Claire Blok wasn’t always interested in embroidery. Her mother was a nurse, and as a young girl all Claire wanted to be was a surgeon. “I liked the precision and skill involved in carefully sewing people up,” she says. “But I didn’t have the recall and skills to get into medicine.”
Thankfully, she found another career path that allowed her to use her stitching skills – albeit in a more creative way. Today, the 37-year-old Londoner and her three co-embroiders at Hawthorne & Heaney are among the most skilled needle-workers in Britain. The company, which started in Blok’s shared student flat and is now based on Savile Row, is an essential cog for film companies, fashion houses and businesses who want fabrics embroidered, monogrammed or decorated with logos. In the past ten years, the women’s work has appeared in dozens of films, in collections at the V&A and on catwalks, and in the wardrobes of film stars, European aristocrats and several members of the Royal Family.
It’s her work for the royals, Blok says, that brings her most pride.
Her company is the last in the UK to have the skills to embroider using gold thread, which adorns the uniforms of high-ranking officials, including the Queen. It’s work that not only has to be done by hand, but which requires extensive research and takes a lot of time. Called Opus Anglicanum, the gold thread-work was popular in the Middle Ages for church robes, and is incredibly complicated to do, Blok says, because the gold-work appears only on the upper-side of the cloth, so each gold thread has to be carefully measured, then attached using a delicate web of fine threads on the underside.
Much of her craft was learnt, she says, from examining beautiful antique pieces, and discovering what worked best on different fabrics, using different threads. To do that, she’s had to find people with collections: both private collectors with personal archives and staff members from the royal household. “Or I pick stuff up – on eBay, or boot sales… The most exciting bit is taking them apart to see how they’re made,” she says. “Quite often people have written stuff inside, in beautiful old handwriting. It’s so romantic.”
The majority of her work, though, is for corporates, film-companies and fashion brands who want uniforms, costumes and fashion items embroidered with logos, distinctive signage or monograms. For the singer Kanye West, for example, she embroidered big hero pieces for his first Yeezy fashion line. (“He was great,” she enthuses. “So hardworking, and so appreciative.) For Burberry and Ralph Lauren, she’s created bespoke pieces for window-dressings. And for films, she’s done pretty much everything from robes for Doctor Strange to banners for Pirates of the Caribbean. The quality of costumes in films, she says, has had to get better as the size and picture quality of TVs have improved. “Before, costume designers could get away with printing designs on to fabric. Now, for it to be authentic, fabrics really have to be properly embroidered.”
For that, she now has high-tech machinery as well as two hand-embroiders who are “hugely experienced and very, very clever at what they do”. Although, she adds, the machine embroiderers have to be “hugely creative” too. “You can’t just scan in an image, and press go. You have to programme the stitches, and the thread lengths and thicknesses and tensions, or it will look like a dog’s dinner. Machine embroidery is a real craft.”
As with most other businesses, Covid has been a real challenge. But it’s also presented her with an opportunity, she says, to teach embroidery online to enthusiasts around the world. “It’s been wonderful making this incredible craft more accessible to everyone,” she says. “I’ve always known that embroidery is never going to make me rich. But in the last 18 months, it has helped me to enrich other people’s lives. In fact, it’s probably been the most valuable thing we’ve done.”