Nestled in the heart of London is an esteemed hand embroidery house with history and clientele that even large international luxury brands can only dream of. So discreet is the location, that if you blinked you’ll miss it. Yet once you step through the door, you are transported into a treasure trove of activity and creativity
Welcome to Hand & Lock hand embroidery London HQ.
Established in 1767 by a young lacemaker refugee from France – M.Hand, who came to England to avoid persecution. He started by manufacturing lace and selling it to military tailors. To help the business survive, he started to also do goldwork and hand embroidery of military badges and uniform accoutrements.
To this day Hand and Lock are one of the few, if not the only, business to whom military, Royal diplomatic officials rely upon for uniform decoration.
In 2001 the M.Hand company merged with a fashion couture hand embroidery house S.Lock and was renamed to Hand & Lock. The two companies had a long history of working together, so a merger was inevitable.
In 2017 the company celebrated 250 years since it was founded. They celebrated with a series of conferences and exhibitions organised around the world.
The 13 plus strong team now proudly continues the tradition of fine embroidery into the years to come.
To learn more about the business and the wonderful world of hand embroidery, Team Fashion Insiders visited the Hand and Lock’s HQ and met with the Head Designer – Scott Gordon Heron and Jess Pile – the Production Director.
How did you get your start in embroidery? The UK is not known to be particularly strong in embroidery, so how did you learn about it and find your way here?
Scott: I hear a lot of stories of how people got taught to embroider from their grandparents. I was never one of those kids. I was always very creative and loved to draw, and originally got a diploma in design. But, I wanted to push my studies a little bit further and went on to study fashion and textiles. I was always drawing ideas and illustrations but after a while, it got to be a bit samey and I wanted to get a bit more hands on. A teacher encouraged me to explore other techniques and play with surface decoration. I started to experiment a little bit with stitching. My teachers all of a sudden saw something and started to encourage me to go more into embroidery, even though I had never stitched more than a button in the past.
I was very lucky that one of my tutors really liked what I was doing and kind of took me under her wing. She took a group of us on a trip to Premier Vision in Paris. It was at that same time that I saw this amazing exhibition showing at the time about Haute Couture and Christian Lacroix in the 1980s.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and realised that this is what I wanted to do. I fell in love with it.
I subsequently did some research on who makes embroidery and found out that Hand & Lock offer placements. I applied and was very, very lucky not only to gain a placement but to also be offered a job here just before I graduated.
So I really have worked my way here from design assistant to head of design over the years.
Jess: I was more practical making compared to Scott. I went to university to study drama and theatrical costume. From there I ended up working in a few theatres. Then at one point, as I was working on a project to make a replica of a Dior dress, I became very interested in embroidery. I came here to do an internship and loved it. At the end of the internship, they offered me to stay on.
How easy is it to find embroiderers to work in the studio? Where do people get trained to such a high level that they can work as fine embroiderers?
Jess: Most of our embroiders here in the studio are French. They have embroidery schools in France where you can specialise in embroidery in senior school and have it as a subject alongside maths and French. They can then progress to a higher level of education, where again they can continue to specialise in embroidery even at a degree level.
In the UK we also have schools that offer embroidery courses. For example, one is the Royal School of Needlework, London College of Fashion, Bournemouth and a few others. Many of our embroiderers come to us as interns and some stay on after and we train them up more. Because even if they come trained, like the embroiderers who come from France, like the current lady we have, the thing she does the most is monogramming. But it is not an embroidery type she knew well when she came here.
Do you specialise in a particular type of technique, here in the London studio?
Scott: We do everything in here that can be done outside. The skill and quality that comes out of the studio here are on a par with any other studio work.
But we do have sister businesses we also work with. For example, machine embroidery is made mostly in our sister business in Scotland and we also have another sister business in India.
We have worked with this factory for over 100 years. They focus mostly on gold work and very heavy detailed work, which we are traditionally known for.
As we are getting more fashion clients, the new relationship we are building with a new factory in India will also help us offer more varied embroidery at a production level. Our clients need various types of embroidery and we aim to be able to do everything be it here from the London studio or a sister business.
With so much history behind you, you must get to work on some interesting projects. What has been a favourite project that you worked on?
Jess: There have been quite a few over the years, but the one that always comes to mind is a project I did with Gilbert and George. I was so overwhelmed by just meeting them. The project was based on a chair they wanted to re-upholster. The chair was designed by Augustus Pugin, the architect who helped design the Houses of Parliament. The project involved many meetings and discussions about embroidery, making of samples etc.
