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The Changing Canvas of the Royal School of Needlework - Stitching Through a Global Pandemic

By Emily Peagram 16 Dec 2020

Like many businesses, the first lockdown in March 2020 meant that the Royal School of Needlework (RSN) had to close its doors to its students, customers and staff. Founded in 1872 and stitching through two world wars, the RSN was certainly not going to let a global pandemic close its doors for forever!

Almost immediately, the organisation noticed a rise in sales from its Online Shop and an increased engagement on its social media platforms. There was no doubt that crafts were seeing a new popularity. People were discovering and re-discovering ways to pass the time whilst they were stuck indoors.

Dr Susan Kay-Williams, Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework said: “Needlework became a very popular activity during lockdown as people looked to learn new skills and find a mindful pastime. Throughout the months, we introduced different initiatives to give inspiration and help build an international community, when many people felt cut off and alone.”

The first step was to find ways to continue teaching the RSN’s full-time Degree in Hand Embroidery and Future Tutors programme. The RSN quickly adapted and trialled online tuition, which enabled the students to continue with their learning and even for the third years to complete their Final Major projects to graduate.

With many staff on furlough, the reduced team worked hard to deliver Day & Evening Embroidery Classes online. In May, they were ready to launch their first Live Online Day Class, which featured a very apt ‘Rainbow of Hope’. A variety of Live Online Classes were introduced, at different times for different time zones to respond to demand. For the first time, students from all over the world, from Europe and the USA to Australia and New Zealand, were able to learn with RSN Tutors without having to travel.

Dr Susan Kay-Williams continues: “Teaching Live Online Classes has been the biggest development of the year for us. We’re really enjoying teaching people online and some of our new offerings, such as Evening Classes and short sessions, are only possible because of this new format. Students just need access to Zoom, ideally on a screen bigger than your phone, but smartphones can also be useful for sending images of your work to your Tutor on WhatsApp. We have taught people of all ages and the main comment has been how much like a face-to-face class it is!”

The timetable for 2021 now features a full programme of Live Online Day & Evening Classes, catering for all levels and a wide variety of designs and techniques. There are also plans to hold an International Summer School online in July 2021. After some experimenting, including with students from Australia, the expert team also made the RSN’s Certificate & Diploma in Technical Hand Embroidery Course (C&D) available online for existing students, something they never thought would be possible due to the high technical standard required. From January, the RSN will make this programme available to new participants.

In addition, as the world became increasingly used to socialising via the internet, the Royal School of Needlework launched a series of Live Online Talks, which have been extremely popular. The Online Talks cover fascinating topics including Victorian Embroidery, Goldwork from the RSN Collection and Needlework in Education. The Talks have achieved audiences of over 300 people per session, giving embroidery lovers around the globe access to the RSN’s unique Collection of Textiles and Archives.

Dr Susan Kay Williams adds: “It has been a rollercoaster over the last several months of some fantastic highs, many unforeseen challenges and the endless uncertainty of everything. So much has happened and, considering we were working with only a skeleton staff, particularly between April and August, this is a major achievement. The RSN responded very speedily to the requirements of the lockdown and in moving the organisation forward to meet customer demand. We welcome 2021 with bated breath!”

If you enjoy stitch projects, it is not too late to take part in the RSN’s ‘Postcard From Home’ challenge. This was first launched to provide a platform to keep people connected during lockdown through their love of hand embroidery and to mark this globally impactful event. The ‘Postcard From Home’ challenge was very popular with people of all ages and with all levels of embroidery knowledge. The Royal School of Needlework is continuing the challenge into 2021 and this time, encouraging people to stitch a postcard from home, but with a winter theme.

The idea is simple. Think about what ‘home’ means to you and what aspects you would like to feature in a postcard. The needlework could be your home, garden, famous landmark where you live, or even the favourite view from your window. Share your ‘Postcard From Home’ on social media, tag @RoyalNeedlework and use the hashtag #RSNPostcardFromHome.

To find out more about the Royal School of Needlework’s courses, talks and campaigns, visit royal-needlework.org.uk

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