November 3, 2017

London, England, August, 2017
The woman who got on the bus ahead of me was white, as am I. I followed her down the aisle towards the only empty seats. An aisle seat was almost vacant. A black woman sitting in the window seat had most of her billowing cotton dress scrunched under her.

She looked at the woman ahead of me and patted the seat. Her big smile revealed she was missing one of her front teeth. The white woman nodded no, and kept on going.

The lady beside the window patted the seat out to me. We did a little pantomine. Wasn’t the woman ahead of me going to sit there ? No, it was vacant. I pulled off my back pack (without hitting anyone on the head) sat, and noticed that Window Seat Woman had on an amazing yellow dress with cut out sleeves. « Love your dress, » I said.

The fabric was African printed cotton. Birds flew across it. As if it had a theme–Postoffice Air Mail.

Me : Hey I’ve got that fabric at home. It’s neat isn’t it ? All those birds flying like they’re on a mission.
Woman : I’m going to my church to help decorate for a wedding, so I got dressed up.
Me : Well, you look great.

We sat in silence, and then she turned to me.
Woman : You’ve made my day.
Me : I have ?
Woman : People here don’t look a person like me in the eye. They don’t want to sit beside me–like that woman. They ignore me. You spoke to me, you’re nice and, you’ve made my day.
Me : I’m Canadian. We’re very polite.
Woman : Well God Bless you.

We jabbered on and found we’d both arrived in London in 1964, we’d both found work. She felt people’s dislike of her still. But I’d made her smile and she’d be smiling all day.

My stop was next and once again, « God Bless You » said the woman.

Me : God Bless you. You’ve made me feel wonderful.

Both of us smiled ear to ear and we kept Blessing each other as I got off the bus. I turned and waved goodbye.

A little bird made me do it. No.
Fabric made me do it.

I’m not addicted to the British journal « selvedge THE FABRIC OF YOUR LIFE » but I am a Heavy User. (

And I do have fabric : my sister’s Stash, my mother’s Stash, and my Stash. Hoarded bits & pieces of not ‘fabrics’ but upper echelon ‘Textiles’ from all over the world.

Every year, Selvedge hosts several all-inclusive residential craft workshops at Chateau Dumas, a private estate with 18th century interiors, and glorious panoramic views – set amongst rolling hills in peaceful, scenic countryside less than an hour north of Toulouse international airport. Don’t be put off by the word craft in their description. Think high art.
Last winter, Selvedge advertised a workshop » Free-Draping: A New Purpose for Vintage Textiles with Christina Mayer”. You live in the Château, all your meals are provided by a chef ; there’s an outdoor salt-water swimming pool; some of the rooms are ensuite, all are renovated and I signed up. Fast.

Midsummer. I arrive in London, England for a Jetlag Recovery week with my childhood friend, Susan.

First we did London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with an exhibition of the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s work (1895-1972). How influential was Balenciaga – in the fashion world? Christian Dior called him “the master of us all.”
“Boy, I did this trip in the right order.” I mumbled. Here was Balenciaga’s take on “Free-Draping” (left) at the very entrance to the exhibition. Look at that sleeve. Free form draping or what?

In the Leighton House Museum, I soaked up work by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Talk about drapery. Alma-Tadema was a Victorian painter. Here he is described in his show’s catalogue: “Today, he is best known for scenes of beautiful women in classical dress, on white marble Terraces that overlook a blue Mediterranean sea.” I’m not an art critic but the words “romantic greeting cards” spring to mind. So do Buttons ‘n Bows Dancing on Draped Fabrics. I’m being glib.

Alma-Tadema’s art is amazing. Beginning around 1911, he influenced films with “the look of antiquity” from the original Birth of a Nation to Ridley Scott’s (2000) Gladiator.

Now to France, to Toulouse, to a special bus on the way to Chateau Dumas. We were a motley crew…but somehow the same…linen, creases and folds, floaty silks, three-meter long scarves, and chunky jewellery, if any at all. Limited hairstyles, a variety of colours (that’s skin and hair), multiple languages — English being prevalent. And it was difficult to pin an age on any one of us.

Ten to sixteen women, including instructors. We all loved textiles, sewing, long straight pins and sharp scissors. Never were there sharp words. Considering that none of us were vetted before we arrived, together we were as one. Sigh.

Here’s a corner of what we found. It doesn’t show the whole Chateau but it does show my view from the dormer window, at the top, on the right. And to the right of that is my all-mod-cons ensuite in the brick square on top of the “tower”.

Ahhh, the French Chateau — Chateau Dumas. I’ve been tied in knots trying to write about it. Any description sounds very la-de-dah and letters to me from the other “Dumasiennes” (Get it??? Chateau Dumas…) are full of words like “magical” (not that it isn’t). We began with Flea Markets where we bought strange-and-plain, mid-1800s night-shift-dress-like things in coarse linen. We tore them apart and remade them into other scratchy wearables, maybe even cool fashion in some cases.

