Haute Couture Embroidery School in Paris, Balenciaga, and…eek! I dropped my needle again!

 

How excited was I to attend the world-famous Ecole Lesage school of haute couture embroidery in Paris! The school was formed in 1992 to pass on the legendary embroidery techniques of Maison Lesage, which has embellished the creations of Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Yves Saint Laurent, and Chanel over the past century.

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Fun! Like a sewing retreat, right?

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Off to school – in Paris! Like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina!

I had gotten in touch with the school six months prior, and, with my schedule, was given the choice of a six-hour beginning class for beading (using a needle) or twelve-hour class for ribbon work, which teaches the technique of embroidery using the Luneville hook. (Here’s a video the explains that technique: Luneville Hook Video). I chose the six-hour class, which is spread out over two mornings or afternoons, as your hands can only take so much beading at a time. I told the school that I had proficient hand-sewing skills from making garments.

I got to the school fifteen minutes early and went looking for the woman who had booked me. Someone told me to wait in the lobby to be called. I saw the instructors breezing in, and noted the other students arriving with large rectangular frames stretched with organza, which are used with the Luneville hook. I also noticed that there was no friendly chatting among the students, most of whom were younger, with more of a “deer in the headlights” look.

At 9:30 sharp, we were called by name into specific rooms with workstations. Everyone else had a table on which to perch their frames, and I was given a table with a traditional round embroidery hoop attached to a pole with a flat base to stick under your leg. It’s actually a brilliant design that frees both of your hands. Clearly I was the only newbie there.

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(A photo of the “tambour” taken later, after several glasses of wine.)

The other students put down their frames and started right to work. There was no chatting, just intense needlework. Though I’d asked for an English-speaking instructor, I was started out by someone who only spoke French. We soon both realized that I didn’t have enough embroidery vocabulary for that to work, so an English-speaking teacher came to help me. There were people of all different levels practicing in the same room, with three instructors, all expert embroiderers, moving between the students to show them what to do. There was no lecturing, just learning by doing, which was fine by me. The overall languages were French and English, and many of the students seemed to be from Asia and the U.S.

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I was given a kit with a piece of silk twill with the project printed on it (a portable phone carrier), all the beads and sequins, some very brief instructions in French, a roll of cotton thread, and just one #10 embroidery needle with a teeny-tiny hole.

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The French-speaking instructor whipped the project onto the hoop (always straight, never on the bias), threaded the needle, and showed me how to get going with the beading – three backstitches, up outside the sequin, pick up the sequin, down through the dot in the middle – it was going so fast! I started doing it and felt like a complete klutz – so much was counterintuitive to garment sewing. The tail of the thread goes on the top of the hoop to be clipped, not the underside. The stitches need to be pulled so tight! The sequins I’d sewn were wobbling all over the place. When I stabbed the sequins with the needle, they went flying off the table!

Then the English-speaking teacher came over and checked out my setup. She took pity on me, sewing black fabric with black thread at this age, and got me a work light. She showed me how to level the hoop so I could see the work better. And she made me little paper trays to put the sequins in so they wouldn’t fly around. (Ecole Lesage doesn’t provide them because they keep getting stolen.) “Pull the stitches tight!” she said.

Then I ran out of thread, and had to thread that tiny little hole with cotton thread, without the Clover needle threader that is my constant companion and crutch. (If Susan Khalje can use one, so can I.) The school had giving me scissors that were not very sharp, so the end of the thread frayed really easily. I could not get that damn needle threaded! I was totally stressed out!

The instructor took pity on my again. When I mentioned a needle threader, she said it was fine for hobbyists, but in the ateliers… (her voice drifted off in that French way).

She taught me to pinch the thread hard between my right-hand finger and thumb (I’m a lefty) then, using my left hand, shove the eye of the needle over the bit of thread sticking up. It even took her a few tries. Here’s the idea:

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Just a tiny bit of thread sticking up – then take the needle in your other hand and squish the eye over the thread to work it through. It reminded me of working out a sliver.

At that point I would have given a million dollars to have that needle threader, particularly because, using a single strand of thread, the thread would get caught on a sequin and come out of the needle, so I’d have to thread it again. Grrr! I started cutting a really long piece of thread, but was told it was too long. The thread is supposed to be the length from your thumb to your elbow, plus 15 centimeters. There were a number of times that the teacher had to thread my needle for me, much to my chagrin.

Then I dropped my one and only needle, and could not find it anywhere! Let me tell you, I scoured that floor until it showed up, because I was not going to flag my teacher down again for something as stupid as that!

I now started to realize that coming into Ecole Lesage and expecting it to be like a sewing retreat was the same as going to the American Ballet Theater school and asking to take a Jazzercize class. It’s pro training, and you’re not going to walk out a prima ballerina in a week. The teachers were all very nice, but there was none of that American rah-rah that’s GREATTTTT! attitude. No “A” for effort. The teachers were very straight with the students about what they needed to do to improve, and often took their place at their workstations to demonstrate, but there was none of that “oh, it’s okay…” It was refreshing! Even though I was mortified!

Oh my God, so many teeny-tiny sequins! More than 200 of these 2mm sequins alone.

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At this point, my instructor had my number as a hobbyist, but I think she recognized that I could stitch, so she concentrated on getting me where I needed to go in the time I had. She taught me how the flat sequins (paillettes) have a right side and a wrong side, though I’ll be damned if I could tell them apart. Some have a small, raised edge that you can sort of see if you look really close. She told me to backstitch frequently as I was sewing, in case the thread broke. She also told me to backstitch when attaching beads, and to make the stitch longer than the bead or sequin to keep them from sticking up. She taught me the proper way to stitch the stacked sequins and beads. I was taking notes like crazy. There was no chatting her up. She answered my questions then had to move on to other students.

This is as far as I got in the first three hours of non-stop stitching:

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At the end of my first class, which was on a Friday, all around me I could hear the reckoning among the other students, some of whom were there for a week, while others were taking longer courses. “You have a lot of homework to do,” the girl next to me was told. One American young woman seemed close to tears on her last day, and was given some final corrections and encouraged to keep practicing. There was none of that “wow that was so great – thanks so much!” thing at the end of the session. People packed up and left. I found that I needed to buy myself a tambour hoop from the school (for 68 euros) so I could do some work over the weekend. They don’t let you borrow their equipment because “sometimes people don’t come back.”

Bon courage! I was going to need it!

Over the weekend I sewed on maybe 40 more tiny sequins, but come on, we were in Paris!

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My husband and I attended an under-the-radar Balenciaga exhibit at the Musee Bourdelle, where the garments and hats were intermingled with the giant sculptures that are a permanent part of the museum. But was I looking at the sculptures?

I really wasn’t expecting much, but ended up thrilled to wander the rooms and see an excellent selection of this master couturier’s sculptural works – most in black for this exhibit.

My photos really don’t do the exhibition justice – which to me was as exciting as the Charles James exhibit at the Met a few years ago.

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Some of the garments were so delicate that they had to be kept in boxes with curtains in front to block the light. It was almost like opening a present to peek inside.

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There was some beautiful beading as well, that I now truly appreciated after having my butt kicked at Ecole Lesage.

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As I’ve mentioned in the past, I tend to get in very close when eyeballing these exhibitions, to the point where the alarm has gone off, followed by a stern warning from a guard. At this exhibit, I heard a loud clatter and was thrilled when it wasn’t me who knocked over the guardrail!

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One of the most exciting parts was seeing some of the original muslins or toiles, all cut from black fabric with multicolored stitching to show the various modifications.

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(There was a lot of reflection on the case, but you can see that the lower part is the front of a bodice, which is cut in one piece with the back at the top.)

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How I loved this exhibit!

I also made a run to Maison Sajou, the French embroidery and needlepoint brand that’s been brought back to life by a new owner – everything in it is charming!

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I was going to do some fabric shopping in the neighborhood, but I got a little panicked because one of the metro lines and a lot of the streets had been shut down, and there were police everywhere.  I started walking back to the place we were staying and realized that everything had been closed down for the Pride parade. I was relieved, but still needed to cross the parade to get home. So I just joined in for a couple of blocks!

Then I met up with my husband and son, who dragged me to a video game history exhibit, with virtual reality stations.

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(Unless Coco Chanel’s in there, I’m not interested.)

Then everyone in the family went home happy – that is, after my husband gave up on his navigational skills and listened to my very best friend, Miss Google Maps.

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On Monday, and I packed up to go back to Ecole Lesage.

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I’ll be honest – I kind of wasn’t feeling it on that beautiful day.

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But now that I knew the drill, I was able to set up my workstation with my boxes from Maison Sajou and my son’s Swiss Army knife, which actually had the sharpest scissors – though I still would have been a whole lot happier with that needle threader.

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One of the instructors sang “are you going to finish your case today?” Considering there were hundreds more beads and sequins to attach, sadly the answer was “non.” But I put my head down and got to it.

More help from my instructor, who made sure I knew what I needed to do to complete each of the circles in the project when I left.

I turned off the sound on my phone and snuck a few pictures.

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(An instructor demonstrating for a student on her sampler.)

I got up to stretch.

“Mal a dos?” (“Backache?”) one instructor asked.

I nodded my head and took pictures of some of the samples that students can learn to do if they take the longer classes, and have the patience of Job.

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I got a little further, then, at the end of the morning, bid Ecole Lesage adieu.

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Waiter! Rose’ please! Make it a double!

Don’t get me wrong – going to Ecole Lesage was a great experience, because if you’re going to learn something that requires physical technique, I believe you should learn from the best, most accomplished teachers you can find. But I wouldn’t call it “fun.”

When will I finish my tiny portable phone case, with roughly 1000 beads and sequins? (Don’t hold your breath.) However, if I want to put beading on collars or cuffs, I’m glad I took the needlework class to learn how.

Jet lagged and sequined-out, I returned to the island summer sewing shed to find Karl waiting in a bit of a huff.IMG_2809

“How’d the hand-sewing go without me, doll?” Karl asked with a smirk.

“No comment. And of course I wanted to take you to Paris with me, Karl, but, no offense, you’re not exactly the most sylph-like carry-on.”

Pretty soon we were back to work, though:

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As to what we were making, and what other big announcements Karl and I might have to make – that will just have to wait till next time.

Hope your sewing’s going well!

47 thoughts on “Haute Couture Embroidery School in Paris, Balenciaga, and…eek! I dropped my needle again!

  1. How “fun”! 🙂 I’ve never tried tambour beading, but it’s supposed to be quicker than the bead embroidery that I do. It looks like it takes a bit of time to figure out. What a great experience though, even if wasn’t exactly what you expected. Also, that Balenciaga exhibit looks fantastic! There was a Balenciaga exhibit at the DeYoung a few years ago which was lovely, but it would have been interesting to see the toiles and design process.

      • There’s a book? (screams, opens new window on computer). My son did a week long backpacking trip in New Mexico with boy scouts, very much under protest, and when asked about whether it was fun, he always responds: “Fun, no. Hard, yes. Proud of myself, damn right I am, and right to be so.” And so should you. And thanks for taking us with you. (book ordered, thank you)

  2. Sorry your beading class wasn’t more fun. I look forward to seeing a little beading decoration on one of your special frocks. Loved the pics of Paris.

  3. Oh I hear you and can commiserate. Honestly, there’s something about french teaching that just kills the joy. Here ‘downunder’ I attended a fashion school last year and completed a certificate in advanced couture techniques. They import a wonderful, funny and joyous teacher from London, she’s been embroidering and tambour beading by the hour for all her working career. She is so patient and sweet and wants you to ‘invent’ rather than stick to a set schedule a la francaise! She does the most amaaaazing work for British design houses, I can’t recommend her highly enough. I really preferred the chain stitch part of the tambour not being a heavily beaded lass myself. She helped me work out how to transfer a design to wool and well, that’s a project for another day! Gosh, just realised I never did blog about the tambour… Her name is Janet Timms and she comes to Australia annually to teach here too.
    https://tambourbeadembroidery.com/

  4. What a great experience…in the grand scheme of things! I had visions of my piano teacher standing over me marking time and expecting me to keep up…I was 6 and still have nightmares about her!! The exhibit looks marvelous — I have seen a few pix from others who attended and like you, I would have to really lean in and work to keep from touching the fabric! Clearly, based on the clashing guide rail, we are not alone in that need! Happy to know that Karl wasn’t too upset with your handwork adventure! He’s an old soul…so understands! You might find some fun at my vintage pattern shop on etsy — patterns from the 20s and into 2000. http://www.patternswithapast.etsy.com

  5. I have a friend who took a course there a couple of years ago (I think she did the 12hr one). I’ve been wanting to go ever since but have been way too scared to commit! It sounds amazing and at the same time terrifying! Lol! Hope you had a fab trip!

  6. I volunteer at Boston Ballet (when I can) in the costume shop, and that’s all hand sewing. A three hour shift is a looong time to be sewing on beads and sequins (and name tags and hooks and eyes!). I envy your experience, but I think I’ll live vicariously through you!

    • Hi Martina,
      I read your post here and got excited to hear that you work in the costume shop at the Boston Ballet! Years ago (we are talking decades actually) I did my internship there after college and had a wonderful time! I think Debbie was the manager’s name at the time. I’d love to chat sometime about your experience there.
      Best, Stephanie 🙂

  7. Oh, my, Julie! What an experience, delightfully recalled – at least for those of us reading it! Although I will admit, I was missing your needle threaded almost as much as you – how stressful.
    The Balenciaga exhibit looked fantastic. He was not called “The Master” for no reason, was he? Thanks for sharing all these fun and interesting experiences with us!

  8. This was a funny post. 1000 sequins by hand would have needed more than the patience of Job! 🙂

    The dresses at the exhibitions were so beautiful.

  9. When I saw your pictures on Instagram I thought you were having the time of your life at Ecole Lesage. Now I’m thinking about the courage it takes to voluntarily spend your days in Paris in a class that sounds as much fun as a military drill. Thanks for sharing the pictures of the Balenciaga exhibition, fabulous!

  10. What joy to read all this! Thank you!! Your work is lovely, by the way, and I sure hope you can find use for the partially-completed design, in case you don’t finish exactly as planned. [But now that you have your threader . . . . . ?] But please know that you are braver than I am.

  11. So wonderful to hear from you again and to get the backstory from all those Instagram photos. And how brave of you to take a high level class. You know a lot more than you did, and most of all you can now value high quality work when you see it!

  12. Thank you for sharing your experience! I have new admiration for all the professional skilled embroiderers. Before I ever get to attend a class at the Ecole Lesage, I’ll remember to practice needle-threading and learn French.

  13. What a fabulous experience! Im not sure I could convince my husband to entertain himself in Paris long enough to take the course. Thanks for sharing all the trials of doing such intricate work and the inside look. I would definitely smuggle a needle threader into the classroom. I do hope you make something with your piece of embroidery.

  14. I loved reading this post and it gave me a giggle at times but I can relate as I have ‘fat’ fingers and pretend I am really basting. Very good information though on beading.

  15. Great article Julie. Can you share it to beautiful older women page? Need some posts there. I think the ladies would enjoy it.
    Wish your dad happy birthday. Hope he’s well.
    Nancy Kaplan

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  16. Oh the French. They take education of all kinds so seriously … they are also so forgiving and make up the rules as they go along … love the French. Glad you got to both the class and the Balenciaga exhibition. And Sajou of course – I managed to get there the week it opened ( and spent way too many euros … but not nearly as much money as I spend each year in Tissus Edre in Passy … can’t recommend it highly enough ) . Happy Parisian memories to all

  17. Thank you for blogging about your experience! How wonderful to get to do this, and learn from experts, while in the beautiful city of Paris! I hope that you get to practice what you learned and create beautiful things!

  18. Thank you for sharing your experience at the school and the exhibit. I’m so happy when I see you’ve done a new blog entry. Never fails to make my day!

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