A trip tp the Vosges

Not having had much time off this summer, we decided to go to Sainte Marie aux Mines in the north east of France, for the big patchwork and textile arts exhibition; I bought a ticket for the full 4 days of the event and Nick packed a bike; it’s close to the Vosges, where he’d be able to bag some more cols. It’s about 1000km from home, so we booked a little apartment on Airbnb and went in the car.

The exhibition was fantastic, there was just so much to see, from traditional and antique quilts to contemporary quilts and textile art pieces; the quality and variety of the work was amazing. I especially loved the work of a group of 21 artists from all over the world, Texnet 2, who’d worked collaboratively on a 365 piece project, marking each day of 2020 in the form of 12 large calendar month pieces and another 12 made up of smaller quilts for each day. They couldn’t meet up, due to covid restrictions, so all the work was coordinated online and many of them only met in person for the first time at the exhibition. Except the two Australians, who couldn’t attend.

There weren’t as many exhibitors as usual and the number of visitors was well down on normal, which did have the advantage of allowing you to see the pieces without being swamped by the crowd, as well as being able to chat to the artists. Sadly, the commercial part was also much reduced; there were plenty of fabric stalls, but if you were looking for something slightly obscure or specialist, you were unlikely to find it.

Nick too, thoroughly enjoyed himself, cycling 430km over the 4 days and adding 42 new cols to his collection. He went into Germany on the last day and found some very pretty villages.

We set off home early on Monday morning and made good progress until a warning light came on in the car and it lost power. Looking in the handbook, it seemed serious, so I phoned the insurance, only to be told that we have no breakdown cover. I checked with our agent, who, as surprised as we were, confirmed this, though he was helpful in finding us a tow truck and a garage, albeit at our own expense. While on the phone to him, we saw a sanglier (a wild boar) run past, chased by four large dogs; the sanglier disappeared into the bushes, leaving the dogs to stand about, seemingly unwilling to follow it, then to wander off.

I phoned the recovery driver; he wasn’t the easiest person to understand, but suddenly it became a lot more difficult when a huge 4×4 pulled up right in front of us. Three gun-toting men in orange jackets got out and surrounded our car – hunters – shouting questions at us – had we seen a sanglier? How big was it? Where had it gone? How many dogs were there? Which way had they gone? How long ago?……… Eventually they left and I could get back to my phone call, feeling more than a little stressed.

An hour later the recovery lorry arrived and towed the car up the ramps. For a while things went from bad to worse;  you had to pay the driver before the journey, but Nick’s card wouldn’t work and when I looked in my purse, my card wasn’t there. I had what I think must have been a panic attack; I couldn’t remember where I’d last used it and had visions of being left stranded in the middle of nowhere, unable to get home. Eventually we found the card in my coat pocket, where I’d put it while filling the car with fuel the previous evening. Finally we got to the garage, I googled hotels nearby and the driver of the tow truck kindly offered to take us there.

It was an interesting hotel, though certainly not a classy one; each room had an ensuite, but I think they must have been purchased when a ferry company renovated its cabins –  tiny and made from preformed plastic, with a shower curtain that clung to you while you showered.

The rhythmic creaking noises from the room above ours were repeated regularly all evening; somebody had stamina, I thought, until Nick pointed out the succession of workmen’s vans in the car park!

The garage owner looked at the car the following morning; the problem was an injector, but his friend up the road had one in stock so he could do the repairs during the day. From the garage we walked into Vichy, where we found a great little café for lunch; I think I was the only woman in the place, which was full of workmen and lorry drivers. The owner and chef were delightful and the food excellent, which set us up for the walk back to the hotel and later to the garage to pick up the car.

An interesting and memorable journey, but we were so pleased to get home.

Here are a few photos of the exhibition and for anyone who might be interested in seeing more, a link to a google photos album.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/sKKbLc1p7cWgd6L6A

Ten years on and our gite is open at last!

The end of August marked the tenth anniversary of our retirement and moving here; in some ways it’s passed so quickly, but we can’t imagine living anywhere else now, it’s really become our home. We have made so many friends and become part of the fabric of the local community; it was a decision we haven’t regretted for an instant.

