As well as the more intensive embroidery qualifications, the Royal School of Needlework (RSN) runs regular day classes as a way for people to try new techniques or get an insight into what it is like to study with one of the world’s most prestigious hand embroidery schools. Occasionally, the RSN teams up with other organisations to put on special classes on either different themes or different skills.
Recently, the RSN ran a series of classes at the Fashion Museum in Bath, with designs based on items on exhibition there. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Needlelace day class, stitching a small butterfly/dragonfly/questionable insect as inspired by a motif on an embroidered Elizabethan woman’s waistcoat.
However, despite the beautiful setting of stitching in a library filled with an eye-watering collection of fashion literature, wonderful materials and expert tuition, my stitching didn’t get off the best start. Of course, like all things lace, needlelace is a bit fiddly.
The first challenge of the day was working some corded buttonhole stitch to make the wings of the critter. As with most stitches, getting the foundation stitch in is usually a little different to the subsequent stitches, though I was really struggling to see how the stitch was constructed and therefore, where to actually put the needle for each part. Needlelace is also very unforgiving to unpick, so by the time I’d figured out what I was doing and had progressed past the first few rows, I had some fairly uneven stitching to contend with.
The silk gimp we were working with is from Piper’s Silks and it handles much closer to a twisted embroidery thread than I would typically expect from gimp. Mary Corbet has an excellent comparison of the Piper’s silk gimp to some other gimp threads but it is surprisingly pliable and easy to work with. It is just stiff enough to give great stitch definition on the needlelace but not so resistant you feel you have to beat each stitch into submission. The sheen and handle is just lovely and of course it comes in a range of colours that would just perfectly complement your stash…
Just as I was getting comfortable with the corded buttonhole, it was onto the second stitch of the day, Ceylon stitch. Ceylon stitch, if you work it quite tightly, looks a lot like plain knitted fabric and it even curls like knitting sometimes does before blocking. Much like the corded buttonhole, Ceylon stitch is all about creating an interlaced network of stitches, where each row relies on a good foundation before it. It’s hard to overemphasise the importance of correct tensioning in needlework, but as the stitches are essentially only attached the fabric at the sides of each row, rather than with each individual stitch, it’s even more crucial for these needlelace techniques.
Much like tambour, I think needlelace requires a lot of patience in the beginning. It has be quite tricky to pick out the different parts of the stitch, and therefore know where to post the needle through, until you’ve placed a few stitches. There’s a bit of faith required until that point too that everything is going to look alright and settle down as it should. When you get a smooth run though, it’s a very meditative technique and I was a little surprised how little time it took to be able to produce relatively even looking stitching.
By far my favourite bit of the class was the Elizabethan plaited braid stitch worked in gilt passing. Although it looks very complex, Kate Barlow had produced a very nice stitch guide with the kit, so it was just a case of remembering which order to pass the needle through where and not damaging the passing. While my spacing and tension isn’t perfect, the braid worked up very quickly and is incredibly striking, giving both an interesting raised effect and a bit of glitz in the light!
I think this is probably one of the most challenging RSN classes I’ve been to, although I’m not sure if that can be attributed to my incompetence or the challenges of starting out with needlelace. It’s quite a different approach to stitching but very fun and rewarding, and although getting the initial stitches in is a bit of a pain, it actually grows relatively quickly past that.
As if spending a day stitching wasn’t enough of a treat, the cost of the class included free admission the Bath Museum of Fashion itself, where we could see the waistcoat that inspired the piece. While the design we had been working on only measured 8 x 7 cm, this was giant compared to the original motif, which I can only assume was stitched with a microscope.
Although the Bath Fashion Museum isn’t huge, the collection is very carefully curated, with an interesting range of pieces, historical to modern, with very detailed labels on nearly everything. An excellent place for a bit of stitching inspiration with plenty of beautifully embroidered items. They also have a very special ‘Lace in Fashion’ exhibition, filled some exquisite designs from a huge range of lacemaking technqiues, that will be running until 1st January 2018 so there is still time to catch it if you are curious!