Eat, Sleep, Embroider, Repeat. Isn’t that how the saying goes?
Training at Ecole Lesage is a Herculean task and not one for the faint of heart, mind, or for those who lack dexterous fine motor skills. The students who attend class every day can expect three hours of instruction and anywhere from six to ten hours of homework. Make time for meals and a scant amount of sleep and you’ve got yourself a daily routine. Hand embroidery is a long labor that demands focus, perfectionism, and stamina. Love of craft is a prerequisite.
Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage bought the Michonet workshop in 1924, creating what would become the Maison Lesage. Their son François founded Ecole Lesage in 1992, afraid that this specialized craft, without dedicated institutions to uphold it, would die out. The House now holds the largest collection of embroidery in the world: an archive comprising 70,000 works.
Lesage is a name known to fashion connaisseurs throughout the world as the hands behind the embroidery of Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, and Yves Saint Laurent among others. The training one receives at the School is of a caliber befitting their renown.
I enrolled in levels one through four, with a preliminary “discovering the hook” course meant to get one familiar with the embroidery hook used by professionals. It comprises a wooden handle, a needle sharp point to pierce the fabric, and a small ridge with which to grab a thread and pull it through the fabric again. The most common stitch is the chain stitch, which can be used for the placing of beads, tubes, sequins, etc., and the hook is used almost exclusively from the back side of the piece. Mastering the hook and getting accustomed to seeing your work from the “wrong” side is only the first hurdle; the needle is next. Needle size, thread fragility, angles, and millimeter measurements are all important pieces of knowledge that can make or break your work. A needle too large will make noticeable holes in organza. Silk thread is more fragile than cotton or nylon and thus more prone to breaking. These exacting details make embroidery difficult and immensely rewarding all at the same time.
The instructors at Ecole Lesage have knowledge from years of working as professionals in the field. Some of them started as young as twelve or thirteen years of age. My teacher was recruited by the Maison when she was 17 years old. During a class where one student wanted to continue working even after most of us had packed up she said, “Embroidery is like a drug, but a very good one.” After two and a half months of embroidering every day, I couldn’t agree more.