Purely by coincidence, the anniversary was also the week in which we finally opened our gite. It’s taken far longer than we imagined, (integration takes time and is so much more fun than working!) but at last the work is done, from building new bathrooms from scratch, to installing double glazed windows and totally landscaping the garden; the countless hours of painting, plumbing, plastering and the 1001 other tasks required are over. 

We’re working on a website; once it’s done I’ll put a link here, but in the meantime, we’re taking bookings for next year, so if you or someone you know is interested, please get in touch, at jackie@cawthray.co.uk.

The gite will accommodate 6 people. There’s a fully equipped kitchen/dining room, a sitting room, 3 bedrooms (2 double, 1 twin), 2 bathrooms and a laundry room. There’s parking for 3 cars, an outdoor eating area with barbecue and use of a large park.

We’re just 3km from the motor race circuit at Nogaro and 30 minutes from Marciac and its renowned jazz festival, in the beautiful, rolling Gers countryside, surrounded by vineyards, ideal for walking and cycling and only an hour and a half drive from the Pyrenees. There are wonderful, vibrant markets to explore as well as Armagnac producers to visit, some of whom even do tours in English.

So if you’ve never explored the Gers, it would be great to welcome you to our adopted home and show you around.

Soap making

One Saturday nearly 2 years ago, not long before the world as we knew it changed from one of freedoms that we really didn’t appreciate to one of lockdowns, masks and quarantine, we were at the market in Bagnères de Bigorre. It’s a great market with stalls selling everything from Pyrénéen sheep’s cheese to handmade jewellery, marinated olives of every size and shape to second hand books, organic fruit and vegetables to loaves of bread so big that you only buy a couple of slices. I bought some hand made soap and got chatting to the lady selling it; she told me she had a shop and workshop in Arreau, a town in the next valley and she ran soap making courses. I took a card and promised to be in touch; I’ve long fancied learning to make my own soap.

We didn’t go back to the Pyrenees before covid hit, but I kept the card and contacted her earlier this year; she said she’d be doing courses this summer, so I signed up.

We went to Arreau in the camper, the forecast wasn’t great, but a few days break would do us both good.

We had one lovely, sunny day, when I went to Arreau market and Nick did a full day’s cycling. He managed to collect several cols over the three days, in spite of the thunder, hailstones, rain and low cloud for the rest of our visit.

Arreau market
The weather wasn’t great

On the Friday I spent a fascinating 4 hours, the first two learning about saponification indices and the different properties of various oils, whether they’re hardening, give good lather, moisturising, etc and how to work out if a specific combination will make a decent soap. 

Eventually we got to the actual soap making process, working in gloves, safety glasses and white coats as the caustic soda that’s mixed with the oils is obviously not a nice chemical. We weighed our chosen oils, caustic soda, essential oils to perfume the soap and colourants, mixed them all up and poured them into moulds. They had to solidify overnight, before we could unmould and slice them, so I went back to the shop the following morning to finish off and collect what I’d made.

Everything weighed out
My soap looks like fudge!
The end product
Curing

It has to cure for 6 weeks, open to the air, so I’ve put it in my workshop, which smells gorgeous. 

Nick was keen to see the process, so I made a small batch of “mechanic’s” soap with oils I had in stock as it took a few days for what I ordered online to arrive. Olive oil, coconut oil, coffee grounds for exfoliation and lemon oil to remove grease. It’s not a pretty soap, but I hope it’ll work. As I didn’t have a mould, I used an empty orange juice carton, which worked fine!

My friend Mart is keen to make her own soap too, so she came round and we made a second batch of mechanic’s soap for her; all we need now is the time to put our new found knowledge into practice – oh, and some interesting moulds!

Mechanic’s soap

One sunny Sunday

While having a look around the stalls at a village fête a few weeks ago, I bumped into one of my old students, who had a stand showing the paintings and pottery she’s done. She invited me to share her stand at a craft fair a couple of weeks later and, as I’m not cycling much at the moment, it seemed a good idea.

Dominique came round to help me select a few pieces to display, insisting that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have anything to sell; she didn’t either, it was more a case of simply getting our work seen.

I’d need some sort of poster to tell people who I was, so I made one in patchwork and machine embroidery and put it in a frame. 

The day dawned grey, but it was going to get hot and sunny, so I wore a top that I made from bits of reclaimed lace, the trial run for another lace top that I put on the mannequin that Gemma sent for my birthday. I had the textile arts book that I made last winter as well as a few other bits.

