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Learning Tambour Embroidery

For a long while I’ve wanted to have a go at tambour embroidery, specifically of course, tambour bead embroidery.  This is a couture technique, and not widely practised in the UK, but in theory it allows you to add beads and sequins quickly to fabric, so it seemed interesting!  After a bit of research I discovered that the reason it is a specialist skill is that it is really quite tricky to do, so I rejected my original idea of learning alone and instead started looking into courses.  Luckily for me I ended up with 2 options – a 1 day introduction at the world famous Royal School of Needlework (RSN) at Hampton Court, and a 2 day course at Hand & Lock, the wonderful London based embroiderers.  The RSN course was cheaper and closer (we only live 10 minutes away) and easier to manage from a childcare perspective than a full weekend, and although it was shorter and didn’t specifically cover the bead/sequin side (unlike the Hand & Lock course) it seemed like a good way to try tambour work, so I waited for one to be announced and then booked.

So then a few months later I found myself arriving at Hampton Court nice and early (before it opens to tourists) on a very wet and cold Sunday morning.

We’d been instructed to meet in a room behind the main ticket office, which by the looks of it is usually used for school trip lunches, and over the next 20 minutes it filled up with ladies waiting for their courses.  We were then given our passes by an RSN staff member and walked in the back entrance (past Elizabeth I’s kitchen) to the RSN studios, which are located up a private staircase in the Georgian wing.  Our classroom for the day overlooked the amazing formal gardens which run from that wing to the river – an amazing and very evocative location (no doubt a source of inspiration for RSN students and teachers over the years).

Our tutor for the day was Caroline Homfray – friendly, knowledgeable and very patient (luckily for some of us).  The class had an interesting mix of attendees, from serious amateur embroiderers who’d been on many courses, to teachers, former RSN students (the RSN don’t teach tambour on their main degree course – boy were those girls quick to pick it up) and then a couple of random people like me who work in fields other than embroidery such as couture bridalwear and knitwear (and beadwork – me).  We all worked at very different paces which Caroline handled extremely well – I must admit I was relieved to be somewhere in the middle.

The tambour hook is I must say quite hard to master – it’s probably the fiddliest textile technique I’ve ever tried (and I’ve had at least a go at quite a few).  By lunchtime although I was producing a neat chain stitch I was still finding it quite trying, and felt a bit like this might end up having been an interesting day out, rather than something I was going to continue with:

But during the afternoon I got slightly more comfortable, got faster, and spent a lot less time accidentally unravelling what I’d just done (the tambour chain stitch unravels at the slightest pull, worse than knitting, so the most important thing to learn is to remember to secure the thread).  I went home with a good mastery of the chain stitch, being able to add one off beads, and having seen Caroline add strings, and when I got home I set to and practised – that evening, and then every evening for the next week.  Getting the strung beads on was a really important step for me psychologically  – I hadn’t expected to learn it in class, but Caroline gave us a good demonstration and more importantly made sure we were fully competent in the crucial basic chain stitch, and were able to turn corners and fasten on and off properly, so then adding the beads wasn’t too painful on top of the foundation she’d given us.

So then I rummaged in my stash and found some varigated threads, and more beads, and kept playing until I’d utterly ruined Caroline’s tasteful sampler, but had the hang of things and felt ready to tackle my own designs.

Which meant some shopping – for organzas and tulle (in tambour beading the beads are added to the underneath of the fabric, and I’m not ready to use opaque fabrics yet!), for strings of sequins, and for threads.  In my stash I had lovely hand dyed threads for machine embroidery (must do some more of that!), beads (obviously) and on Etsy I found a tiny number of sellers of tambour supplies where I bought strung sequins (both vintage and new) and gloving thread (a strong waxed cotton thread which is normally used for hand sewing leather gloves, but works well for tambour work as it doesn’t split so is easy to hook and copes better with sharp beads than the standard sewing thread we’d used in class).  The strung sequins are a delight to work with, and once I started using them I really saw what an exciting new range of textures and effects will be available to me – from simple lines to complex layers and patterns.  Very exciting, although I need to keep practising to get my speed up.

And here’s what I’ve done so far – very, very early days, and I really now need to find some more time to focus on this (it’s been a month since I did any now).  As well as teaching me a new beadwork skill it’s really re-awoken my old love of embroidery, so expect to see a lot more combined threads, fabrics, beads and sequins in my future work.

Suppliers/Links:

Caroline Homfray works with her sister Sarah Homfray, who has an excellent shop and website, and they both have a very informative YouTube Channel.

The Royal School of Needlework hold classes at Hampton Court, near London, and in other UK locations and around the world.  The class was really very good, and the location amazing – their programme is well worth a look, and their exhibitions, work and students are really inspiring.

I got my sequins from Fileusedetoilesandco, Oh Belka Tresors, and De La Broderie.  They should keep me going for a while…..

The lovely Sajou gloving thread came from De La Broderie, and from Penelope Textiles.

I’ve replenished my stash of silks, tulle and organza from The Silk Route (who sell conveniently hoop sized squares), and gone a bit mad buying yet more hand-dyed threads and fabrics for future mixed technique projects from Stef Francis.

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