Ernie Smith founded his custom embroidery company, Penn & Fletcher (the name is made up) back in 1986 after deciding that his previous line of work as a costume, scenery and lighting designer was “killing” him. Although most of Penn & Fletcher’s work is commissioned by interior designers, the company also restores pieces from major museum collections, including objects from The Met. At the glamour end of the business, there is a call for embroidery work on costumes for shows such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Hairspray” as well as movies like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” And all of this found its way out of long, lonely Pennsylvania winters when, as a nine-year-old boy, Ernie’s mother taught him embroidery—he won the Blue Ribbon Prize at the county fair for “Dancing Vegetables” on tea towels!
I think we should maybe start with the switch you made from being a lighting and costume designer into this whole thing with the fabric. How did that happen?
I’d done a couple of Broadway shows and a lot of off-Broadway shows, operas, musicals, commercials … and what I found was that you really have to work very hard to make a living. In my last year I did 20 shows and I was 38 years old and I thought, I’m not going to last. This is killing me.
Why was it killing you?
Designing 20 shows in one year! I was mostly designing the scenery [not the costumes]. For each one you meet with the director, the choreographer and other artistic people to begin the collaboration. Then you start proposing the design ideas, get them approved, go back and start executing all of the draftings, the elevations and all of the other things that are necessary. And these were not small shows, [they were] things like Mame. The old adage of theater is, “You can make a killing, but you can’t make a living.”
In today’s terms what would you earn per show?
About six or seven thousand a show—a big regional show. And that was for months of work, a massive amount of work.
So what happened to change the situation?
I was designing a nightclub on the East Side and the interior was a French-inspired white velour with all of these criss-cross braids in a lattice pattern. I went to the store to by some braid and they had only 36 yards. I just happened to be driving through Long Island City and I saw National Braid. I stopped in and asked if they had [the braid] and I suddenly realized there was a massive amount of material that never makes it to the market. The clothes you’re wearing—these fabrics never appear on a store shelf as fabric. So I started a trim and lace business selling to other costume designers because I knew the difficulty of trying to find materials.
And how did the business turn into what have today?
I got real bored with just selling trim and lace so I bought a small children’s appliqué company that was going out of business. It had novelty sewing machines—I didn’t know how to run them but I knew they were magic. And suddenly I was in the embroidery business.
What is a novelty sewing machine?
Okay. They’re hand-guided embroidery machines that emulate hand-stitching, all different kinds of braiding and cording and sequin work. You actually draw with the machine; you steer the machine from underneath.
What was your first job?
It was for Ivana Trump. Some friends of mine who worked for a costume company got the contract for doing 400 cocktail waitress uniforms with sequins, little Miss Kitty outfits and I did them right here in my kitchen. They were for the waitresses at Trump Castle [in Atlantic City]. We were going great guns and then Ivana said, “I will only hire women with B-cups.” Well of course the union got a hold of that one! We did 400 uniforms with B-cups … and of course there aren’t 400 cocktail waitresses with B-cups. So we made little red sequined additions so that the larger-breasted girls could actually fit into them.
That’s a riot! Can you tell us about some other costumes you’ve embroidered?
We did Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992, directed by Francis Ford Coppola]. Do you remember his red cape with the griffins on it? And, Sadie Frost … her bridal outfit with the big lace collar and we did the snake dress and the burial robe as well the front of Gary Oldman’s vest.
Are you romantic about the days of hand embroidery versus the current use of computer programming the designs? I read that you have a program that can incorporate the irregularities of handwork.
It’s about money. We can do any embroidery you want to pay for. But it’s American labor. If we can use a tool to speed it all on, well … but when someone does something on a hand-guided machine, there’s a personality. We can tell who did what. I know the hand. Sometimes the computer is so sophisticated, it’s too perfect. So we put that [imperfection] back in. You make it a little off.
Hmm … perhaps that sums up humanity … we’re all a little off. I read this on your website and it sounded like poetry: Embroidery is the art of embellishing soft surfaces with sewn ideas”…
I may have said that at some point. I just love to do it and to talk about it.
This is an ignorant question but what is the difference between embroidery and tapestry?
They are related. In tapestry you’re actually making the fabric. You start out with just threads and you are individually weaving little sections of the piece … but you’re weaving with infinitesimal little threads. It’s mind-bogglingly slow. And needlepoint is the next step away from that. You actually have a grid. And then embroidery, you start with the finished fabric and embellish it on top.
I think I remember from some quiz show or something that the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t actually a tapestry and that it’s embroidery.
Yes, it’s embroidery.
Were you interested in doing crafty things when you were younger? Was it all-absorbing?
When I was nine years old, I lived in a little town in Pennsylvania called Cambridge Springs, in a very rural area. I had no playmates, no kids in the neighborhood because there was no neighborhood. To give me something to do one winter when I was nine, my mother took me to Woolworths and bought me a potholder loom. And I loved it! I was making potholders a mile a minute. I was just prodigious! She thought, I have to find something that isn’t so expensive and so we went back to Woolworths and in the next bin over was embroidery. So she taught me how to embroider. I actually won the Blue Ribbon Prize at the county fair for “Dancing Vegetables” on tea towels!
What would you say is the distinction between art and craft?
An artisan is the violinist and the composer is the artist. Now the violinist may be so fabulous at interpreting that work but in the end the violinist is a technician, a really talented technician who brings a sense of artistry to it, but they didn’t invent the piece.