The Royal School of Needlework was established to keep the art of hand embroidery alive, a mission it retains to this day. If it was not for the RSN and its technical excellence several hand embroidery techniques could have fallen into disuse such as fine Whitework or Jacobean Crewelwork. This matters because, if no-one is skilled in the techniques, people would not be able to conserve or restore historical embroidered objects (and it is well known that textiles are among the most fragile and vulnerable items to conserve.)
Just as importantly, the RSN is the only place where one can learn some specific techniques such as Underside Couching, Both-Sides-Alike and Coronation Goldwork, all important historic techniques not taught anywhere else. Indeed we recognise that stitches are being lost and so the RSN is developing the RSN Stitch Bank to conserve every stitch in the world, no other organisation is able to do this, but as a charity in order to do this work we need to raise the funds through people being invited to adopt a stitch.
The RSN is also the place where organisations come for the highest quality new work, including all four coronations of the 20th century. More recently, Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, who recognised the RSN as the ‘real deal’ asked us to work on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress and Buckfast Abbey asked the RSN to make the new set of vestments for its Millennium celebrations.
Today the RSN is the only place which offers high-end technical training in hand embroidery, something which has been recognised and praised by everyone from academics to fashion designers.
Bruce Montgomerie, Professor of Design Craftsmanship at Northumbria University, stated at a conference on design education in 2013: “The RSN has attracted a younger generation to learn a skill that sets them apart from their peers.”
While the co-founder of Catherine Walker and Co, Said Cyrus, recently said after giving an opportunity to two RSN Degree students: “It’s very important to support the RSN, because that’s the cradle…It’s very important to give something back to the educational side of things for the future.”
The RSN hallmark is technical excellence and high quality training in more than 20 techniques for our Future Tutors. We have to train our own tutors as no-one else works to our standards and methods. For example, once taught by the RSN a group of people can work on something and it will look like the work of one person, this is a special skill which RSN training perfects.
Students on the Certificate and Diploma in Technical Hand Embroidery learn at least 10 techniques and may take this part time course for pleasure or to further business opportunities.
We also have a Degree programme which teaches the same core techniques and challenges students to use them in exciting contemporary ways. Other degree programmes might teach introductions to stitch as one of a range of textile techniques but do not focus on the technical detail.
As our Degree students are also students of our validating partner, the University for the Creative Arts, they are able to access student funding but the RSN itself is not in receipt of any government funding. We have to earn or raise all our income. When we want to initiate new programmes we need to raise all the funds for it. For example, we want to put our Collection of embroidered textiles and our Archive online. This would have a number of benefits: greater student access to the textile collection and awareness of what we have and the ability to have pieces for comparison with other institutions. For the archive it will mean the ability to really showcase the RSN’s history as a ‘social enterprise’ offering suitable occupation to educated women who would otherwise have been destitute, as an organisation involved in many high profile events and working with many interesting people in the 19th and 20th centuries.
But we can only bring this information to light with fundraised income.
The RSN demonstrates that understanding how techniques work, and being able to work them to the highest standard, means we continue a vital tradition and are best placed to consider the stitching aspects of conservation and restoration. Technical expertise also gives graduates in our studio the ability to use the most appropriate methods for a wide variety of projects for clients. To offer this intensive level of tuition takes funding.
Over the last decade we have invested in new courses to keep pace with contemporary requirements, we have grown the school three-fold in income and have reserves in the bank including a small endowment from which we can offer small bursaries, but we want to grow more. We want to be able to offer bigger bursaries to degree students and ultimately scholarships to the Future Tutor programme which is our lifeblood, growing the pool of highly qualified tutors who can help us to expand our work and our ambitions.
The impact that we have is varied according to the programmes and life-points people are at when they come to us.
For our Future Tutors, many of whom pursue this as a second career we are a positive change, a great springboard for a new career, very worthwhile and offering a job full of variety and opportunity.
For our Degree students this course is giving them a potential life-long future that could take them anywhere, We have graduates working as teachers, creating film and television costumes, working with women’s groups in several countries including Saudi Arabia, Morocco and India, developing their own ranges for interiors, setting up their own business for fashion accessories. All this and the course has not yet had even ten years of degree graduates.
And for our students on the Certificate & Diploma, and even some on short courses, the impact is of personal achievement and especially of supporting their mental health and wellbeing through the calm repetition of stitch. Many of our regular attenders do so to embrace the slower pace of stitch which can have a soothing influence against everything else going on in the world. Here the impact is personal and ‘one person at a time’ but no less important for that.
Our programmes and the ways we offer them have moved with the times. We have invested in course development, tutor professional development and remain at the forefront of hand embroidery in this country and, internationally as our many foreign students attest. Many organisations use the word unique erroneously. The RSN remains unique as the international centre of excellence for hand embroidery. In our history we have worked with some of the finest designers and artists from William Morris, Edward Burne Jones and Walter Crane, to Sir Paul Smith and Philip Somerville through to Sarah Burton, Patrick Grant and Hussain Chalayan.
The organisation now wants to expand its endowment, to move towards offering more meaningful bursaries and ultimately scholarships. We want to be able to get started on our digitisation project for the Collection and the Archive. We want to expand our Schools Programme (Embroider A Selfie). We can only do this, and truly fulfil our mission to keep the art and techniques of hand embroidery alive with your help.