The most unusual on the other hand was a project we did in collaboration with the charity Peace One Day. It’s a charity that fights against gun crime. They asked many designers and artists to take an AK47 gun and do something with it.
I worked alongside Kim Jones – the creative director for Louis Vuitton, to create an embroidered cover for the gun. We created various pieces of embroidery and we wrapped the gun with it and held the pieces with thread. It really was an amazing experience
Scott: My favourite one was the work I did on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee project in 2012. We were approached by the River Pageant to help create all of the hand embroideries for the barge in which the Queen was to travel. It was such a wonderful experience because of all the different people we met on the project and all the various things I learnt.
We have always done coats of arms and I have learnt a lot about heraldry, the different colours and Latin words used in these designs. But as part of this project, we had to go and see the Royal Herald who issues everyone in the commonwealth their own coat of arms. He had to check that our designs were correct.
I also enjoyed working on all the hand embroidery pieces we created for the barge. It was such an honour. At the end of the project, we were invited to sit and watch the passing of the barge in a designated area for all the people who on the project. I got to see the Queen pass by and the work I had created in context.
I often complain that I never get to see the work we create in context, so this was one of the times when we actually did see it and it was such a special moment.
Another amazing project we were recently involved in was with Virgin Galactic. They sent the first commercial flight to space. We were asked to create embroidered badges for the team. Now we can say that our embroidery has gone into space.
Another fun project we worked on was when Kate Moss came in with a vintage flapper dress she had found in an antique shop. She wanted it replicated with Swarovski crystals. Working on this was great fun as we literally made the new piece exactly as the vintage down to the cigarette burns that were visible on the dress. We recreated these through embroidery too.
The dress was worn at a Swarovski event at the Royal Albert Hall and then it went on to be reproduced as part of Kate Moss’s debut collection for Top Shop.
I can imagine that many of your clients are not masters in embroidery. What type of customers do you get and how do you translate their ideas from sketch to embroidery stitches?
Scott: I would say 50% of our customers are clients we have had and worked with for many years. The other 50% are new customers who come daily with new ideas.
Most people come to us with some sort of an idea that they have in their mind’s eye. It is our job to bridge the gap and manifest that idea into a finished piece of embroidery. If they wanted something very high end, couture style piece, then we will explore the relevant type of techniques and materials. If someone wanted goldwork, then we will explore that and the various possibilities. We will show them samples from our archives and discuss further.
Jess: It usually starts with an email or a phone call. We then ask them to send us through reference images or come down for a meeting with their ideas. We will go through the samples and focus on what they like and don’t like. If they don’t know much about embroidery, we will show them materials and samples of work and different styles of embroidery.
We usually ask them if they have a budget. Some people are shocked at how costly embroidery is. They don’t realise the time and effort it takes to embroider.
Sometimes we get emails from outraged people questioning the “ridiculous” (to them) quotes we have given them. Often people don’t think that if you are enquiring of a bespoke service with a company based in central London and one that has a 250-year history – you are not going to be paying £5 for something.
So it’s about managing peoples expectations by asking them for their budget and telling them what similar idea will cost.
If that is not meeting their expectations, we will discuss changes that can be made to perhaps meet their budget. And then you kind of bring it to their level. We do try our best to work with clients budgets and not to turn them away simply because, at first glance, the budget doesn’t reflect the idea they have.
So it sounds like there is a big element of educating your customer?
Jess: Yes, absolutely! We spend a lot of time meeting prospective clients and showing them different materials and techniques; showing them the difference in cost and quality between techniques and helping them understand why something costs or looks the way it does. Because embroidery is so specialised, most people have no idea of anything.
You are known as a bespoke studio and a lot of the work you do seems to be a one-off. Is this still your main focus or do you work with designers who place production orders with you too?
Jess: Embroidery is a very niche business. It is true that in the core, the nature of our business is bespoke. A lot of the work we do is a one-off and unique.
But we also undertake production when required and are doing more of it of late.
Because of the sister businesses we have and the new Indian factory relationship we are developing, we are in a position to expand our production capabilities. But it wasn’t always the case in the past. A lot of clients used to come and get their sampling done with us but had to go to another supplier to have their production done.
So by expanding we are now trying to satisfy the bespoke as well as the production demands of our customers.
