Marie Berthouloux first discovered textile before she came to love embroidery, which became her true passion. In her Parisian workshop, she works gold with a needle, sculpting materials with exceptional embroideries to bring texture and reveal all of the material’s secrets. Gold embroidery is her specialty. But she also works eclectic materials that she tames to find movement, texture, emotion, and beauty entwined in embroidered treasures. Working with ornamental patterns calls for precision acquired through gestures repeated a thousand times. Time becomes the ally of beauty expressed in the embroidery of silk thread, purl, pearls, feathers, sequins or even fur. She puts her artisanal expertise at the service of design, fashion and art. Her embroidered gestures dance and flirt with pyrography on leather, painting on fabric, working with the noblest of materials or revealing the aesthetics of a cloth in all its simplicity.
Maison Sensey : How did it all start?
Marie Berthouloux : I first did a vocational training in fashion design which was interesting but left me frustrated as it did not bring me to work materials. During this training, we only learned to work on cuts and shapes, and did a lot on computer. When I went to buy fabrics, I would never find what I wanted. That’s when I asked myself “how could I create my own material?”. I wasn’t especially thinking about embroidery, but rather about how to create material.
As I looked further into training options, I discovered that there are five Fine Art diplomas in France. When I finished my vocational training, I applied in those schools and among them, a school in Rochefort sur Mer, near la Rochelle. Back then, that school was not very well known. I went for an interview which turned out to be more like a discussion about the projects they wanted to develop. I really enjoyed it.
And Rochefort had a specialty in Gold embroidery. In the 17th century, the Royal Navy settled in Rochefort and with it came rope-making at the Corderie Royale and military uniforms for the sailors embroidered with golden anchors. That’s when this specific technique came to be. The school had been there for a long time but the fine art diploma is fairly recent. They had the technical part, but not the creative part. After the interview, I confirmed that I wished to study there. I was lucky enough to get in even though I had no experience with embroidery. I thought: “Let’s go and see what happens…”
Embroidery came to me by chance, in the end. On the other hand, textile was very much a choice. I had always wanted to work in fashion. As a teenager, I wanted to become a fashion designer, but I was a bit disappointed by the fashion industry and what it actually means to be a fashion designer. There are few people who work in haute couture and luxury. As I’m rather down to earth, I thought it wouldn’t work out. I really wanted to find a way to work with my own hands and create exceptional items. That’s how embroidery came into my life. But I had no idea how to tame this technique !
Another problem was that Rochefort sur Mer is a tiny city rather far from Paris. Even though I come from a remote part of Brittany, it was even more complicated to look for suppliers there, to find companies who would take me on as a trainee… In the end, embroidery classes became my firm favourite. Because you have to hold on ! Four hours without moving, because embroidery requires to stay still apart from your arms that are moving. You discover new muscles in your upper back! (laughs)
In the beginning, your vision gets blurry! I remember the first four hours, I thought my eyesight was going bad because we work very close to the fabric but I eventually got used to it. The body gets used to it. You always need to be careful about your posture. Those two years of training were very important to me, I really enjoyed that time. After that, I had been studying for 6 years, so I thought I should stop studying and step into the professional world… It was time to see what I was capable of!
I did not want to be just another job seeker, I wanted to be able to say I was a designer, but I wasn’t yet thinking about opening my own workshop. Today, it’s been six years since I opened my workshop. Atelier Ekceli. I started in Nantes for four years, and we are now in Paris. My time is divided between teaching embroidery and creating. I give lessons in schools but I’m also trying to set up courses in my workshop. I want to be as close as possible to the creative moments shared with students.
Do you work in Haute Couture?
No, they all have their own workshops. At the beginning, I created a lot of accessories, a few wedding dresses for small designers as we work on the same scales and understand one another very well. We have the same needs, the same possibilities. I also work with artists. I’ve been at the Ateliers de Paris for two years now and I’d like to further develop interior design and merchandising decoration, for shop windows in Fine Jewellery, for example. I believe Gold embroidery can be a background to jewellery without outshining it.
Technically speaking, how do you work each creation? Which patterns do you use? How do you chose the materials?
I start with the customer’s expectations, and I have a sample collection to show them. I choose a selection of samples that I use for a specific customer, that will be suited to their needs. We start with a technique or a texture that they like and I customize it to their own world. Each creation is unique. It is always a different experience. Customers want their piece to be unique.
