Even for those relatively un-concerned with fashion, embroidery seems to be a universally captivating medium – appealing to the eternal human fascination with intricacy and detail. The hours of skilled labour required to create delicate stitchwork means embroidery has historically been used to denote wealth and status – emblazoned on everything from Medieval ecclesiastical clothing to the elaborate robes of Chinese Emperors to add a sense of drama and prestige to a garment. I've always found myself drawn to fashion brands that harness the beauty of embroidery, from Valentino's exquisite pre-Fall 2015 gowns, embellished with delicate wildflowers to Alexander McQueen's swirling baroque-style goldwork. Because of this, I was extremely excited to visit Hand & Lock – a prestigious embroiderers located just off Oxford Street – somewhere I must have unwittingly passed hundreds of times a day on my commute into the city.
You might not recognise the name, but you've almost certainly seen the Hand & Lock's work. Everything from the Union Jack flag waved at the 2012 Olympics to British military uniforms have received the Hand & Lock touch, along with collections for brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Ralph Lauren. The company boasts a long history, founded in 1767 by Huguenot refugee M. Hand, and today's Hand & Lock is the product of an amalgamation of the original company with fellow embroidery business S. Lock Ltd in 2001. Over the years Hand & Lock has amassed an impressive roster of international clients, but also remains happy to embroider anything down to a few letters onto a shirt for the general public.
The life of a Hand & Lock embroider is an incredibly varied one. The small team work on everything from fashion and interiors to military, ecclesiastical and theatrical costumes, applying the same level of obsessive attention to detail to each project. Like a lot of companies with a foot in the world of luxury, no brief is considered too ambitious. Head designer Scott Gordon Heron tells me his is currently working on a custom bedspread for a huge chateaux built in the gothic revival style. "It two metres long and one and a half metres wide," he explains. "By the time it is finished it will have taken six months of hand stitching to complete." I soon sense that a certain blend of personality traits are required to relish such work. "My teachers at university told me 'you are an embroiderer'." says Scott. "I was confused because at that point I couldn't even sew a button on a shirt, but they could tell I would be suited to it from how meticulous I was about detail."
Incredible amounts of patience and a commitment to detail are required throughout the process, which starts with a 'draft' - a plan for the design pencilled onto tracing paper, accompanied by handwritten instructions for each piece of the embroidery, explaining how each stitch should be created. This is then passed onto the embroiderers who place the draft over the fabric, poking holes through the paper along the lines of the pattern and then blotting over a piece of rolled up fabric dipped in grey dust, which falls through the halls to reveal the pattern on the fabric underneath. From this fragile outline, they can begin the meticulous work of bringing Scott's designs to life in a variety of finishes from intricate tambour beading and shimmering goldwork to delicate silk shading.
While Hand & Lock may use techniques that date back centuries, the company is by no means stuck in the past. Production director Jessica Pile has been spearheading the brand's role at the cutting edge of contemporary couture, pioneering Hand & Locks' first in-house fashion collection. "Because we're a company with a lot of history, there can be preconceptions that we're old-fashioned, but we're actually quite a young team," says Jessica. Scott is 28, while Jessica is just 26, and the company's youthful dynamism shows in the in-house collection it creates annually, which in the past has featured a jumper embroidered with a striking goldwork lion crowned with a feathered mane and a tiger print tracksuit coated in thousands of shimmering sequins. "It's wonderful that a company with our heritage can produce work that is sympathetic to the past, but can also re-contextualise the techniques," adds Scott.
This contemporary attitude to a traditional craft has seen the brand take its skill into exciting new directions – from an embroidered rifle created in collaboration with anti-gun charity Peace One Day to a decorated chair for artists Gilbert & George. Hand & Locks' monogramming service has also rocketed in popularity, with customers requesting personalisaton for everything from bags and books to shoes and every a yoga mat. "I think the trend for monogramming came about when recession hit," identifies Jessica. "Customers through that if they couldn't afford something new, they would up-cycle or change what they already had. People were also choosing to buy less expensive items and monogram them to make them more special."
Scott believes that the appeal of handcrafted embroidery will continue to endure. "I think we are always attracted to something that's handmade that you couldn't make yourself," he explains. "People look at older pieces from our archive now and consider them amazing, but in another 150 or 200 years, pieces we're making now will be regarded in exactly the same way. I love embroidery because it's such an age-old media, so to be the head of design for a company with so much heritage is a privilege."