Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mending in French

One of my favorite things about early French life is how the women would repair a textile over and over again, giving it a whole new life...

The French would mend or patch a cloth until there was more mending than original piece. A really well-mended quilt might end up looking like a haphazard patchwork quilt. No more of the original fabric to mend the quilt? - no problem, just use Pierre's butcher apron. No thread to match the original weave? - don't worry about it, just use what happens to be threaded in the needle. The more primitive the better, if you ask me. Now when I find myself digging through old textiles, I am looking for a patch or a repair, something that shows me that the piece was used to death - a small clue into the past life of the cloth. If it is a beautiful, fine reweaving of the original cloth, I think maybe the woman went to convent schools and was taught by the nuns. If the repair is rough and simple, I wonder if it was a young girl in charge of the textile repairs for her home. The amount of time and energy they put in to salvaging their household textiles is staggering - but if you figure they may have only had one quilt, two torchons and a single sheet (for life) - I guess they had no other option than to live by the golden rule, make do and mend.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Found in France Giveaway

There's nothing better than going to France and digging out treasures - than the day the treasures arrive back in the states. Last year, I lost a box of beauties, it just never arrived - "fell off the truck" was all the shipping company could say. Meanwhile I envisioned some lucky person "finding" a box full of 18th and 19th century French fabrics and having a field day! So this week, when I got the call that the boxes were ready to be delivered, I dropped everything, and ran to the shop waiting patiently for everything to arrive safely.
It's such a thrill to open boxes and see old bits of French history come to life again in a whole new environment....17th century land deeds, hand scripted on paper that has been waxed so it can be reused for years; early 1800's silk pin cushion that advertised a cashmere company in Toulouse before the cashmere trade was shut down by the Marquis; a piece of primitive thistle fabric probably from the late 1700's (given to me by one of the guests at the chateau!); and even an old, turn of the century, wooden toy - which if used improperly could take a finger off. Unwrapping each item, I wondered how each had been kept safe for so many years, who had taken care of each small trinket and what history had been passed on with each treasure.
In anticipation of our upcoming month at French General, Found in France, I thought it would be fun to give away a box of old French treasures - old silk hat labels, bits of ribbon, beads, antique paper and some faded millinery flowers. Leave us a comment about your favorite find ever and we'll pick out a lucky winner or two to receive some of our luckiest finds this past summer in France. Thanks for playing along!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Steel Cut Beads and Other Stories

Marcia and Wendy waiting patiently to get into the hat factory

We were lucky enough to have Wendy Addison and the infamous Marcia Ceppos of Tinsel Trading join us the first week of our Chateau Getaway this summer. Although, by about day two I wondered why in the world I had invited two of the most prolific treasure hunters to dig with me at the French flea markets! Within minutes of being at any one of my favorite stomping grounds, I would look over and see Wendy and Marcia, arms completely full with antique French ______________(insert almost any treasure here), and smiling from ear to ear. Well, Wendy was smiling from ear to ear and Marcia, the more practical of the two, was shaking her head and probably thinking: there goes the bank!
Marcia and I had fun telling each other stories about the history we each knew of different old bits and pieces. After visiting Cathy Brocante, and finding a box full of old rusty French steel cut beads, we were ambling back home to the chateau when I decided to tell my story about these small unassuming beads - once all the fashion in Paris.
Told to me by the great bead dealer, Ben Eagle, the story goes something like this:
During World War II when the Germans were in France, they came upon the last known steel cut bead factory still in production when they decided to take the machines back to Germany and manufacture the beads there. After loading all of the factories' machines onto the freight train, the train was unexpectedly hit by an errant bomb and the machines were completely destroyed - and there have been no more steel beads manufactured since.
I thought Marcia was going to fall out of the car - she just kind of looked at me and starting cracking up. "Are you kidding me?" she said, "No - I'm not - that's the story I heard and I'm sticking to it." Well that was it for Marcia, she couldn't believe that I would fall for a story like that - but she also didn't have another one to tell me - so I decided I would just have to be comfortable with the bead lore I had heard from my old friend, who always has a good story to tell.
Provenance is funny that way - you really don't know much more than you are told, unless of course you can look it up somewhere - which I still haven't been able to find anything to verify or nullify this story - some provenance is just passed down through word of mouth.
Speaking of which, I hope Marcia and Wendy have come up with some good stories to tell about the treasures they found in France - nine or ten suitcases in all, brimming with beautiful ribbons, trims, pom poms and labels.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Art of the French Deal

Tearing through the back roads of France, I usually keep my eye out for a particular sign - not a directional sign (although those are necessary to master when you are traveling off-map) but a brocante or vide grenier sign. A brocante is an antique or second hand shop and a vide-grenier is like a garage sale - but loosely translated means a cleaning out of the attic. As soon as either one of these signs is spotted, I have been known to follow it for miles and miles and more often than not, the conversation in the car sounds something like this.....

Molly: Was that a brocante sign I just saw?
Kick: YES!
Me: Which way was the arrow pointing?
Molly, Kick or Cathy: Left or maybe right - go left!
Me: Ok, how old do you think the sign was?
Molly: New
Kick: Old
Cathy: This week for sure

After about 45 minutes....

Me: No sign of any brocante, should we turn around?
Molly: No
Kick: Yes
Cathy: Let's just go another mile or so and turn around
Me: But there is no way to turn around - we are on a 5 foot wide single lane highway
Cathy: Keep going.

An hour later....

Me: I think I see an old barn ahead.
Molly: That's it!
Kick: It looks like an abandoned house.
Cathy: Park - let's check it out.
Me: Wait - there's another brocante sign!
Cathy: Follow it!

Another 45 minutes later....

