Dior Couture with Lesage Embroidery

Since beginning this blog, I have intended to write a post about embroidery. It's a particular interest of mine, as my sisters and I spent much of our childhood attending embroidery classes at The Embroider's Guild. Once a fortnight we would spend two hours on a Saturday afternoon being instructed (along with other girls aged between 7 and 14), in various embroidery stitches, working our way through the set projects until we graduated. It is only as a Mother myself that I can now appreciate exactly why my Mother thought this was so important. Firstly she managed to get all three of us out of the house for a few hours on rainy or very hot weekends, plus we were learning a life skill. Win/win.


Lacroix jacket with Lesage embroidery

The embellishment of clothes and household linens has been around for centuries. Long gone though, are the days when to while away the hours Ladies would spend hours embroidering and embellishing their homes and wardrobes, or would prepare for marriage by embroidering a trousseau of household linens and clothing for their new home. Embroidery is a dying art, and has not experienced the same resurgence in recent years as knitting and patchwork have. This is perhaps because it requires more skill. Embroidery is something that takes years to learn and improve on, and it also requires excellent fine motor skills… Knitting and patchwork equally require skill (and can get quite complicated), but a basic scarf or square block quilt can be knocked out by a relative novice by comparison.

 Christian Lacroix with Lesage embroidery


 detail on a Balenciaga dress

from a recent collection, Oscar de la Renta dress with machine embroidery

In this age of mass consumption, the enduring trend in Interiors and Fashion relate to the handmade, the detail that is difficult to replicate by a factory and to sell down market to the chain stores. An example of this is the hand made wallpapers by companies like de Gournay and Gracie - no mass company has been able to replicate a hand painted Chinoiserie pattern successfully to date, and so these wallpapers still have the allure of the special and the unattainable (unless you have plenty of money, in which case they are perfectly attainable). With embroidery, certainly you can buy machine embroidered passementerie tapes to edge curtains with, but the truly luxurious use of embroidery is in the curtain that has the embroidery sewn into the design, rather than applied retrospectively. Similarly there is a vast difference in appearance between an embroidered Monogram on bed linen made by, say, Leontine linens, and one made by a mass market company such as Pottery Barn.


hand embroidered monogram 

Lesage embroidery on Porthault linens for Aristotle Onassis's yacht

Fashion and Interiors go hand in hand, and there have been several specialist embroidery companies through the ages that supplied the detailing to Couture dresses and to Interior Designers. Some embroidery is still entirely hand made at the couture end of the spectrum, but much is now machine made for the Pret a Porter ranges. There is still skill in understanding how the various stitches will appear and respond, so there is still artistry involved, and the machines are so specialised that they cannot produce en masse.

Lesage hand embroidery

Lesage in Paris has supplied couturiers throughout the 20th Century with their embroidery needs. The business was recently sold to Chanel (as part of their purchase of the Petites Mains), in order to safeguard the future of the Embroidery house - many of the other specialised embroidery houses disappeared over the past 50 years as demand dried up for their skills and machinery was instead used. Lesage combine work in their Paris atelier with hand work done by embroiderers at their studio in India. They also opened up a school of Embroidery that services both interested home embroiderers as well as professionals. It's run out of their Atelier in Paris. 

Chanel dress embroidered by Lesage 1996, one of the most expensive pieces ever made by Chanel

In Interiors, there are some embroidery houses still embroidering to order the edges of sofas or curtains or bed hangings. When I was working in London we used a single woman who did the most exquisite appliqué detail for the leading edge of curtains and their pelmets. Her contact details were jealously guarded so that other Designers would not be able to copy the look.

Villa Savoia embroidery

The current issue of Architectural digest has an article on an American Embroidery house called Villa Savoia (one of the few items of interest in this month's otherwise horrible issue). The designs shown in the article are contemporary in nature, and show embroidery versatility - it's not all flowers and frills.

