To a lay person, embroidery seems easy to automate—program a design into a computer and watch the threads fly, like with the baseball cap machines at the mall. But true embroidery, the art that brings fabric to life, must be done by hand, the way London-based atelier Hand & Lock has been doing it since 1767.
“Embroidery is essentially embellishing the surface of a fabric,” says Jessica Pile, production director at Hand & Lock. “We’ve never sent anything away for being unable to do it. We are known for goldwork, which has to be done by hand and cannot be achieved by a machine.”
The finished work from this quintessentially British workshop adorns the walls of cathedrals, struts the catwalks of Paris, decorates the uniforms of the queen’s guards and even the queen herself. Along with authentic period costumes for theatre, film, and television, Hand & Lock also takes commission pieces from the public, so the same people who make the queen glitter can make you glitter as well.
The house’s biggest customer of all time, however, is the military. The pomp and tradition adorning the military’s most prized leaders can only be expressed by the hand of a gifted artisan.
Hand & Lock was doing military embroidery for the British before the American Revolution. It got its start doing lace and accoutrements for the fighting men of the empire. During the 1800s, the sun never set on the British empire, and so 24 hours a day, somewhere in the world, there was Hand & Lock goldwork glistening in the sun.
Hand & Lock’s goldwork style is opus anglicanum, which refers to a style of medieval English needlework. It uses gold wire and gold thread and could often be found on capes or fabrics given as gifts from the royals to foreign dignitaries. These pieces would often take five years to make because they were so detailed.
Priests were also fond of the opus anglicanum style, and the way that only true gold catches the light and draws the attention of a crowd.
“Imagine a priest walking down the aisle, the light reflecting off his gold—it had an impact. At a ceremony, the embroidery showed the importance of an individual,” Pile says.
Today, Hand & Lock is often tasked with the restoration of old pieces.
“Right now we have a banner from Queen Alexandra. The banner has completely fallen apart. I have to ask what parts we’re keeping and what we are replacing. It will hang in Windsor Castle, half of it old, half of it new. The old bits are now in a box in a chapel. It’s part of the story, so I told them to please keep them,” Pile says.
A fully embroidered outfit has always screamed wealth, and while the craft remains expensive, it’s not exclusively for royals and their friends—it’s couture as well. “If you go to Paris fashion week, 90 percent of the garments will be embroidered. Especially haute couture, it’s all embroidered. It’s just not something people think about.”
Outside her work at Hand & Lock, Pile published a book three years ago titled Fashion Embroidery: Embroidery Techniques and Inspiration for Haute-Couture Clothing.
“There are loads of embroidery books,” she says, “but they usually feature 80-year-old ladies with magnifying glasses. It’s frustrating when you’re young and looking for something edgy. Yes, these are ancient techniques, but it isn’t just something boring and old. It’s something that you can bring to the London catwalk. You can use the techniques in a really cool way.”
Her book features elegant women in modern designs where the embroidery gives a look of undeniable elegance. It also provides instructions on how to do the techniques Pile uses, as well as some designs to start with.
A calm revival
Pile says she’s always been interested in textiles. “I wasn’t hugely academic at school. I loved going to the theatre and seeing the shows, and I took a course on costume construction. Not just fashion, but period costumes.”
She did a placement at Hand & Lock during university, after which she did a few different theatre productions. Nine years ago, Hand & Lock came looking for the one that got away, and she’s been working there ever since.
It’s a specific type of person who can do embroidery. It’s not for everyone, because of the patience required. Pile says, “I will start a project, then get frustrated because I want it to be finished. I have to walk away and come back another day when I can appreciate the process. If you can approach a project like that and be methodical, it can be quite relaxing.”
This is why embroidery is widely practiced in the unlikely settings of prisons and mental institutions. It’s used as a tool to foster calm thoughts and emotions. If a project is approached with frustration, the goal of a finished piece remains out of reach.
“No one comes out of university knowing everything about embroidery. You have to understand where that fabric is going to go. When we do the uniforms for the queen’s bodyguards, we get to learn about the bodyguards themselves, because they are individually appointed.”
Hand & Lock also gets a lot of requests from television and film to do historical military outfits.
“I can work on military uniforms that are the same over and over, then I might get something that needs a lot of historical research, which really grabs my attention. I also enjoy private commissions because it might be something totally random,” Pile says.
As part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, Pile and her Hand & Lock team worked on the ornate barge that floated the Queen down the river Thames. “We did the throne and the two banners. I did the artwork for those.”
Her handiwork is also part of the Royal College of Arms. She stitched a heraldic coat of arms and accompanying blazen, which is an explanatory essay. “We did the designs, and they read out the blazen and took them to the queen for approval.”
“The value is in knowing that we created something as well as we could. We’re proud of the heritage.”
—Jessica Pile, production director, Hand & Lock
The beauty of detail
On beauty, Pile says, “I wouldn’t say that all art is beautiful, or everything I create is beautiful, but I appreciate the time, effort, and creative process that goes into it.”
For much of the handwork, it takes a trained eye to really appreciate what it took to bring the embroidery to life.
“The value isn’t in people being able to see it. The value is in knowing that we created something as well as we could. We’re proud of the heritage. People enjoy the quality of it and the beauty of it. The satisfaction of making something incredibly beautiful,” she says.
The art of embroidery hasn’t changed much since the 18th century. The techniques and materials remain largely the same, but new crops of artisans are drawn to the intricate art each year, working on projects ranging from ancient restorations to the newest fashions. But no matter the design, the art always comes back to the same techniques, the same needle and thread.
“Why is it important to preserve these techniques?” Pile asks rhetorically. “I don’t know. It’s part of our history and part of our culture. It’s something separate from the crazy world that people live in.”