My end of the table

It was a great day, with dozens of artists of every type displaying and selling their wares, potters, painters, stained glass makers, poets, and all of a very high standard.

The local journalist was quite taken with the fact that I could actually wear my particular type of art, earning me a mention and two photos in the local paper.

https://lejournaldugers.fr/article/49955-artistes-dans-la-rue-a-aignan-vif-succes

I bumped into plenty of friends as well as lots of folk I didn’t know and had a lovely, relaxing day in the shade of the trees (Dominique had bagged a really good spot for us). Next time I might have a stand of my own and maybe even have the time to make a few little items to sell.

Sardine tins!

Tour de France 2021

We love to watch the Tour de France; it usually involves cycling for several hours to spend just a few seconds watching the world’s greatest cyclists wizz past, then several more hours cycling home again. It might sound insane, but the atmosphere is always fantastic, making it a great day out.

Obviously the best place to see the Tour is in the mountains, where the peloton might be a bit split up and will certainly be moving less quickly than normal. 

With this in mind, Nick organised a club run in the Pyrenees on Sunday, days before the Tour would come through. As I can’t cycle much at the moment, he’d go in the camper on Saturday, ride Saturday and Sunday, then ride home on Monday, leaving the camper parked at a friend’s house. We’d then both go back in the car on Tuesday to watch the Tour Wednesday and Thursday, before heading home. A much needed break. 

It didn’t quite go to plan, however, as rain clouds gathered on Sunday night, depositing their contents very generously on Monday morning. Nick set off to ride home, but within a very few kilometres was soaked through (his shoes took a full 3 days to dry!). The forecast was for more of the same for the next couple of days, so he turned back, came home in the camper and we watched the mountain stages on the internet.

Wednesday’s stage saw them leave the mountains and the weather improved; Nick cycled to Montgaillard, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, while I painted the gite kitchen (more later).

The following stage was going through the Landes, which is fairly flat; feeling deprived of my usual TdF fix, we drove to the little village of Brocas and joined most of the village’s population on the roadside. We’d both had appointments in the morning, so missed the publicity caravan, but saw the Tour come through at incredible speed, causing the sort of air turbulence normally associated with express trains. The local Bandas band was playing, the bar was doing a roaring trade and even the Gendarmes were friendly and chatty, in addition to which, Kieran and Alice joined us. 

The Tour finished the following Sunday; sadly, Mark Cavendish didn’t manage to break Eddy Merckx’s record for the number of stages won in the Tour, but there’s always next year.

If you look closely, you can spot the yellow jersey wearer in the middle of the group – pure chance!

A long awaited weekend away

It was the weekend of the annual cycle club trip to St. Lary, in the Pyrenees, deferred from last year due to Covid. I’d signed up, but as I can’t ride far at the moment, I offered to help with support. I was very nervous about driving Bernard’s big van, but needn’t have worried as my co-driver, Robin, the 21 year old son of a farmer, has been driving tractors and bigger since he was 16 and was more than happy to do all the driving if I’d navigate. That suited me perfectly.

We left Nogaro at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, the van loaded with overnight bags, picnics and bottles of water and headed for the first stop at Gensac, where we supplied coffee and cakes. The group looked great on the road, with virtually everyone in club strip.

Morning coffee and cake
Time for a natural break

Then on to St. Marie de Campan for a picnic lunch; it was quite warm, but fortunately nothing like the 41°C of two years ago. Everyone set off again in good spirits, except Bernard, who didn’t feel up to doing the climb of the Hourquette d’Ancizan, so he joined us in the van. Laurent isn’t a great climber, so we expected a long wait for him at the summit; we didn’t expect him to turn up in a big 4×4, though, having hitched a ride for the second half of the climb!

Lunch stop

At the centre de vacances in St. Lary, the rooms were clean and comfortable, the beer warm and the food unimaginative and insufficient, but that did nothing to dampen our spirits; it was great to be riding together again, especially as this was our president’s first club run in over two and a half years, since he had a horrendous accident, falling off a roof and breaking almost every bone in his body.

Sunday morning dawned grey, foggy and drizzly; Bernard was on his bike again, but we had Bruno for company in the van for the first stretch, the climb of the Col d’Aspin, as he had a hip replacement recently and had found the climbing uncomfortable the previous day. 

