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A Wonderful Afternoon

South Africa has very little public transport and what does exist is unsafe or unreliable, so we only drive in our own cars at home and we provide our children with cars the moment they have a drivers’ licence, for their own safety.   

Whilst we’re fine with planes and airports we know absolutely nothing about catching trains and even less about reading a train timetable. We cannot read train timetables.  Pathetic really, because when we are in the first world we have to ask the locals for help.  On our recent trip to Europe we got rather good at it.  By the time we left Paris we had the Metro licked and we managed to get ourselves onto the Eurostar fairly easily.  By the time we got to London the Underground was a cinch.  Until we wanted to get out of town.  That required looking up the correct line to take, which station to get to and reading timetables.  And we don’t know how to do that.  With some help we got it right, after a fashion, but even when we had managed to purchase our tickets and were making our way to our destination, we tended to wander around stations looking bewildered. Quite an effort and a lot of confusion.

Some things, however, are worth the effort.  

Our publishers had arranged for us what you might call an “insider’s” tour of the Royal School Of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace.  For those of us that live at the bottom of the world the Royal School Of Needlework has always seemed like the centre of the English-speaking embroidery world.  The far away fountain of all stitching knowledge and a place to be revered.  Mission control, if you will.  For Di, Wilsia and myself to visit the School as something other than mere tourists was very special.

Over the years I have met many people who have done workshops and courses at the RSN and they love to tell you about it.  Their conversation does, however, tend to be a brag and, unfortunately what this does is give their listeners the impression that the RSN is very correct and that the people are terribly stuffy.

I began to realise that this is not the case when I met Elizabeth Elvin in Australia in 2009.  She is retired, but was the Principal of the school for some time.  She is a bundle of fun, completely un-stuffy and really good company.   

Then I met Jenny Adin-Christie at Beating Around the Bush in Adelaide, Australia, last year.  She was involved in the making of the Royal Wedding dress a couple of years ago and that was the subject of the illustrated lecture which she gave at the final function. She could have gone on speaking for hours.  We were enthralled and I, for one, was impressed by her innovation and talent. 

It was, therefore, hardly surprising that from the moment we were met at the Palace reception by Monica Wright, our guide and hostess, till the time we said our goodbyes and stepped back into the snow flurries outside, we found ourselves in stitching heaven.  From the historical treasures that are in their possession, to the work that is being done there today it was a sight for sore eyes.   

The school has just celebrated its 140th anniversary and, that being the case, they must be one of the oldest continuous lines of embroidery knowledge.  They specialise in teaching techniques that are traditional in England, covering mostly goldwork, crewel work, canvas work and whitework.  They aren’t bound by parameters though and many, many styles of embroidery form part of the work being done within those walls.

Apart from mentoring and teaching their diploma and degree students, the ladies and gentleman that work there design and stitch commissions that cover anything from family crests to, interestingly, a monogram used on the cover of a Paul McCartney album. In addition, they do restoration and we were able to see the fine work being done on two wall hangings, hundreds of years old.  The restoration included, not just the stitching, but also the fabric that had deteriorated.  Fine, skillful work.

On leaving the school after our visit, my over-riding impression was of skill, talent, and friendliness, along with a deep respect and pride for what has gone before.   A pride and respect tempered with an awareness of the innovation needed to move forward, to keep the noble art of hand embroidery alive.  

To make our visit even more special, Elizabeth Elvin was in for the day and we were able to meet up with her again.  

Our trip to the Royal School of Needlework was one of the highlights of our European trip.  A friendly and innovative hive of activity in beautiful surroundings.  Just look at the view from one of the studio windows:

Wouldn’t you love to be able to look at that every time you needed to stretch your legs .