Porthault House – Stitching the best embroidery for over a century


Interview with Charlotte Espinosa, manager of the Embroidery Department at the Porthault House.
By Claire de Pourtalès

Pictures are copyrights protected for Maison Porthault. Thank you.

Could you tell us the story of this house?
The House was created by Daniel and Madeleine Porthault in 1920. This year is our 100 anniversary!
This couple started making lingerie in rue de la Grange Batelière in Paris. But soon, they moved to luxury creations for house linen. Daniel was a visionary when it came to new products and investments. Madeleine worked on the artistic side and knew how to create a precious network of important clients. Together they moved house linen to the level of Haute Couture, mainly thanks to hand embroidery.

Orchidées © Maison Porthault
Eternité © Maison Porthault

Was hand embroidery a technique used from the start?
Of course, yes. This was a tradition – house linen would usually wear the initials of the owners. The first use of hand embroidery in our house was to custom-made initials for our privileged clients.
In our House, embroidery started to rise with custom-orders made in the 50s. Back then, Sylviane, Daniel’s sister, set up a workshop in Alençon. The House had up to 50 embroiderers, many working from home.
There were some amazing and huge works to be done, like stitching table clothes for diplomatic receptions, were tables were over 60 m long! All that in just a few months.
Today, the House is working very well. On top of our traditionally custom-made orders, we can also sell our most iconic models such as Pois de Senteur (Sweet Peas), Confettis, Constellation, Fleurs et Papillons (Flowers and Butterflies), etc.

Do you have one stitch or technique that is yours?
More than a technique, we have a style, a « touch ». There is a special Porthault way to draw, stitch and associate colours. We use needlepainting worked « economically ». Our works are rich in nuances but still stay very thin, offering a very special combination of depth and lightness. Herringbone Stitch and Seed Stitch are two other stitches that we use within our unique style, very thinly and with a specific rythme to them. 
We work quite a lot on very fine fabrics, such as Silk Crepe, which you seldom find for house linen anymore.
Innovations in our House are linked to drawings. There is a permanent dialogue between those two arts. One wouldn’t exist without the other. Both gain from the other.

Anagramme © Maison Porthault

What material do you use?
Hand embroidery is mostly made with a needle, on fabrics that can resist many washes. Our threads have the same strength. Even if our stitches are very fine, they must be strong. We usually work on cotton, linen and some strong metallic threads. We do work a lot on organza, which we make in our fabric in Cambrai. Is is colour-fast which gives it a great durability.

Pois de Senteur © Maison Porthault

How is your work organized?
The heart of our House is its creative studio. I am specialized in hand embroidery. I create and draw new models, then I stitch samplers, work on new techniques, etc. Every season we have a new theme (we have 2 collections per year). But I don’t work alone. While creating new models, I regularly talk with the embroiderers who will stitch them.

What is your training?
Before becoming a designer, I got a degree in Art Works (BMA – Métiers d’Art) with a speciality in hand embroidery. It is a technical degree which gives you all the basics you need for this job. Then I went to Duperré Applied Art school. I worked in Haute Couture (Lesage workshop), and some house decoration, as a designer in embroidery. To work for a Luxury House was an interesting challenge I wanted to try, to learn more about my art.

Papillons © Maison Porthault
Plumes © Maison Porthault

What is the proportion of orders made with hand embroidery?
True, we also have a fabric in Argentan where we work with machines. We print our fabrics there, then we make our house linen with very fine finishings, with unique techniques from our workshop in Cambrai. This workshop works at full capacity, and allows us to be very reactive. We also work with independent workshops which mainly work for us. They have a wonderful know-how and work with the same goal of high quality as us.

Hand embroidery does make up for a large part of our products. We sell them in our boutique, as part of our collections, or have custom-made ones for our exclusive clientele. Our business team creates and maintains excellent relationships for years with them, and we create collections specifically for them, according to their homes and needs. Hand embroidered linen is a way to create unique pieces, as well as stitching specific initials in the linen tradition. We offer the same service they receive from Haute Couture houses for their clothes.

Do you keep samplers? Can we visit your archives?
Our archives are a source of permanente inspiration. Sometimes, for our new collection, we have a modele inspired by one of the old work, that we change to the present time, keeping its spirit. This is our way to keep our House DNA.
Our archives are not public, but we do present them to our clients, looking for ideas for custom-made orders.

What are your influences, colors, themes?
Our favorite themes revolve around flowers, all types, all colors. I don’t think there is not one species of flowers that hasn’t been interpreted at least once by our teams. Styles may vary according to times and seasons, but we try to maintain our House spirit which is cheerfulness. This is at the heart of our House, to provide a form of brightness, gaiety to homes and special occasions.

Wallis © Maison Porthault
Tulipes Perroquet © Maison Porthault

How do you see the future of hand embroidery in your House?
The demand for embroidery is growing. Today, very few Houses can offer linen with such a quality and know-how. We are quite unique in this way. But we continue to improve our techniques and creations each year. We do create limited-edition of fine linen sets.
Our stitching techniques offer a great strength to our work, making them last a very long time. Some clients love to create a long tradition of house linen. Hand embroidery has a lasting quality that is important for our House. So hand embroidery has a very special place here.

Is there any anecdotes you could share?
Among her friends and customers, Madeleine could count Jackie Kennedy. She would often visit the White House. Jackie loved to draw and paint with here children. Some of those paintings were used as inspiration for our printed fabrics and our embroidered works. One, made with Beauvais Stitch, has had a long commercial success.

Louise de Vilmorin, the poetess, had a very specific signature. It was a delicate clover with four leaves. We used it for one of our most iconic motif, les Trèfles (Clovers), which exist both in printed linen and with embroidery.

Jackie Kennedy with Madeleine Porthault © Maison Porthault

The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire