The Royal School of Needlework

The Royal School of Needlework is unique in the field of hand embroidery and has a wealth of experience and expertise accumulated over more than 130 years.

The early history of the RSN is linked with the social, cultural and political history of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The RSN 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 RSN as Princess Helena.

The founding principles of the RSN were two-fold: to revive a beautiful art which had fallen into disuse and, through its revival, to provide employment for educated women who, without a suitable livelihood, would otherwise find themselves compelled to live in poverty.

The RSN 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 Victoria and Albert Museum where, at its peak, the RSN employed around 150 workers.

Importance of design

In the 1870s, under the guidance of Lord Leighton, the RSN commissioned designs from leading figures in the Aesthetic Movement and later the Arts and Crafts Movement, including William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Walter and Thomas Crane, GF Bodley, George Aitchison, Fairfax Wade, Selwyn Image, Gertrude Jekyll and others.

Princess Helena (1846-1923) 1861
Princess Helena, the first president of the school

First World War

Men first became involved with the RSN as stitchers during the First World War as embroidery was considered something physically disabled soldiers could do. Some came to work in the RSN workroom for a while to the cost of female jobs.

Second World War

During the Second World War Lady Smith-Dorrien, the then Principal led the RSN in collecting lace which was then sold for the war effort. She was later made a Dame in recognition of this work.

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The design of wheat ears, olive branches and acorns, symbolising fruitfulness, peace and longevity was created by 12 embroiderers working seven days a week in shifts over three months using 18 types of gold thread. In 2002 the RSN was commissioned to produce a balcony hanging for Buckingham Palace to represent the Commonwealth on the occasion of Her Majesty The Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

Many of our Royal Patrons and Presidents have been active supporters. Both Princess Helena and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother were frequent visitors and took an active role in the annual sales, ‘manning’ one of the sales tables. The late Queen Mother was also active in the RSN’s move from Kensington to Hampton Court Palace in 1987 (the RSN’s sixth home). In 1985 Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Gloucester became the RSN’s President. An accomplished needlewoman, Her Royal Highness regularly visits the RSN to view students’ work and in March 2010 she met the Degree students and viewed the new Foundation Degree rooms.

20th century commissions

Notable commissions in the late 20th century include the Hastings Panels commissioned in 1966 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the Overlord Embroidery, commissioned by Lord Dulverton, depicting the Allied invasion of Normandy. Comprising 34 hand embroidered panel, the work took 20 embroideresses five years to complete from 1969-1974. The panel now hangs in the D-Day Museum Portsmouth.
In 1997 the RSN celebrated its 125th anniversary with an exhibition. On show were Collection pieces, staff and students’ work and commissions from a variety of clients. Items included a Philip Somerville hat embroidered with leaves and flowers, a Paul Smith suit featuring hand embroidered insects, a panel commissioned to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Longleat in 1980, two goldwork crowns for the Worshipful Company of Girdlers from 1946 and a regimental mascot coat for the Royal Regiments of Wales in 1982.

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In 2005 the National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) commissioned the Studio to design and produce a new altar frontal for Canterbury Cathedral and more recently an international artist commissioned the Studio to interpret his original artwork in canvas work. In 2006, Sir Paul McCartney’s PR company commissioned the Studio to create the cover of his classical album ‘Ecce Cor Meum’ in whitework. English Heritage turned to the RSN in 2009 when preparing for the re-presentation of Dover Castle in Kent. Six large pieces were produced in an extremely short timescale including the King’s Hall backcloth; a canopy and tester; the Guest Hall backcloth and a standard and altar frontal. These were completed with the help of volunteers from the RSN Certificate Course.

Training and courses

Throughout its 138 years the RSN has offered training courses. In the 1870s young women received just nine five-hour lessons before joining the workroom. There was an admission fee, sometimes paid by a relation or referee, which could be offset against the worker’s wages. Today students have to pay but some of them are funded through bursaries, scholarships and awards and the generous support of livery companies, charitable trusts, private donors and legacies.

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Today we offer a range of classes from fun day and weekend classes making practical pieces, to our Certificate and Diploma Courses enabling students to concentrate on a particular technique. The RSN two year Foundation Degree in Hand Embroidery started in 2009, accredited by the University of the Creative Arts. The degree combines learning the techniques of stitching in both historical and contemporary contexts, with artistic and creative personal development.

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