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A London Experience

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A London Experience
By Isela di Bari
From March 1998 newsletter

Author’s Note: In 1997 I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace just outside of London. The School specializes in the “restoration and conservation of all textiles including military and masonic banners, uniforms, tapestries, chair covers and altar frontals, using traditional hand embroidery techniques…”

If you are planning a trip to London and wish to visit the School, be aware that not everyone at Hampton Court Palace (this means the information desk) is aware of this entity. So call first and make an appointment. They do have one-day per month special visitors tours called Open Day which are well worth the train trip from London to Hampton Court. Once you arrive, find Tudor Tennis Court Lane (no tennis courts). You will see a building on the right across from the manicured gardens and an arched brick entrance. On that particular day there happened to be an information clerk standing under the arch who directed me to the school’s office.

The school offers 3 year courses which is much like going to work 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. Each year RSN accepts 6 students, who present several of their needlework pieces for review. They are also interviewed. The RSN is not looking for a perfectionist. They are looking to see if the applicant has some understanding of design, color, etc., and some hint of artistic talent. Can the applicant live off the paltry sum of 30 to 40 pounds ($60 to $70 per week) for the first year of the 3 year program? Can the applicant needlework in such an environment where speed and time is important? Is the applicant willing to put in an extra 20 hours of their own time per week outside of school working on their own student needlework project?

The students are provided historical background for stitches and techniques they’re learning but booklearning and being tested on that is not a primary focus. Students are continously being assessed. Usually 3 out of the 6 students accepted each year drop out of the program. Some of these drop outs may be too artistic and wish to pursue their own career rather than having to work 9-to-5, 5 days a week on workshop projects.

The apprenticeship program covers all aspects of decorative hand embroidery, conservation, and restoration. It also includes training in art and design techniques. In addition to the 3 year course, there’s a one year certificate course also open to embroiderers from abroad, as well as one day courses offered throughout the year. The general public can also commission the RSN to work on items ranging from samplers that need repair to Victorian seat covers, new needlepoint rugs that need to be stretched or religious vestments that need to be created and embroidered. For example one altarcloth needed the applied needlework cut away from the old background material and reapplied to new material.

Over their 125 years of existence, the RSN has been given so many different types and colors of thread that they rarely have to purchase or have thread dyed for their use. Everything from crewel to silk and metal threadwork, cutwork and counted canvaswork is done at the RSN. The use of shading separates the beginners from the advanced. Works include everything from mid 19th century samplers to modern three-dimensional works. In fact one of the student projects during their three year apprenticeship program is making a 3-dimensional work or box form such as a birdhouse, etc. This allows them to use both the sewing machine and handwork in one project.

On my visit I also noticed that much of the needlework the students were doing was padded; frames were of the medieval style; both sharp and blunt crewel or tapestry needles were used; and needles were not changed frequently unless they broke or became bent. Working out pre-designs on the computer is also available now, so that colors can be worked out before being applied.

For more information on the school:
Call: 011-44-181-943-1432
Fax: 011-44-181-943-4910

Write to the School at:
The Royal School of Needlework
Apartment 12A, Hampton Court Palace
East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9AU, England

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