Wednesday, 6 April 2022

Crown to Catwalk - 150 years of The Royal School of Needlework

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Crown to Catwalk

150 years of The Royal School of Needlework at Fashion & Textile Museum, London

Only those who've tried hand embroidery can appreciate how technical and challenging this artform is. It’s deeply satisfying too, the act of pulling a needle through fabric and creating a surface design  requires patience but the results make it worthwhile. For hobbyists, embroidery is a chance to slow down, and be mindful, but it's a far cry from the stamina, skill and speed needed to embroider on a professional basis as Dr Susan Kay Williams, Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework  (RSN) explained at the opening of Crown to Catwalk, a new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum that celebrates 150 years of this prestigious craft school. 

Some of the tales she recounted were a real shock but they demonstrated just how dedicated the team is, and always has been. The School was established in 1872 and began teaching embroidery in 1895, offering a three year course; one that continues to run today. Students at the school and its alumni have been involved in some of the most significant garments worn by the Royal Family to date, including the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress in 2011 and the pall that draped Queen Victoria's funeral coffin in 1901. This was one of the stories that Kay recounted; "From the time the order arrived to the cover going over the coffin and leaving the building it was 48 hours. This included 21 continuous hours of stitching by 45 women through the night. One group of women made the crest, one made the centre of the cloth and another the gold embellishments." Their remarkable achievemet put RSN firmly on the map as the 'go-to embroiders' for the great and the good in the UK.

The Crown to Catwalk exhibition takes the visitor through the different types of commissions the women at RSN received including miltary work and hand-stiching badges, ecclesiastical work for churches, trousseau lingerie for royal brides-to-be and other formal contracts. 

The exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum is split over two floors and includes contemporary student work, winners of the Hand and Lock embroidery prize and even some interiors pieces. Upstairs you can see the very impressive Red Dress Embroidery project, a collaborative gown conceived by British artist Kirstie Macleod which features panels of embroidery made by over 300 women around the world. 

Two items on display that caught my attention were the gold sampler of the Queen's coronation gown which included 18 varieties of gold thread and a red dress worn on The X Factor by Cheryl Cole which also featured 18 shades, but this time of red seen in an extravagant gown comprising 200,000 ostrich feather fronds. 

The RSN offers workshops globally thanks to its online learning programme and continues to work on all the major royal events but despire the volume of work it produces there's only a small team, just eight full-time members of staff and a number of freelancers, all who are considered to be the most skillful embroiderers in the UK. 

If handicrafts and history are of interest to you, this exhibition is a must-visit over the summer. 

Crown to Catwalk runs from 1 April to 4 September 2022 at Fashion & Textile Museum London. Tickets cost £12.65. More information and to book: