Embroidering royalty

A student of the Royal School of Needlework in London.

With less than two weeks to go before the Big Day, royal watchers are pining for a glimpse of Kate Middleton's wedding dress. Curiosity about royal clothing goes a long way back ... as Martha Teichner has discovered:

If clothes make the man ... consider Henry VIII. In one famous image of him he's absolutely encrusted in gold, and jewels. In Henry's day, you wore your wealth. It was embroidered onto your doublet ... pounds and pounds of it, if you were king - by law, the only man in England allowed to wear this much finery.

Lucy Worsley, chief curator for England's historic royal palaces, showed Teichner Hampton Court Palace, one of Henry's sixty (sixty!) palaces. "He had loads of palaces," Worlsey said.

"He always looked forward to coming here, 'cause this is the place that he came for hunting, holidays and honeymoons. It was a pleasure palace," she said.

Southwest of London along the River Thames, Hampton Court is where Henry VIII plotted his divorces and multiple remarriages - and where, according to a letter written at the time, he himself (yes, Henry VIII) may have taken up embroidery.

"The way it's written, you could read it as though he was actually doing the embroidery," said Dr. Susan Kay-Williams.

A bizarre piece of trivia? Not for Kay-Williams. She runs the Royal School of Needlework, which just happens to be located at Hampton Court Palace and specializes in hand embroidery.

A walk through its workrooms will make it instantly clear why, in the 21st century, there's a need for such a school, considered the best in the world.

At every table are textile treasures.

Silk shading is like painting with thread, with dozens of different stitches: stem stitch, satin stitch, bullion knots, French knots.

"Blackwork just uses black thread," said Kay-Williams, "and you get the shading from the thickness of the black thread you use."

By the mid-19th century, thanks to changing fashion and mechanization, these techniques were being lost. So in 1872, Lady Victoria Welby opened the school, with two goals in mind.

"One was in order to keep hand embroidery alive," said Kay-Williams, "and the other was to provide working opportunities for ladies that would otherwise be destitute."

Once they were trained, women could make a living producing embroidery.

The school sold their work in its own showrooms, and took on private commissions.

Queen Victoria agreed to be the school's patron; her daughter, Princess Helena, president (which is how "Royal" was added to its name).

Lynn Hulse is the RSN's historian. She said the Queen Mother arranged for the move of the school from its original home (which she said was "the place to be seen") to Hampton Court Palace. The Royal School of Needlework embroidered the robe she wore when her husband, George VI, was crowned in 1937.

And the robe her daughter - Queen Elizabeth, the RSN's current patron - wore in 1953. Hulse showed a sample of the embroidery, made with 18 different kinds of gold thread.

"The embroiderers were not allowed home during the period they were embroidering the coronation robe because no one was to know what the design was," Hulse said.

""How long did it take?" Teichner asked.

"Three months."

But working on the next coronation robe is not every student's dream project.

"Like, I've been sewing skulls and things like that," said Kirsten Fitzgerald.

Not your typical sampler. When Kirsten Fitzgerald enrolled last fall, her friends asked: "'Isn't it just full of grannies?' And I'm like, 'No, most of us are quite young. We're not sort of all 80.'"

Students of all ages come from all over the world, with and without career aspirations.

The school offers everything from day classes to a three-year degree course...

And yes, there are men in the school. In Henry VIII's time, professional embroiderers were ALL men.

These women were the best students, who considered it a privilege to stay and work on restoration projects and commissions - Amanda Berry for 18 years.

"I look at some pieces and I think, 'Wow, we worked on that!'" said Berry.

She said embroiderers need patience. "Yeah, a good back always helps," Berry sighed.

For Margaret Dier, after 17 years there's the satisfaction of value added.

"A bit of me is going into that," she said of one piece. "And it will be there after I've gone."

You could hear the proverbial pin drop - or more likely a needle - in this room filled with history, in a quiet part of the palace, where once Henry VIII himself may have taken up embroidery.

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