Riding out of the cloud

We collected unwanted layers of clothing when we passed the riders as they warmed up on the ascent of the Col and after a few kilometres the heavy cloud started to thin. I hadn’t realised till then that I’d only ever seen this col from my bike, which in my case means I’d only seen the bit of tarmac in front of my wheel. I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the landscape around us, enhanced by the fact of seeing it in inversion conditions, blue sky above, white cloud below. I think Robin must have stopped the van at every possible spot, to allow me to take photos.

The clouds begin to thin
Top of the col d’Aspin
Afternoon coffee stop

From the top, where Bruno rejoined the peloton, we stopped the van about every 20km on the way home to enable the riders to put on/take off waterproofs as the weather remained changeable, but it was a happy group that arrived back in Nogaro, ready for a beer or three in the clubhouse. 

A private armagnac tour

A few months ago a young woman contacted me for conversational English lessons; she’s the owner of the oldest armagnac business in the area and wants to be able to conduct tours in English during the summers. Her English is already very good, she just lacks a little confidence, so the lessons are thoroughly enjoyable.

She’d already written a script for her tours, but wants to be able to talk about the business off the cuff, and of course, answer questions; so she asked if I’d like to have a tour, as a guinea pig. Naturally, I jumped at the chance and went to Nogaro, to the Dartigalongue building, for my tour.

We started in the museum; a room filled with all sorts of artefacts including early twentieth century (very un-PC)  advertising posters, letters to and from the business, old bottles, tools once used to repair barrels, which almost nobody knows how to use these days, and portraits and photos of the five generations of Virginie’s family who ran the business before her; from Pascal Dartigalongue, who founded it in 1838, his sons, Henri and André, through to Virginie’s grandfather, Pierre. There wasn’t a photo of her aunt, who passed the business on to Virginie as she never married or had children and who, sadly, passed away on the morning of my tour, but I’m sure one will be added to the collection soon.

Museum, with photos and portraits of the previous owners

The next room contains old bottles and demijohns of armagnac, amongst them the oldest registered armagnac in existence, dating from 1848. There are also bottles from as far back as 1829, but these aren’t registered, so don’t count in official terms.

The wooden pillars were hand carved by Virginie’s grandfather

Next we went to the working part of the business; they no longer distill the armagnac here, their job is to age the eau de vie they receive from vignerons in Gascon oak barrels, the process that transforms it into armagnac. There are hundreds of barrels in various rooms, each with its own microclimate; each barrel is labelled in chalk with the age, quantity, alcohol level and type of grape. 

I learnt about the different terroirs (a combination of soil type and climate) of the three different armagnac producing areas (bas armagnac, haut armagnac and Tenareze), the three different grape varieties used and the battle to be allowed to continue using Baco grapes, which give structure and the potential to age well to the armagnac, and which are phylloxéra resistant, so require less pesticides; but which are a hybrid of a French and an American grape, so disapproved of by the powers that be. The battle was won in 2005, though this grape can only be grown in the Gers, and purely for armagnac production.

Armagnac from the original, clear, eau de vie, to the fully matured product

They have to this day the old copper still that was used to distill armagnac, but is no longer in use, as well as huge, ancient wooden barrel-shaped containers, now superceded by stainless steel drums. 

The still

The whole place is permeated with a gentle aroma of armagnac, from the first floor storage, which is warm, so the “angels’ share” is about 2-4% a year, to the cool cellars below ground, where the perfume of armagnac is mixed with the musty scent of the earth below your feet.

It was fascinating to learn not just about the history of armagnac in our area, but also the personal history of one family who have devoted their lives to its production. The people who work there these days have all done so for upwards of 25 years; it’s obviously a happy place to spend an entire career, a real family firm.

Virginie wants to do a couple more guinea pig tours, so Nick and other friends of ours will have that treat later this month and if/when friends and family can visit again, I’m sure we’ll be recommending a visit during their stay.

And the winner is……… me!

I’m not much a newspaper reader, but since we moved to France, we’ve taken the Connexion, a monthly English newspaper for ex-pats. It’s very useful for explaining some of the more confusing aspects of French life, such as the horrendously complicated bureaucracy, or for knowing the exchange rate on the correct day for tax purposes.

