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The Embroiderer’s Dream

Rising senior in Art + Design, Carly Owen shares her visit to the Benton & Johnson Factory and the art of making metal threads. 

We arrived in a small town called Bedworth. A quiet, peaceful community, which greatly contrasted the bustle of London in which we had become accustomed to. As soon as we had stepped off the train, we were greeted by an amiable-looking man. His name was Neil Halford, manager of Benton and Johnson which is a company that specializes in producing metal threads, primarily those made of gold and silver. The products crafted at Benton and Johnson are truly an embroiderer’s dream.

Upon entering the Benton and Johnson factory, the constant buzzing and humming of machinery were immediately noticed. Halford sarcastically mentioned the “modernity” of the factory. The company itself is over 300 years old and some of the machinery used in metal thread production today is almost equally as such.

IMG_4956Aside from Halford, only two hardworking employees make up Benton and Johnson. The company furnishes over 1000 metal thread products and process of making these goods are incredibly hands-on and labor intensive. The older technology used at Benton and Johnson is suitable for making small runs of products.

A few types of metal threads produced at Benton and Johnson are the smooth purl, the rough purl, the pearl purl and the bullion. These threads are primarily used for the technique of Goldwork embroidery.

As Halford explained the numerous machines used in metal thread production, my brain began to experience some system overload. The process of creating each thread is extremely meticulous and requires the execution of several processes from drawing the gold plated wire by heating it through a die to “purling” or spinning the flat wires into a spring-like shape that is created by spinning the metal wire around a needle. I had seen metal threads before in pictures but had never been able to understand just how much hard work and fine craftsmanship was needed to produce these small wiry gems. One of the workers at Benton and Johnson, Dot, demonstrated the process of spinning the gold pearl purl thread. As the threads were finishing she offered us, a clipped-off piece of the gold pearl purl that she had made. I was surprised by the utter softness and silky-ness of the thread, it almost felt like a tiny inchworm.

The needle spinning process of creating gold pearl purl.

The needle spinning process of creating gold pearl purl.

Coming from a person who had never used or even touched metal threads, I found my experience at Benton and Johnson to be completely enriching. Not only had I been able to see the various types of threads used in Goldwork embroidery, I had been able to see how these threads had been crafted. I find that my understanding of these materials is that much more profound because I literally experienced the material inside and out. I absolutely cannot wait to use these gold threads as we continue our studies at the RSN.

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