Made in Britain: the £125,000 royal state bed

British craft is taking a world tour with this magnificent bed showing the skills of London's workshops.
Taking the starring role in Harrods at the start of August 2013, following appearances in Monaco and New York, is a true ambassador for traditional British craft skills. Draped in a shimmering gold coverlet is a magnificent bed that was handmade by British craftsmen in their Willesden workshop.

The Royal State Bed known as a "half-tester", with its elaborately scalloped canopy and headboard, and piled up with pillows and bolsters, is more like a sumptuous hideaway than a modern divan.

Royal bed
The Royal State Bed has an elaborately scalloped canopy and headboard - and its fair share of pillows

The bed was the idea of Alistair Hughes, 46, the bullish MD of Savoir Beds. He put his income on the line to save the company, which has a history stretching back to the founding of The Savoy hotel in 1889, when its beds were made in the hotel workshops.

Savoy beds can claim testimonials for their comfort from Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill plus visiting royalty, including the late King Hassan of Morocco, who ordered 24 beds for his palace. Alistair Hughes, who admits to verging on the evangelical in promoting British craftsmanship, breathed life back into the ailing Savoy bed workshop in 1997, when the number of craftworkers had fallen to three.

Now there are 40, mostly trained by the original foreman, and more than half of the approximately 1,000 beds made each year are exported, to Europe, China, Russia, the Arab states and the US.

Royal bed
© Tania Chapman
At Savoir's Willesden workshops, even the company's cute Boston terrier has its own mini four-poster bed
Savoir's latest store opening was in Taiwan in June, bringing the number of showrooms around the world to 12. "Britain cannot compete in many areas of mass production," Hughes says. "But we are brilliant at bespoke at the luxury end of the market."

Each Royal State Bed is made entirely to order. A red version has just gone to the British ambassador's residence in Beijing and a silver one will be launched in September at Decorex, part of London's city-wide interior design fair. "London, with its international jet-setters, is the perfect base for us," adds Hughes. "It's the international centre of design, and attracts interior designers from all over the world." Savoir regularly takes on apprentices. "People should be proud of working with their hands," says Hughes.

At Savoir's Willesden workshops even the company's cute Boston terrier has a mini four-poster with hand-tufted mattress.

Seamstresses and upholsterers quietly get on with the job. Making the wooden bases is noisier, and a "new" spring-making machine has been rescued from a Yorkshire supplier that was going out of business. Nearby is another recent acquisition, a carding machine, marked "made in Huddersfield 1908". This was "found on eBay," says Hughes triumphantly.

Savoir's Royal State Bed (based on an original state bed at Raynham Hall in Norfolk), celebrates the current Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber exhibition of 17th- and 18th-century rare and carefully restored historic royal beds open now at Hampton Court Palace until November 3 (hrp. org.uk). Only 60 of the modern Royal State Beds — each individually numbered — will be made, as a tribute to the 60 years of the Queen's reign.

Oh, yes, and the price? Well, at £125,000 this must be the most expensive bed in the world. But as Hughes points out: "Our bed took 604 hours to make and should last at least 25 years."

Royal bed
Traditional mattresses are handcrafted
A fine art making the bed
British craftsmen are at the heart of the enterprise. First, there are the bed-makers themselves, who crafted the frame, made and hand-tied the springs, and applied layers of upholstery in fine horsehair, wool and cashmere. Drapes and the "sunray" pleated lining for the half-tester were hand-stitched.

The trellis-pattern ticking was designed in 1905 by Lady D'Oyly Carte, wife of the famous impresario who was the original founder of The Savoy hotel.

The weavers of the 100 metres of gold silk damask fabric are Vanners of Suffolk. This company dates back more than 250 years, and has a unique archive of over 250,000 designs. The canopy upholsterers are Albert E Chapman in Barnet, who have held a royal warrant from the Queen since 1988. They revived an old skill of applying fabric to woodwork, discovered when restoring Handel's House in Mayfair. The coverlet was made by Southern Drapes.

Embroiderers from the Royal School of Needlework (founded in 1872) at Hampton Court Palace worked the crest that tops the bed, with its motto "dorme bene, vive bene" ("sleep well, live well"). They used "long-and-short" shading, known as "painting in silk".

The braiding that conceals seams was made by Trimmings by Design of Nottingham, which can trace its history back to the early 1800s. And Watts of Westminster supplied tiebacks, tassels, and cushions.

Savoir Beds are in Wigmore Street, W1, King's Road, SW10, and Harrods, SW1 (020 8838 4838; savoirbeds.co. uk). For more British craftsmanship visit royal-needlework.org.uk; vanners.com; trimmingsbydesign.co.uk; southerndrapes.co.uk, and watts1874.co.uk

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