A couple of months ago, at the end of an article on a famous gardener, they announced a competition to write about your potager, or veg plot; I decided to give it a go and spent a few evenings writing and editing, with feedback from Gemma. Finally I was happy with it and sent it off, along with some photos, then promptly forgot all about it.

Last week I received an email telling me I’d won! It would be an understatement to say I was gobsmacked – I don’t win things. The prize is two wine themed tea towels, which have yet to arrive, along with publication online.

So here it is.

Tales from the Potager: Jackie Cawthray’s story

From 20 square metres to 5,000 was quite the step-up for the novice potagistes when they moved from Yorkshire to the Gers – as we discover in the first of two winning entries to our Tales from the Potager competition

27 April 2021By Jackie Cawthray

When we took early retirement and moved to the Gers, we’d never had a garden to speak of; our Victorian terrace in Harrogate boasted a back yard of about 20 square metres. Suddenly we were faced with owning, and maintaining, 5000 square metres, most of which could best be described as a field.

A potager was a priority. We’d dreamt for so long of being able to grow our own fruit and veg, even though we had no idea how; it was going to be a steep learning curve. I found a jardin partagé in the local town, where I was welcomed with open arms.

I spent two mornings a week weeding, watering, planting and harvesting, but mostly soaking up as much information as my co-workers could provide, which they did with great good humour, sometimes highly amused by my mispronunciation of words I’d only read, never heard. I frequently came home with the panniers on my bike laden with produce, as well as occasional baby walnut trees that had self seeded where they weren’t wanted.

We put all this produce and knowledge to good use, digging our first potager between the cabanon and the garage; we built a New Zealand composting system, got manure from a neighbouring stables and began planting. The first year, we grew more spinach than we could possibly use; strangely, I’ve never managed to get it to germinate since. Friends and neighbours gave us tomato and courgette plants as well as seeds for peppers, physalis, broad beans and mange tout peas.

Soon the potager was too small – there were strawberries by the roadside, raspberry canes near the woodpile, cultivated blackberries in the park and where on earth could we put the five baby blackcurrant bushes we’d just been given?

We chose another location and started digging it out. The soil around here is heavy clay, though some patches of ground seemed much better than others.

We dug out the improved soil from the old potager, barrowed it to the new one and rotavated it in, along with manure and home made compost.

We came across all sorts of treasure among the bits of old roof tiles and lumps of concrete; there were old perfume bottles and very pretty bits of ceramic tiles, but best of all was the fire back, broken in two, inscribed with “Isabelle Mahue 1935”.

Who she was was a mystery to us till we were talking to an elderly neighbour one day; he knew Isabelle, whom he described as being as round as she was tall, extremely mean with money and who grew fruit and veg in her back garden, to sell on the market, which explained the patches of good soil. She died in the 70s and is buried in the little cemetery behind his house, so he took us to visit, explaining that the date on the fire back was the year she’d bought what’s now our house.

Little by little the new potager took shape. Keen gardening friends from England came for a busman’s holiday – it was great to work with people who know what they’re doing. I no longer have time to help at the jardin partagé, but the friends I made there are always happy to advise and are still amused by my mistakes, such as when I carefully potted up, nurtured and transferred a load of strawberry runners to the new potager.

They weren’t growing as I expected, so Christian came round to take a look – his diagnosis? They were all weeds, every one!

Watering during the summer soon became a problem; we’d got several large water butts to collect rain water, but this wasn’t enough and we didn’t want to use tap water, so my other half devised a system to pump the treated water leaving the septic tank across the garden, by way of an underground pipe, to a 1000 litre storage tank.

This helped a lot, but by August is usually still not enough; we have a well, but it’s very deep, 17 metres down to the water. Eventually we found a pump powerful enough to bring the water to the surface, from where it goes, by way of another underground pipe (thank goodness we bought a mini digger!) to the storage tank.

In spite of our occasional failures, we manage to grow enough tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, beans, onions, raspberries and blackcurrants, to name but a few, to fill two chest freezers, which see us through most of the year. I still get a real buzz from swapping seeds and plants with friends and neighbours and giving away stuff that I simply don’t have time or energy to process.

Last year our potager was a lifeline, we spent time we wouldn’t normally have free in the garden and as a result, had a weed free potager for the first time ever. It never ceases to amaze me how much better home grown fruit and veg taste than anything you can buy, as well as having all the other benefits of being organic.

