Harriet Frances Stiles

The Funk Files: Embroidery Frontiers

Harriet Frances Stiles is a recent graduate of the Royal School of Needlework, embarking on a career in jewelry design.

Location: Herefordshire and London

What was your first exposure to embroidery and what did you think of it? Both Grandmothers were keen embroiderers, so I have been surrounded by their work throughout my life. In particular, large appliqué wall hangings inspired by Tutankhamun have adorned their sitting room walls for as long as I can remember and I have always spent time admiring them. Even now, I always find details I have not noticed before and am amazed at the quality of their stitching, despite the lack of formal training.

What was your first embroidered piece and what motivated you to undertake it? Apart from small kits as a child, the first time I designed a piece of hand embroidery was during a module for A Level Textiles. We had taken initial photographs, began developing drawings and illustrations and then began to involve other mediums, including hand embroidery. I was not put off by the diligence required and time taken to complete the smallest detail, but found it therapeutic and was soon using it in most of my textiles pieces.

Harriet Frances Stiles
Harriet Frances Stiles

What made you decide to pursue a career in embroidery? I was sure I wanted to study textiles at university, but have always been aware of the sheer number of others wanting to do the same. I was determined to find a niche and acquire a specific skill, rather than just letters after my name, and felt that embroidery, in particular hand embroidery, at the Royal School of Needlework was as quirky as I was going to find.

Goldwork Adornment - Harriet Frances Stiles
goldwork Adornment – Harriet Frances Stiles

You graduated from the Royal School of Needlework in 2014. Describe that experience, what you discovered there, and how it shaped you and your future. I remember feeling incredibly intimidated when I arrived at the Royal School of Needlework (RSN). I had come straight from sixth form college and was working alongside people older than me who had much experience of fashion, textiles and in particular embroidery, and it knocked my confidence. Initially we learnt the traditional embroidery techniques, including gold work, raised work and silk shading. We all produced frames, with set stitches that looked similar. Following this the emphasis was on design, which was great. We were encouraged to contemporise embroidery and push the boundaries by exploring different ways to execute the traditional stitches and so my confidence began to grow. I learnt to trust my own judgment, which enabled my creativity to flourish, so much so, that I left the RSN last year as Top BA Student and recipient of the Best Final Project award.

That is an inspiring story—and a great example of what a school experience should be, I think.

Your resume is already impressive, having worked for the Royal School of Needlework, Hand and Lock (and through Hand and Lock, Mary Katranzou), Jasper Conran, Giles Deacon, and Akong London. What of these experiences did you find most surprising, challenging, or interesting? Jasper Conran was the first embroidery ‘job’ I had. I could not believe I was being paid to stitch because up until this point it was something I did because I enjoyed it. I remember spending excessive time stitching individual beads because I could not believe how important this garment was (I had only ever stitched samples for myself or uni). We were invited to the London Fashion Week catwalk and it was overwhelming to see something I had spent so much time with in my hands on a catwalk at LONDON FASHION WEEK, being photographed by the world’s media.

The embroidery for Mary Katranzou AW14 was displayed on a banner above Oxford Street and that was a pretty cool surprise.

The most challenging was definitely Akong. The others are all embroidery related so I was reassured once I had a needle in hand, but using pliers and metal in a small workspace in Wimbledon was totally out of my comfort zone. I have always loved jewellery and wanted to become involved with it at some point, so when the opportunity arose I jumped at it. It was my first experience of jewellery making, so learning even the basics was totally new to me and here I learnt a great deal and started to incorporate this knowledge into my work.

Freshwater Pearl and Goldwork Solid Silver Ring - Harriet Frances Stiles
Freshwater Pearl and goldwork Solid Silver Ring – Harriet Frances Stiles

You swapped skills with a local jeweller to learn silversmithing. Tell us about it. Deborah King is a Herefordshire jeweller and mum of a good friend. She was interested in my studies at the Royal School of Needlework, so I took my embroidery to her and I explained that I really wanted to start making three-dimensional embroidery and move into jewellery designing. So Deb began teaching me to silversmith. The first fusion was a silver setting, which I then embroidered a bright check circle and set this in the silver, which then became a necklace. Following this, I made a ring and before long I was confident to work alone and now use silver in a lot of my designs. She is patient, inspirational and very generous with her knowledge.

You mention that your pieces react to ultraviolet light. All of them? How and why do you do this? Most of the pieces are Ultraviolet reactive as they are based on the underwater and creatures of the sea. I was interested in how light can change an object’s appearance and the idea that the jewellery looks colourful and flamboyant in daylight but can transform into something quite spectacular at night. I was awarded the Madeira Student Sponsorship, and from here I began experimenting with threads and materials I would not normally use.

Embroidered adornment unter ultraviolet light - Harriet Frances Stiles
Embroidered adornment under ultraviolet light.

Can you share any secrets about your work? I am pretty open about all aspects of my work- if anyone asks me a question I am always happy to help if I can. I guess the biggest surprise is that underneath the gold work embroidery is a thick layer of carpet felt. This dusty, matted material is incredibly ugly and really tricky to stitch through several layers, but it creates a beautiful finish.

