Recently the incredibly talented and lovely Michele Carragher took the time to answer some questions for Worn Through. Carragher is a costume embroiderer and illustrator for film and television, her most recent work for HBO’s 2005 miniseries, Elizabeth I, and the historical/fantasy adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Game of Thrones, now in its fifth season. She trained in design and illustration at London College of Fashion and in saddlery at Cordwainers College. Prior to her career in film and television, Carragher worked as textile conservator in museums and private collections, specializing in hand embroidery. Below, she shares the path she took to her specialized field, her research process, and advice for aspiring embroiderers. You can find her on Facebook and see more of her work on her website.
You studied design at London College of Fashion. What made you decide to go into fashion? Was your goal to go into costume design?
I think when I left school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, all I knew is that I wanted to work in a creative field where I could utilise the various mediums I had a passion for, such as illustration, painting, sculpture and the creation of costumes. So when it came to a choice of study it was between art or fashion, I can’t really remember how I came to make the choice, but fashion won in the end.
At the London College of Fashion I really enjoyed the craft aspects of the course, millinery, knitting and embroidery, but I became aware that the work I produced on the course wasn’t mainstream fashion, more avant-garde, maybe if at that stage I had been aware of Haute Couture I may have gravitated towards that.
Later on through my time at college I made friends who were on the Theatre Design course and was fascinated with their work. I did think of swapping courses but at that stage it was too late to change direction.
After college because of my hand embroidery skills I had the opportunity to work in textile conservation and it is here that I honed my hand sewing and embroidery skills. At the same time I started to be involved in low budget filmmaking with a group of friends designing and making the costumes for their films, through this I progressed onto professional filming jobs.
So I didn’t have an intended goal as such to get into costume, my work path evolved gradually over many years.
Game of Thrones character Sansa Stark wore this dress for the Tourney of the Hand in the first season. Image credit: michelecarragherembroidery.com
You studied many areas of fashion design in college, but your specialty now is embroidery. Did you focus on embroidery in your program? Was that something you had practiced prior to your course at London College of Fashion?
I did some basic embroidery at school and was always involved in making costumes and painting sets for any plays or productions that were put on. At home my Mother and Grandmother made clothes, knitted and embroidered so I was encouraged creatively by them both.
The first major manifestation of using embroidery creatively was while I studied fashion design at college. Many of the designs that I was conceiving there, I wanted them to have a sculptural presence, so in order to get the desired look I invested much time into learning skills to aid me, skills like embroidery and knitting. For my final collection I created handmade knitwear pieces which had 3 dimensional sculptured heads of the fantasy figure of Pan surrounded with crocheted oak leaves and acorns on each arm. .
What are some of your favourite pieces you worked on as a textile conservator? What elements of this work did you find challenging?
One of the first textiles I worked on was a lovely 18th century English quilt cover that only had one quarter embroidered and needed the rest filling in to complete it. It was similar to crewel work as regards to the mixture of stitches used but was finer and executed with silk threads rather than the traditional wool used in crewel work. That was quite a task to take on but I learnt a lot whilst doing it, how the design was put together, the different combination of stitches to create the stylised flowers and leaves. I think it took me a couple of months to complete, probably twice as long as I thought it would, so by working on this large piece it has helped me become more aware of and understand how to estimate timings for future work.
Some other interesting pieces I had to do a little conservation work on were a couple of costumes worn by Marilyn Monroe, the famous little black beaded number worn in “Some Like it Hot” and the sexy show stopping red sequined dress from “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” that she and her co-star Jane Russell wore. These were displayed in an exhibition at The Imperial War Museum in London, they were lovely to see and were so tiny.
One of the most enjoyable pieces that I had to conserve was a pair of 16th Century gloves. The leather of the gloves was in good condition but the gauntlet section needed to come off so that I could patch any holes in the silk and sew down any loose embroidery and gold threads. The silk godets on the gauntlet in between the embroidered sections needed patching and in some cases replacing where the original fabric was too rotten. Once I had conserved the gauntlets I then joined these sections back on to the gloves. It was quite satisfying working on these beautiful period gems and it inspires me to want to make my own version of an embroidery encrusted gauntlet glove.