We choose the technique and the supplies according to their budget. Some techniques are very time-consuming and thus very expensive! For example, Gold embroidery does not account for most of my sales. Because it is a very difficult technique. It takes ten years to master it!
Why is this technique so difficult?
It is a hollow metal, a bit like a spring. That’s what makes it so flexible and brings so many possibilities of movement but at the same time it is difficult to handle because it easily breaks. We cut the threads of gold into small pieces. We insert the needle and thread through the hollow part, just like when threading a pearl, and that’s when it can easily break.
There are different formats. Sometimes we also use stuffing. For example the anchors on navy uniforms are already in relief. We apply some rope on the fabric, already shaped as an anchor, then apply the purl on it. As it is flexible, it fully embraces the shape of the anchor. That’s what gives the bulging effect.
There are already many workshops working with Haute Couture and many decorators who are well settled. They have large teams, parts of which in India. There’s no way to compete with this. The idea is to stand out with Gold embroidery and to explain our high fees because it takes a long time to create.
Do you look for the materials you embroider yourself ?
Yes, as it is essential for us to work with local, sustainable and noble material. The material often breathes life into the pattern. Except with creations that have been drawn beforehand. But I usually start with the material and its pre-existing designs to create the pattern. I love it when materials confront each other.
So for example, I can associate hemp with a very noble and sophisticated material. Weavers also work hemp very meticulously while it is originally a very rustic plant. My small “mantra” is to bring the material to reveal everything it has to say. I want to go all the way, I want the material to confess all its properties, may they be positive or negative.
Do you also work with any type of leather?
The leather skins we use are all second hand. I don’t buy from leather factories due to animal cruelty. There are huge stocks of leather that get discarded, including in the world of luxury, that I salvage. I also dye materials like silk or cotton. It can be 50-year-old coconut fiber from Madagascar, natural raffia, leather, lamé, hemp, silk… These materials are part of our more creative collection while we also offer a more classical collection for customers who need timeless materials.
Who are your customers?
I have customers in the Gulf states for interior design. They are architects who work for private customers who own Palaces. We also work with some Fine Jewellery shops. Until now I’ve been working in high-end embroidery, but I realized that it’s not enough to stand out and to compete with other workshops. I want to reduce the amount of metal embroidery I offer to turn towards exceptional creations.
Do you think embroidery is a dying art?
Not so much. Many people change careers and turn to manual work. We still have five schools in France, however the Fine Art diploma is about to change… Us professionals wonder what the graduating students’ skills will be like now. We hope that the upcoming changes won’t lead to a lower technical level ! Because it takes ten years to master this technique. And I’ve only been practicing for six years, so I still have a long way to go!
I’ve heard you also work on paintings?
Yes, absolutely, I’ve been working on paintings for a few years now. The first one was created for a “Révélation” exhibition seven years ago. Originally, I created it to help customers get an idea of what embroidery could look like in large format instead of looking at samples. After that, Franco-German artist Edouard Baribeaud contacted me to work on some of his paintings.
So I keep working in this direction because I’ve often been told I have a very pictorial approach to embroidery. As I really like painting as a form of art and I don’t really have time to paint myself, I managed to link both this way. It’s a bit like working the supplies with a brush.
When you are in front of a canvas, do you imagine the pattern thanks to the material?
It depends on what I’m looking for, on the light I want to put in it or on the contrary if I’m looking for a mat effect, or if I want something more mineral, or rather abrupt… It’s more about sensations. I also work with feathers, fur, metal, pyrography… Embroidery is an incredible way of conflating materials. Embroidery invites us to look both from afar and from up close, which is essential. You don’t see the same things. It’s a gift! It is very rare to integrate embroidery into painting, I would like it to become more common.
Your workshop is called Ekceli – what does it mean?
Atelier Ekceli means “aimed look” in Esperanto. I don’t speak Esperanto but it is a universal language. I find it very interesting that people decided to create a universal language. It’s a shame that it didn’t work because it did not have a cultural background. But textile is universal, we all have a very sensitive relationship with textile. I realized that all continents developed the same techniques. It is rather surprising as they were not necessarily linked to one another and we created the same things with different aesthetics that remain rather close.
And we very quickly started to wear textile. There’s often a link with inheritance: we pass on sheets, tablecloths… They are very noble materials with irregularities, imperfections, there are writings in the patterns, each part of the world has its own symbols that we do not necessarily know and that we must decipher. “Aimed look” comes from all this, and from the fact that we lean over the loom for hours. You really have to want to work a pattern for hours, to analyse it, to understand it…