Every year, Hand & Lock organizes a competition for the prestigious Prize for Embroidery to promote the use of hand embroidery and to discover emerging embroidery talent. The 2017 brief invited entrants to ‘celebrate, let go, to let loose and indulge in childlike freedom, to celebrate history, global culture, sense of place, sense of identity, and to celebrate embroidery and life.’
London’s Bishopsgate Institute displayed entries from 32 finalists and hosted the final judging of the 2017 Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery.
Today we’ll meet the first-place winner in the Textile Art Student Category—and the winner of the Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers Award and the Chairman’s Award. Phew!
Name: Elena Thornton
School: The Royal School of Needlework
Describe your Hand & Lock entry:
‘Cereus’ explores the ephemeral life of the Night Blooming Cereus, more commonly known for the luminous pink fruit it yields. Each aspect of the flower is dissected and employed within the final interpretation to create a couture collection of face and neck adornments. I elected to conceal the mouth of the wearer to reflect the reserved nature of the plant. Blooming only one night a year, the Cereus unveils a pristine flower before wilting by dawn. Although you may chance upon one on the tropical island of Bermuda where I was born, the colours are tame in appearance, influencing the final scheme. Merging techniques such as Goldwork and Stumpwork enabled me to sculpt and manipulate the thread. The aesthetic plays with bold design and contrasts distinctively against the ethereal features contained within each piece.
What made you want to enter this competition?
It had never really crossed my mind to enter any competition during my final months of university. However Sophie Carr came by to talk to some of the other students about Hand & Lock and how amazing the competition was this year because of their 250th Anniversary. I thought to myself, ‘why not?’ There was nothing to lose and the collection I had planned seemed to suit the brief already!
What motivated your choice for your entry?
I knew that I wanted the collection to be fully embellished but used on something other than clothing. I always go back to McQueen when I need new ideas. He always gave a full look head to toe, even if that meant covering the face. This started the ball rolling and that’s when I began to look at the face and head and how embroidery could be incorporated into this.
Are there any secrets you can now reveal about your entry?
Well, I’m not sure about secrets but there were many times that I kind of improvised my way through. The outline is wired and then hand stitched overtop. I got all the way to the end of this time consuming task and then realised that I didn’t think about the sharp metal ends of the wire! How would I attach them? I did try to solder them together and almost burnt my fabric! I ended up just gluing them very carefully. I don’t think anyone would be able to see it but it definitely stands out to me.
When and how did you learn embroidery, sewing, etc., and what impression did it make on you?
I was always quite a creative kid and had been given the very basic cross-stitch kits; however, I didn’t really get into embroidery until around my GCSE’s/A-Levels. We weren’t really taught techniques; it was more of an experimental time. All of my classmates hated hand embroidery because it was so slow, but for some reason I loved it! It wasn’t until I was looking at Universities that I realised that people did this for a living, and that’s where I decided to pursue it further.
What was your first embroidery, costume, or textiles project?
I don’t know if I can remember my first project but I do remember making a pencil case in school and everyone in the class had chosen cute and girly fabrics. And then there was me, I had chosen to use yellow plastic! I thought it was the best idea ever until I tired to use the sewing machine to join it together. I think its fair to say I broke many needles and I ended up hand stitching it together. Not my best work!
You’ve already had some amazing work experiences, including working on costumes for Netflix (The Crown) and HBO (Game of Thrones) and working with luxury brands and designers. Which of these experiences has had the biggest impact on your work and in what way?
Each work placement is equally as valuable as the last. There are some that I have loved and never wanted to leave and there are also moments where I have questioned why I was even there. You realise when you go to your first work placement that you are at the bottom and to get anywhere you must put in 110%. But everyone who is in the industry has started there and worked their way up. This had a huge impact on my work, it made me realise that your work doesn’t have to be perfect but if you are willing to put in the time and work your way up, you will get there in the end.
To date, what’s been your favorite course of study or project?
My first lesson in goldwork on the degree course at The Royal School of Needlework will always be my favourite. I didn’t have a clue what it was or what I was doing but I was surround by great people who were in exactly the same boat as me. It also reminds me that going back to basics can sometimes be the best starting point for inspiration.
My job in The Funk Files is to interview “pioneers on the embroidery frontier.” That’s you! What is the embroidery frontier, and what does it mean to be a pioneer here?
To me I always think of it as a future where embroidery, and especially hand embroidery, isn’t an afterthought. I find that so many people look at hand embroidered pieces and don’t realise the amount of time and thought that has gone into it. I hope that the frontier can also be a movement of inspiration for all ages and genders to have a go at a showing their inner creativity.
What projects are on the horizon for you?
Honestly I don’t know. I have found it challenging being an embroidery graduate. I loved the set routine that being on a course gives you and I find it difficult now not having that. Embroidery is a very slow and patient craft. It can be extremely pleasing to see your work completed but it’s the process of slowly building up my portfolio that I struggle with. I hope that I can continue to make pieces and collections that I can be proud of.
Where else can we see your work?
At the moment the winning collection is in the Hand & Lock studio in London. However if you are interested in keeping up with my work you can check out my Instagram for a real time look at my work.
What one piece of advice would you offer someone who dreams of stitching for Game of Thrones?
Expect the unexpected!
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
You’re creating an elegant accessory for an animal. What is the animal, and what is the accessory? It would be an Emperor Tamarin Monkey and I would embroider a tiny top hat to match its tiny moustache!
If you could work with just one color for the next three years, what would it be? I love pearlescent coral/pinks! I just think they work well with everything.
What stitchable motif would you choose to represent you and your life? It would have to be an injection. As a type 1 diabetic nothing summarises my life better than that.
You are making lunch for the artist of your choice – and s/he will love it. Who is the artist and what are you making for lunch? I think it would be Van Gogh and I would cook an Asian broth soup with tofu! SO Good!!
A studio is remaking a movie, and they want you to embroider one of the costumes. What is the movie, and what costume are you embellishing? There are so many movies to choose from but I love the illustrations in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 1, where they tell the tale of the three brothers and each of their tools they use to defeat death. I would love to remake the cloak of invisibility! For some reason it looks far more magical in the illustrations rather than the other films. I can imagine it encrusted with beads, sparkling and shimmering as it disappears into thin air!
You must include something live in your next project. What do you use, and how do you incorporate it? The idea of something that could grow and cover my work sounds exciting. Maybe some orchids or moss that would grow within a detailed piece of whitework.
If you were not an artist/designer what would you be? I don’t have a clue! Possibly something to do with animals; I love marine fish and corals. Or perhaps something completely different, like a teacher? Who knows?
You must turn a song into a costume. What’s the song, and what’s the costume? For sure my all time favourite song, ‘Dario G, Sunchyme’! It reminds me of Bermuda for some reason, and I think I would make some sort of heavily embroidered Women’s Pant Suit from it.
Titles of three books you love: I confess that I’m not a huge reader! But a good coffee table book always grabs me. I love Manus X Machina by Andrew Bolton and Alexander McQueen by Claire Wilcox.
A celebrity wears something you’ve made to an awards show, and you receive fame, fortune, good health, fitness and cake for life. Who is the celebrity and what does s/he wear? Ah, I don’t know who to choose! I think possibly Emma Waston. She has that beautifully classic look, but I would love to make a small and simple hair/headpiece for her to wear.
Jen Funk Weber is Queen of Funk & Weber Designs, a cross stitch and counted-thread embroidery designer and teacher dedicated to stitchy explorations and adventures.