Game of Thrones character Daenerys Targaryen’s costumes for season three were embellished with textured “dragonscale” embroidery. Click the image for more information about Carragher’s technique. Image credit: michelecarragherembroidery.com
When you worked as a Costume Assistant/Maker, what were some of the sources you utilized for research? Along the same lines, what sources do you look at when developing a new concept for embroidery/surface decoration? As you were inspired by historic textiles–does that include motifs, stitches, etc?
My basic approach process is similar for each project. I start by meeting with the costume designer who will already have researched what they want and will have moodboards, design sketches, fabric swatches and possibly toiles of the costume.
I then go off and do my own research, If it is a historical piece then I will look at the type and style of decoration suitable for the period in question. I will look at historical costume and textile reference books, also on the Net and in museums too, as it is always good to see the real thing with the naked eye if possible. I will then gather together suitable fabrics, trimmings, beads, threads etc to help me recreate something based on my research and understanding of the period and then I start sampling some ideas.
The textiles that I see in my conservation work are a constant inspiration and I always document motifs and patterns or techniques that are useful to be able to use in my costume embroidery work.
You sometimes work directly on a garment and sometimes on crepeline first. For what reasons do you choose one vs. the other?
Time is always an issue when producing work for film and TV. On a big budget film there will be more preparation and research time and the actors may be cast earlier.
So if the costume designer has a specific piece in mind to do then a toile of the costume can be made and fitted and from this you could plan your embroidery. The costume cutter would then tack out the pattern pieces on the actual fabric and you could stretch the fabric in a frame and embroider onto it, then the costume could be made up. But you may not have time to finish the embroidery before the Maker needs to put the costume together for a fitting with the actor, this all depends on planning and scheduling.
On TV you get far less preparation time and so it is easier if the costume is made up and can be fitted as that is most important and I can then work on the garment in between fittings. I have found during my time working on Game of Thrones that the best solution is for me to start the embroidery separately to the costume, creating a kind of motif that I can then apply to the costume and work on it further if needs be.
The reason for me using silk crepeline is that it is very sheer and can be dyed to match the costume, so that when I stitch the embroidered motif onto the garment the base fabric of the silk crepeline becomes almost invisible.
There is not a right or wrong way to decorate or embroider you just have to find the best solution to each particular situation and for me by creating the initial stages of my embroidery on organza/silk crepeline it means I can be more ambitious with the work that I want to create and have less pressure on myself as I am not holding up the costume maker’s process.
Carragher’s eye embroidery on a costume for HBO’s Elizabeth I miniseries. This motif can be seen in the “Rainbow Portrait” of Elizabeth I by Isaac Oliver, c. 1600. Image credit: michelecarragherembroidery.com
Game of Thrones combines history with fantasy. In designing embroidery and decoration for these costumes, do you attempt to combine these elements? Are you given direction from Michele Clapton or others? How is working on Game of Thrones different from a period drama, like Elizabeth 1?
When Game of Thrones was first being put together the producers wanted to create something that although it is a fantasy, it should be a believable world and so it was approached as if it was a real period drama, something a kin to a Medieval one, but the designers were free to draw on elements from anywhere to suit each tribe or character as long as it fits their situation, status, or narrative story. So the script is the first port of call and I take my guidance from the costume designer, who will have had many meetings with other heads of department regarding the look, style and tone of the production.
For a historical drama there are usually documented references for you to draw on, in books, on the Net and in museums, and you use all these to influence your designs but you don’t have to recreate pin point accurate embroideries, as there wouldn’t be time to do this. You are trying to create an impression of the style of work that is believable to the audience as belonging to the period you are portraying on screen and is suitable for the particular character’s status or narrative story. With a fantasy like Game of Thrones you have more freedom to create designs as you are not restricted to a specific period in time.
Whatever genre of film you are working towards conveying a visual narrative to the audience to create a believable and understandable world, be it contemporary, fictional, factual or fantasy.
