Preserving the art of embroidery

The UK’s globally prominent embroidery institution, the Royal School of Needlework, celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2022. We spoke to the school’s Chief Executive, Dr Susan Kay-Williams.
THE STORY

The Royal school of needlework

The UK’s globally prominent embroidery institution, the Royal School of Needlework, celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2022. We spoke to the school’s Chief Executive, Dr Susan Kay-Williams, to learn about the RSN’s fascinating history, and how it will mark this year’s big milestone. 

The RSN at 150: celebrating the past, and looking to the future

Susan and her RSN colleagues are celebrating the school’s 150th anniversary this year with a veritable feast of embroidery events.
 
The showpiece will be a 150th anniversary exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London (1 April – 4 Sept).
 
“It’s going to include some wonderful royal pieces, and we can hopefully tell the stories of these pieces and the links that they’ve got,” says Susan.
 
Also planned are a series of special events designed to encourage newcomers to start stitching, exhibitions at Ely Cathedral and local to the school, and an international summer school which will be held partly online, and partly at Hampton Court. 
 
The school has even teamed up with Ernest Wright to sell limited editions of our Antique Stork and 4” Print Embroidery Scissors, as part of the RSN Anniversary Collection. Needless to say, this is a great honour for Ernest Wright.
 
But perhaps the most exciting of the RSN’s anniversary initiatives is the RSN World Stitch Bank, an ambitious project to record every existing stitch.
 
“This is a really important initiative, because it is our dream, our hope, to be able to conserve every stitch in the world,” says Susan.
 
“Now, we actually don’t know how many stitches there are, because we may find that what somebody calls this, somebody else calls that, and actually the stitch is the same. But we might also find that different populations have different stitches, and we hope ultimately to be able to add those to the Stitch Bank.”A good measure of the RSN’s progress towards its aims would be the stories of its alumni. Erica Wilson, who graduated from the school in the 1940s, wrote 17 books and produced and starred in two WGBH TV shows about embroidery, earning a reputation as America’s ‘First Lady of Stitchery” in the process. Jenny Adin-Christie, who studied with and worked for the RSN in the 1990s and 2000s, has become a leading expert in ‘whitework’, a set of techniques which were traditionally worked with white thread on white fabric. And the list goes on. 

Something to enjoy doing when everything around you is falling to pieces

While embroidery has been in and out of popularity in recent decades, the last few years have seen the craft flourish like seldom before.
 
“As a positive aspect of the pandemic, people have been taking up embroidery again, as something soothing, as something almost meditative, that they can really enjoy doing when everything around them seems to be, you know, falling to pieces,” says Susan.
 
The RSN has seen an influx of new learners – not only students enrolling onto the degree and part-time classes taught at Hampton Court Palace, but also a growing cohort of online students, who join lessons virtually from as far afield as New Zealand and Chile.
 
Helping students through troubled times has been a part of the RSN’s remit since the very beginning. The school’s first students were three sisters whose father had passed away unexpectedly, leaving the young women and their mother financially unsupported.
 
“There was no welfare support as there is today, so they were on the verge of destitution,” says Susan.
 
“So, our founders really wanted to offer lessons and paid employment, for educated women who they would then enable to make their own way in life.”
 
The eldest daughter, Martha, stayed with the RSN as an embroiderer for nearly 20 years, earning money to support her family all the while.
 
“We still predominantly employ women, although we are open to men and women as embroiderers,” says Susan.
 
“I think for many, the RSN has been a fantastic source of employment.”

The RSN at 150: celebrating the past, and looking to the future

Susan and her RSN colleagues are celebrating the school’s 150th anniversary this year with a veritable feast of embroidery events. The showpiece will be a 150th anniversary exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London (1 April – 4 September).
 
“It’s going to include some wonderful royal pieces, and we can hopefully tell the stories of these pieces and the links that they’ve got,” says Susan.
 
Also planned are a series of special events designed to encourage newcomers to start stitching, exhibitions at Ely Cathedral and local to the school, and an international summer school which will be held partly online, and partly at Hampton Court. 
 
The school has even teamed up with Ernest Wright to sell limited editions of our Antique Stork and 4” Print Embroidery Scissors, as part of the RSN Anniversary Collection. Needless to say, this is a great honour for Ernest Wright.
 
But perhaps the most exciting of the RSN’s anniversary initiatives is the RSN World Stitch Bank, an ambitious project to record every existing stitch.
 
“This is a really important initiative, because it is our dream, our hope, to be able to conserve every stitch in the world,” says Susan.
 
“Now, we actually don’t know how many stitches there are, because we may find that what somebody calls this, somebody else calls that, and actually the stitch is the same. But we might also find that different populations have different stitches, and we hope ultimately to be able to add those to the Stitch Bank.”

At the time of writing, the RSN has a small, dedicated team researching stitches and preparing their details for inclusion in the stitch bank, where they can be accessed by stitchers, curators, historians and others with an interest in embroidery.
 
The RSN World Stitch Bank is a legacy project of the RSN, which is set to go on for a number of years after the anniversary has passed. It is a living embodiment of the school’s founding mission: to preserve the art form of embroidery, in all its variety. To preserve any part of embroidery, is to preserve something special.
 
As Susan puts it, “There is just something about embroidery, particularly when it’s on the larger scale, because it’s just handwork, it’s not done by machine.
 
“You understand the time that takes, and the skill it takes for it to look as perfect as it does.”
 
Find out more about the RSN by subscribing to the school’s monthly eNews updates.

STORIES FROM ERNEST WRIGHT
true_blue_post2

True Blue Denim

Blackhorse Lane Ateliers is the famed London jeans-maker. We spoke to BLA’s founder, Han Ates, to learn of the techniques, materials and philosophy that go into an exemplary pair of craft jeans.

READ MORE
Badges_honour_pic

Badges of Honour

Haute couture badge-maker The Trendy 7 has crafted a beautiful pin-badge celebrating Ernest Wright tailor shears. We spoke to the brand’s founder and kingpin, Lucas Cruz Bueno, to learn the story behind ‘The Shears Pin’.

READ MORE
Tom-car-banner

The ways of old-fashioned tailoring

According to traditional tailor, Tom van het Hof, there is still much to be salvaged from the craft’s by-gone golden eras. Join us as we ask Tom about the principles and techniques that keep him coming back to the tailoring of yesterday.

READ MORE
kutrite_is-back

The Kutrite is back!

After four years of talking about this lost pattern, and more than two years working on it ourselves, the Kutrite is back!

READ MORE
sheffield-workshop-small

The home of handmade scissors

From the 1960s till the 2000s, Ernest Wright continually produced scissors from its own Kutrite Works factory. Now, with the completion of an exciting business deal, those bright days are coming back.

READ MORE
liberty_ew-700-6

“Every Quilt Has A Story Behind It”

Ilkley-based artisan Jenni Smith believes every quilt has a story to tell. We spoke to Jenni about craft, community, and how her experience of writing a book about quilting with Liberty fabrics brought a lifelong love affair to a new pinnacle.

READ MORE
EW_art_012021_Jihae_Post

Stitches through time

For Savile Row tailor Jihae An, the craft of tailoring has provided a way to connect with British tradition on a deeper level.

READ MORE
EW_Trophy_article@0,5x

Craft & Heritage

The Heritage Crafts Association recognised our traditional craftsmanship by awarding us the inaugural HCA President’s Award for Endangered Crafts.

READ MORE
HCA_work

Winners of the 2020 Heritage Crafts Awards

Ernest Wright has won the inaugural President’s Award for Endangered Crafts in this year’s Heritage Crafts Awards.

READ MORE