When a friend of mine said she was plannning to start a blog about her beautiful creations, I immediately asked her to write an article for me. Paula makes exquisite, handstitched historical costumes, think costume drama, Elizabethan gowns, Renaissance garments embroidered with pearls, just as you imagine ladies in the Royal Courts of byone days wearing. If you are at all interested in history, you will love Paula’s work.
This is what Paula said.
My passion was awakened at the age of six when my Grandma gave me a children’s Singer sewing machine. It was basic, with only a chain stitch, but this was how I created clothes for my dolls. I was also intrigued whenever I saw Tudor portraits and people wearing sumptuously highly decorated materials that twinkled with gold embroidery entwined around precious jewels and pearls.
Tudor reproduction, Buckland
Little did I realise that this ‘magpie’ instinct would lead me to other things later in my life! As a child my greatest joys were the sewing lessons at a convent school. The hours of tedious theory and early lessons in practical applications have stood me in good stead and became the building blocks for this lifelong passion. Quickly these lessons developed a pattern. I would carefully cut out my project and prepare the ground work with tailor’s tacks before going home. By the time I returned to class a week later, the garment would be complete and my teacher would try hard to find fault but never did! My exam results were always in the high 90s. To some this might sound big headed but to me it was a natural process like breathing. As a teenager I was always making my own clothes, this then continued when I married and had children of my own. At one point I even worked in Quality Control in a busy factory manufacturing shirts. All these added to my knowledge of construction.
Like many I have dabbled in various forms of needlework apart from making clothes. For many years I created cross stitch pictures, some took months to complete but it was a great way to learn patience. Then twenty years ago I decided to take my City & Guilds in Creative Studies. At the same time I became a re-enactor in a large 17th century based society called the Sealed Knot. This was heaven for me; finally I found a way to marry together my keen interests in textiles with historically based garments. The C&G gave me the much needed inspiration to research, experiment and improve my needlework skills. Quite early into the C&G studies I decided not to make samples that sit in a box under the bed, if I was going to make things, I also wanted to use them!
This is my reproduction of a 17th century coif panel in progress.
Research, research, research became my mantra. I couldn’t get enough of it. I toured museums in Scotland and England to feed the frenzy of more knowledge. Books, postcards, photographs and notes quickly filled and previous voids in the house! Creation of costumes was another aspect. Modern dressmaking techniques just didn’t produce the correct finished lines so I adapted and realised that this was more like engineering construction as opposed to the more usual dressmaking techniques.
I revelled in the museum visits; the hours spent practicing my new embroidery skills and even relished the research/design processes. Members within the Sealed Knot began noticing the outfits I was making for myself and the family. These differed greatly from the usual costumes that the members saw at the weekly musters and often I would be approached by others to see how I had constructed my garments. Frequently I would receive comments like ‘You look like you’ve walked out of a Vermeer painting’ or ‘How come we can’t get ours to look that good?’ but the best remark was ‘This is how we should be looking!’ You just can’t get better compliments than those from your peers.
A chance request from a local Embroiderer’s Guild to do a talk gave me another avenue to explore. It was then that I went out doing just that, speaking to groups and finally exhibiting at Sulgrave Manor alongside other known embroiderer’s and costume makers. One of the strangest was to address a group of metal detectorists but they gained an insight as to how buttons (that they frequently found) were made and how they were utilised on an historical doublet.
An example from Buckland Abbey
So what now? Life, like for most people got in my way. I had to turn my back on this enjoyable aspect of my life to earn a living but more recently, to gain an honours degree. I am now ready to take up my needle again. Life has thrown another curveball in my direction and the need to develop another way to earn my living. Yet again, I am planning to pick up where I left off but this time with even more appreciation of the history and skills my forebears put into their textile creations. My interests have now widened to encapsulate different historical periods. Already my brain is leaping somersaults and I can visualise medieval motifs aping the exquisite illuminated manuscripts that were a sign of conspicuous wealth. The Viking Age is another aspect that I would love to indulge in. Mythical beasts sinuously curving around golden stitches and intricate Celtic knot patterns seem to fill my imagination.
I am looking forward to 2014 and being able to start in a new direction. My acquired skills from a lifetime of sewing, my C&G and degree studies are now enthusing me to start researching again. I have taken up knitting too as perhaps my eyes and hands are no longer up to more intricate works that previously I could spend hours working at. Until I try I won’t know what I am capable of, but one thing is sure, I will fully enjoy whatever way my future interests will take me!
Paula Kelly BA (Hons).
I hope that you will all pop over to Paula’s new blog. If you follow her it will be interesting to see her blog develop and her work evolve , a real treat for the history buffs amongst you . She can be found at
Meanwhile here are a couple more photos, including a recently knitted family heirloom, click for a slide show.