If you're feeling inspired, and don't have the funds to commission either couture from the French fashion houses, or expensive linens from Porthault or Leontine, then perhaps consider taking classes from the Embroider's Guild (there are branches in each State), or if you're lucky enough to have the time and ability to spend some time in Paris, from Maison Lesage. Certainly the richness and tactile nature of embroidery can add so much to a contemporary or traditional setting, it's all in how you use the details.

All images via my Pinterest Embroidery board

45 comments:

  1. Fascinating post!! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on it. I also love beautiful embroidery and appreciate the skill and effort that goes into it. Although my mother never sent me to embroidery classes, she often gave me embroidery kits for my birthday and Christmas presents. I spent many hours figuring out the various stitches from the instruction booklets and completing those kits - so much fun. Once my kids are old enough, I think I will start giving them embroidery kits as well (can't think of anywhere in Toronto that offers classes...) and hopefully they will enjoy it as much as I did.

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    1. I did so much more embroidery as a child, than I do as an adult too, but I'm feeling very inspired now. My sister gave my daughter a beginners sewing kit - you had to sew flowers onto a felt tiara (holes were all prepunched, so it was just doing stitches). She LOVED it. So much so that I found her at 1am one night with her light on, sitting up in bed sound asleep with the tiara in her hand. She'd obviously woken at some point and decided to do a bit more before falling asleep again!

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    2. Love this story about your daughter and her embroidery! Such a beautiful gift from your sister! How lucky you all were to attend classes at the E's Guild!
      My grandmother and Mum taught me to embroider as a child and I loved it too. But the things we worked on were the old fashioned Glory Box pieces (not that I had a GB - when my old great aunts wanted to start one I absolutely refused. Quite rude of me but I planned to be a modern career girl and didn't want to drag a Glory Box on my travels). My Mum's work was exquisite - the back was as perfect as the front. I was always too impatient and mine was never so good.
      When living in the UK a women's magazine's offered an embroidery kit for a French potager patchwork bedspread: the transfers, instructions and colour chart. You had to buy your own linen and threads. I worked on it for years - each patch about 11 inches square: tomatoes, leeks, cabbages, lettuces, beetroot, strawberries, herbs, etc occasionally a snail or a moth to embroider. Once I'd finished, not being able to do regular sewing I couldn't put the patches together nicely So they sat in a box for years till I finally decided to attach them to a linen backing sheet and hung them on a wall. After a reno the hanging went back into a box.
      You've inspired me to try and find it - if the moths haven't destroyed already. But would probably need to be taken apart and joined up properly as my backing sheet arrangement was very rough - and I no longer like its colour. But the embroidered patches themselves have quite a nice rustic feel.
      Adore all the petites mains pics. So gorgeous. Went to the Couture exhibition in the Hotel de Ville, Paris, last year and they made a big feature of the petites mains, including film clips and wonderful couture examples. Absolutely dazzling.
      Such an interesting post this. Agree with others, when the children are a bit older you must chance your hand at writing for publication! Pammie xx

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    3. So funny Pammie - your Mum would've fitted right into the Embroiderers Guild - they would always turn our work over to check the back. To this day when one of my sisters or I have embroidered something and are showing each other the other will always turn it over to check the back! You should definitely get your Big Project out and see if it could be finished off. If you don't have the patience for it there are women who will finish off patchwork for you - my Mum had some of my Grandmother's unfinished quilts done after she died.
      Would have loved to see all the exhibits you've been to Pammie, that Josephine one sounded wonderful, as does one on the petites mains. x

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  2. Love embroidery! In Korea it is still custom you get wedding blankets that are hand sewn with special symbolic embroidery. I did it once at high school but didn't carry through. I have noticed couture incorporating touches of sewing with more hand touched other than a great cut. It just seems to justify prices when I know it has gone through the hands of skilled artisans. I got a embroidered scarf from si

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    1. Did you get given a wedding blanket, or were you supposed to make your own? Agree with you re the couture pricing - I can completely understand that the pricing reflects the quality of the cut, the fabrics involved and the embellishment and skill in that. Lucky you to get a scarf from Si… so intrigued to see what she's been doing, can't wait for her website to be up and running.

