“I am a natural maker. I love to make things.”Ernie SmithFounder
In the heart of New York City, where embroidery has a rich history, Penn & Fletcher stands out as a beacon of craftsmanship and innovation.
Founded in 1986 by Ernie Smith, the company has become a thriving hub for embroidery artisans, earning a reputation for unparalleled quality and passion for its craft.
Ernie traces his journey in the world of embroidery back to his childhood. After his family relocated to the countryside, Ernie’s mother purchased him a potholder loom to help him fill the quiet hours. He immediately fell in love with the process, sharing: “I became prolific at it. Every relative had more potholders than they ever wanted.” His natural talent for creating things soon led him to the world of embroidery. “I was making potholders too quickly. My mother brought me back to Woolworth to find a new hobby and got me an embroidery kit.”
Ernie’s skills blossomed, and he began winning accolades for his work. At age nine, he won a ribbon at the county fair for his tea towels featuring dancing vegetables. His creative journey took a turn when, in college, he ventured into theatre. This led to a two-decade long career as a costume designer for operas and Broadway musicals. Ernie’s passion for the craft also led him to share his knowledge, and he enjoyed teaching for eight years.
“The rest happened accidentally.”
Having reached the pinnacle of his career in theatre design, Ernie looked to explore new avenues. His venture into the embroidery business happened serendipitously, when a need for trims and laces arose during a costume project, and his resourcefulness led to a discovery. “I needed hundreds of yards of gold braid, and shops in the Garment District had less than 50 yards. I happened to find a manufacturer in Long Island City who was happy to sell at that quantity. I realized this was an opportunity to repurpose their leftovers, and started selling them to companies and costumers who didn’t have access to the world of things we had in New York City.”
A natural maker, Ernie eventually grew bored with selling rather than making. He eventually purchased twenty machines from a children’s appliqué company, loaded them into the back of a van, and split them between a garage in New Jersey and his NYC apartment kitchen. “I didn’t exactly know how to use the machines, but I knew they were magic.”
As he was learning on the equipment, he helped a friend’s costume shop bid for a large project of cocktail dress uniforms. As he explains, “They were embroidered bodices with sequins, like a dance hall outfit. I told them I could do it, and after we won the bid, we had to produce 400 cocktail dresses in my apartment.”
“We are more capable today than we have ever been, and we continue to innovate.”
Under Ernie’s direction, and with the help of skilled employees, Penn & Fletcher emerged as a formidable player in the costume industry. Eventually, the word got out, and the focus eventually transitioned to interior design work when an interior designer sought Penn & Fletcher’s expertise for a unique chair embroidery project. Ernie explains, “It’s like a costume – a chair has arms and everything!”. This shift marked the beginning of a new chapter for the company, expanding its reach to Radio City, the Phantom of the Opera, and such projects as Olana.
Ernie Smith’s dedication to preserving the heritage of embroidery have been evident throughout Penn & Fletcher’s journey. The company’s ability to adapt to changing demand and offer new and unique embroidery solutions has made it a sought-after partner for designers across numerious industries. Today, Penn & Fletcher stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of embroidery in New York City.