A modern fairy – Michele Carragher

I got caught up in the Game of Thrones in the 4th season – binged it all up and then followed it week after week religiously. One of the details you notice as a fan is the rich texture of the costumes – clear indication that the production team is as much in love with the books as any of us. Yet finding the artists to create the wonderful clothes and armours, to imagine and deliver the fabulous embroidery on Cersei’s dresses in silk or leather or Daenerys’s blue dragonscale tunic is quite a feat in this day and age.

The eyes, brains and hands behind the magical embroidery on the GoT costumes belong to Michele Carragher, a young and very talented British artist, with an impressive portfolio of costume design for period and fantasy movies. Here are her thoughts on embroidery, creativity and the World of Costume in an exclusive interview.

You seem to have drawn inspiration for your wonderful embroidery work from many sources – from architecture to painting and jewellery. What is the one most important thing that you learned from each of these three?
Because I often want to create sculptural and 3 dimensional elements to my embroidery I find it really useful to look at architectural decoration, or jewellery as a starting point as it will be easier for me to visualise the embroidery for the particular piece I am working on, for example a lion, from an already sculpted shape.
I do however look to nature too, particularly if I want to capture movement within a piece. Within paintings I may be looking to the historical textiles and decoration within them, or it may be to look at how colours, mood and light have been captured by a particular artist.

You have worked both for Elizabeth I, where the need for historical accuracy was a bit stricter, and for Game of Thrones, which allows for more creativity? Which setup worked better for you – the one that provided more guidelines for your work or the one that left everything to your imagination?
For a historical drama like Elizabeth I there are usually documented references for you to draw on, in books, on the Net and in Museums, and you use all these to influence your designs but you don’t have to recreate pin point accurate embroideries, as there wouldn’t be time to do this. You are trying to create an impression of the style of work that is believable to the audience as belonging to the period you are portraying on screen and is suitable for the particular character’s status or narrative story. With a Fantasy like Game of Thrones you have more freedom to create designs as you are not restricted to a specific period in time.
Whatever genre of film you are working towards conveying a visual narrative to the audience to create a believable and understandable world, be it contemporary, fictional, factual or fantasy.
Out of the two productions I would say I prefer working on Game of Thrones as it has allowed me to present my own authorship within the designs I have created, this doesn’t take away any importance from my work on Elizabeth 1, I loved the challenge it presented me with the designs I had to conceive, and I really did enjoy working on this project due the Elizabethan era being such a great period of history to work on, with lots of rich encrusted decoration.

How do you work with Michele Clapton? How much artistic freedom are you allowed in designing and creating the embroidery for the costumes?
Working with Michele Clapton on Game of Thrones is a great pleasure for me, as well as working with the rest of the other members of the Costume Department. I admire Michele’s spirit and her direction as a Costume Designer, it’s a great collaborative relationship that we share.
Regarding her input into my work she inspires me and gives me the freedom to experiment with my designs, and together we decide on the direction of a particular piece in order to try and make sure that I am creating embroidery that gives an insight within the detail that expresses the character’s personality. Creating embroidery that isn’t just a beautiful image embellishing her costume designs, we wish to use it as a narrative tool that will express much more to the viewer of the show about each character.

Which is the character you love most in Game of Thrones – obviously, from an embroidery design perspective?
I can’t just pick one, Cersei is a great character where I have been able to push the boundaries with the 3 dimensional stumpwork and rich encrustation that I have created for her costumes.
Daenerys, I really enjoyed the opportunity to be experimental when I devised her Dragonscale textured decoration for her costumes. Then there was Lysa Arryn and Catelyn Stark, for whom I created symbolistic embroidered collars, referring to their heritage, I really enjoyed creating them and was pleased with the end result.

Has anything changed for you since you started working for Game of Thrones? Are people more interested in you? Are people more interested in embroidery?
From the point of me doing my job, no nothing has changed, but I do realise that I have been very lucky to work on and be part of a production such as Game of Thrones, particularly with Michele Clapton as the designer. Because of the show’s success, we have been able to experiment and evolve within our work from season to season.
As the show has had worldwide exposure, my work as an embroiderer on the show has been highlighted and had more interest than would otherwise be the case on a smaller project. I think it has been great for shining a spotlight on the work done within each department and the attention to detail that all involved strive towards on a Film or TV production.
And yes I do think it has sparked more interest in embroidery and in pursuing these details on costumes, not just on Game of Thrones, as the audience become more aware of them, they start to look at the work on other productions too. I think it also inspires students towards their future career choices, just being able to see different avenues that it is possible to work within the World of Costume.
Personally I have had many Embroiderer’s Guilds contact me to come and visit their groups and chat about my work. These groups are full of people with a passion for all things stitched and have been dedicated to keeping the Art of Embroidery alive and thriving, so for them it is great to have such work highlighted to encourage and inspire more young people into the field.