Molly: OMG! I knew it - there it is - that old garage there on the left - pull over!
Me: That's it - it's a brocante - we did it - we found it!
Kick: Is that the one we were looking for??
Cathy: It doesn't matter!

And on and on it goes - each time we all get in the car and go off on one of our brocante adventures! Once we actually get into the brocante and meet the dealer, the real adventure begins - digging through boxes and boxes of collected bits and pieces, sorting out the good, the bad and the ugly - and all the while, not letting a squeal out - which will give it all away.

Old or young, French dealers have seen almost everything there is too see and nothing really impresses them much - unless of course it is something they are extremely attached to due to family history or, as in Guy's case, (the owner of the infamous hat factory) business history. Guy is perhaps the only French dealer I have ever met who will sell you a carton of 19th century silk hat labels for a couple of euros but will not, under any circumstances, sell you the tape measure used to measure the brim of the hats....even though the tape measure can be picked up at the local sewing shop for a euro or two.

After we have scoured the brocante and made our pile, the real fun begins....negotiations can last about as long as it took to find the place! French dealers understand the system better than anyone - and almost expect a bit of haggling back and forth. Not that they wouldn't love it if you handed them the asking price, but then the game is over, and why not play just a bit longer? A French deal might sound something like this - I'll spare you my bad French and write it in English:

Me: Oh, this quilt is beautiful, how much is it?
Dealer: 100 euros
Me: Wow - that's high
Dealer: No, not really - you said it was beautiful!
Me: True, but it is still too much for me - how about 65 euros?
Dealer: What? Are you kidding - do you know how old this quilt is - and look at the little stitches and you also get the fabric on the back!!
Me: Yes, but it is only worth 65 euros to me.
Dealer: 90
Me: 70
Dealer: 85
Me: 75
Dealer: 80
(I Pause here, realizing this is a very good deal - but unable to stop the game)
Me: 76
Dealer: 79
Me: 77
Dealer: 78
Me: (realizing there is nowhere is to go) Deal!

(Heavy breathing, hand flapping at wrist and eye rolling from both myself and the dealer)

By the end of negotiations, hands are shaken all around and euros are exchanged. Hopefully everyone feels they have made a good deal and plans are made to return next year. There may even be an offer of lunch or a drink at the local cafe - in fact, one year we traveled an hour from a brocante to visit the dealer at her home for a pot of home made cassoulet and a bottle of wine...then we were taken to the overflowing basement....but that's another story.

Often, but not always, a dealer will throw in a cadeaux - a small gift - something that you may have been looking at or perhaps he just found in the back of his van - nothing to him really, but he knows it will make you happy. With dirty hands and a smile on your face, you feel as if you have mastered the art of the French deal!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Couleur Francaise

Two of my favorite things to collect in France, old photographs and old textiles - they seem to blend perfectly together to tell the whole story.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Couronne de Fleurs

Antique crowns found in France

I have been collecting old wax flower crowns for a while now, the delicate orange blossom head bands that were made for brides in the late 19th and early 20th century. Often in France, I will find a couronne de fleurs that is still completely intact and displayed under a glass dome for safe keeping.
So of course, I was over the moon when Wendy Addison taught us her own version of a waxed flower crown at the chateau. After dipping old silk and linen flowers in beeswax, we carefully wrapped each stem around the wire crown. Not the craftiest one in the bunch, I worried that my crown wouldn't be up to snuff. What I soon found out was that each and every crown was absolutely stunning - we learned a centuries old technique and made it just a bit better by adding our own twist.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Woad Me Again!

Denise Lambert, the master woad dyer, visited the chateau on Thursday for a day of woad dying. While I was dipping in some old hemp torchons and aprons, I asked myself, can one ever woad too much? After woading (is that a verb?) for the sixth time in the past few years, I quickly decided - no! One can never have too much of this beautiful French blue in their lives!

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Nadette's Lavender Farm

Years ago, when we first discovered St. Antonin's Farmer's Market, I found a woman selling the purest lavender oil I had ever smelled. I bought a bottle of her oil and used it sparingly until I finally eeked the last drop out. I have spent the last six years looking for the woman who sold me the oil - searching markets and and following any lead I could sniff out...but to no avail. Until this past week, when on a tip from Charlotte the chef, we found Nadette - the woman I had met in St. Antonin all those years ago.
Not only did we all get to visit Nadette on her lavender farm and walk through her fields learning about the different types of lavender she grows, we also got to view a demonstration of how she makes her special indigo and lavender soap. As a treat, Nadette gave us each a bar of soap and cut us a bundle of lavender to take home. It was so inspiring to see a woman who literally eat, breaths and sleeps her passion - lavender!

Friday, July 01, 2011

Cyanotype Blues

Not only are we lucky enough to have Wendy Addison and Marcia Ceppos of Tinsel Trading come and teach at the chateau this week, we also have the special treat of having Monica, Wendy's daughter, come  and teach us a class on a 19th century photographic printing - known as cyanotype.
"The English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschell discovered this procedure in 1842. Though the process was developed by Herschel, he considered it as mainly a means of reproducing notes and diagrams, as in blueprints. It was Anna Atkins who brought this to photography. She created a limited series of cyanotype books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive seaweed collection. Atkins placed specimens directly onto coated paper, allowing the action of light to create a sillhouette effect. By using this photogram process, Anna Atkins is regarded as the first female photographer."
Monica took us down into the cave below the chateau to coat the paper and then the following day, we exposed all sorts of treasures onto the treated paper - botanicals, stencils, lace and even old negatives we had found at the flea market.  The process was magical and the color was a magnificent cyan blue.  Our workshops at the chateau this week have been inspiring - and with each one we are learning more about how people made do with what was available to them to create beautiful works of art.