An Intricate Secret
Having founded Hawthorne & Heaney five years ago, Claire Barrett’s company now does embroidery for firms, from Savile Row to interior decorators
Article by Rupert Watkins
Tucked away behind a doorway just north of Oxford Street lies a den dedicated to the most intricate and delicate of craft areas: embroidery. Having worked for another embroidery firm, Hand & Lock, for four years – including one year as their creative director – Claire Barrett took the plunge and founded Hawthorne & Heaney in 2012. The two company names come from her grandmothers. Bizarrely it was only recently that Claire found out one of them was actually a shirt cutter, a fitting background perhaps for a company that embroiders the discreet client names and suit numbers into many of Savile Row’s garments.
The firm offers all areas of embroidery from initialling to creating large scale patterns and decoration for interior design. Recently Hawthorne & Heaney embroidered the detailing for new sofas in Hakkasan, Mayfair. Claire’s own specialist area is in military metalwork, “we actually do a lot of reproduction work for collectors” she comments. Much of the gold embroidery for actual British uniforms is done in India and Pakistan, “they have their own wonderful and unique tradition” Claire enthuses, “the quality is incredibly high.”
Having left Hand & Lock, Claire had no overarching plan to found her own company; at the beginning, she candidly admits she wasn’t sure if she had the knowledge or the confidence to do so. “Hawthorne & Heaney, I suppose, grew though a series of obvious choices – it would had been stupid to not make that choice at that particular time.” Very quickly she found that the amount of freelance work she received meant she had to employ other embroiderers. Thus Hawthorne and Heaney found its feet. In the beginning Claire was able to offer and deliver a faster turnaround for orders being smaller and therefore fleeter of foot than many of her competitors.
Needing space, Claire moved into a studio in Cobble Lane, initially sharing it with a taxidermist. Once he had moved out, she converted the back of the studio into a bedroom and also lived there. At a Henry Poole tailor’s exhibition at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, Claire met Geoff Wheeler of Dugdales cloths whom she found out had been following Hawthorne & Heaney and discreetly recommending her services to clients in the West End. “This gave me my springboard into Savile Row as I was able to use Dugdales Mill Street offices as a base” she recalls. The firm now embroiders the prized names and suit numbers for a selection of the Row’s tailors. Claire does smile though when she lets on, “it’s very easy to see how the overall market and individual tailors are doing each year – we know exactly how many jackets and suits are being made as we number them.”
After a spell of split working, with Claire operating out of Mill Street and her workshop still in Cobble Lane, this proved to be an inefficient way of doing business. Claire consolidated in Brewer Street Soho before her recent move at the end of 2016 to Hawthorne & Heaney’s new offices in Rathbone Place.
Driving the business forward has been a huge learning curve for Claire. “I did find I had to change as a personality – I’ve had to become far more hard headed” she comments. As with any firm, the critical mundanities such as cash flow are a constant headache but, as Claire says, the biggest challenge is industry wide, “it’s about finding the right staff; the trained artisans ready to work to the required standard immediately.” She feels she’s been very fortunate with the team she’s been able to gather but points to the lack of embroidery courses at college level as a bottle neck that this niche art has got to remain exceedingly aware of. Indeed, the Royal College of Needlework runs one course and there are a couple more run in the South East of England but for the moment, that seems to be it.
As part of the growth of the firm, Claire set up the London Embroidery School six months after founding Hawthorne & Heaney. “It was driven by popular demand” she recalls. Whilst not a replacement for comprehensive needlework training, the school offers a range of evening and weekend classes on areas including couture tambour beading and gold work braiding. Claire views these courses as integral to what Hawthorne & Heaney does and to how it projects the idea of the finest English embroidery in both the public’s and other business’s minds.
A wider challenge Claire feels is with regards to how the whole bespoke and craft arena shapes itself in the 21st Century commercial environment. She still comes across a small number of potential clients who simply don’t understand the time consuming and unique concept behind the industry itself. Regardless of the sweat needed, it is still believed that the result can be near instantaneous. There is also, she feels, a lack of understanding within this most cherished craft arena as to how best to market itself. There needs to be a coherent plan to make the investment decisions required to fuel increased emphasis on this area, the resulting revenue and thus security and growth.
Claire points to the immense support the tailoring profession has given her and many other suppliers, be that in mentoring and business advice or simply being willing to aid her in establishing her own network and contacts. She is a member of the Bespoke Tailors Benevolent Association – a body dating back to 1861 – that serves to assist and award grants where necessary to anyone who has worked in British tailoring for more than a decade. In the last couple of years Claire has served on the association’s social committee organising the annual dinners.
A growing arena for Hawthorne & Heaney is in interior design. As well as commissions for bars and restaurants such as the aforementioned Hakkasan, Claire has established relationships with a number of private client interior designers. “Many of the final clients are known to be Russian and Arab” Claire lets on, “and this frequently means very opulent, challenging but ultimately satisfying jobs.” Whether you are able to partake in this price on application world or simply prefer sauntering down Savile Row, it is worth thinking of the firms behind the firms that help provide that true final touch of exclusivity and, under Claire, Hawthorne & Heaney and its associated London Embroidery School is at the forefront of this intricate world.
London Embroidery School: www.londonembroideryschool.com/#modal