Fashionable Embroidery as Art

I’ve always been fascinated by the amazing amount of work, thought, and expertise that I’ve seen in the coronation robes and ecclesiastical garments in museums and paintings.  A few years ago I spend some time inEngland, and got to see many of these items, one more beautiful and perfect than the next. What I didn’t know until recently, was that this artistry is still used today, and that there is a wonderful school devoted to passing on the knowledge and skills needed to create this work.

The Royal School of Needlework was begun as theSchool ofArt Needlework in 1872 by Lady Victoria Welby and its President was one of QueenVictoria’s daughters, Princess Helena. The purpose was to bring back a beautiful art which, with the invention of embroidery machines, was becoming almost extinct, and to provide employment for educated women, who might not have been able to find other employment.

It began in a small room above a bonnet shop, employing approximately 20 women. As a result of diligent fundraising efforts, by 1903, they were able to build their own center and, at its peak, employed approximately 150 workers.  

The RSN was first introduced into theUnited Statesin 1876 when it created an embroidery room for the Centennial Exhibition inPhiladelphia. Men became “stitchers” during World War I, because embroidery was considered something disabled soldiers could do, costing some of the women their jobs. By World War II, the RSN began collecting lace to be sold for the war effort.

The RSN has made coronation robes for all of the British Monarchy since 1902, most recently the purple robe of state worn by Queen Elizabeth. The design of wheat, olive branches and acorns, which was used, symbolizes fruitfulness, peace and longevity, and was created by 12 embroiderers working 7days a week, and using 18 types of gold thread.   In 2002, the RSN was commissioned to do a balcony hanging forBuckinghamPalacefor Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee.

Acording to the RSN, “Embroidery can be used as an artistic medium in its own right and to embellish items of beauty and practical use.  The wide variety of techniques can be used in traditional and contemporary designs adding detail and focus. There’s traditional goldwork used for centuries to symbolize wealth and power; delicate whitework for weddings, christenings and formal household linens; crewelwork with the Jacobean style bringing design traditions from Asia; blackwork seen as a costume decoration of status in 16th century portraits and still used today for dramatic effects in portraiture; and numerous other techniques for creative and imaginative use.”

The Royal School of Needlework studio is located at theHamptonCourtPalaceand is staffed by RSN trained embroiderers. The RSN is considered a charity, and exists entirely on private donations, receiving no government funding. This allows them to take on a wide variety of commissions.

RSN offers courses in a wide variety of these techniques. Day classes will be offered in San FranciscoMay 12 -15, 2011. For more information on this incredible opportunity, contact Jessica Aldred by e-mail at  or by phone at+44 (0)20 3166 6932. The school’s address is Royal School of Needlework,Apartment 12a,HamptonCourtPalace, Surry, KT8 9 AU,UK.

To check out the RSN website go to

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Article by Liz Riley, Editor


The Resource For all Things Fashionable

    • Ruth Kerr
    • May 12th, 2011

    I love learning! This was so very interesting!

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