Dressing the Iron Throne: Michelle Carragher

Long work hours and a hectic schedule are very much the norm for Game of Thrones costume embroiderer, Michele Carragher. Having just completed work for the fourth season of the show inspired by George R.R Martin’s books, Carragher generously finds time to fit me into a schedule that is largely consumed by embroidery work for a series of ball gowns that will feature in Nicole Kidman’s upcoming historical biography, Queen of the Desert.

Carragher is candid and colourful personality, and weaves her story and experiences through our conversation as deftly as she uses a needle and thread to weave the intricate and beautiful pieces of embroidery that convey so much about a character.

Carragher has been in the textile industry for over 15 years. After completing her studies in fashion design at the London College of Fashion, she worked in Textile Conservation. Following this, Carragher entered the field of TV and film costumes, and began working on productions which included Elizabeth I and David Copperfield.

Since 2012, she has been working alongside costume designer Michele Clapton (with whom she has worked with previously and who asked her to join the HBO production) to create four seasons of breathtaking Game of Thrones costumes that are as intelligent as much as they are beautiful.

“Each costume with its cut, colour, style, and small details is a very important narrative tool that can express much to a viewer,” she explains. “I myself have to understand what is appropriate in order to reveal and portray each character’s personality, so costume embroidery for film and television is not necessarily just making a pretty image on a garment.”

In season three, audiences were treated to a particularly exquisite wedding costume worn by Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) for her marriage to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). The costume consisted of a dress completed by a wedding band that was embroidered by Carragher. The wedding band depicted the initial House Tully and House Stark marriage alliance between Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairly) and Ned Stark (Sean Bean), evolving to show the Stark direwolf joining with the Lannister lion, with the two eventually merging to show a final image of a triumphant Lannister lion.

Carragher tells me that Sansa’s wedding band was created to “reflect the conflicts and battles within the show; [to have] something that told Sansa’s life story [while being] wrapped around her… The dress colour was still very much Sansa Stark and the embroidery had pale golden tones but woven through the story are ripe red pomegranates, the red colour symbolising the growing Lannister influence over her.”

With the fast paced and intense nature of Game of Thrones, one doesn’t always have the chance to appreciate the detail on these costumes, nor indeed, the amount of time each piece takes to complete. Sansa’s wedding band alone took Carragher over 14 days to complete, equating to around 140-150 hours of work. Something like Catelyn Stark’s collars, she tells me, each take Carragher about 3 days to produce (30-35 hours), whilst Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon scale dresses can take anywhere between 3-7 days to complete, depending on the amount of detail that is required.

It’s a lot of work certainly, especially considering Carragher’s insistence to complete all her work by hand, whether that be pieces of embroidery or the creation of intricate 3D insects for the costumes of the characters from Qarth.

But she’s not complaining. Indeed, she praises Clapton for sticking to the use of traditional textile techniques for the making of costumes in Game of Thrones. “She [Michele Clapton] is a great supporter of artists and craftspeople, she really pursues the costumes being made with traditional processes, and luckily for me she loves to have hand embroidery.”

In her long and fruitful career, Carragher has worked on a number of other film and television productions, including Our Mutual Friend and Mansfield Park. She cites Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot and Waterhouses’ painting of the cursed Lady of Shallot as the driving inspiration for a lot of her work. So I ask Carragher what it is about Game of Thrones, with its share of blood and gore, which inspires and appeals to her. “I am inspired in my design work by decay and beauty in equal measure. I would say Game of Thrones would be close to Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” [both of] which encapsulate themes of love and death,” she tells me.

“There is certainly a battle in the Game of Thrones series to see what wins over, love or death, but I am sure the latter is winning at the moment… I would say death is the true winner over love. I suppose it has always been.”

I finish our interview by asking Michele for some hints of what we can expect for the costumes and character developments in the next few seasons of Game of Thrones. She informs me that season four will see a definite development for some characters, particularly Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey).

“Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon scale costumes continue to develop, and as Cersei Lannister’s narrative evolves we see this reflected in her embroidery on her costumes.”

When asked if she can possibly tell fans more, her joking decline is in true Game of Thrones fashion.

“If I did tell you too much then I may get a scratch on my house’s roof. [And if I was to] go out to investigate I’d find a bloodthirsty dragon from HBO waiting to devour me.”

“It is best that I be more like the character of Jon Snow in my answer to you: ‘I know nothing!’”

Originally published by Honi Soit