What has been your biggest embroidery disaster? I had been making one of my embroidered brooches with leather, suede and embellishments like usual and ran out of the particular neon coral glass bead I had been using. I was back in Herefordshire at the time, so made a trip to London and visited my favourite bead store, New Trimmings. I had not thought to bring a sample as I was confident I would remember the colour. It was not until I was home, began stitching a significant amount when I thought something peculiar was going on with my eyes… or not. I had in fact been using the wrong shade of coral in my new batch! There was a distinct wonky line throughout the embellishment. For a perfectionist like me, this was a total disaster!

Oh, I think readers here can relate!

Where do you find opportunities to further your career—competitions to enter, shows, and places to display your work and get your pieces Out There? I like to contact galleries by email and phone on a regular basis so they remember my name. I apply to many competitions and spend about 75% of my time doing admin—time consuming but vital to set up on your own.

What would you like to be doing five years from now? Ten? Ten years is easier than five years. I would love to have my own shop, selling beautiful jewellery, accessories and garments to adorn men and women. I love working in retail, but my own shop would be like my own playground where I make up all the rules! (Still want to be designing of course.)

Five years: Self-employed full time as a jewellery and embroidery designer (I currently work at Monsoon Accessorize to help with income), stocking jewellery in Liberty, Fenwick, Selfridges. Working part-time freelance (freelance designer and embroiderer) but most of the time designing my own collections with a following of customers who trust and like my brand—very important when setting up your own business.

What tip would you offer embroiderers who want to be more creative with their own work? I like to surround myself with items to inspire me, from photographs, to dried flowers to old jewellery and scraps of leather. It is like a working sketchbook: Sometimes I leave the pieces for a long time and others only survive a few days depending on where they take my thoughts. I usually group things by colour because I find that orders what could be chaos created by an eclectic mix of bits and pieces.

Besides your website, where can we see your work? My favourite place to sell is at exhibitions. I love interacting with customers and helping them choose an adornment to suit them. Exhibitions coming up are Select Showcase and Hereford Contemporary Crafts Fair. (See www.harrietstiles.com for more details.) I am also currently selling in Ada Gallery, Market Harborough, Cheese + Pickles Studio, St. Davids and the Royal School of Needlework shop at Hampton Court Palace.

Let’s say you can design and make an accessory for any famous person you choose. S/he will love it and wear it at a place or event that will garner great attention for you and your work. For whom will you make this piece, what will it be, and where will s/he wear it? I love it when men buy my adornments. I have been brought up in a family where men wear floral shirts, printed neckerchiefs, bracelets and rings so have never wanted my accessories to be purely for females. For Valentino to wear a large goldwork and Swarovski pin, which would be worn on his suit to his couture fashion show would be the greatest compliment.

Yanno, I’m pretty sure Valentino reads this blog . . . .* Watch your Inbox!

Goldwork Adornment - Harriet Frances Stiles
goldwork Adornment – Harriet Frances Stiles

Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)

Favorite thread: Madeira

Favorite tool that is not a needle, scissors, or hoop: Mellor

What’s your favorite accessory to wear? Head torch (the best lighting I have found)

Crack me up! I’ve stitched by headlamp, too, and just might accessorize with it more often now. Awesome answer!

You’re making an accessory for a wild animal. What animal, what accessory? A goldwork embroidery collar to go around the mane of a lion: Swarovski, Crystal, Rhinestones, Bright Check and Plate to make a showstopper, which would suit the presence of a lion

You already marry embroidery with metal work. Name another craft you’d like to marry with embroidery. Woodwork. I love cute little trinket boxes and have a vision of a wooden trinket box, heavily embroidered with gold on top—plus quirky little wooden beads and fastenings.

You have to embroider an edible accessory. What do you do? A large bracelet/bangle full of pick & mix. Not only would it be straightforward to stitch through Haribo and strawberry pencils (bugle beads ready made), sweets and chocolate are my favourite thing, so I could snack throughout.

You can teach an embroidery class anywhere in the world, where do you go? South America, I’m thinking Peru. I love the textiles of their culture. It would be so interesting to see how they re-design and interpret the traditional stitching with their own influences, which is the great part of teaching. You gain a lot from seeing other people’s/students’ interpretations to a given task and can learn from this.

You’re writing a novel, and the hero is an embroiderer. What’s the plot problem s/he must overcome? Backstage at fashion week, a princess is about to go down the catwalk wearing the most fabulous ballgown, however her enemy tries to sabotage the event by stepping on her dress so it rips! The embroiderers come to the rescue by sewing it up and perfecting it in time for her wonderful entrance.

In a parallel life where you don’t know how to embroider or make jewelry, what are you doing? Probably a midwife; that is what I had always wanted to do until I realised the possibility of pursuing a career in textiles/embroidery.

*This statement might not be 100%, completely, all-the-way true.