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    2. My comment got cut off but my second one didn't get thru. Yes if you could you were supposed to partake in communal sewing but depended on circumstance and of course it had to have happy imagery. I will try and take pics of examples in Korea!

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    3. Would love to see… although can understand why you didn't have one if you had to participate in the sewing. What a lovely communal thing to do though in celebrating a marriage.

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  3. Loved this post...and it was so timely, as I've just arrived home after doing another short course (2 day) embroidery workshop at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. Like you, I also learnt to embroider as a child, but am loving the opportunity to do these short courses at the RSN to brush up on existing and learn new skills. I've often embroidered children's clothing, but after reading your post, I think I might need to challenge myself to think bigger about incorporating embroidery into my own wardrobe and in a less traditional sense around my home!

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    1. I've so enjoyed reading about your RSN classes Annie, and so envious you're able to do them. Definitely incorporate it in your home, even a cushion in the style of Chelsea Textiles (whom I was going to write about in the post, but decided it was long enough) would be stunning in your new home… as would a beautiful monogram.

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  4. Hello Heidi. Your Pinterest embroidery board is delicious! Have you seen the infamous embroidered JPG leopard dress? Oh I'd love to nip over to Lesage, but have to content myself with the Royal School of Needlework in Hampton Court instead.

    You may have noticed that embroidery is close to my heart too. Like you I started embroidery at a very early age. In the last couple of years I've started again, and love it more than ever! It wasn't my intention to fall so madly and deeply for hand embroidery again, but after taking a few commissions, I decided to start Si Je Veux.

    I'm so not flowers and frills...more naughty and rude! These days, I've combined embroidery with my experience as an Art Director who has more than a passing interest in typography, language and etymology. The tactile feel of the fabric is also very important to me, so I work with pure Irish linen from John English, pure cashmere preferably from Johnstons of Elgin, fine quality English wool and silks.

    One of the main areas where hand embroidery has made it's mark again in recent years, apart from interiors, is weddings, where brides are delighted to have a hand made reminder of their big day.

    With winter just round the corner here, I'm focusing on hand embroidering cashmere capes, stoles, wraps, scarves, leather gloves and large cashmere blankets. There will hopefully also be some Christmas decorations and cards by the end of October.

    My website si.je will be fully functional in September so you can take a peek.

    Have you started embroidering again?

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    1. I have not seen that dress, and I'm going to have to go and look it up! I only realised you were interested in embroidery last night, when I went back to Pinterest and saw we were pinning the same things! That's wonderful you're able to do commissions, and love that you're using your Art Direction background to do something unique and modern. So interesting to hear of your materials too. We are quite limited here in Australia to our supplies - I just use the standard DCM embroidery threads… I shall have to use my Internet powers for good and search out some of the supplies you mention. Agree with you too that it's the tactile feel of it that is so lovely… I think that my early embroidery training means that I've always had a deep love of the decorative embellishment on beautiful fabrics and passementeries… which puts me at odds with my Architectural training where it's all about removing superfluous ornamentation.
      I am looking forward to seeing your site - I do a little embroidery now and then. Mostly small projects like singlets for my daughter, or lavender bags… I'm afraid that other things take up my time, and most evenings I'm too tired to concentrate. Hopefully that will resolve soon with our building works coming to a complete halt.

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    2. Yes, I have the same Jekyll & Hyde senario with superfluous details, which don't really fit into LDN mid century modern. The Auld Alliance/Vieille Alliance side has launched a counter attack!

      Try Finca for thread, it's got the nicest feel of any thread I've used...apart from silk. It's a small Spanish company, and their websites not brilliant unfortunately.

      Not related to embroidery Heidi, but could you tell me about the painting you have above your buffet. It's rather lovely! Is there a clear pic of it anywhere on your blog, I've only seen squints of it.

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    3. The painting is called "The Art of Patience" by Kate Bergin. She's an Australian artist who does a slightly surrealist still life influenced by Dutch paintings. The best picture on the blog is here http://adelaidevilla.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/this-week-mud-and-art.html when it was exhibited. I've also posted some photos on instagram of the details http://instagram.com/p/n_6bZdinpD/?modal=true

      Thanks for the tip off on the thread, will definitely see if I can try to find it.