No corner of the Chateau has been left undecorated, styled as if we were there to do a photo shoot – for Selvedge Magazine – not make our fingers bleed.

Inside was a different style: If It’s Not Out And Visible, I Can’t See It to Use It. I didn’t know other people worked this way too — in visible chaos.

I made a coat looking very science-lab-like, in spite of being covered in found antique buttons, lace, and gee-gaws. I made the basic coat from a pair of Victorian split-crotch pantaloons and one of the shifts. (bottom left)

Lines of little dots of blood showed the paths of my sewing. The fabric in all the shifts was tougher than denim and there was a lot of hand sewing. Especially by moi sewing on buttons. I kept stabbing my fingers, not buttons, which made me bleed. Blood on the garment? No problem. Here, sew this over the blood. And I DID have a thimble. Too awkward.

One of the Dumasiennes commented that every time she visited the studio, I was sitting in a corner, by a window, quietly sewing on buttons. Below, left, is a close up that doesn’t show my blood under the three tiny shirt buttons in the photo. At the top of the coat in the right photo, is part of a donated“found” garter. And you can see the improvised pocket I made from a fitted section of the split-crotch bloomers. Darts made them fit snugly over your derrière. Now they make a perfect pocket on the lab coat covered in relics from the studio floor.

When you sew, your mind wanders. Or perhaps you are practicing a kind of meditation. Or daydreaming. Or trying spiritual renewal…did I just write that??? What ever it is, it gives the sensation that your hands are connected to a million points in your brain…yet they still follow instructions. Under your face, your brain circuits are firing, and your Mona Lisa mouth (you wish) has a secret smile.

Sewing is the cure. It steadies your hands, your outlook. It allows your body to float into a comfortable slump, and if you can get that glazed look going in your eyes, you don’t have to talk to, or answer, anyone. It was truly a château to get lost in.

I stumbled into this cramped space under some stairs and found hats, clothes, and scarfs from other workshops, attractively set out, of course, beside a case of textile reference books including « The Quilts from Gee’s Bend ». A classic. The ladies of Gee’s Bend are folk heroines. They are descendents of slaves and put their children through university by selling their marvelous, unique quilts. They were made of every scrap that passed through the women’s lives from burlap bags to plantation workers’ old dungarees.

The ladies of Gee’s Bend were inspired by, and helped by, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who went to Gee’s Bend and told them to take the ferry to Camden and register to vote. “You are somebody,” he told the residents. “Cross the river for Freedom”. They did.

Selma, & Gee’s Bend (February 10, 2015)

This is the Chateau’s central stone staircase with shoes and shoemakers’ lasts artfully placed.

The lace-up black “School Marm” shoes looked as if they’d belonged to a girl who did the can-can. And they might have. An ‘entrepreneur’ drops off new shoes to dancers who use them until the shoes are scuffed, wrinkled and “old”. That could take five years. And then the messed-up and worn-out shoes go to a flea market to be sold.

Flea Markets. French. The first market in nearby St. Antonin Noble Val, included brocante/antiques, textiles, leather, linen, lace, cheap clothing and a few farmers with their crops. The usual. We held back – we knew about the other market, in our own town, Auty. We were right. More Stash.

Tea Time Outside the Studios. Twice a day we had Official breaks. We were forced to eat up leftover desserts on these breaks. It was tough going. Breakfast/ tea break/ lunch/ tea break/ glass of wine, champagne if we were lucky/ dinner. All delicious. All French. Local produce. Local wine. In berry picking season. Easy to divide into dishes for vegetarians, vegans and hearty meat, fish and seafood eaters.

Trois Dumasiennes, left to right

Marlene: experienced Dumasienne. Attended Chateau the previous year. Currently lives in South Africa and sends us her fabulous photos.

Rachel Hazel instructor. Textile Narratives: Book Art Journaling Specialist. Lives in Edinburgh & Isle of Iona. Rachel laughs continuously so we all want to be near her.

Christine Mayer. Clothing Instructor covering : Design, Workshops, and is also a Specialist for Retreats. Christine lives in Berlin.

Bought or brought or wrought?
Christine wanted to peruse and question each of us about our stashes. I had bits of my sister’s, my mother’s, my daughter’s, friends and strangers…and my own.

Christine showed no excitement for my handmade silk pajamas from the 1920s or 30s China. Just as well. Here they sit on the two scratchy linen shifts I bought.

The PJ bottoms have large embroidered silk chiffon inserts that are triangular. They turn the PJ legs into what appears to be a Ginger Rogers’ swirly skirt. The pale silk glows like the inside of a shell. Who would dare cut them up. Not I. I’m going to frame them.

