Congratulations to Certificate Student & BAFTA Nominee
30th June, 2020
Aisling Walsh first visited the RSN during a C&D Open Day in 2017, as she wanted to embark on a course in hand embroidery, and she discovered that the Certificate works around her busy schedule.
During her career, Aisling has won over 40 international film and television awards and is a three times BAFTA winner and an Irish Film Academy winner in 2017.
Aisling made her debut feature film, ‘Joyriders’, in 1988, and more followed: 2003 – ‘Song For A Raggy Boy’, starring Aidan Quinn; 2006 – ‘The Daisy Chain’, with Samantha Morton; 2017 – international multi-award winning ‘Maudie’, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. More recently, Aisling directed Glenda Jackson in 2019 ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ for which she has received a 2020 British Academy Television Award (BAFTA Award) for Best Single Drama nomination, and Glenda has been nominated as Best Actress.
Above — BAFTA winner in 2013 for Best Drama Serial for ‘Room at the Top’
Below — Poster for ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ (2019) with Glenda Jackson
Despite her busy career, which brings her all over the world, Aisling tells us about her journey to the RSN and her love of hand embroidery.
“I went to a convent school in Dublin in Ireland where sewing and knitting were taught to us by Catholic nuns at a very young age. We made sample books, one for sewing and one for knitting. Each page had an example of a particular stitch. We started with tacking for sewing and stocking stitch for knitting and moved on from there. Being severely left handed was a huge disadvantage so I dreaded the classes and almost always struggled. I remember my samples being blood stained from needle pricks and grubby from too much handling. I was without doubt the worst 6 year old sewer and knitter in the school. I was still the worst when I left the school at aged 16.
“Me with my Dad and older sister”
My mother, my grandmother and my older sister were talented sewers and knitters. They made many of their own clothes: suits, blouses, dresses and even some spectacular evening dresses which they embellished with sequins and beads and some embroidery. I also remember my older sisters First Communion dress and veil being made which was beautifully beaded by hand. My sister, Vivien Walsh, is now a very well-known costume jewellery designer, her pieces are mostly beaded and full of embellishment. Oddly, it was my father who eventually taught me to sew and to knit. He was left handed too. He’d sit behind me and hold my hands as I knitted. He showed me how to thread a needle and how to make a knot, that simple task took hours for me to achieve.
I went to Art School in Dublin in 1975 to study Fine Art. I wanted to be a painter from as far back as I can remember. The school decided to take me despite me being only 16. During the summer holidays, to earn the money to pay for my fees for the upcoming year, I went to work at a hotel in a very rural part of the West of Ireland. There is a huge tradition of knitting in the West of Ireland, Aran being the most famous. It was during these summers that I really learned how to knit.
At Art School a film was screened one evening a week after our classes were over. I saw films from Germany, France and Italy. I also saw British films made in the 1950’s and 1960’s, those ‘kitchen sink’ dramas that so influenced so many of my generation of film makers in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
“Me on set in 1990s. Wow you could smoke then… !”
The school had a clockwork Bolex 16mm movie camera with three lenses which no one ever used. With another student, I would take the camera out as often as I could to shoot whatever caught my eye. As time went on I became more ambitious. I started to write and direct my own short films. As there was no film industry in Ireland at that time I realised I’d have to move away if I wanted to be a film maker. I think it must have been in some movie magazine that I read about The National Film School in Beaconsfield in England. I applied and was fortunate to be accepted. I started at the school in 1980 and spent the next 4 years making films, some of my own films and some films with other student directors.
On my first visit to Canada in the early 1990’s, I came across a very old fashioned craft shop that sold needlepoint, tapestry and cross-stitch kits. I bought one and this started my love affair with stitching.
After 9/11 in 2001 when knitting needles were no longer allowed on flights, I took my needlepoint or cross stitch instead. So many of my pieces were completed on flights from London to Los Angeles and back again. I always have a piece going when I’m filming as I like to do it in the evenings, it’s a way to relax and put the busy day behind me. When dubbing the sound and music on a film it is often a shock to the crew in the studio to see me with my needlepoint or cross-stitch. It’s not something they ever associate with me and they are often fascinated to watch me stitch in the semi darkness as we work away on the film.
“Some of my very first pieces done on flights over the years. Very basic now”
My career as a director and writer has taken me around the world. Sometimes to cities for days to attend Film Festivals other times to countries for months on end to film. I was in St John’s in Newfoundland for 6 months making my last film, ‘Maudie’, in 2016, and in Glasgow for 4 months last summer making the television film ‘Elizabeth is Missing’. The first two things I do when I arrive in a new city is find a good coffee place that opens early in the morning and find a shop that sells supplies for stitching.