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    4. Ohhh, I love that Kate Bergin painting too!

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    5. She's very prolific, but has no representation here in the UK! Had a look at her site. 'The art of patience' is her best, I think. Hideously, hideously jealous!!!

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    6. Very kind, both of you! We love the painting so much. She averages around one painting a month, and one exhibition a year - mostly through a gallery called Mossgreen in Melbourne, and sells out. It wouldn't surprise me if eventually she exhibits in London, I'm sure it would be a huge success, her technique is excellent.

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  5. What a beautiful post Heidi , I was really glad when I read of Lesage's survival, these arts are so important.

    Just another look at the samples you have shown , those fish for Onassis , those Balenciaga grapes..well you get the picture

    Your mention of the Embroider's Guild reminded me of a friend of my mother's who was an active member in Sydney.

    I'm very lucky to have a sampler embroided by my 7 y/o ancestor Mary Dunlop, in 1834 .

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    1. Oh I love looking at my Embroidery board - such beautiful work. It's not all cross stitched pictures of cats to hang on the wall out there!
      How lucky are you to have such a beautiful piece of family history. I love samplers - I did one myself when I was 13, and it hangs in my parent's house. I embroidered our family home on it, along with the alphabet, a verse etc… it's a bit wonky, but I think that's part of the charm.

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    2. Your sampler is a future family heirloom, Mary Dunlop's work is wonky too

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  6. Heidi
    I am not particularly interested in embroidery, per se, but as always your writing is the standout with this post. You must try and develop this special skill further one day.
    Perhaps a post about your Mum, or Dad, would be lovely.
    Cheers
    Melody

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    1. Your comment made me laugh Melody - I had a feeling a lot of my usual readers would hold no interest in Embroidery, which is probably why it's taken me almost 2 years to write a post on it! Thank you for the compliment on my writing, I think you're my biggest supporter on that front. I have often thought of writing a book one day… we'll see. I have the idea, just need the time (and motivation).

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    2. I think you have missed your calling as a writer of documentaries- you make things that I don't usually follow come to life. You have an engaging writing style.

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    3. Thank you Cilla, you're very kind. Glad this piqued your interest...

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    4. Write for yourself, Heidi, and what you are truly passionate about. Your readers will read it regardless, IMO, because you have a wonderful skill in writing, my friend.
      Melody.

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  7. Wow I loved this post! I really know zilch about embroidery though I do admire it and would love to learn, even just to monogram our pillowcases. Hmm it would be a dream to learn in Paris! ;)
    Your mother was clearly very special, how excellent that she sent you and your sisters to embroidery class. I'm sure it has informed your own excellent attention to detail, placement and form.
    Thanks Heidi for the great and inspiring post.

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    1. I would think embroidery is something you'd love to do Dani. Maybe you could learn through a local course (if not Paris!)?
      I think that learning embroidery from such a young age has definitely made me appreciate detail and materials. As I said above to Si je veux there's been a constant push/pull for me with my Architectural training (just say No to embellishment) and my deep love of fabric, detail and flourishes.

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  8. As always, a fantastic post. I subscribed to Inspirations for years through Country Bumpkin but I find a lot of their projects are too old fashioned for my taste and the beautiful goldwork baptismal cloth I made for my eldest daughter sits in a box because I don't know what else to do with it! I subscribe to Selvedge mag out of the UK because I enjoy their 'artisanal' focus on crafts. I will be checking out your Pinterest board for sure.

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    1. I agree with you about Country Bumpkin - such beautiful work in there, but definitely skewed toward the frilly Granny look. Oh my goodness - a gold work baptismal cloth, that sounds amazing! Keep it as a family heirloom, I'm sure one day grandchildren can be wrapped up in it too.
      I use the flower embroidery books by Diana Lampe quite a bit (now out of print, my copies are very old) and do singlets for my daughter and lavender bags. Small projects… but I'm desperate to do some stump work - the richness of the designs you can do… just need to find something to do with it (besides frame it on the wall).

