British Museum blog

My artistic practice

Nicola Jarvis, artist and hand embroiderer,
Royal School of Needlework

Nicola Jarvis was one of the ‘unknown’ embroiderers who worked together to construct the lace for Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. In this guest blog post, she explores how anonymous craftspeoples’ identities can create a sense of mystery and magic.

My artistic practice is a work in progress that has been evolving ever since I could hold a pencil. During this journey, I trained as a hand embroiderer at the Royal School of Needlework in the early 1990s. Over the last two decades I have worked on numerous commissions for the Royal School and contracts for a multitude of companies and private individuals. Most of these jobs have involved making stitched items or artworks for which, after payment, I received no further acknowledgement for my craftsmanship. This has become the norm for me, and my colleagues working in the same industry.

To create a well-crafted object through an intimate relationship with the materials and process of making constitutes much of the job satisfaction.

The history of material culture is made up of hundreds of thousands of anonymous craftspeople that have made objects as a livelihood, to enable their survival and that of their families, with no thought of recognition for what they do.

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

I am currently in Delaware, USA, at the Winterthur Museum attending an international needlework conference where 230 delegates are examining and discussing the work of English and American embroiderers over the past 400 years. Some of the makers’ identities are known revealing fascinating stories of where, why and how their needlework was made. Others remain hidden and it is only through detailed study of their craftsmanship that we may construct our own narratives. I think this mystery creates much of the ‘magic’ that surrounds an object with a potent mix of unanswered questions and possibilities.

When I began my training at the Royal School of Needlework, it was the mastery of skills and process of making embroidery that was of utmost importance to me. When working the lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, 20 years on, this was still the case.

I played a small part in a process that involved a large team of highly skilled needlewomen realising a very beautiful textile in the history of object making. Our stories and relationships are bound up in that dress, made with a commitment to, and a passion for, our craft. The individual and/or joint identities are not imperative, rather the collective energy and mastery of the materials and techniques is what will always be valued and celebrated.

Nicola’s embroidery short course at the Museum starting on Sunday 6 November is now fully booked, but take a look at other events in the Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman programme.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, , , , , ,

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Kathy says:

    Home faber – man the maker. We have the instinct to create but too often it is educated out of us in school. Creating becomes something personal and often private because to share it is to risk receiving a tepid response, a lack of interest or, worse, ridicule. We focus on acquiring and then honing the skills we need to create something that expresses our humanity. Our measure of success is often measured against our skill level because the things we create are not valued in the mechanized world in which we find ourselves today. Too many look for uniformity, not uniqueness. They want sterile perfection not hand made beauty. How often have we all heard – “That must have taken hours! How do you have the patience to do that? Is it difficult?” when what we longed to hear was “That is exquisite. It reminds me of a summer day in the meadow or how sad I felt when my grandmother died. It speaks to me. Your creation reminds me that we share the human experience.”


  2. Well done Nicola, your work beautiful, you are sure a talented embroiderer.


  3. They say that you can gauge the level of a person’s passion on a particular subject when they speak about what they hold most dear to them.

    This guest article is a perfect example and Nicola’s final thought, ‘The individual and/or joint identities are not imperative, rather the collective energy and mastery of the materials and techniques is what will always be valued and celebrated,’ is a clear indication of what she is obviously so highly regarded and, in turn, successful within her field.

    Thanks for taking the time.


  4. Must have been very patient to do that.
    I never been able to do this kind of stuff.


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