An Education Department Initiative with Embroiderer Helen McCook at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

January – April 2014

We were delighted to welcome Helen to the department where she introduced the art of stitch in its many forms to children and families, students and teachers, the visually impaired and adults both amateur and expert. Keen to meet and interact with as many people as possible, Helen was based on the main gallery floor at set times, stitching, explaining, advising and telling tales of just exactly how much blood sweat and tears went into the making of some of the elaborate costumes portrayed in the collection.
Almost 500 people attended the drop-in sessions:
‘It was an absolutely wonderful experience, both to see Helen stitching and to listen to her.’
‘I make historical costume dolls so have a great interest in costume but still learned things I did not know from Helen's detailed interpretation of the portrait of the wife of George III.’
‘I came along to see Helen McCook basically taking the opportunity "to sew along with Helen" as suggested in the What's On as I had been unable to attend the last session of her white work class and wanted some advice re completion. However on my first attendance I enjoyed her discussion of her work and wanted to see how her design work evolved.  The audience also came to see my efforts which acted to expand their knowledge of the possible course content. The second visit I found the discussion of the chosen portrait as interesting as the stitching. All a bonus as I was continuing to complete my work.’

‘I thought Helen’s workshop was fabulous. Perhaps a bit long for her, but very interesting. I live in Edinburgh and visit the Portrait Gallery fairly frequently. I’ve thought about doing embroidery courses with you before, but it was too expensive, so having something free and a bit less of a commitment than a whole day course, was great.’

‘The event yesterday with Helen was very good, It was excellent to see some embroidery work of hers and was very informative. Helen was lovely and open to all questions and interacted really well with everyone there it was really enjoyable. I am a textiles student at edinburgh college of art so I am local and came to the gallery especially to see Helen. My mum came all the way from Glasgow as I had told her Helen was doing a talk! I'm really glad we went. It was also nice to see such a mix of people from young to old too! I hope there will be more events like this!’

‘I love the way the demonstrations link to a particular portrait and I really enjoyed watching someone actually doing something and working on a piece - and having the opportunity to ask questions, handle and understand the techniques at first hand.  Helen is so approachable and so well informed that I learned quite a bit about the history as well as the art of embroidery. And learned a couple of tips I had never seen before!  I would love to come to one of the courses!

I think the way of promoting embroidery and working with youngsters with hands-on approach is fantastic - as a retired primary teacher, I think it is so important that young people have these opportunities.’

‘I came to the gallery with other "Great Tapestry of Scotland" stitchers specifically to see Helen as we had heard her lecture earlier in the year at the National Gallery.  To-day's talk and demonstration was very interesting indeed, particularly when then seeing the portrait upstairs, but feel it made me realise my limitations as an embroiderer!  Perhaps I should sign up for a course later in the year.’

‘My friend and I had a lovely morning at the Portrait Gallery, listening and watching Helen at work. Highly knowledgeable, and with expert delivery, she guided us through the history of the work she was undertaking, as well as talking us through various embroidery techniques. Spellbinding.’

Our initial intention was that Helen would create a series of embroidery samples replicating work from paintings in the collection. These would be available for our visitors to handle and be of particular benefit to those who are visually impaired. The unexpected number of visitors coming to meet Helen in the drop-in sessions meant that we have invited her back to finish off her samples out of the public eye. Helen has assembled a team of volunteers who are going to make copies  under her tutelage, generously giving a lasting legacy to this project.

Over 250 people attended The Bit Stitch Drop-in sessions for children and families and the results of their labours is now proudly on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Great Hall.

Helen teaches at the Royal School of Needlework, Hampton Court Palace and she is the author of The Essential Stich Guide to Goldwork. She was part of the team who created the embellishment on the dress, veil and shoes for the wedding of Katherine Middleton and Prince William and has worked on costume embellishments for London West End, Broadway and German theatre productions.

You can see examples of her work on display at the gallery.