In your expert opinion, which century was the one that accommodated embroidery best & which region of the world?
I can’t really look to one period, country, or region, and think that or this is the best, for me all decoration is of value or interest, be it the Boro textiles of Japan, as born out of poverty, as well as their fine kimono embroideries, or the fabulous array of embroidery from India and Pakistan, North American Indian beading and symbolistic decoration, South American pre-Columbian weavings and feather work, Mughal emperors of India, the Shahs of the Safavid Dynasty of Persia, and the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire all had amazing bejewelled textiles.
Across Europe fine and folk embroidery have always been present, the highly decorated Spanish Bull Fighters costumes, the Russian pearl embroideries, the English work of the 13th-14th centuries for ecclesiastical garments, in the Tudor and Elizabethan era there was definitely a flourishing of embroidery by amateurs at home as well as professionals, the flamboyant embroidery of the eighteenth century, Louis the 14th helping a resurgence in France that continues to this day. In the 19th Century William Morris with the Arts and Crafts movement led to the setting up of the Royal School of Needlework that is still thriving today, and there is the exquisite contemporary haute couture work, or even some simple darning in a thread bare garment, to me it is all equally beautiful.
As humans, we are all tribal and have always adorned ourselves, be it for warmth and protection, to show status, or which tribe we assimilate with, there is something out there for everyone and to pick one as the best would merely be a subjective opinion, there is no right or wrong, just a great variety and diversity of creativity.

What types of threads & materials do you use to create the wonderful 3d embroideries for Game of Thrones?
On Game of Thrones as it is a fantasy rather than a specific period piece I am free to use any materials, stitches or style to suit the particular characters being portrayed and the world they inhabit, which still has to be a believable one to the audience. I will use many different threads and materials to suit each particular character.
I always look in haberdashery shops to source useful bits of fabric or trim that I can add to if time is tight, even if on first sight they are bright and shiny you have to look past that and think how you could tone it down and disguise with paint, thread and bead.
I love using silk threads as they have a delicate lustre and there are some fantastic threads companies out there, but I also use metallics, which can be more difficult to work with, and I will mix a metallic machine thread with a couple of different other viscose threads to create some faux more antique looking metal work embroidery.
The threads I regularly use: Kreinik who do some lovely silk threads and a huge range of metallics and braids, Au Ver a Soie D’Alger who have lovely fine silk threads which are easy to work with, Thread Gatherers range, lovely variegated silk and wool mixes, also silk ribbons, Carons Threads who have a great range of colours in silk and wool/silk mix, Kacoonda for lovely fine silk and silk twist in subtle variegated tones, Gumnut Yarns do lovely silk and wool/silk mixes in variegated colours , Weeks Dye Works hand over dyed threads and Threadworx for hand dyed cotton.
The Miyuki beads are fantastic as there is a huge range of colours and finishes, I also use a lot of the tiny 2mm Swarovski round facetted crystals, although they have now discontinued many of the colours, very annoying! I use many tiny 2mm pearls which have minute holes that even fine beading needles are too big for, so I use a piece of metal purl wire pulled straight then folded in half as the needle, and I string the pearls onto a suitable thread and then couch the string down onto my design.
Labradorite gemstone beads, small garnets, pyrite beads, really any gemstones or beads I think suit the piece. There is a lady in America on Etsy who has some lovely French steel cut beads which I do love but they take at least a month to arrive, so I have to order early on to get them in time. The Vintaj company do various bits of filagree metal that is useful and I use some gold work purl wires, although to execute some proper gold work would take too long so I use it to add texture and frame some outlines.
I use some sequins but it can be difficult to find more subtle pearlised versions, or metallics unless you can source from India, and I have used actual fish scales too painted with pearlescent paint which you can cut to shape. Mesh wires have proven very useful the Italian tubular mesh wire is quite soft and malleable to work with, and the Scientific mesh wire is firmer. I also use many paints, also glues, leather, and I use silk crepeline or organza as a base fabric to start my embroidery designs on. Lots of Thread Heaven thread conditioner and more recently I find a magnifying glass useful for threading some of the tiny pearls along with stronger and stronger glasses.

How long does it take to complete embroidery work for a GoT costume – from design to finished costume?
I may get a couple of days to research, experiment and draw out a rough sketch of the design I want to create to show the Costume Designer, then I need to get started as for Game of Thrones there is a fast and furious filming schedule. Obviously the time each design takes depends on the complexity of stitches and bead work, how large the design is and how much of the costume is covered. Each workroom day is around 10 hours long, although sometimes a longer working day may be necessary to complete the design in time.
To give you an idea of how long I spend on some of the embroideries, for Catelyn’s double collar it took me around 3 days, Cersei’s lion emblems for Sansa’s wedding around 8 days, Cersei’s blue bird Kimono around 14 days, Sansa’s Wedding Dress band around 10 days, Danaerys’ Dragonscale costumes depending on the amount of embellishment between 3-10 days on each.

What happens to the costumes once they are used in the shootings? Having poured so much of your creativity, work, heart and soul into them, do you ever miss any of these costumes?
Mostly the production company that create the show will place them into storage, or they will be recycled to create new costumes to appear in the show. Some have been on display within Museums in the USA, or have been presented along with props from the show at the many exhibitions that HBO have done to promote the show across the Globe.
Do I miss them, I am not sure, where would I put them, I live in a very small flat with no spare room to accommodate them, I take photographs of them, so I am always able to look at them as well as watching the show to remember them, but my main focus is not looking backwards but always looking forwards at the possibilities of creating new and wonderful designs for the show.

You are preparing an exhibition of your works for 2016/2017 – where will this take place?
I am creating a very ambitious piece of work to display at the moment, I have been working on it for quite awhile now, but its creation has been constantly being paused due to my work commitments on Film and TV productions, I can’t complain I do have to make a living. The piece’s completion is drawing ever closer now and I have been approached to exhibit it within a space in the centre of London, so I am hoping it will be on show at the end of this year or the beginning of 2017.
After exhibiting this first piece I want to be able to create more of my own personal artwork that I can go on to exhibit within galleries, all ambitious work that can be viewed closely.

 

 

 

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