The Coat again. Christine was taken by my two dense linen shifts. I’d also bought equaly heavy, lace-trimed split-crotch pantaloons often called knickers. Neat eh. They were essentially two legs open at the bottom and the crotch, and attached to a waistband at the top. Easy access to your privates. I decided to make a coat. What was I thinking? It was summer in the south of France. But Christine set me off on the right track and I « freely » draped a shift and the pantoloons on a dressmakers’ judy.

All of these shades-of-white shifts were very clean and in good shape. Workshops like ours are making them scarce. I’m convinced they were originally worn by either women jail prisoners, orphans or ‘bad-girls’ sent to strict nunneries in the mid-1800s. In fact in the 19th century they were every day underwear for all, often worn with a corset.The shifts are well-sewn by machines and hand, and each has an identifying marker of initials embroidered in red. All the seams are finished inside.There is something attractive and compelling about them, and something forlorn. And perhaps a bit obsessive.

Personally, I ripped them, cut them, tried all the pieces on the judy and got sewing. We had good, strong sewing machines…but I was still able to break a needle. These machines operated backwards to mine at home and also I couldn’t see the needle hole to thread it. My fellow Dumasiennes all had a go at it for me.

Christine helped each one of us. I don’t know how she kept track. Every so often she stopped and gave us useful instructions such as how we could make our own sleeves and pants patterns, instead of stealing them from old patterns. Hemming garments wasn’t high on Christine’s list and you know, it worked. On her.

Christine is calm, encouraging, supportive, brillant, and mystical in the nicest possible way. She dressed in her own creations, pale or outright white, threads hanging from all over them. No need to hem anything just listen to the fabric like she told you to, and if you’re honest and committed, by the end it will all work out. Be positive. Think good thoughts. You know, all that stuff you hear at craft fairs. Except the Dumasiennes and Christine mean it.

Dumasienne Nida from Thailand (left and right) was inspired by Christine’s use of men’s shirts. It was a surprise when when Nida started wearing her own clothes. « I’m into colour, » was all she said showing up in a different spectacular outfit every day.

Nida never stopped. She made a colorful and splendid coat for Marlene. Nida made it the night before. In her ‘spare’ time.

Gigi adjusts the coat and its ruffley sleeves. Every workshop should have a Gigi.

That’s Gigi’s foot (photo rt) snuggled in the feathers, straw and lace. She had hurt her foot and it had to be elevated. The ivory silk thing in the back of the picture is Gigi’s slinky project

Gigi’s foot recovered and she met the Butten Man who surely has a real name. Never heard it. He travels in a van stuffed with notions from the past…that is thousands of buttens, ribbons, hooks and eyes and really neat cast aways. A tiny pen knife with a pearl handle ingraved, «A Souvenir of Our Lady of Lourdes » appeared and he put it into my hand mumbling « un Cadeau ». (I think, I’m not French Canadian). Well that got the bargaining going. And Gigi and the rest of us received quirky but appreciated deals.

Someone, maybe from Le Propète Company, hand wrote in red above the snap fasteners :

Fabrication Prophète
Qualité Parfaite

These snaps were Guanteed not to rust.

Another day. We used woad to die clothes and textiles we’d brought with us. Woad???? What colour is woad? Blue…looks like indigo but it’s not. It’s a medieval plant called woad (Isatis tinctoria) and it’s known as The European Blue. There’s a certain order to doing things with woad and there are many steps and rules. I kind of glazed over.

I do know you have to slide the fabric into the huge dye vat without bubbles forming. The oxygen in the bubbles of air starts the woad working. And if you try to take your piece out to check the colour, and you’re clumsey like me, someone else’s fabric will hook on your long stick, the fabric will get a shot of oxygen and you have to take the whole piece out with a lot if your new-found friends shouting at you as the dyed piece turns green here, blue there, darker blue over there. It will eventually work out. Or not.

Google Denise Lamert, the woman with the blue hands (to the right, below), knows all, and is a good guide. She’s wringing out something just dyed with woad. Denise supplied the rest of us with rubber aprons and rubber gloves. Denise’ head is stuffed with information. Napoleon’s army wore uniforms blue with woad. That blue probably takes many dips in the dye vat. But it’s a swell fact.

This ball of woad, is about the size of an orange, and would be expensive. I didn’t bother to find out the price.

I don’t know why I zoned out so often in Woad 101– maybe the way the dyed samples surrounded us as if we were in a fairy tale – and we were all princesses. After a week you get used to it. And to constant smiling Dumasiennes. And textile conversations. And rosé. Or red. Or white. Or Champagne.

Owned and run by Lizzie Hulme, the Chateau Dumas is a place you can relax, unwind and be creative. And happy. Have someone else decide what your day’s meals will be, and then another smiling face will serve you dinner on the terrace. Or set up a picnic.

We put on a fashion show.

We hung out. Mainly, we laughed.

And we worked and designed, and sewed. And bled.

Dear Dumasiennes ,

Thank you every one of you.
If I used a photo you took,
I’m sorry. No mischief meant.
We sure took a lot of pictures.


August, 2017


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