Harriet Frances Stiles graduated from the Royal School of Needlework in 2014 and soon after started working as a freelance embroiderer before setting up her own embroidery and adornment business. Harriet uses a combination of traditional needlework techniques picked up during her time studying. She designs bespoke embroideries and adornments, showcasing her love for colour, texture and embellishments. Harriet also has a City & Guilds teaching qualification and teaches embroidery. I met up with her in her colourful and inviting studio in Cockpit Arts to talk about her time at RSN and how she became interested in turning embellishments into jewellery.
What made you want to study embroidery?
I was in my final year of sixth form and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in textiles; intending to continue to art college and complete a foundation diploma before university. It was the final year of the £3,000 tuition fees (before they were increased) and I decided to apply on the off chance that I would be accepted. Three days before the deadline (searching frantically) I found a variety of courses. The quantity of other textiles students means the industry is saturated with talent, therefore I wanted a niche. I had thoroughly enjoyed hand embroidery during a project in the year previously and came across the Royal School of Needlework. Embroidery is currently very popular, but six years ago this was not the case and most people I spoke with had never heard of it. This changed just before I started at RSN; the school was published throughout the media due to their association with Kate Middleton’s wedding dress – an Alexander McQueen design and the RSN had been involved with the embroidery.
What was the name of your course there?
My course was called Hand Embroidery and was a foundation degree with the option to do a BA top up; two years and you could stay on for a third year. I came straight from sixth form with only A Levels and I knew from the beginning that I’d do the full three years.
What was your time at RSN like?
I was 18 when I started the course so quite young. I felt like a deer in headlights; when the tutors spoke to me about design I could not understand them. I moved away from home for the first time so my mind was elsewhere. To begin with I found it intimidating as there were a lot of mature and experienced students in my class; one had studied at Lesage, another had worked at Alexander McQueen, other students had done textiles and costume design courses and I had literally just come from A Levels.
I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed. I’d say that I started to settle in during the second year. The course leader Angie really helped me to become confident in my creative ability. The third year was when I really began to enjoy what I was doing. I did a lot of sampling, exploring and experimenting with colour. I used to go fabric shopping regularly, mixing textures and shades together. I won the Madeira Student Sponsor Award and latterly the Embroiderers’ Guild Scholarship as well as prize money. This gave me the opportunity to exhibit free of charge at The Knitting and Stitching Shows held in London and Harrogate. This was a great deadline to work to once I had graduated. I sold well at both shows, which gave me the encouragement to continue selling. I felt nurtured at RSN and had confidence in my practice when I left. I now feel I can relate to my own students better having also felt uncomfortable in those early years.
You work with a lot of embellishments too, did RSN teach you how to use them?
Beadwork wasn’t one of the core needlework techniques learnt. They were Goldwork, Silk Shading, Raised Work, Blackwork, Crewelwork and Whitework. We all worked on large stretched frames and learnt the very technical RSN standard of stitch on the left-hand side, meanwhile experimented on the right. We were frequently encouraged to introduce our own materials and develop these traditional methods into contemporary processes. Beading is a natural progression from embroidery. I undertook a variety of work placements with Jasper Conran, Hand & Lock and Giles Deacon. In all of these positions I spent a lot of time beading and working with sequins, which had a great influence on my own work.
What’s your favorite stitch to work on?
I enjoy contemporary Silk Shading, using the threads to blend and mix colour, but I also love the three-dimenionsal nature of Raised Work and see the most potential with this technique. I also love a French Knot.
What’s your least favourite stitch?
Whitework, I love using colour too much!
A lot of your textiles is applied on jewelerry. What made you decide to work that way?
The way we were taught embroidery was very two-dimensional; everything was created using a frame and I felt restricted. I enjoy creating little objects with my hands and felt liberated when I discovered Raised Work embroidery, it’s such a sculptural technique. I created endless three-dimensional objects and this was where the idea of making jewellery began. Instead of sitting in my ‘sketchbox’ I thought to myself “why not put a little pin on the back and create a brooch?” I went to work with a silversmith and interned for a London based jewellery brand Akong, known for their large statement pieces. This taught me basic jewellery construction like what makes up a necklace, what are findings and how to use a variety of pliers. I felt inspired. I have always loved jewellery and guess I would have studied jewellery if it had not been embroidery.
Where do you buy your materials?
All over! I do lots of swaps with people. I am going to India and Sri Lanka soon and I’m planning to buy a lot there. I have visited Morocco before and bought various items. My Grandfather used to live in India and then Malaysia in the fifties; his house is filled with beautiful antiques and I grew up with that all around me. Both Grandmothers were embroiderers, with one designing large wall hangings inspired by Tutankhamun which still adorns the walls of the house today. I believe that this has influenced my work considerably.
What other ways would you like to apply your textiles?
Developing the use of embroidery for fashion accessories is a direction I would like to move into. Thinking about embroidered garments and also shoes. I freelanced for Sewing World Magazine, having met them at Birmingham NEC whilst I had a stand supported by Madeira. I used to create a monthly hand embroidery master class and now do one-off projects. One of which was a pair of embroidered espadrilles I created and embroidered from scratch. I see a lot of potential in this product. I have also had a sustained desire to work abroad, teaching and helping others. In the near future I am going to be based in Saudi, teaching jewellery-making workshops with an organisation and am so happy to be involved with this.
Who have you collaborated with?
In September I worked alongside embroidery designer Aimee Betts for a collaboration between Burberry and The New Craftsmen. We designed a large bolster cushion, inspired by knot gardens and embroidered with cord onto velvet, during the Burberry Makers House. This relationship continued and I returned in December to the Burberry Regent Street store to embroider linen napkins in time for Christmas. More recently I have collaborated with childrenswear company Poppie & George, embroidering luxurious baby bibs and weaver Majeda Clarke, providing a personalised monogram service onto her lambswool blankets.
What do you love about textiles?
I love detail and intricacy, craftsmanship and sophisticated design. I have always enjoyed anything with a sparkle and choose to wear plain clothing with bright accessories to compliment each other. In terms of textiles as a career, there is no greater reward than a client falling in love with what I’ve made and purchasing it for themselves.