Article written by Georgie Pilsbury for The Crewel Work Company and Lady Anne’s Retreats. Written after taking part in Sarah Rakestraw’s Gold Work day class at Pembroke House on Tuesday 14 February.
I met Sarah Rakestraw on Tuesday morning when she presented me with a box full of gold and silver threads, wound specially for our new range of Elizabethan kits. The quality of these threads is instantly apparent. They were heavy in my hand and I could sense the vibrancy of the silver and gold within, itching to get out and show off their affluence. The care, expertise and attention to detail used to produce these threads is phenomenal and it is this reason Phillipa and Laura chose Sarah to supply the metal threads for their first foray into Gold Work kits. Like their Crewel Work Kits, the materials simply have to be the best.
The class started with Sarah at the top of the table, commanding the room with a briefing of the techniques that we would be using throughout the class – most of which as a beginner I had never heard of before. Sarah took us through the entire process from the fabrics and why she uses them, to drawing out our designs, a new way of setting up your linen in your seat frame, ‘tacking’ (which was also new to me) where and how to begin. I was ready to go.
The design for the day was a beautiful leaping hare silhouetted against a gold and red sun with waving grasses below, 12 cm wide, 9cm high. It was dramatically set on a black ground fabric and was very inviting indeed. The design itself looked like appliquéd solid gold, a quality that draws you immediately to this impressive technique. I had not idea how I would produce what I was seeing before me but I was thrilled at the prospect.
Sarah talked us through the threads and needles and handed out the supplies. Then we headed upstairs to our workroom to trace our designs onto the black silk fabric (the silk was backed with a white fabric used to secure the threads at the back).
Using a smooth fine gold passing thread, the stitching began with the Or Nué technique, which in this design involved making a neat tight coil of gold thread and couching it down with coloured threads. This created a gold disk, which was then tacked down in a very fine, invisible conservation polyester thread. The hare, which had been traced using a light box and a template, was couched much more densely in black cotton.
As Sarah warned us, this was a slow process and this design, though small, Sarah said would take her about 8 hours to complete. This kind of speed is a whole new world for us Crewel Work girls who are used to rapid coverage with wool. But working with the gold thread has it’s own incredibly satisfying moments and though we were covering a small area, it did seem quick in its own way.
The steady, step-by-step lesson continued with Sarah making sure we saw and understood everything clearly, bringing the pieces round the group and showing everyone the specific parts she was explaining. As everything was in such fine detail, this was very useful.
After our Or Nué we added a couple of bullion knots to the top oft the designs and then French Knots and Colonial Knots at the sides. Colonial Knots are again new to me but Sarah described and demonstrated the technique very clearly and after a couple of attempts I think I got the hang of it! (I must add here that embroidery is all together new to me, not just Gold Work. I joined Phillipa and Laura a little over a year ago as the Production Manager and it soon became apparent that my skill base was in illustration so I’m now the In-house Artist producing the illustrations you see in the stitch instructions. My sister Frankie joined the team shortly afterwards as the Production Manager. Before last year neither of us had held a needle before let alone attempted Crewel Work, Gold Work or any other technique for that matter. Each time I come to work there is a new thing to discover and it is a thrill to be part of).
Onto laying threads below the hare. These were tacked down with brick stitch in green (the green and black threads were single strands of cotton that had been separated from the ply). Then we created soft curves and spirals by letting the stiffer metal thread denote where the lines would be.
Finally we added a few running stitches above and little grass like V shapes in the centre. And so, we were now equipped to finish the design and with a few more hours work, I could see myself reaching the end, which was an incredibly pleasing feeling.
Sarah had brought a display of other works she had completed as well as a shop. Golden Hinde and Simply Scissors (one of Sarah’s other companies) supply the highest quality materials you would ever care to use for Gold Work. She has metal threads of all shapes, sizes and colours and even patches of beautifully coloured leather for use within between the threads. It’s well worth checking out her website. I will certainly be making a purchase soon and, from the noises in the room, I think I am not alone!
All together the day was very lighthearted and wholly informative. The group was made up of 7 students who were diverse in age, experience and ability. Regardless of this though every one of us felt well-informed and confident with our project. Sarah chose a beautiful design for the day and taught it very well. She answered every question directly and covered every part fully.
Sarah’s expertise was very apparent and because of this she was aware of everything that could go wrong and was right there with you if they did. Without an air of conceit she gave the impression that you were talking to the best in the subject. This promoted confidence among the students and set everyone mind at ease. Moreover she was very down to earth and easy to talk to while making it clear she wouldn’t be talked over, this settled us into a very productive rhythm and created a relaxed atmosphere, the perfect conditions for teaching.
Thank you to Sarah and Phillipa for letting us be a part of this fantastic class!