Movies and tv series

Game of Thrones Costume Embroiderer Michele Carragher Tells us About Her Seamless Art

30.04.2019 | By ELENA LONGARI

As the new season of Game of Thrones is about to land on our screens, reason for which some of you are avoiding social media and possible sneak peeks/spoilers, fans from all over the world are also about to get their heart broken, as season 8 will wrap things up for HBO record breaking show.

We have already taken you on the discovery journey into how part of the stellar success of the show is due to the multifaceted characters; their change of persona, and their power or vulnerability, was conveyed by the work of Prime-Time Emmy award costume designer Michele Clapton. In a world of cutting-edge technology applied to fashion, including AI and 3D printing, we have found the story of the meticulous work behind the embellishments of Cersei Lannister’s dresses as a new leading force, a combination of skills and creativity, that can inspire anyone, from young talents in the field to fans, to achieve greater things. The force that the lion crest embroidery on Sansa’s wedding dress or Daenerys’s dragon scale embroidery were meant to convey.

There is one person behind these works of art and that’s why we have spoken to Game of Thrones costume Embroiderer Michele Carragher to find out how, stich after stitch, her works of art have sawn the most relevant characters in TV history.

Can you tell us how you got into embroidery, why did you choose this type of art?

My skills and interest in sewing were forged at an early age, being taught some basic stitching by my Mother. The first major manifestation of using embroidery as a creative medium was while I studied Fashion Design at college, a lot of the designs I was conceiving there I wanted them to have a sculptural presence, so in order to get the desired look I invested much time into learning skills to aid me, such as embroidery, millinery and knitting.

Where I truly honed my hand needle skills was after college when I worked in Textile Conservation, learning different techniques and stitches, absorbing inspiration from all the beautiful historical textiles that passed through my hands. Some of the most interesting pieces I had to do a little conservation work on were a couple of costumes worn by Marilyn Monroe, the famous little black beaded number worn in “Some Like it Hot” and the sexy show stopping red sequinned dress from “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” that she and her co-star Jane Russell wore, they were lovely to see and were so tiny.

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Apart from absorbing much inspiration from all these textiles, and learning different techniques, working in Conservation has also given me the opportunity to practise my embroidery, building up speed and precision, all skills that have proven invaluable for my work in Film and TV.

For GoT, do you come up with subjects for the embroideries according to the scene and character or there’s a set brief to follow?

Whether you are working on a Contemporary, Period or Fantasy TV or Film Production a costume is always a fundamental device to present a character’s personality to an audience. Each costume with its cut, colour, style, and small details, is a very important narrative tool that can express much to a viewer. One of the smaller details of a costume can be that of embroidery, my work as an embroiderer entails visualising and capturing what the Costume Designer on a production wants for a specific characters costume, I myself have to understand what is appropriate in order to reveal and portray each characters personality. It is a very collaborative process and I am just a small part of a very large team bringing the Costume Designer’s sketches to life.

My process when creating an embroidery design for a costume on Game of Thrones starts by meeting with Michele Clapton who is the Costume Designer on the show, she will have illustrations, moodboards, colours and fabric swatches of the costume that I will be creating a design for. We will discuss a character’s back-story, their traits, their personal narrative within the script and this will all go towards influencing my design.

After my initial conversation with Michele I will then go away and research in relation to the piece I am creating, this usual involves me looking for imagery to inspire me, either by visiting Museums, looking through Historical Costume reference books or just looking on the internet, I get my inspiration from anywhere and in everything, I love sculpture, architectural decoration, vintage textiles, jewellery, Haute couture embroidery, and in nature, I will draw on elements from many sources to develop an idea.

For the next stage I will need to start sourcing suitable materials that will help to portray the character’s status and personality. When I start my embroidery I will draw my design onto tracing paper and pin it to the costume or costume toile (prototype) to work out the flow and scale of the design required.

The way I approach my embroidery is as if I were drawing or painting using threads and beads instead of pencil and paint and the design will evolve organically as I work on it. I will create some samples to show the designer my ideas and this gives them the opportunity to have their input into the design and steer it in their desired direction.

I have always enjoyed incorporating hidden meanings and metaphor within my designs for a character’s costume especially on Game of Thrones.

I will place imagery mostly naturalistic such as flowers that I have researched and have found them to add some meaning to the personal narrative and personality of a character that I am working on. For example for Queen Cersei Lannister, who was an obvious candidate for some decoration, her embroidery could be quite rich and decorative given her status. Regarding showing her personality within her embroidery designs, one of her first costumes I embroidered was her blue bird dress, the embroidery reflected her position at the time when we are introduced to her in Season One, she is a beautiful woman with a hidden desire for power and wishing to be regarded as an equal in the male dominated world she inhabits. At that stage she lives in the shadow of her husband King Robert Baratheon, who holds power over her and the Kingdom, having this imagery of a bright colourful bird on her costume helps to belie Cersei’s intention of power under a soft unthreatening feminine look and references the twittering and scheming she is involved with behind the scenes.

After Robert’s death Cersei and her family the Lannisters take over power when her son Joffrey becomes the King, at that point Cersei grows in position and strength and starts to reflect this new authority and loyalty to her family by wearing the Lannister Sigil of the Lion on her costumes more predominantly. She presents a stronger more powerful look that has a regal structure and adornment, so the embroidery on her costumes was a useful symbolism to express her personal narrative, following her status transformation from a weaker woman to a more powerful one.

I have found working with Michele Clapton, 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 freedom and the opportunity to create diverse and interesting work, she has a great spirit and enthusiasm in her approach to realise her vision for the show.

What materials do you use, how long does it take to complete the embroideries for one costume?

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 may get a couple of days to research, experiment and draw out a rough sketch of the design I want to create to show Michele the Costume Designer, then I need to get started as for Game of Thrones there was 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 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’s Dragonscale  costumes depending on the amount of embellishment between 3-10 days on each.

Which is your favourite GoT character and why?

With Game of Thrones there are many characters that you follow and change your opinion on as their character changes throughout the series, so it is difficult to pinpoint one favourite.

I do like Tyrion, as I think many people do, but I do also miss one particular character after he departed the programme and that is Joffrey, reason being he was so bad that he was good, he would light up every scene he appeared in.  He is obviously not a character you should admire, or if you do you may need to seek professional medical attention straight away.

For a character who was so flawed there was so much perfection involved, Jack Gleeson the actor who played him, he may not agree with this but he was born to play this role, the perfection was in his look and performance, such great casting for this pure evil baby faced killer, to me as a viewer he was very engaging, and delightfully bad to the very end.