Clockwise from top left: Aisling on-set with Ethan Hawke; with Sally Hawkins; Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkings, in ‘Maudie’ (2016)
I have worked with a lot of amazing costume designers over the years. Many are amazing sewers and makers, embellishers and embroiderers. It was while working with my favourite costume designer that I first heard about the RSN. One of the period costumes we had to have made for a television series I was directing was embroidered by an ex-student of the RSN.
In 2017, I decided I wanted to do a course in some form of hand embroidery. I read about the courses available at the RSN. I came to an Open Day at Hampton Court Palace. I was so impressed with what the school offered that I signed up to do the Certificate. It is the only course available that works around the student and you can go at your own pace. I need to be able to do that as I often have to go away for long stretches of time when I’m making a film. I started the Certificate in September 2018 doing a class weekly. As time went on that became fortnightly.
“My Jacobean Crewelwork”
I am a slow learner so my Jacobean Crewelwork took me quite a long time. Because of my own work I had little or no time to do RSN homework so in the class I would sew then rip (unpick) then sew the same part of my piece over and over again until I got it right. I did manage to do some occasional homework but I ripped that often too. My Tutors, Shelley Cox and Jen Goodwin, were so patient with me and so encouraging. They give you praise when you get things right and make you redo things if they think they need to be redone. Shelley and Jen create the most wonderful atmosphere in the class and give you the confidence to carry on. The other students are so supportive and encouraging too. It is always lovely to walk around the class to see what other students are working on and how they are getting along. The standard is shockingly high and I often wonder if I can ever achieve anything close to some of the amazing work being done.
When I finally finished my Jacobean Crewelwork, there was a lovely moment when the class applauded. Finally, I had managed to complete my first piece. I thought if the nuns could see how far I had come 50 years later they’d probably be rather shocked at what I had managed to achieve!
“My Canvaswork based on Edward Hepper’s ‘House with Dead Trees'”
I have always loved the work of the American painter Edward Hopper. I have often used his paintings as a reference for my films so, when I moved on to Canvaswork, I decided I’d embroider one of his lesser known landscapes and chose one called ‘House with Dead Trees’. I love the picture and the colours in the landscape and that’s always important if you’re going to spend months embroidering it. Fortunately, I had four classes before the School was closed due to Covid-19 so I got started and I sampled some stitches which will keep me going.
Studying at Hampton Court has been one of the best things I have ever done. The classes are such an escape for me. I travel by bus and, once I walk through the gates of the Palace, I switch my phone off. It is a precious day every two weeks away from the madness of my work life without social media and without interruption. It is my therapy. In the class the only sound you hear is of thread being pulled through canvas. I love the quietness. I did have to break the rule and use my phone one day in March last year when I had to join a call with the Head of Drama at the BBC to discuss my idea of having Glenda Jackson play the main role in the film I’d agreed to direct called ‘Elizabeth is Missing’. Glenda hadn’t been seen on screen for 28 years and now there was an opportunity to get her to return to play the leading role of an 83 year old woman suffering from dementia. I had to fly to New York for the day to meet her a week later. Fortunately, she said yes and I got to work with an actress I have so admired since I was a teenager.
“Me with Glenda Jackson on ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ (2019)”
In my career one can work well beyond the age most people retire, that is if you can stand and take the pressure, and you have the stamina. I feel so lucky that’s the case as I want to make so many more films. I also have a secret ambition that if and when that career ends that I can sit quietly in a room somewhere and repair old embroidered pieces at a long table with other passionate stitchers.
I’m hoping I can progress through the RSN Certificate and get more confident as I go. It is my ambition to do the Diploma, even if it takes me several years. The films I have made have taken years so I’m used to things taking time. My classes at Hampton Court are very special. I love its tradition. I feel privileged to be learning at the RSN which I consider to be, without doubt, the best school for hand embroidery in the world.
Oddly, my next film which I hope to make in 2021, requires the main character, an elderly man of 84, to embroider in a number of scenes. So I’m hoping I’ll be able to show that actor what I’ve learned at the RSN and help create the pieces we’ll need to see in the film.
Finally, my Top Tip? Be patient with yourself and never be afraid to start again. You learn something new and interesting every time.”
BAFTA with Irish Screen Academy Award and Canadian Screen Award for ‘Maudie’ in 2017
We just thought that we would add a few words from RSN Tutor Jen Goodwin as a surprise for Aisling!
“Aisling is one of the regular students who attends C&D classes on a Monday at HCP with myself and Shelley Cox. We are thrilled with her nomination, especially as we could see how excited she was about this project while it was being organised, it is very well deserved.
Aisling is a dedicated stitcher who will replace a section repeatedly until she is happy with her work. This is a lovely quality to have in a student and I feel it is a quality that is heavily influenced by her creative job, always striving to achieve the best look possible for her work.“
We wish Aisling the best of luck for the years ahead and look forward to seeing her back at the Palace as soon as possible!