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    2. Stump work lends itself nicely to a brooch. A camellia is a great motif...an homage to Chanel in Au Ver a Soie silks would be a timeless evening accessory!

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    3. Oh it would be a lovely brooch… shall have to commit to actually learning how to do it! On my list for the next year then… I've been thinking about it for probably 15 years now!!

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  9. That is gorgeous embroidery and perfectly displayed on the Dior and Chanel dresses. That work that you've shown really is beautiful art and I'd like to know how many hours of work was put into those two dresses...likely hundreds.
    Very interesting Heidi !

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    1. It is truly breathtaking GSL…. it would be a dream to wear such a beautiful dress like those. I often watch the stars on the red carpet or at the Met ball and think what a waste - all those beautiful things to wear out there, and they'll pick something that makes a statement (and a horrible one at that).

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  10. I freaking love embroidery and I love all the little people at Lesage working their fingers to their bones to create such beauty.

    Love my lavender bags all the more knowing you have made them for me xx

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    1. I'd so love to do a class at Lesage.. one day!
      So happy you love the lavender bags… as I've said to you I've had people not so appreciative, so choose my recipients carefully (as my rate is about 1 lavender bag a year on average!)

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  11. My grandmother made all our clothes when we were growing up. She always included embroidery in our best dresses. I clearly remember a cream silk dress embroidered with a gorgeous spay of autumnal coloured flowers diagonally across the skirt and bodice. She also did bud roses on our ruched bodices on frocks. When I had my first baby she made one dozen nighties all embroidered differently across the bodice. (Back in the days when babies wore nighties as newborns) And of course all the singlets were embroidered too. She sewed and embroidered the way other people watch TV - every night. Kate

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    1. How wonderful to have a grandmother make such beautiful clothes for you Kate! Those dresses sound amazing - I hope there are some still in the family? My mother used to make smocked dresses for me when I was little, sadly she passed them down to my Cousin and then who knows where… I don't have any, which is sad as they were so pretty. Love that she sewed every day.
      All my babies wore nighties - so much easier to change a nappy in the middle of the night, then fumbling with snaps!!

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  12. I love this post (like all your others)...
    I remember embroidering my doll's clothes, and my mother's old pillow cases. I have always had a love of fabric, colour, detail etc., I have watched many films just for the costumes. Always thought I was a bit strange.
    Your post was delightful. Thank you.
    Linda C.

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    1. I watch movies for costume and also the set design. One of my favourites was "Meet Joe Black" which was a pretty boring movie, but had great sets! I'm waiting for Grace Kelly to come out on Foxtel as I'm dying to see the clothes (rather than the acting and storyline).
      So glad you enjoyed the post - I love looking over my embroidery pinterest board - very inspiring and sort of calming… !

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  13. Today my eight year old went to her fortnightly class at the Embroiderers Guild in our state's capital city. She spent a wonderful afternoon with about 20 older ladies and made a good start on a little sewing bag decorated with mice in stem stitch. One of my favourite comments from one of the women who come to the classes is that if you can embroiderer you can always soothe yourself. Seems like a good thing in these times.... CC

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    1. I can't wait until my daughter is old enough to attend classes!! That's wonderful that your daughter is going, and it's lovely that the older ladies are so patient and teach so well. Totally agree with the comment on embroidering soothing - there's something about using your hands and focussing on something immediate that is very calming. I hemmed a skirt over the weekend and found that very meditative.

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  14. How beautiful is that Dior gown? Thanks for sharing it. Den

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    1. What I would give to own and wear a gown like that Den! It's truly stunning.

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  15. It was a treat to see these beautiful creations particularly the green Dior gown. It's true and sad that this is a dying skill. I learnt a few basic embroidery stitches from my Mum and in her twenties she made lovey tray cloths, napkins etc. some of which she has passed on to me. I wonder if I still remember those stitches!

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    1. I'm sure you'd pick it up very easily miss B - these things are often lodged somewhere win the recesses of our mind! I often need a refresher when I do a project - thank goodness for the internet as it's very easy to find a quick tutorial to remind you of what you need to do.

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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