Introducing our 2021 Festival Tutors: Kate Barlow


Inspired by her grandmother’s treasure trove of all things needlework, Kate has always loved hand embroidery. She grew up in North Wales and originally studied costume design before working as a freelance costume maker.

In 2013 she made the decision to turn her hobby into a profession, re-training as an embroidery tutor at the Royal School of Needlework (RSN). When she’s not involved in freelance projects or teaching around the world, Kate works as a stitcher for the RSN in their commercial studio.

We caught up with Kate to find out more about her love of needlework, embroidery, and design ahead of her appearance at Lady Anne’s Needlework Festival 2021.

Why and how did you become a needlework tutor? Did anyone or thing, in particular, inspire you? 

I learned embroidery at a young age from my grandmother who was an avid needlewoman and knitter. She had a cupboard stuffed with gorgeous fabric and threads and would use old 1930s iron-on transfer patterns to teach me basic stitches. I was hooked from then on. 

I went on to train as a costume maker, achieving a BA Hons in Theatre Design from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, but embroidery always remained my much-loved hobby. 

After a few years as a freelance maker, I started working for the Welsh National Opera, where I stayed for eight years before deciding I needed a new challenge.  

In 2013 I applied for the Future Tutors Programme at the Royal School of Needlework and was accepted onto this new three-year course. The Future Tutor Programme is the equivalent to the RSNs Apprenticeship and is an intensive full-time course covering over 25 hand embroidery techniques as well as conservation and restoration techniques. I graduated with distinction in 2016 and haven’t looked back since, I’ve been lucky enough to teach throughout the UK and Ireland, in America, Canada and France.

What is your main needlework interest? 

I don’t think I have just one particular needlework interest, there are too many to narrow it down! I do love to mix techniques together and to create things that are more 3 dimensional, so if I had to choose then Stumpwork and Raised Embroidery would be high up on my list. Both techniques encompass many different styles of embroidery so there’s lots of scope for unusual designs. 

I also love blackwork embroidery, especially when it is used with shading to create pictorial images. The materials used can be quite simple, just white fabric and black thread, but together with the counted patterns, the most stunning pieces of work can be created. 

I also feel that hand embroidery is a subject that you will always be learning about, there are so many techniques and variations of these techniques that there is always something new to find out. I think that’s what I find most exciting about needlework.

Do you have a favourite stitch? 

A stitch I come back to time and again is a Closed Fly Stitch. It’s not a complicated stitch but is lovely to work and can be stitched in various ways to produce different effects. It’s perfect for petal and leaf shapes and goes around curves beautifully. 

If you had to choose one needlework possession to save in a fire, what would it be?  

That would definitely be my silk shaded budgie, Smuggler, that was stitched as part of my course at the RSN. I was incredibly proud of him once he was finished, so much so that I entered him into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2015 and he was selected. 

The Academy rarely have textiles on show in the summer exhibition so to have an entirely hand-stitched embroidery selected was very special. It proves that embroidery can be an art form in its own right and should be given just as much respect as other artistic disciplines. He was also chosen to be made into a greetings card for the RA shop which was very exciting. 

Silk Shading was the technique I found the hardest to master, so for Smuggler to become as famous as he did in the embroidery world was a real honour, for a little while people used to call me the ‘Budgie Lady’! 

When developing your designs, which activity takes the most time? 

This varies depending on the project I’m working on. Sometimes designs pop into my head fully-formed and sometimes it takes a little longer to work things out. When I’m designing based on historical pieces I like to make sure I’ve done enough research to replicate the materials, threads and stitches correctly. Sourcing the right colours can sometimes be tricky. 

Probably the stitching itself and writing the instructions take up the most time. I illustrate all my instructions with step-by-step photographs of the piece so this can slow the stitching process down, but it’s worth it to produce a really comprehensive and informative booklet. 

How much time do you spend stitching each day?  

At the moment I don’t spend as much time stitching as I’d like to. Admin and kit making is a big part of being a freelance embroiderer and tutor so this eats into my stitching time quite a lot, but even when I’m doing these things I’m working out new designs in my head. Probably about 5 hours a week are devoted to stitching, mostly in the evenings. 

I still work in the RSN Studio too, helping to restore and conserve antique and historic textiles and it’s always lovely to be able to sit and work on these beautiful pieces with no distractions.

What is the best piece of advice about needlework you have been given and can share with our students?  

This would definitely be to buy the best equipment and materials you can afford. You will be investing a lot of time and effort into your embroidery and you want to get the best possible results. 

Good quality needles and scissors are invaluable. Invest in sturdy well-made embroidery ring frames or slate frames for larger projects, source threads from known and respected brands. All of these things will help you to create beautiful, high quality and long-lasting work. 

What advice would you give to students to get the most out of their workshop experience?  

I think the most important thing is to enjoy the experience. It sounds obvious but sometimes students can get nervous when learning new techniques. 

Try not to compare your work to that of others and don’t worry if you don’t pick things up as quickly, everyone will learn at a different pace. And remember to breathe! I meet a lot of students who hold their breath when they are concentrating on stitching! 

Embroidery classes always go by very quickly so make the most of the time you have, don’t be afraid to ask questions and enjoy the company of the other students who all love needlework as much as you do. 

Have you taught at Phillipa and Laura’s retreats before? 

I have taught for Phillipa and Laura before, at a private class at Hampton Court as part of their retreat and on their recent Stratford Residential Retreat. For the first, it was a very interesting design based on a stumpwork panel in the RSN collection, and it went down very well. The students were all very enthusiastic and did some excellent work.

Thank you Kate for your time and energy, we look forward to many more teaching opportunities with you in the future!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts