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.


Fun! Like a sewing retreat, right?


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.


(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.


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.


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:


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.


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:


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!


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.





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.


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



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!


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.


(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.)


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!



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.


(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.


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


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


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.


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.


(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.


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


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:


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!

Vintage Couture Heaven


I was searching online about my favorite vintage dealer, Didier Ludot, and stumbled upon this new video series by Hamish Bowles, world-class couture collector and Editor-at-Large at US Vogue Magazine.

It features Hamish traveling the world and visiting many of the top collections and vendors of vintage haute couture and ready-to-wear, curated by a true connoisseur. The series includes a visit to Didier Ludot’s shop.

You can find it here: http://video.vogue.com/watch/vintage-bowles-shopping-at-didier-ludot-in-paris?c=series

The series is classy and worth a look. I always enjoy Hamish Bowles’ writing in Vogue.

Didier Ludot’s tiny shop in the Palais Royal in Paris can only be described as a crammed museum of fashion, and if you’re lucky enough to charm him into having a look you can see some of the great works of 20th century haute couture. Across the courtyard, (former home of the author Colette, and a place with a checkered history that includes a number of duels) you’ll find Didier Ludot’s other shop, “La Petite Robe Noire” (The Little Black Dress) which sells vintage designer black dresses and his own line of clothing–a modern takes on vintage cocktail numbers. When you see stars on the red carpet coyly saying they’re wearing vintage “from Paris”, it’s probably from his shop.

Part of my story is that, as the wife of the lawyer for a number of big show-biz events, a couple of times a year I need to don a gown with a capital “G”. Shopping that should be fun is actually a pain, because modern eveningwear is expensive and awful.

About 15 years ago, my husband, (who unlike most American men has a good eye, an appreciation for good design, and no intimidation about shopping for his wife) spotted this dress as we were walking by Didier’s shop on the way to Juveniles Wine Bar, which is around the corner from the Palais Royal:

Late 50s Jean Patou Dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld.

Late 50s Jean Patou Dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld.

It was on a Barbie-waist-size mannequin, which coincidentally is not my size. When we looked in the shop, Didier, clad in what appeared to be Louis the 16th’s striped pajama bottoms and dancing slippers, was negotiating with a couple of Japanese guys over a 60s Hermes Kelly bag. My protests about the dress not fitting and being mortified went unbidden.

My husband shoved me in the shop, charmed Didier, and before you knew it, I was being shoveled into the hidden interior mesh and boned corset onto which the dress is loosely tacked. The dress itself was made of a heavily-woven iridescent aubergine silk, lined with silk organza, and it was so stiff it could almost stand by itself. The label was Jean Patou, which at that time was designed by Karl Lagerfeld, just starting his career.

Inside the streamlined exterior of the dress was miles of hand-sewing and more engineering than the Golden Gate. To get the corset closed, I would exhale forcefully, then have my husband do up the band of hooks and eyes on the back. After that he would zip up the zipper on the dress over the corset, and from then on I would not draw another full breath until the dress was off again.

I wore that dress to at least 10 events, because, unlike the very American concept of being cool by wearing “something new”, a dress that distinctive can be worn repeatedly, in the more European concept of something being a signature of your taste. The corset gave me a wasp-waist, wonderful posture, and then incredible internal distress as soon as I would eat something at dinner after the event. The last time I wore it, my son was three months old, and upon returning home to a squalling, hungry child and a dress that required ten minutes and a lady’s maid to remove, I hung it up for good. Oh, how I wish I had taken a picture of the interior before I sold it!

Since then, I’ve always made a point to peer in the vitrine of Didier’s shop while walking through the Palais Royal on the way to Juveniles, and once in awhile, I go in and pick something up.

I’ve seen that my blog has had visitors from Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Netherlands and other points in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, India, Asia, US, Canada… Thank you for stopping by! Do you have a favorite “vintage” shopping place in your area? Please leave a comment; I’d love to hear about it.

I’m tired of Coco, how about you?


Okay, here are a few last details of the construction of Chanel Jacket #4 that I’d like to add before moving onto my next, much more fun topic, a Coco Chanel vs. Madame Vionnet Smackdown! Are you working on a Chanel-style jacket right now? If so, leave me a comment; I’d love to hear about it.

1962 Chanel pattern released by Spadea

1962 Chanel pattern released by Spadea

As I mentioned before, this Spadea Chanel pattern from 1962 was drafted from a retail jacket, the design of which was licensed from Chanel by the US company Suzy Perette. This was a common practice back in the days before off-shore manufacturing. In fact, the pink suit worn by Jacqueline Kennedy on the tragic day of the assassination, though often attributed to Chanel, was actually a copy made in a New York haute couture boutique. Here’s a story about the historic preservation of that suit from the New York Times:


The instructions from the 1962 Spadea Chanel pattern I used were very thorough and old school in terms of construction. Though I had never made welt pockets before, by following the instructions they were a breeze.

Pocket welts

Pocket welts

I created the flaps, attached the pockets, sewed up the side panel seam, and voila, a pretty little pocket made of colorful lining. Though Chanel jackets don’t typically have vertical pockets like this, I have seen examples from this era.

Completed welt pockets

Welt pocket in progress

Let’s talk about the obsession with 3-part sleeves, shall we? The two godmothers of haute couture, Susan Khalje and Claire Shaeffer, both have their disciples make 3-part sleeves for their home-made Chanel jackets, so the sleeve has a graceful bend at the elbow and the vent is high enough on the cuff to show off the trim and buttons.

But the truth is, not all Chanel jackets have had three-part sleeves. In Claire Shaeffer’s new book, for example, she shows several vintage Chanel jackets with two-part sleeves. The Spadea pattern I used cleverly fakes the three-part sleeve with a one-part sleeve by putting some ease in the seam to give it the bend at the elbow. Then the vent is added by cutting a slash in the sleeve and adding a facing that goes around the cuff.

Sleeve facing

Sleeve facing

Whether this is the original Chanel design, or a change made by Suzy Perette for US manufacturing, we’ll never know. But it does work pretty well. It’s still time-consuming, but probably not as much of a hassle as building a three-part sleeve.

My last comment on the sleeve is that I added sleevehead under the sleeve cap and then steamed it on a sleeveboard like this, to give the sleeve cap a nice, round shape.

Shaping sleeve cap

Shaping sleeve cap

After lining the jacket, I added the trim, chain (cleverly woven into a 5/8″ tape–much easier to sew on), buttons, and button loops, then collapsed.

Finished cuff and chain

Finished cuff and chain

My blog has been visited by people from around the world and I appreciate you all. Even the spammer guy from Korea! What projects are you working on? Please leave me a comment and let me know.

Claire Schaeffer: Godmother of Haute Couture Sewing #2


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If Susan Khalje is the hands-on “Godmother of Haute Couture”, who learned her craft making confections for Bridezilla, then Claire Schaeffer is the historian, whose in-depth study of haute couture techniques have made her books a must-have for my sewing library.

Her “Couture Sewing Techniques” book, in particular, describes just about every haute couture technique that a sewing enthusiast will encounter in a lifetime (or the half-life of your fabric stash, which is 9 million years…). Fitting, sleeve-setting, hems, buttonholes, pockets, jacket tailoring (including Chanel-style jackets), fabrics, pressing etc. are all covered in painstaking detail. Here’s where you can find it on Amazon:


If you go to the Threads Magazine website, there is a series of videos by Claire Schaeffer illustrating the techniques from the book, which I highly recommend. The hand-stitching tutorial in particular I found very useful. If your hand-sewing skills are not that strong, it’s worth it for you to watch this video and practice before you undertake sewing a Chanel-style jacket. You need to subscribe to the Threads website for access to the videos, or buy the DVD:


Claire Schaeffer just published a comprehensive book on the history and making of the Chanel-style jacket, entitled “The Couture Cardigan Jacket: Sewing Secrets from a Chanel Collector.” The enclosed DVD walks you through every step of her method of making a jacket. Here it is on Amazon:


(I have a confession to make at this point. I love Claire Schaeffer’s books, but just looking at the zillions of steps she outlines in her Chanel-style jacket method gives me so much anxiety that I want to go bake cookies instead.) Fortunately, Lizzie of The Vintage Traveler, a favorite blog of mine, has written a nice rundown of the book and video, which you can find here:


One person who made a very pretty jacket using Claire’s pattern is seamstress Ann Rowley. During construction, she took a series of very helpful photos illustrating every step:


And here’s a link to reviews from patternreview.com by people who have completed jackets from this pattern.

Vogue 8804 http://sewing.patternreview.com/patterns/54069

If you are someone who can fathom spending the time it takes to hand-sew a couple of intricate quilts and fashion them into a tiny jacket, then Claire’s method may be for you. There’s a lot of basting involved, and people who have made the pattern say it takes more than 100 hours start to finish. The result is a meticulous and authentic jacket that’s a little conservative for my tastes, but may be just what you’re looking for.