We don’t want to turn anyone away because they have a complicated project, because that is what we thrive on – the one-off complicated projects.
What is the one thing you wish people knew before they contacted you?
Scott: I wish they knew how long it takes to embroider.
Jess: Or the difference between a hand and machine embroidery. We often get enquiries that are of the kind ”I’d like hand embroidery but can you do it by machine”
What would you quote as an average time frame for completing a project?
Scott: We usually quote three to four weeks for something bespoke and made by hand.
But it all depends on the design and work involved. We have both worked on projects that have taken 3-6 months. But average client project lead-time is three to four weeks.
How should people approach you with their work? Do you rather they brought you the fabric and you mark it and embroider on it? Or would you prefer the material to come to you cut into pieces?
Jess: We are happy to work with either, but if panels were to be cut and given to us, it is important to remember to leave seam allowance in case the fabric frays. It is always best to just bring fabric and we take it from there.
It is also important to remember that it’s almost impossible to embroider on a fished garment – it is best for the material to be stretched and flat laid, which cannot be done when a garment is fully made and finished.
Do you offer sample options before you agree with a client on the final design?
Jess: When we meet with clients we usually quote them for the project and separately for the samples.
Scott will then do the artwork and they will approve it. Only then if the client wants us to, we would go to sampling. If you know exactly how you want it to look like, some clients prefer to just go straight to the production stage. It really depends on the client, but that is charged for.
The way the charge is calculated is to include the design time, materials and time for embroidery. We don’t just charge double the production but charge as per the time and effort it will take us to produce the sample and that may be more than double in some cases, depending on the design.
So it can get a bit costly. Therefore not everyone is happy or has the budget to go down that route
Would you, in that case, advise that potential clients come as prepared as possible, in order to save on these extra costs?
Jess: Yes absolutely! The more you can do on your side, the less we have to do and the less it will cost you. Because our time spent on research, preparation, sourcing, marking, cutting … etc will be saved by the work and preparation the client will do.
Machine embroidery is faster and cheaper. Do you think it will take over from hand embroidery?
Jess: No! Obviously, there are advantages to using machine embroidery – it is cheaper to produce and faster, but you can’t get the same level of detail as you can with hand embroidery. Unless a machine that can work exactly the same as the human hand is invented.
Also, there is a level of automation over which one cannot have a control, while you can do that with the hand embroidery.
When we get clients we often can tell what is best suited to a machine and what would be best to be done by hand.
I don’t think that the machine will ever replace the hand embroidery because after all hand embroidery is a craft, a luxury that people love and invest in.
But I do think that machine embroidery has become a lot more accepted in the embroidery discipline as a whole.
For example, we have run an Embroidery Prize since 2001 that awards pieces of embroidery submitted by people. The winners get mentoring, cash prize etc. The competition is open to students and non-students.
We have two main categories – for a machine and hand embroidery.
But recently, as we have been visiting graduate shows, we have noticed that many students are combining both styles into one. We are starting to think that perhaps we may need to re-look at our categories and recognise embroidery as a whole. Perhaps we should have a category that combines the two, rather than separate them.
By combining the two styles you get to build up layers and opens up more possibilities.
You did a series of talks around the time of your 250th birthday celebrations. Is this something that you will continue to do, or was it a special one-off series of events?
Jess: We used to hold an embroidery festival in the past, usually in the lead up to our annual conference, but we don’t have anything planned at present.
We do however do tours around the studio in groups of up to twelve people.
Further, we also give talks to privately organised events, where we talk about the company and the work we do.
Apart from this, we also run an embroidery school on the weekends and private classes in the week. These are not just in our London studio but also we offer classes in America – San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Virginia and Manchester in the UK.
Last but not least, it is not very often in the fashion industry to come across people who so openly and genuinely love the company they work for. What is it that you like here so much?
Scott: We all love the variety of work we do. Also, having the extensive archive dating to the beginning of the company back to the late 1700s at our fingertips is magical.
Knowing that the company we work for is responsible for so much embroidery over so many years – not just embroidery in the context of fashion, but also ceremonial work, ecclesiastical work, costumes for TV shows and film as well as traditional work like monograms is special and makes us proud to carry on through this work and tradition.
But it is the team we have here, the clients we are so lucky to work with and the variety of work we do that makes us all happy to be here. Seeing the works of art we create and the joy our work brings to our clients that makes it fun for us. No day is the same as the previous one.