Sunday, 20 March 2011

Hampton Court Palace

Last Monday and Thursday I was lucky enough to be at Hampton Court Palace learning silk work embroidery.  Nicola Jarvis, the head of the Royal School of Needlework was very generous and allowed me to attend (for the second time) one of the courses within the school.  Just before Christmas, I sat in with the second year BA students and attempted to learn white work.  This week just gone I was with the first years leaning silk work.   My oh my, was it tricky!

The Royal School of Needlework is set in a small apartment in Hampton Court Palace.  Just to spend the day there is evocative and memorable.  Last November, it was absolutely freezing and not that much better this week.  As I walked to the School, through the grounds and past the huge Tudor kitchens, I could not help but think of how cold our historical sisters must have been whilst living there.  No wonder Catherine of Aragon wore a hair shirt for most of the time she spent there!

Silk work was not so much hard but slow.  Mine, I am embarrassed to say didn't look great.  At the RSN one learns to embroider properly.  First, using a figure of eight stitch, I stitched the silk on to piece calico.  The grain lines of both fabrics in line.  I mounted the calico on a frame.  Using a piece of thick tracing paper I drew a rectangle shape in pencil.  The paper then got pinned on to the silk and using a sharp needle I pricked the shape through to the silk.  The next stage involved a dabber (not sure if that is the word), which meant dabbing a black powder which consisted of charcoal and cuttle fish, over the paper.  The fine powder goes through the needle prick holes and marks the silk underneath.  The tracing paper comes off and using a stab stitch the outline of the of the rectangle is sewn on to the silk.  Next stage was to sew, using a split stitch (maybe 2mm) over the stab stitch out line of the rectangle.  This whole process took me a day!  Yes, a day and mine did not even look neat or straight.

On the Thursday I attempted to fill my rectangle with the silk work stitching.  Before that, I forgot to mention that one needs to draw a several parallel lines down the rectangle so one can sew straight the long and short stitches which fill the shape.  To keep the stitches looking even, one starts in the centre of the rectangle.  The needle is always brought slightly above the top split stitch and when one gets to the side of the shape the needle is brought down through the split stitch.  Hard to look neat.  Of course the BA embroidery students work looked fabulous but as, I told myself, they are doing it every day!  I was made to feel very welcome and had a lovely day.  Depending on my work schedule, I might go back to learn gold work.  This photo shows my amateur attempt and believe it or not this is all I did in two days.  It has given me a real insight into how skilled both the professional and home embroiderers of the 18th century were.  My God, is it hard on the eyes too.  How any one could have done that work by candle light is a mystery.

Just to change the subject entirely, I found this Lee Miller photo in the paper last Saturday.  Lee Miller was one of the first photographer to enter Germany with the Allied troops at the end of the WWII.
The subject matter is very grim but what fascinated most about this photograph is not the fact that the woman is dead (suicide on the announcement of Hitler's death) but Miller's focus on the woman's coat.
It is made of a very good thick quality wool.  By the end of the war, the Third Reich defeated, most German women found themselves wearing rags, sitting in the rubble of their burnt homes and cities amongst starvation and disease.


At the beginning of the war, in Germany in  September 1939, textiles and shoes were obtainable only with Government issued vouchers.  By November that year they could only get work clothes, shoes and winter coats with the vouchers and these had to be approved.  All the leather and wool was, of course being diverted to the front.  And here is where the wool went, to clothe the German troops.  In this gruesome photo one can almost touch the quality of all that wool cloth.

If any of you are interested there is a fascinating book called Nazi Chic written by Irene Guenther published by Berg.  Not nasty or sinister just very interesting.  A few very interesting chapters on Ersatz fibres.

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