CETG Online Talk on Monday 14th June 2021
Auburn Claire Lucas – Traditional Hand Embroidery in Detail
Auburn Claire Lucas gave a fascinating talk on how a combination of technique, accuracy and practice can help stitchers to a better understanding and greater perfection in embroidery. While a viewer only sees the picture, not the work that goes into making it, the latter is the key to success.
She followed a slightly roundabout route to find her niche in traditional hand embroidery. At art college she studied costume for the performing arts, before completing an apprenticeship with a Savile Row tailor and working as a freelance costumier. The turning point was entering the Hand & Lock competition with a dramatic black and silver collar featuring her own take on goldwork including applied watch parts, which was stitched in her spare time. Although she did not win, it convinced her that embroidery, not tailoring, was her “happy place” and she joined the Royal School of Needlework’s “Future Tutors” scheme, qualifying in 2017. She now teaches for the RSN and is a professional hand embroiderer, but continues with a little part time work for Savile Row. Her particular passion is the needlework of the 18th Century and she is currently writing a book on her favourite technique of whitework.
Auburn selected outstanding pieces she has created during her career to explain her progress, and the aspects she believes are key to producing beautiful hand embroidery. Starting with the calendar of simple stitches in thick cotton she produced at junior school aged 7, she compared it with a stumpwork casket in the V&A stitched by Martha Edlin aged 11 in 1671. She modestly believes she still has some way to go before she matches Martha’s expertise!
She explained that thread and material choice is key to success, as exemplified by an early work - a reimagination of the mayor’s wedding outfit as stitched by the mice in Beatrix Potter’s “The Tailor of Gloucester”. Following the description in the book, she reproduced an 18th Century costume design, but used threads which were not fine enough for this style of work. Later in her RSN studies, she reworked one of the motifs using more appropriate Japanese flat silk, and the difference is striking.
Colour choice can make or break a piece, as that is the first thing people notice. Auburn showed us her first attempt at silk shading, a sunflower where she feels she used too many colours, resulting in a muddy effect, rather than bringing out the luminous yellow of the flower. She gave us tips on how to do the three types of silk shading: smooth or natural used for flat surfaces and botanical work; textured which is used for animal fur and feathers; and tapestry shading which is worked vertically. A teacher’s advice that a stitcher should aim for an interpretation of an image, not a reproduction of reality, really helped her master the art of silk shading.
A scene from the Narnia Chronicles worked in pure white appliqué exemplified how design and planning out the order of work, and perhaps producing a few small samples, can be critical for success in creating a complex, multi-layered piece. Also, where there is no colour to distract the eye, the stitches need to be perfect. Auburn used another whitework piece, in pulled thread work, to clarify how important tension and needle control can be. She gave us tips on how to angle the needle to create a neat finish in couching and similar work.
In her final year at the RSN, Auburn created a number of garments in historical styles to combine all the techniques she had learnt; a blue jacket with whitework inserts and a number of 18th Century style accessories – a stomacher with silk and gold threads, hanging pockets using tambour work and quilting, and a whitework cap crown. She found the “both sides alike” technique which is used on banners and flags stretched her skills of accuracy and needle control to the limit, and doubted she would use the technique again. But in a couple of recent contemporary pieces – a poppy necklace and a rose brooch – she has done just that, to stunning effect.
Her training at the RSN, where she was taught the correct materials to use, the proper equipment including slate frames and the specialist techniques for each style of stitching, transformed her work. She emphasised how important it is to use the right needle for the job – and that needles wear out and need to be thrown away when they become discoloured and blunt. She also encouraged us to discard threads which have become dull or unravelled. There were several guilty faces in the audience at this point, mine included!
In a lively question and answer session, Auburn recommended several suppliers, gave us tips on thread lengths and needle threading techniques and told us more about her forthcoming book on whitework. Everyone was stunned by the quality of Auburn’s work and felt that she was underestimating how close she comes to emulating young Martha’s casket.
Auburn Claire Lucas
Blue jacket with whitework inserts.
Whitework cap crown.
Tapestry silk shading – Georgiana (Duchess of Devonshire) as Cynthia from Spenser’s Faerie Queen, from a painting by Maria Cosway.
Photos © Auburn Claire Lucas