During the week that the Royal Baby landed on our planet and people acted like they had NEVER witnessed the birth of a baby boy before in their lives, the legendary bespoke embroidery company Hand & Lock, based in Central London, were busy taking commisions for gifts for the blessed child. There was a curious influx of people wanting blankets simply embroidered with the words "Royal Baby". Why? I haven't a clue.
Hand & Lock's longstanding association with the Royal Family though is likely to have sparked the comissions. Much of that pomp and ceremony that we see on say the epaulettes or aiguillettes on the uniform of the Queen's bodyguards or on the guards present at Prince William and Kate's wedding was down to the goldwork handiwork of Hand & Lock. A Hugenot refugee known as 'M Hand' started his gold lace and embroidery business in 1767, specialising in intricate goldwork for the military, royalty and tailors throughout the Commonwealth. In the mid-50s a specialist couture embroidery business was taken over by Stanley Lock to form S Lock and was awarded the Royal Warrant for working with couturiers such as Christian Dior, Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies on gowns for the Queen, Queen Mother and Princess Diana. In 2001, M Hand and S Lock merged to form Hand & Lock. They have become one of UK's very few (perhaps only one, save for the Royal School of Needlework which is a charity) elite embroidery houses.
I'm excited to be getting involved in Hand & Lock's annual prize for embroidery design with a grand sum of ¬£26,000 up for grabs for a new generation of embroidery talent out there and so I dropped by the atelier to meet designer Jessica Jane and have a poke around an institution I have only heard of in passing but don't know a great deal about. The name doesn't get batted about as much as say, Lesage in Paris, but Hand & Lock have also worked with all the fashion greats with non-disclosure agreements preventing them from making a real shout about what they do. In fact, their work is evenly split between hand crafting accoutrements for the military world (not just for the UK but for other countries) and their fashion and lifestyle work.
From a distance, it's difficult to appreciate the amount of work that goes into the uniforms seen in rituals such as Trooping of the Colour or even when you look at portraits of royalty or high ranking officers in their military decorations. It's only when you get up close can you grasp the detail that goes into Hand & Lock's signature goldwork where a coil of metal is embroidered on to fabric. I could throw out terms such as passing, bullion or couch work but just working out what terminology correlates with which method is no easy task and goes some way to explaining the level of skill required to excel at this type of goldwork that we passively come across on military badges, flags, sashes, banners and other military accoutrements.
Hand & Lock still specialise in making gold lace, which comes in an inexpensive mylar or as a 2% gold option. These laces are literally made out of spun gold thread, assayed at approximately 2% gold (sometimes more, never less) – it all sounds a bit Rumpelstiltskin, but for high ranking officials, that strip of 2% gold lacework running along the seams of their trousers bears much significance.
Jessica also showed me the original epaulettes worn by the Queen's bodyguards during her coronation back in 1952.
Like I said, gifts for the Royal Baby were in full flow and here's a drawing of a coat of arms embroidery, intended to go on a Stevenson Brothers rocking horse for little George/Alexander/Louis.
What was really mesmerising was seeing the rows of neatly lined up satin stitches of goldwork with the contrasting textures of rough and smooth coils creating different visual effects. There are many other stitches and techniques to employ within goldwork so there's an infinitive nature to the textures that you can achieve, something that again, can only be appreciated when you can see and feel the rows of thread.
Hand & Lock have done embroidery for a number of fashion houses (Chanel, Burberry, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney) as well as current young designers in London such as Christopher Kane and J.W. Anderson. Jessica concedes that perhaps they're a bit of a "dirty secret" in the fashion world as brands/houses would like to claim that they do all their embroidery in house which strikes me as odd, considering the heritage of Hand & Lock and that it's no different to openly employing the skills of say Lesage or Lemari√© in Paris. Hand & Lock are keen to make their own name be known amongst the wider public and it would be great if their working relationships with designers and houses were more openly acknowledged. For example, I had no idea that Louis Vuittion commissioned Hand & Lock to create these intricate floral designs, inspired by Dinos and Jake Chapman's hellish flora and fauna prints. The embroideries weren't used in the A/W 13-4 show but the crazed teddy bears gracing velvet slippers in the collection did, and Hand & Lock have just finished a batch of teddy embroideries, ready for those slippers to go into stores soon.
Monogramming is also a big part of Hand & Lock's business and they're currently working with pyjama designer Olivia von Halle to provide a monogrammed pyjama service.
Hand & Lock's shop currently stocks badges and military regalia directly for the public to buy and commission but they will soon be moving into more of a fashion territory which equally demonstrates the atelier's level of skill and craft as they have created these tiger and floral motifs to sew or pin on shirt collars. These are not the cheap machine embroidered embellishments that you might find in the dusty corner of a haberdashery shop. They feel precious and a little like pieces of jewellery, when you hold them, once you have learned a little about the process of goldwork and silk shading. In the context of fully finished garments, embroidery can so often be lost and can fade into the background when we are confronted by the overall silhouette or a block of colour and so it's up to Hand & Lock to pipe up every now and again to point out how much work actually goes into that "minutiae".