As a Film and Television costume embroiderer, you often work on garments after they have been already constructed. How scary is it to work on the finished garments directly?
On Game of Thrones I am given a huge workload for a single hand embroiderer, it is a full on Job where deadlines are always looming, most of the time you are working long hours in order to get the job done. The main thing you have to learn, which is not solely exclusive to working on a production like Game of Thrones, is to adapt your process to suit the deadlines that you are presented with for each design that you are asked to create.
As an Artist I have never liked to dampen down my ambitions for any of the designs I have been asked to create, and I have always been driven to create the best work I can even in a limited timescale, so it is a constant battle for me to be highly creative as well as practical in my approach to my work. One solution I have developed to aid me to achieve my ambitions within my work is for me to start the embroidery separately to the costume on silk crepeline or organza, creating a kind of motif that I can then apply to the costume and work on it further if needs be.
When I start my embroidery I will draw my design onto tracing paper and pin it to the costume or costume toile (prototype) to work out the flow and scale of the design required. The reason I quite often start off on the design on some organza, working separately to the costume, creating a kind of motif that I will then apply to the finished garment, is because the costume is usually still being made and there isn’t time to sample and plan the embroidery to fit to the pattern pieces before the construction of the costume.
The way I approach my embroidery, as I work on it, is as if I were drawing or painting using threads and beads instead of pencil and paint and the design will evolve organically as I work on it.
The reason for me using silk crepeline is that it is very sheer and can be dyed to match the costume, so that when I stitch the embroidered motif onto the garment the base fabric of the silk crepeline becomes almost invisible.
So to answer your question, no I am not scared to work on a finished garment, it doesn’t bother me, it is a necessary part of the process, there is not a right or wrong way to decorate or embroider you just have to find the best solution to each particular situation and for me by creating the initial stages of my embroidery on organza/silk crepeline it means I can be more ambitious with the work that I want to create and have less pressure on myself as I am not holding up the Costume Makers process.
As the Game of Thrones embroiderer, the embroideries on the costumes always seem to tell a story about the character in some way. How do you come up with the designs we see on the show?
Whether you are working on a Contemporary, Period or Fantasy TV or Film Production a costume is always a fundamental devise to present a character’s personality to an audience. Each costume with its cut, colour, style, and small details, is a very important narrative tool that can express much to a viewer. One of the smaller details of a costume can be that of the embroidery, and my work as an embroiderer entails visualizing and capturing what the Costume Designer on a production wants for a specific characters costume, I myself have to understand what is appropriate in order to reveal and portray each characters personality.
I have always enjoyed incorporating hidden meanings and metaphor within my designs for a character’s costume especially on Game of Thrones. I will place imagery mostly naturalistic such as flowers that I have researched and have found them to add some meaning to the personal narrative and personality of a character that I am working on. For example for Sansa’s Wedding Dress that was featured in Season 3, I embroidered a band that wrapped around the dress and I incorporated pomegranates interweaving and growing throughout the design. The pomegranate has many meanings, a symbol of life and death, and of fertility and marriage. My use of the pomegranate was to represent a meaning that it was the death of Sansa’s freedom, virginity, and her fertility now was to be devoured like a ripe fruit by her enslavers the Lannisters.
I mostly create embroidered decoration for some of the principal female cast, such as on the dresses for Cersei Lannister, who was an obvious candidate for some decoration, her embroidery could be quite rich and decorative given her status. Regarding showing her personality within her embroidery designs, one of her first costumes I embroidered was her blue bird dress, the embroidery reflected her position at the time when we are introduced to her in Season 1, she is a beautiful woman with a hidden desire for power and wishing to be regarded as an equal in the male dominated world she inhabits. At that stage she lives in the shadow of her husband King Robert Baratheon, who holds power over her and the Kingdom, having this imagery of a bright colorful bird on her costume helps to belie Cersei’s intention of power under a soft unthreatening feminine look.
After Robert’s death Cersei and her family the Lannisters take over power when her son Joffrey becomes the King, at that point Cersei grows in position and strength and starts to reflect this new authority and loyalty to her family by wearing the Lannister Sigil of the Lion on her costumes more predominantly. She presents a stronger more powerful look that has a regal structure and adornment, so the embroidery on her costumes was a useful symbolism to express her personal script narrative, following her status transformation from a weaker woman to a more powerful one.
My process when creating an embroidery design for a costume starts by having a meeting with the Costume Designer Michele Clapton who will have illustrations, moodboards, colours and fabric swatches of the costume that I will be creating a design for. We may discuss a character’s back-story, their traits, their personal narrative within the script and this will all go towards influencing my design.
After my initial conversation with Michele I will then go away and research in relation to the piece I am creating, this usually involves me looking for imagery to inspire me, either by visiting museums, looking through historical costume reference books or just looking on the internet.
For the next stage I will need to start sourcing suitable materials that are suitable for the design and will help to portray the character’s status and personality. I will then start with some sketches of a design, followed by creating samples and then the embroidery will develop and evolve from there.
Your tutorial on the Dragonscale smocking that has been used on Danerys’ costumes throughout the show is very popular with cosplayers. How did you think of the smocking as a way to represent this character?
