what I got done in day one! About 5 hours work. We started just before 10am and finished at 4 pm, with an hour for lunch and a tea break which was roughly 20 minutes or so at 11. So the pace of the class I’d say was about right because I was KNACKERED when I finished. I guess it’s the unconscious energy you’re expending really concentrating all day and learning something new. Also the lighting in the room was amazing – a mix of daylight tubes and fluorescent tubes – but my eyes felt soooo tiiiired.

Added bonus to doing a course there – you are given a pass which grants you access to the whole palace, so I was at liberty to wonder round like a tourist both afternoons after class.

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Ducks!

Did I mention the Royal School has a KICK ASS LIBRARY that I was DYING over. Literally any book you want on anything embroidery is there. Could’ve spent a day just browsing. Also the work they have on the walls there had me wringing my hands and wanting to just give up now. Just the most EXQUISITE work you’ve ever seen on every wall. But you’re not allowed to photograph anything unless it’s your own work. So, take my word for it.

Ok so Day Two. We all arrived bright eyed to start our lesson.

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Today we basically did couching. Turns out I hate couching. Specifically I hate couching this stuff which is wire twist. More specifically I hate plunging which is where after you’ve couched which is actually easy you have to take the ends through to the back of the work with a large needle and then stitch them down on the back but only catching the underneath layer of calico.

It is a bitch.

My fingers were sore.

I was sweating.

My ego does not like things I can’t do perfectly with ease straight away because I am a childish person.

Anyway so this was the most beautiful iridescent kingfisher coloured twist. Twist is twisted cords. The cords are made up of three strands of metal that are twisted into a cord. Each strand of metal is made up of a thread core with a wire wrapped around the core so it does not show. And when you try to thread the end millimeter through a needle to plunge it to the back you are doing this with three threads and then one doesn’t want to stay threaded and falls out so you have to take all of them out and do it again and it hurts your fingers and then you get cross and want to cry but you swallow it all because you are here and you’re learning and you’re an adult.

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Ok so did that. 

Believe it or not ladies and gents, that took me 4 and a half hours. In fact I actually did less than this because I only plunged the pointy end threads down in class. There’s a hot mess going on on the back of the work I’m not showing you.

So I’m gonna finish showing you how I finished the piece and then I’ll tell you what I thought about the course overall.

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There’s a colour change going on here so we had to blend 2 colours of wire check, turquoise to bright silver check. Then I couched down a thinner piece of pearl purl to the outer edge of the shape.

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Oh yeah you can’t see that because I had to do MORE COUCHING.

Actually this bit was way easier. We used an even more beautiful iridescent purple fine 371 thread. This is basically a thread core wrapped very tightly with a coloured foil.

Again I couched this down in pairs using brick stitch pattern and then gritted my teeth to plunge again. It was so much easier with a thinner and more mobile thread and much quicker.

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Then one final row of fine pearl purl to the inside of the shape.

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You can see that slightly raised ‘seam’ through the middle of my 371 bit, this is where I’ve not plunged the threads tightly enough and it’s a bit overcrowded. I am assured this comes with practice.

Finally I had to attach little pieces of rough purl in little crosses to the middle. Rough purl is simply a fine coil of wire with a matte finish. That little gap in my chipping is where I ran out of bright check.

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And here’s it done – my first ever piece of metal work:

How does it compare to the expert? >

So the most obvious flaw in my work is as I have already pointed out, the uneven couching where the two threads are alternating going through to the back – it should be much smoother.

But overall I’m OK with it. 

So what else can I say about my experience. A couple of weeks since I came back and I really miss it. It was just a rare joy to even be in such a place. I’ve never been taught anything embroidery related formally and metal work was a technique I felt I wasn’t going to get by in by studying books and experimenting alone. Just being in the palace, in parts the public never see, and seeing all the amazing work on the walls, was so brilliant. The tutor was great, and all the staff I came across were lovely. You’re in a class of a handful of people from all over the world who have come here to learn something from the people who are best in the world at it. At any point you could ask a question and have an expert demonstrate the answer. What a privilege. I’m now going to save up for their intensive summer school in Goldwork – 2 weeks of perfecting it. It won’t be next year but there’s still so much to learn, so many techniques not even seen. But for now I will be able to include metal threads in my pieces, and I intend to with my next one (follow me on facebook or instagram if you want to see what’s in the pipeline).

Other learns: I reckon I must be really slow when I’m embroidering at home. I have the TV on usually and although on the one hand it’s good that I am looking up from the work (which I wasn’t doing that much in class and my eyes really suffered for it) but I realised when I was finishing it at home how distracted I am – getting cups of tea (no drinks allowed in class!), going to the loo, chatting to my husband, checking my phone, watching the telly…makes me think I need to try and focus on completing blocks of time with no visual distractions and see how much quicker I can be.

Next thing I realised was a bit inevitable. I could feel after the first morning there the seed had been planted that would grow into the plant of I’m A Bit Shit. Seeing work by the real masters of the art was for me disheartening. As I said earlier, I can be a childish person and my ego wants to be the best. But also wearing the hat of the artist has been a difficult fit for me too, so I’m trying to give myself room to develop as one, making the transition from when I would have defined my work as craft to now, art.

I am not the finished article, and it has always been a useful, albeit sometimes cringe making exercise to look at my archive page and see the development of my work, especially remembering that at the time of making all these pieces, I was very proud of myself. I did my first ever piece of freehand original work in 2010, the Fly Agaric and I still love it, it still makes me proud. However, being amongst these experts made me realise that part of being skilled is being quick and confident with your mark-making. All of my embroidered jewellery – virtually everything I have for sale now – was created as a completely one-off piece, and was the first time I had ever made each one. I mean that’s arguably true of all art, but technically it wasn’t made quickly with a practiced hand. I realise speed isn’t everything but with an art form as labour intensive as hand embroidery it does affect your pricing, something I’ve written about before. I do believe in the value of time and the need to acknowledge this but over the last 5 years of seriously pursuing high quality embroidery art I come to realise it is a sweatshop. The prices I will set for the large art pieces when I come to show them as a collection will likely price my time at something like £1 an hour or less. Because it’s hundreds of hours work. I now believe that part of my reward for producing my art is the very act of doing it. Of being lucky enough to be in a situation where I have a part time job to feed myself and pay my bills and get to devote the rest of my time to being creative.

What was really interesting about this though was illustrated in a comment from the tutor at one point where she basically said she is a traditionalist and really loves perfecting the techniques but is not creative. Virtually the whole class nodded in enthusiastic agreement! There are many embroidery and textile artists working today who are not schooled in the ‘correct’ techniques but their work is no less accomplished and beautiful or powerful or inspirational.

So, I took away a lot from this class and this is perhaps the most important lesson; I have always taken great pride and care in making my work to ‘heirloom’ quality – because it is the nature of being ‘handed down’ and precious in it’s longevity that inspires me to make something very carefully and taking my time with it. But to make ‘good art’, the skill involved is only equally important to the idea or feeling you’re expressing.

What do you think? Any artists, embroidery or otherwise, have any thoughts on this?

PS I am having a sale in my Etsy shop – up to 40% off 

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