It’s fascinating to see images of your embroidery up close, since many of us watch movies and TV on small computer screens and can miss these details. What’s a standout costume or costumes viewers should look for in the upcoming Game of Thrones season (if you’re allowed to tell us)?
For season 5 of Game of Thrones I enjoyed working on many designs for a variety of characters, but as I don’t get to see the filming process, the first time I see the costumes is when the programme airs, so I am not sure what will be seen.
At the moment I can not reveal too much detail about the costumes that I have worked on, as I am sworn to secrecy, but I wouldn’t be giving out too much of a spoiler to your question as HBO have already released sneak peek images of one of the main characters that I created embroidery for in Season 5, and that is Myrcella, Cersei’s daughter who was sent away to, and now lives in Dorne. I would say the costumes that I worked on for her would be my personal recommendation to look out for, they have a delicate seductive romanticism to them. I really enjoyed working on them, being able to use new materials and techniques within the designs.
Can you share any tidbits about the 18th century pilot you’re working on? Is this requiring you to delve into new research?
Sorry I can’t give any details as when you work on film and TV you have to be very secretive until the programme has been aired to the wider public. But obviously the 18th century has some fantastic embroidery and there’s nothing I love more than trawling the Net for interesting and unique examples of particular embroidery. It’s amazing how much variety there is and you realise that you can do anything you like really, as in each era there were embroiderers who created immaculate pieces, some more simple and some avant-garde or stranger pieces too, as with any art form it is all in the mind of the creator.
A timelapse of 42 hours of embroidery by Carragher.
For our readers wishing to learn embroidery, do you recommend any specific programs or methods? What is your advice for embroiderers who want to enter the film/TV field?
Simply learn by doing, start with something easy, try out different stitches, some are easier and quicker to do. You may find it easier to copy some existing embroidery you like and then progress towards designing your own, you will find your own style naturally. Some people will be neat and precise, others may be naturally looser and more organic. Although there are different styles and techniques there is no right or wrong thing to do, someone somewhere initially invented each stitch to suit what they had in mind and the materials to hand, so just have a go. Some threads are easier to use than others so experiment, metallics can be tricky and need more patience, you just need to practise as with anything and a lot of the accuracy of technique is in the control of the entry and exit points of the needle, you will gradually use most of your fingers on both hands to feel the needle and thread as you work.
There are too many books to list on embroidery but if you have one good basic one that shows you all the stitches this can always be referred to and then if you find a particular style of work you like, then look to specific books on that technique, and there are also lots of online video tutorials out there that can be helpful if you need to see a stitch or technique in practise.
I was lucky in my conservation work to be paid to learn and practise my embroidery on various textiles and if there was a stitch I hadn’t done before I would look it up and practise it on some scrap fabric before embroidering on the actual textile. Obviously for that work I would also need to source threads that would be a suitable match to the original. So finding a good local shop that has a variety of threads is a bonus, as although you can buy much on the Net, if you need a specific colour palette the accuracy of the thread colours on the websites is not so good and you can waste a lot of money on the wrong thing. In London there is a fantastic thread and bead shop, The London Bead Company & Delicate Stitches that I would find hard to manage without.
As regards to working in film and TV, within most costume teams you find the same people work together again and again. As in life you build relationships with friends that you get along with, understand one another’s tastes and styles, so it becomes easier the longer you work together and you have a mutual trust. The costume designer is under a lot of pressure and needs a team around them who they know can pull their vision together. So you need to get a foot in the door and meet people who can get to know your abilities and skills that they can put to use. It is hard work and the days are long, a workroom day is usually a 10/12 hour day. But if something needs finishing you may have to stay up all night, so you need to have focus and stamina and be willing, able and adaptable as things tend to change as the project progresses and you have to be receptive to this.
Even if you want to do embroidery, it is still good to get experience as a runner or assistant, so that you get to see what everyone in the costume team contributes to each production and understand how things translate from the workroom to the screen. So it isn’t always easy and can be tiring, but it is fantastic to be able to work in a creative field and if you are lucky enough to work on a show such as Game of Thrones, you are being paid to experiment, sample, create and develop ideas with endless possibilities.