Meet the Curator of ‘Stitch is International’, Dr Susan Kay-Williams

1st May, 2020

Dr Susan Kay-Williams is not only the Chief Executive of the RSN but also Curator of our exhibitions which take place throughout the year in our Embroidery Studios at Hampton Court Palace. Susan had been looking forward to opening our next exhibition, Stitch is International, at the end of April (now postponed) so we decided to interview her instead!


Please give our readers an overview of Stitch is International and what they can expect to see when the RSN reopens its doors.

The idea behind Stitch is International is to celebrate beautiful embroidery from around the world and to highlight that embroidery is an art form which is practised in many countries and cultures and, as such, is something we have in common.

Most of the pieces on show will come from the RSN’s Textile Collection where we have many pieces that started life in other countries, both those originally made for local use and those for the export trade. As all the pieces in the RSN Collection have been donated, we do not always know the story of each piece so we accept items generally on the quality of their embroidery. Amongst the countries and cultures featured will be Imperial China, India, Japan, Turkey, Greece and Italy. I am thrilled to be able to give you a flavour of the exhibition, and this week we are showing you some pieces of Chinese origin.

We will have pieces on very different scales, from a Chinese robe and Japanese kimono to small fragments and pieces which had different purposes, from daily clothes of Guatemala to celebration pieces from India.

We were also hoping that this exhibition would tie in with the launch of the RSN Stitch Bank which is to feature and celebrate every stitch in the world, highlighting both those which are used universally, like Chain Stitch, and those which are only used in a few countries. Due to the lockdown, RSN Stitch Bank has temporarily had to go on hold but we will be continuing to work on this as soon as we can and will launch when we have the first 500 stitches.

Without giving too many secrets away, please share a few of your favourite pieces which our visitors can look forward to viewing?

This kimono (above) dates to 1900 and features chrysanthemum flowers and leaves for autumn. Those people who know the Kyoto panel at the RSN (which will really come into its own in this exhibition), will see similarities in the way the flowers are worked. It is a very lovely piece in traditional Japanese style.

In complete contrast, we have some Molas. The Mola, or Molas, is a hand-made textile that forms part of the traditional women’s clothing of the Kuna people from Panamá and parts of Colombia. The full costume includes a patterned wrapped skirt, a red and yellow headscarf, arm and leg beads, a gold nose ring and earrings in addition to the mola blouse. The traditional ones are worked in reverse Appliqué, using a number of layers of material, and those for the tourist market are more standard Appliqué. We have both types in the Collection.

We will also have a jacket which one of our Degree students, Jasmine Hollowday, has identified as coming from Palestine because of the embroidery on it. This was a piece that had got ‘buried’ within the RSN Collection and did not even have a Collection number (alas it is not the only piece in this position) but, thanks to Jasmine’s research, the piece will now feature in this exhibition.

As RSN Exhibition Curator, how do you come up with ideas for each exhibition and how long do they take to plan?

As being the RSN’s Curator and Archivist is only part of my job, I took the decision some years ago to alternate the exhibitions: an exhibition which predominantly features pieces from the RSN Collection is then followed by one which predominantly features work by current and former students and Tutors. So, for example, the exhibition which is just about to come down, Faces & Figures in Stitch, featured mostly work by students, former students and Tutors, with only around ten pieces from the Collection.

The pieces on display in Stitch is International, however, will be mostly from the RSN Collection. Collection exhibitions take a lot longer to plan, not least because, as yet, we do not have all of the Collection online so it means physically going through the boxes to see what we have. While this is a delight to do, it takes a lot longer than putting an exhibition together based on images, which is what we can do for the student shows.

I also alternate the exhibitions so that we can really feature the work of our students and Tutors to show more people what they achieve. And, for the Collection exhibitions, this is part of our public benefit, giving people the opportunity to see what is in the cupboards.

The RSN relies on donations to add to its Collection and I never fail to be surprised how often we are given objects linked to a coming exhibition. We accept pieces depending on their links to the RSN and, if there are no links, the quality of the embroidery and whether we have other pieces like it already in the Collection. Due to space constraints, we cannot unfortunately accept everything we are offered, but we are always open to interesting pieces of high quality embroidery in good condition.

What is the format of an Exhibition Tour?

The session opens with an introductory talk, presented by a member of RSN staff, which is part of the RSN’s educational role and contextualises the exhibition for our visitors. Then, you will be shown around the exhibition by one of our Volunteer Tour Guides who will tell you more about the pieces on display. If this sounds inspiring, on some occasions we also combine the Tour in the morning with a ‘Taster’ embroidery class in the afternoon, the theme of which will be linked to something in the exhibition. We also hold Family Stitch Workshops every half term (Feb, May and October) which we run for school children where young people can learn to stitch. As the exhibition is located within the working RSN Embroidery Studio we cannot welcome people at any time, so we usually offer scheduled Tours one week of every month, open to both groups and to individuals.

It is a great pleasure for me to lead the Curator’s Tours, usually held on a Saturday. They are open to groups and individuals alike. For Curators’ Tours I not only lead the session but I also bring out some extra pieces from the cupboards, for which there is not enough space in the main exhibition space or which cannot be out for a length of time. For Stitch is International, I thought I would bring out some pieces from a different cupboard – my own! This means there will be a range of both historical and contemporary pieces from a number of countries including China, Japan, Chile, Thailand and India.

You are Curator and also Archivist of the RSN Archive Collection.  Tell us a little about the Archive Collection and future plans you have for it?

The Archive is a fantastic resource but most of it has to stay hidden because I just do not have the time to answer every query, the most common being, “Did my grandmother/maiden aunt study at, or work for, the RSN?” This is an impossible question to answer in most cases as our Archive is not digitised so it would be an enormous job to search for every person, and certainly not easy if the seeker only has the married name, as most people came to the RSN before they were married.

However, it is my big dream to have the Collection and key parts of the Archive digitised so that people can see what we have and search it for themselves. For example, Walter Crane worked with the RSN for over a quarter of a century and we have many designs by him which are referred to as ‘lost’. If we could digitise the designs we have, they could be found by scholars and researchers.

We are also looking ahead. In 2022, it is the RSN’s 150th anniversary and I hope to publish a book about the story of the RSN to begin to shed light on more of its story. Sue Lown, one of our Volunteer Tour Guides is helping me to delve in to our wider history and she is finding some very interesting stories. For more you will have to wait for 2022!