The last season of Game of Thrones has been a dramatic one and with the finale finally here, the anticipation is off the scale!
To celebrate the gripping show’s end, we caught up with Principle Costume Embroiderer for seasons 1-8, Michele Carragher to get behind the scenes on her fascinating work.
You’ve done some incredible work and in a very niche area, how did you first get into embroidery?
At an early age I got involved in sewing and embroidery, encouraged and being taught basic skills by my Mother and Grandmother, initially I made clothes for my dolls, this progressed further when I attended the London College of Fashion where I studied Fashion Design, it was on this course where I started for the first time using embroidery truly creatively, the designs I was conceiving there I wanted them to have a sculptural presence.
After college through a mutual friend and because of my hand embroidery skills, I was given the opportunity to work in Textile Conservation; this is where I honed my hand needle skills.
And how did you get into embroidery work for TV and film?
In my mid-twenties, I got involved with a group of friends who were making short films and I took on the role of Costume Designer for them. By working on these amateur films it gave me the chance to experiment and was a good grounding for me to learn about working with costumes for film.
Through one of these friends, I worked with on the short films I was given an opportunity to work within a Costume Department on a low budget feature film. It was on this production that I was very fortunate to meet and work for the Costume Designer Mike O’Neill, who I then continued to work with for many years, being mentored, nurtured and allowed to develop on each project we worked on together.
In 2005 Mike gave me my first role solely as Principal Costume Embroiderer on the HBO miniseries “Elizabeth I” which starred Dame Helen Mirren. It was a daunting opportunity with lots of responsibility but I relished this step-up in my career. Working on Elizabeth 1 saw me for the first time, becoming more of a designer than an assistant, and I was given more creative control in my own right.
What genre/period of history do you enjoy the most and why?
I don’t really have a specific period or genre that would be my favourite, but obviously, because I am involved in embroidery and embellishment, then it would be any project lending itself to some decorative elements, be that contemporary, fantasy or period.
Each project that I am asked to work on will present a new challenge to me, be it sumptuous Haute Couture embroidery, creating a texture or textile art, or working on some darned patterns, and for each I will explore different techniques and materials to suit each piece.
Your work on Game of Thrones is absolutely beautiful – how did this opportunity arise?
After working on Elizabeth 1 I was introduced to the Costume Designer Michele Clapton through Alex Fordham one of her Assistant Designers, who I had previously met when working with Mike O’Neill. Michele was working on the 2008 BBC productions of “Sense and Sensibility” and asked me to create some embroidery for her costumes, shawls, and also to create some decorative fans and reticles.
After this production, I then worked on various projects with Michele where she got to know the sort of things I could create for her, so when she had the fortune to work on “Game of Thrones” she had me in mind to create some pieces. Initially, I just created some embroidered collars on the pilot for the ladies of the Stark household, and when working on a pilot it isn’t guaranteed that the programme will be commissioned, so at that point, we had no idea how long the journey would be.
You’ve done some fantastic creations across several seasons of GoT- which was your favourite costume piece to embroider?
This is impossible to answer, I realise I have been very fortunate to work for Michele Clapton and with her team on a production like Game of Thrones, it has allowed me to develop, experiment and hone my skills through subsequent series of the show. Because it is a fantasy, although each costume has to be grounded it the characters personality, status and surroundings, I have been free to use many different styles within my work.
For the embroidery, I may use the sigil designs (coat of arms) or their entities, or be creating a texture for a particular character, so it is hard to pick one piece as every character has evolved through the series. To mention a few, I was very pleased with, Cersei’s bluebird kimono style dress from season 1 to 2, and the lions on Cersei’s rust red kimono that appeared in season 3, which was one of the earlier pieces where I started to push the embroidery into 3D.
I also enjoyed creating Cersei’s embroidered armour, a gorget and shoulder pieces that she wore in season 7, Catelyn Stark’s collars with concentrated areas of embellishment, and Dany’s dragon scale textures have been enjoyable to develop over the seasons, the Qarth insects where I could really create 3D pieces, and the Dornish ladies costumes that I created for season 5 with bead weave and ribbon work, they were a riot of colour and were very satisfying for me to create, there is more but I will stop there.
Which was the hardest/most troublesome piece/aspect/costume to work on?
I had some concerns over one particular costume for a character called Myrcella, Cersei’s daughter, it was one of the costumes she wore whilst she was in Dorne which appeared in season 5. I wasn’t sure how the embroidery would sit on the fabric of this particular costume, Myrcella had a collection of costumes made for her while she was in Dorne, mainly made from organdie, so they were quite firm to work on and could hold even more heavy beading without it dragging the fabric.
For this particular dress, Michele Clapton wanted to create something quite different to the others, which would be in a bias cut chiffon, so I wasn’t sure if my beading and embroidery would work on this fabric, but I am always game to give things a go and once the dress had been made and fitted, the Costume Maker padded the dress stand to the actresses shape so the dress was stretched to her size on it. I then created the first stage of the embroidery on some invisible organza, painting out the outline design, embroidering and beading into it, I pinned this piece on the dress and stitched it into place, adding a little more embroidery.