It was in Season 3 when I started to be involved in embellishing Dany’s costumes, this was when Michele Clapton wanted me to incorporate a dragonscale like texture into her costume which would grow and become more pronounced as she developed in power and strength.
To create the desired look for these dresses I began by doing some samples experimenting with beads, stitches and smocking, and the North American smocking was chosen as the base for the texture with some lock stitch and mesh wire highlights.
What is your take on cosplayers who try so hard to faithfully recreate garments that you have worked on for the show?
It’s fantastic and it is always a joy to see them in their costumes, showing off their passion and attention to detail. I am always amazed by how much effort they put into all aspects to create the character they want to portray.
Do you ever get sent any cosplay photos from cosplayers who dress up as characters from the show?
Yes I have received many, it is really a joy to see them. When I see their work I am always mindful that I may be witnessing the virginal careers of many future Costume Makers and Costume Designers, so it very encouraging to see the abundance of talent out there, talent who may wish to use their skills further, possibly contributing to the future of the craft of Costume within the Film and Television industry.
It was quite nice to see Sansa embroidering her clothes in Season 6, which was revealed to be a Direwolf sigil. Did you happen to give any tips for Sophie Turner (the actress) on how to embroider?
No I haven’t, there is no need to, as you know Sansa is an amazing Embroiderer, she was taught by an excellent tutor Septa Mordane, I am so glad she kept up with the noble craft even after the death of Mordane who was killed off in Season 1. I suppose Sansa has had many hours to practice her embroidery over the Seasons when she has been locked away by various nasty people she has stayed with, or married. One thing that amazes me is how she gains access to all her materials for her embroidery when she is stuck in a far-off land, locked away, maybe there is good Online shopping in Westeros, delivered by Raven couriers, well that is what I am guessing.
What kind of formal training did you have in embroidery and stumpwork? Are there any resources you could give cosplayers to learn these traditional techniques?
I’ve never had any extensive education in embroidery, my skills in sewing were forged at an early age, being taught some basic stitching by my Mother. The first major manifestation of using embroidery as a creative medium was while I studied Fashion Design at college, a lot of the designs I was conceiving there I wanted them to have a sculptural presence, so I started to develop a passion for Stumpwork and in order to get the desired look I invested much time into learning skills to aid me, such as embroidery, millinery and knitting.
After leaving college I worked in Textile Conservation, repairing and restoring historical textiles for private collectors and museums, specializing in hand embroidery, this is where I would say I truly honed my hand needle skills, and apart from learning different techniques and stitches, I absorbed inspiration from all the beautiful historical textiles that passed through my hands.
My advice for Cosplayers are interested in learning skills of embroidery is simply learn by doing, start with something easy, try out different stitches, some are easier and quicker to do. You may find it easier to copy some existing embroidery you like and then progress towards designing your own, you will develop your own style naturally.
Some threads are easier to use than others so experiment, metallics can be tricky and need more patience, you just need to practice, as with anything, and a lot of the accuracy of technique is in the control of the entry and exit points of the needle, you will gradually use most of your fingers on both hands to feel the needle and thread as you work.
There are too many books to list on embroidery but if you have one good basic one that shows you all the stitches this can always be referred to and then if you find a particular style of work you like, then look to specific books on that technique, and there are also lots of Online Video Tutorials out there that can be helpful if you need to see a stitch or technique in practice.
What was your biggest costume challenge on the show? How did you solve it?
The wonderful aspect of working on a production like Game of Thrones for me is that it has given me the opportunity to experiment and develop my craft, trying new ideas and processes each season. Each design I work on can pose a challenge in some way, either technically or in sourcing the right materials in order to create a suitable piece for a particular character. But the main angst is always will I be able to achieve the design that I have envisioned in the limited time I am allocated, although sometimes this forces you down a new route and you stumble across or develop something that you hadn’t thought of before.
One costume that was quite a challenge was for the character of Myrcella which was featured in Season 5, it was a bias cut chiffon dress with a low cut back. The difficulty was, I was unsure as to how the embroidery that I had created separately on some fine silk crepeline would technically sit on the fabric when I stitched it to the dress, as I had created a fairly heavily beaded embroidery to apply to the costume, and I thought it may drag and cause unsightly puckers. Thankfully it turned out fine, which is just as well as there would have been no time to change it or start again with something different.
Lastly, what’s your favorite costume that you have done on the show so far?
That is a very difficult question to pick just one costume, as with each embroidery that you work on you are continually developing, experimenting and trying to achieve the elusive vision in your mind, so you never feel you have quite done the best you could.
To mention a few, I do like the collars I created for Catelyn Stark and those for Lisa Arryn with their concentrated areas of rich embellishment using different beads, gemstones and fish scale sequins.
Another favorite is Cersei’s rust red kimono with the lion heads on each arm that have a 3 dimensional quality, as well as Daenerys’ dragonscale textures.
I also loved creating the Qarth beetles, moths and grasshoppers, rather than being just the stitches it was really about finding the right materials to create the creatures.
Maybe on the next season I will have a more defining favourite, but I doubt it. I am never completely happy with something I have just finished and always think how I could have improved it with more time, so I am always driven in the search of perfection in my work.