An exhibition that celebrates the 150 years of the Royal School of Needlework (RSN) has opened in Bermondsey, looking at the wide variety of work they’ve created, from miliary wear to works for pop stars, and royalty.
The School of Needlework (it became royal later) was set up to provide training and employment to destitute ladies. But not the sort of ladies you might be thinking of, these were middle-class ladies. At a time when the man worked and the ladies minded the home, to be a young widow could be financially ruinous.
So, to give ladies of breeding an income, in 1872 the School of Needlework was created to give training and employment. But more than that, there was another mission behind the scheme. Many of the old embroidery techniques had fallen out of use and were being forgotten in favour of the quick easy Berlin wool work method.
The school restored many embroidery techniques that were on the verge of extinction, causing a surge of quality needlework that mass production thanks to the industrial revolution had been slowly killing off.
As an exhibition, it’s both a history of the organisation, but also a way of showing off the craftsmanship of the ladies who worked there. And while all the work created was decorative, in many cases, it served a practical function, such as military insignia worn during wartime. After all, someone had to make the decorations that showed an officer’s rank, so why not these ladies?
A lot of the works were commissioned and sold, so the school itself doesn’t have a huge collection to show off, but they’ve pulled together a story from their archive, and embellished it with items, that have been loaned, many from the Royal Family.
Opening in the early years, the exhibition shows off their first overseas show, at the Centennial exhibition in Philidelphia, and much of their works were inspired by the likes of William Morris.
Apprenticeships are still a big thing for the school, and every student is expected to produce a signature work to complete their course. Originally they had to be a church piece, later simply a work including a religious Figure, Symbol and Animal, and later secular. One of the most surprising results of that change is a 2006 piece, of a businessman, a pound sign, and a shark.
I was particularly taken by the playing cards, and am thinking they would make for a wonderful set of actual playing cards.
A piece created to be photographed as an album cover for Paul McCartney was such a rush job that it was delivered while still on the slate frame it had been made on. He liked it so much that it remains as delivered to this day.
Something else commissioned to decorate something else is a cushion made in 2018 and put into safe storage — it’s an insignia for The Duke of Edinburgh and was used by ITV for their title slides during coverage of his death in 2021.
Talking of death, although the item itself is not on show, they talk about the time the funeral pall to go over Queen Victoria’s coffin was needed in a hurry and no commercial firm could meet the deadline, so the school came in, pulled in everyone they could in just 21 hours, 45 women had completed the work.
Something that looks like it’s been attacked by a swarm of killer pins turns out to be panels of delicate embroidery that were overlaid onto the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress in 2011. Much richer in design are the coronation robes for King Edward VII and the later Queen Mother — although they’ve been shown in a box that’s a tad difficult to see them in.
The school also worked on the current Queen’s coronation robe, but that can’t be here as it’s at Windsor Castle for the Platinum Jubilee. But they do have the small sampler that was made to show the 18 varieties of gold thread used in the decoration.
A stunning red dress turns out to have over 200,000 ostrich fronds died into 15 different shades and sewn into it, showing that the embroidery skills are not limited to cotton thread.
As an exhibition of needlework, it contains a lot of what you are probably expecting to see, but so much more that is unexpected. From the earlier mentioned military insignia to very modern art, and even three-dimension works that are more sculpture-like than the classic fabrics we expect.
A visit is to come away frankly with a sense of slight awe at the dexterity and patience needed to come up with such intricate needlework. My own hamfisted attempt a few years ago shows how utterly hopeless I would be.
The exhibition, 150 Years of the Royal School of Needlework: Crown to Catwalk is at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey until 4th September.
Children under 12: Free
Carers: Free (if accompanying someone with a disability)