Royal visit bestows secrets of traditional art to summer school students

This royal needlework school is setting up shop in Lexington

The Royal School of Needlework is teaching its first ever course in the United States. This summer, they're working at the Sayre School in Lexington.
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The Royal School of Needlework is teaching its first ever course in the United States. This summer, they're working at the Sayre School in Lexington.

Royal visitors have been holding court in Lexington the past two weeks, bringing with them exquisite threads, needles and other accoutrements.

The Royal School of Needlework, based at Hampton Court Palace in London, England, has been at Sayre School teaching classes in the traditional art of hand embroidery to students who traveled here from around the country.

Founded in 1872, the RSN has served royalty ever since, from creating Queen Victoria’s funeral pall, to making the robe of state for Queen Elizabeth II, and a monogrammed lace pillow for Lady Diana Spencer for her wedding. Most recently, the RSN’s Embroidery Studio created the embroidery on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress in 2011.

Students learning the traditional art of hand embroidery from the Royal School of Needlework this summer will embroider figures like butterflies. Angela Gervasi

The Lexington event, from July 8 through Saturday, is the largest the school has ever held in the states with 10 tutors and a maximum of 12 students per class. Traditional techniques such as stump work, crewelwork and gold work were taught as students immersed themselves in the history and artistry of needlework.

Owen Davies is the only man to graduate from the RSN and now teaches all over the world. His students at Sayre created an exquisite three-dimensional butterfly using silk shading — think of it as painting with colored threads — to fashion the rich patterns of the wings.

“They will have everything they need to be able to continue at home plus there’s pages of notes that break down all the projects,” Davies said, displaying a collection of printed diagrams.

“This is what I call the cheaper version of taking me home,” he added with a smile.

Dr. Susan Kay-Williams displays an example of what students strive for while attending the Royal School of Needlework classes. Angela Gervasi

Student Liz Headley, who drove 610 miles from outside Philadelphia for the classes, concentrated on her piece of gold work cherries, using leather applique and chip work. “These classes are wonderful,” she said. “I’ve never done this before in my life. That’s why I came, to learn something I had never done.”

Lana Handle of Nashville worked on a canvas of leaves and petals using the “Both Sides Alike” technique, originally used for flags so that the left flank and the right flank were following the same flag. Handle found the classes relaxing and humbling at the same time, she said.

“It looks easy, but it puts you back in your place. Learning something new is humbling, but it’s been very satisfying,” she said.

The Lexington summer school drew students from as far away as Seattle and San Diego.

Dr. Susan Kay-Williams listens to a colleague speak during a question and answer session at the The Royal School of Needlework classes held at Sayre School recently. Angela Gervasi

“Really, over the two weeks we have had them from all over parts of the U.S.,” said Susan Kay‑Williams, chief executive of the RSN.

She didn’t have to travel far, but Monica Willet of Lexington was just as enthusiastic as the other students.

“They brought the Royal School to me,” she joked. “I’m pretty slow but I love every second of it. I’ve been doing needlework for a really long time but I’ve never studied with the Royal School of Needlework and I’m learning new things constantly. I’m having to unlearn some bad things.”

On a break from classes, Kay-Williams and tutor Amanda Ewing, shared with students a little RSN behind-the-scenes information.

The Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress back in 2011? Ewing oversaw the RSN Embroidery Studio’s work on the dress and Kay-Williams was there, too. Later, they were invited to the royal wedding.

Students design pieces depicting horses, birds were worked on recently at the The Royal School of Needlework in Lexington. Angela Gervasi

“We did have a sizable team working on that,” said Kay-Williams. Even though a group of artists was at work on the embroidery, everything had to be symmetrical, as if it were created by a single pair of expert hands.

“One of the hallmarks of the RSN is that once you’ve been taught by the RSN you can collectively work on a project and it should look like the work of one person,” she said. “And that’s something that we still do to this day.”