The early history of the Royal School of Needlework is linked with the social, cultural and political history of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The Royal School of Needlework began as the School of Art Needlework in 1872 founded by Lady Victoria Welby. The first President was Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, Queen Victoria’s third daughter, known to the Royal School of Needlework as Princess Helena.
The Royal School of Needlework began operating in a small room above a bonnet shop in Sloane Street, London, initially employing 20 ladies. By 1903, after sterling fundraising efforts from Princess Helena and others, George, Prince of Wales (later King George V) was able to open a new purpose-built centre on Exhibition Road, close to the V&A Museum where, at its peak, the Royal School of Needlework employed around 150 workers.
Below are a selection of highlights from our 146-year history. We would love to tell you more by putting our archive online but for that we need to raise new funds. If you would like to donate to this project please click here.
Workroom of the Royal School of Art Needlework on Exhibition Road c.1903
The RSN's first home on Exhibition Road was opened in 1875 by Princess Helena
The early years
- Founded as the School of Art Needlework, Princess Helena becomes President
- Granted Royal patronage and became the Royal School of Art Needlework
- Exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition
- 1870s & 1880s
- Worked large-scale art embroideries including Musica and Poesis by Edward Burne-Jones and work for William Morris and Walter Crane
- Published the Handbook of Embroidery (re-published 2010)
- Made Queen Victoria’s funeral pall, described as ‘a labour of love’ by Princess Helena. Embroidered the coronation robes of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra and hosted the exhibition of coronation robes at the RSN
RSN embroidering the Robe of Estate for Her Majesty The Queen’s Coronation in 1953
Commonwealth Balcony Hanging at Buckingham Palace created in honour of Her Majesty The Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002
Early 20th Century
- Moved into new building: Princess Helena helped raise the funds and it was opened by HRH The Prince of Wales, the future George V
- Made coronation regalia for George V
- Created embroidered banners for the Festival of Europe
- Taught returning soldiers how to stitch as an active therapy
- The word 'Art' was dropped from our title, became Royal School of Needlework
- Duchess of York succeeds Princess Helena as President
- Made the Robe of State for Her Majesty the Queen (formerly Duchess of York and later Her Majesty the Queen Mother). Also made the chairs for the King, Queen, Duke of Gloucester, Kent and the Earl Marshall, and the canopy
- At the request of the War Office the RSN was asked to translate the badges of all UK and later Allied forces regiments into patterns for transfers that could be stitched
- Principal, Lady Smith Dorrien collected lace to be sold for the war effort
Late 20th Century
- Lady Smith Dorrien designed a victory sampler featuring all the allied countries
- Following their destruction in the blitz, the RSN remade the ceremonial crowns for the Worshipful Company of Girdlers
- Made the Robe of State for Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II for which the RSN was awarded a Coronation medal.
- Hastings embroidery made to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings
- Created the Overlord Embroidery: 34 panels depicting the events of D Day, now at the D Day Museum in Portsmouth
- Embroidered slippers for HRH The Prince of Wales and a monogrammed lace pillow for Lady Diana Spencer on the occasion of their wedding
- Made the current version of the Lord Chancellor’s Purse in which is carried the Queen’s Speech for the State opening of Parliament.
- Made new Curtains for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
RSN embroidery work for Game of Thrones
RSN embroidery work worn by Naomie Harris for the Red Carpet Green Dress campaign ©AMPAS
- Created six high altar frontals and vestments for Wells Cathedral to celebrate the millennium
- Created the balcony hanging at Buckingham Palace for Her Majesty The Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
- Sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Broderer’s the RSN created a new woolsack to carry the ceremonial mace for The Royal Hospital Chelsea
- Embroidered the official logo for the FIFA World Cup in Japan and Korea
- Created an altar frontal for the nave of Canterbury Cathedral
- Embroidered Sir Paul McCartney’s Ecce Cor Meum album cover
- Created hangings in the style of Henry II for Dover Castle (English Heritage) for the King's Throne Room and the Guest Room
- Conserved an altar frontal made by Princess Alexandra and her daughters in the 1880s for the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace
- Conserved the Te Deum Altar Frontal and Canon Carpenter’s Cope for Salisbury Cathedral
- Worked for Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen on HRH The Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress
- Created new lectern fall for the Worshipful Company of Broderers to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the granting of their first Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1561
- Studio asked to work on the Oscar dress for Naomie Harris as part of the Red Carpet Green dress initiative inaugurated by Susie Ames Cameron, wife of film director James Cameron. The dress was designed by student Michael Badger and realised by Vivienne Westwood’s studio.
- RSN Studio embroidered and embellished wedding dress designed by the late L’Wren Scott for Stylist JoJo Cohen.
- Collaboration with Nicholas Oakwell Couture. Hand embellishment for a couture dress for Erin O’Connor and designed exclusively for GREAT Britain Campaign.
- RSN Embroidery Studio works with artist Cornelia Parker on Magna Carta (An Embroidery) in celebration of the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta.
- Created epic 6m x 4m embroidery for one of the world’s biggest TV shows, Game of Thrones.
- Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cornwall, becomes Patron.