Hand & Lock: the finer details
Tucked away on an unremarkable road, just to the north of Oxford Street’s fast-fashion hustle, a very different kind of design work is taking place. Keeping alive the historic tradition of hand embroidery, a team of young designers is continuing the craft of a business that dates back to the 18th century.
Step inside the double-height cloisters of Hand & Lock, and you enter a reception room that instantly casts you back in time. Deep red walls are lined with dark wooden boxes with labels such as, “Diamanté mounts/cross back/ 444g/ silver 5mm x 5mm” and “Sapphire half cut beads/ 1mm”; there’s a framed handwritten letter from Cecil Beaton, and a vast velvet banner from the Diamond Jubilee that tells the story of the house’s longstanding relationship with royalty.
The history of Hand & Lock begins with M. Hand, a Hugenot refugee lacemaker from Flanders, who added embroidery to his services when he founded M Hand & Co in 1767. Spending much of his time occupied with ceremonial work for the military and royalty, he eventually gained the royal warrant. Then, in 1956, a young designer called Stanley Lock was working for the 1898-founded CE Phipps & Co, creating embroidery for the top fashion designers of his day, such as Norman Hartnell and Christian Dior. Taking over the reins when Mr Phipps retired, Lock boldly renamed the company after himself. In 1998, Alastair Macleod (himself from a family of tailors) acquired M Hand & Co and, in 2001, merged the two businesses to produce Hand & Lock, combining Hand’s stately decoration with Lock’s stylish flair.
Today, the mix of traditional versus high-fashion work covers military, royal and ecclesiastical commissions to jobs for designers including Burberry and Anya Hindmarch. While commissions from the clergy can involve restoration work of historic pieces, the team was recently approached to design an altar cloth from scratch for a church in Westminster. Likewise, military orders placed daily from around the world (for the RAF, US Navy and Royal Marines, as well as enthusiastic collectors) are mostly for standard beret badges, epaulettes and aiguillettes, but recently the house was asked to create a badge for a new regiment. Theatres order runs of handmade synthetic braid to mimic the goldwork for costumes when budgets and deadlines run too tight to accommodate the real thing. For Michael Jackson, however, there was no expense spared: the gold work for the sumptuous Gieves & Hawkes tailcoat designed for his late-1980s Bad tour is one of the finest examples of Hand & Lock hand embroidery. “If you were to commission one today, it would cost in the region of £75,000,” a Gieves & Hawkes spokesperson tells me.
Monogramming is another speciality. Walk-in customers bring armfuls of shirts while fashion houses including Dior, Fendi and Stella McCartney come for bespoke in-store monogramming events. They initial everything from pyjamas to velvet dress slippers for Savile Row’s top names including Turnbull & Asser, Gieves & Hawkes, Anderson & Sheppard, Kilgour and Spencer Hart, while tailors such as Henry Poole & Co entrusts them with officers’ military badges. “We have a lot of students and new designers coming to collaborate with us,” adds head embroiderer Janika Mägi, citing Fashion East’s Ed Marler and emerging menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner. “It’s great because they bring us new ideas, and we can combine these with historical techniques.”
The diversity of the work appeals to production director Jessica Pile, who trained in costume design at the Central School of Speech and Drama and joined the team four years ago. “One day I’m working on Louis Vuitton, the next on someone’s dressing gown.” Pile, just 26, heads up the small but dynamic team of seven, also mostly in their mid to late twenties. Expert freelancers are drafted in when additional manpower is required, such as for a one-of-a-kind Nicholas Oakwell gown for the Great Festival of Creativity in Shanghai, where 400 hours of ombre featherwork were squeezed into six days by 17 embroiderers.
The young team is eager to emphasise the importance of hand-embroidery within a fashion industry that is becoming increasingly steered by mass production and pinched margins. For spring/summer 2015, Hand & Lock launched an in-house collection to showcase the team’s talents, one of the Initiatives spearheaded by Pile, who views her role as to, “push things forward. My job is to extend the classes, the tours, the prize – making sure that we are out there and we’re known.”
Running since 2001 and with £26,000 prize money at stake, the annual Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery receives strong interest. “Last year’s winner, Steven Sheldon, went on to start his own company,” says McCaffrey. Evening and weekend workshops have proved so popular that, when the company travelled to New York last year, attendees flew in from Columbia and Israel.
At every turn, signs of modernisation are creeping into the historical house, necessary to keep the business both relevant and profitable. The team sketch with pencil on paper at their desks but communication is via email on Apple Mac computers. Tired-looking, tiny cardboard boxes stuffed with military badges and frogging are gradually being replaced by metal drawers labelled with barcodes.
Opening a drawer labelled “RAF Wings”, McCaffrey pulls out a cap badge. “They’re like little gems,” he enthuses. “It’s insanely complicated and delicate,” he says, gesturing to the goldwork. “The threads are actually foam wire coils cut to size, threaded through the centre, pinned down and then edged with another wire stitch called pearl-purl.”
Holding up a roll of shimmering ribbon, he says, “This is two per cent gold, so it’s cold if you hold it to your cheek. It tarnishes over time, it’s a living breathing fabric.” Silver thread is sealed in lightproof bags and stored in metal drawers to prevent damage. “This is for people who have the money and want to do things properly.”
Many designers sample work here that may then be passed over to in-house embroidery teams if the pieces go into production. They have created badges for Chanel and broderie anglaise for Alexander McQueen, and personalised blankets for Burberry.