My concern was that the heavy beadwork would drag on the chiffon and create unsightly puckers, but fortunately, the chiffon was fairly substantial and it all worked like a dream.
Another costume that was a bit tricky to sew on was for Tywin Lannister, it was a breastplate to be worn while he lay in state after his untimely death. Again I created the embroidery separately and the Costume Maker asked if I wanted to stitch it on before or after she had added all the interlinings, I said after, which as it turned out was the wrong option as the interlinings were quite thick and very difficult to sew through, so it took a while and many bent and broken needles, but I now know if I’m asked again which would be the best solution.
Working on production such as Game of Thrones even with it having a large budget, I found the most troublesome aspect to be the time factor. There is a vast amount of work to complete, and as the schedules change you can find you have less time for some pieces than you initially thought when you first set about creating them, in this situation you have to be adaptable in how you set about things, you have to use your time wisely, be efficient, still pushing your creativity, work long hours to try to achieve the vision you have for your designs within the parameters of these time restrictions.
Where do you start with such intricate, detailed embroidery seen on the likes of Cersei and Queen Margaery?
The work that I have done in Textile Conservation was invaluable to my work within Film and TV. In my conservation work I had built up speed and precision in my stitching, I had developed various transferrable skills and gained prior knowledge as to which techniques I found to be the quickest and easiest to use.
Also when restoring embroideries I have had to source different materials to suit each piece, so I have a developed a vast database of where to buy different materials and what may suit a specific piece I am being asked to work on.
So when creating embroidery for Cersei, given her status and the lavish embroidery I imagined for her costumes, I knew I would be making life difficult for myself due to the time constraints before the costume would be needed for filming. So this is when I started to set about creating the embroidery separate to the costume, whilst it was being made and fitted, giving me more time and less pressure as I’m not holding up the costume makers process, and I began the first stage of the designs by creating a kind of motif to develop further when applied to the completed costume. This way of creating the work for Michele’s costumes on Game of Thrones has served me well.
Margaery’s wedding dress in season 4 wasn’t too difficult really as I could make all the stems, thorns, leaves, rose buds etc whilst the costume was being made and fitted, but there were rather a lot of the rolled roses needed to fill the godet train at the back of the dress, spilling down from the stems at the back waist.
This took me back to my millinery module at college, where I had learned to create rolled roses, which are fairly simple to do, although then I didn’t have to make quite so many in such a short space of time.
There were around 350 roses on Margaery’s dress, for which I only had a few days to make enough to fill the train, and apart from creating them, the task of sewing them all on lay ahead.
Which is your all time favourite costume on GoT?
Sorry I don’t have an all-time favourite, there are too many, but if I had to single some out then I really loved the armour worn by the Lannisters’ main male cast, the red and black one which has gold lion heads on the shoulders and Joffrey’s armour worn at the Blackwater Battle from season 2 was very special, another armour I liked was Brienne’s simple blue/black armour given to her by Jamie.
I also loved the simple costume Arya wears in season 1 when learning to sword fight with Syrio Forel, and Sansa and Arya’s season 7/8 new looks are great, the cutting, shape and colour palettes are really strong.
What do you think of the new season’s costumes? Sansa Stark has had a particularly dramatic wardrobe change.
The new season costumes look amazing, particular Sansa’s which have a strong look that took on a new dimension last season and have further developed into this new season.
What was it like working with Michele Clapton and her designs and costume team?
Working with Michele has been fun and very rewarding, she is a great advocate of Arts and Crafts Artisans, I have found working with her from the design conception to the completion of an embroidery for a costume to be a very collaborative and supportive process, she has encouraged me and given me the freedom and opportunity to create diverse and interesting work, she has a great spirit and enthusiasm in her approach to realise her vision for the show, which is very infectious and feeds and drives all who work for her to create the best work they can do.
What was your favourite part about embroidering costumes for GoT?
Working on Game of Thrones has been very creatively rewarding but challenging as to how to go about each piece within the limited time available before it is needed on set. It is always amazing to see how things translate on screen and it is a continual learning process, and as it has been a long-running series, I have had the luxury of returning each season to try and improve on what had been done previously. None of us set out to make a bad costume, but nothing is ever perfect from the maker’s point of view, you learn and move forward with your knowledge and experience onto the next production determined to set about bringing the costume designer’s vision to life.
Now that it has all come to an end I would say that my favourite part would be having worked with and met the many talented people who have collaborated within the costume department, the cutters, the makers, the breakdown artists, the dyers and armourers, over the many seasons, it was great to see how many of them through their work have gained confidence and developed creatively. I have made many friends for life; I think we all feel very privileged to have worked on this show.
Finally, how do you think the series will end or maybe you can’t say!
Like Jon Snow “I know nothing”, apart from the Pilot programme, I was never given a script, so I have no idea of how things will pan out in the end. I hope it all ends in a blaze of glory, with lots of gory deaths. I hope they haven’t gone for a Dynasty-style ending, in which Ned Stark steps out of his Ye Olde Medieval shower and we all discover it was just a bad dream!
Catch the finale of Game of Thrones on Sunday 19th May (US) and Monday 20th May (UK).