I also love being able to compost not just kitchen waste, but all paper and cardboard packaging too; I buy as little plastic wrapping as possible, so we have very little waste to recycle or put in the commune bins.

It’s nearly time to start sowing seeds for this year … onwards and upwards, as they say on Gardener’s Question Time.

Work and play

You may well be forgiven for thinking that, after our limited rights to go out and live a normal life over the past year and a bit, we’d have finished the gite by now. But, ridiculous though it seems, you’d be wrong.

We started well enough, tackling jobs that had needed doing for years, though they were mostly, it has to be said, in our house. Then we did a lot of gardening; the veg plot had never been weed free before. But the gite? As time went by we found it increasingly difficult to motivate ourselves to do very much at all and we had a very slow winter. Whenever possible, Nick’s been out cycling, making up for the times it was forbidden. 

What we needed was a kick up the proverbial; it came in the form of a neighbour who runs a chambres d’hôtes asking if we’d be ready to take bookings for the lorry racing weekend in July, she was already booked up and was still getting enquiries.

We made a list of jobs remaining to be done; it should be perfectly feasible in the 10 weeks remaining, Mart gave our details to her booking lady and we set to.

Nearly 3 weeks on and the new bathroom is tiled, grouted, fixtures fitted and plumbed, walls and ceiling painted and window varnished. In the débarras Nick’s crepi-ed where the old chimney came out and finished the tiling, which I’ve grouted. He replaced the glass doors in the linen cupboard with wood and added a coving to the top, while I painted walls, ceiling and cupboard, and cleaned and varnished the beams. The end is in sight, at least in there; next we’ll tackle the kitchen.

Refurbished linen cupboard

The debarras; a few little jobs to finish now
The debarras
Just waiting for the heater and shower screen
The newly enlarged bathroom

We haven’t any bookings yet, but I think that not having en suite facilities is a disadvantage in these covid times, as people from different households can’t share facilities. But we’ll see what happens; it’s good to be making progress again.

In the midst of all this unaccustomed activity, we’re trying to take time off occasionally. After a very dry spring, the rain has been almost relentless in May, but last Wednesday was lovely. 

When Nick suggested we go out for lunch, it took me a moment to realise what he meant, as all restaurants and cafes are still closed, but we could put some food in the camper and find a pretty picnic spot; the camper is due its MOT next week, so it would benefit from a run anyway, not having seen much use over the past year.

We packed some thawed out soup and chilli and set off for Marciac, where there’s plenty of parking by the lake, and found a lovely spot, right next to a picnic table. There was some fishing gear stashed at the water’s edge, just down the bank.

As I prepared lunch, I heard a van pull up behind us and Nick talking to someone; there was a young man who wanted to know how long we’d be there as it was his fishing gear on the lakeside, he’d been parked there for two days and had just vacated his spot for a few minutes to do a bit of shopping. We said we’d move as soon as we’d eaten. He sat chatting for a while; if we didn’t eat the soup soon, I thought, the rice would be pudding, so I asked if he’d like some soup, there was plenty. Yes, he’d love that, so we ate soup, then stretched the chilli and rice to three servings. I think he regretted accepting the offer of chilli; the French, generally, don’t eat anything at all spiced and he found it too hot, though in fact it was very mild.

He brought a lovely cheese from his van to finish the meal and Nick made coffee as we sat chatting. He was taking a year’s sabbatical from his job as a psychiatric nurse; Nick misunderstood his job, (he had quite a strong accent), hearing “fermier” (farmer), instead of “infermier” (male nurse), so the poor guy was a little confused when Nick asked him whether he kept animals, or grew cereals. I think he had Nick down as a future patient for a moment, till the misunderstanding dawned on us and we could explain.

Once the meal was over we moved the camper and had a walk around the lake and into Marciac; we were only out for a few hours, but it felt like a proper break and set us up to do some gardening on our return, watching the solid, black, heavy clouds approaching while I planted strawberries. Shortly after we finished, the thunder and lightning started, followed by rain and a hailstorm. Fortunately the strawberries have survived.

Marciac lake
Marciac lake

A bit of textile art

Now that we’re in our third covid lockdown, I was thinking of the previous one, last October, which seems such a long time ago. One of the ladies in my textile arts group heard of an online course, to be run by someone from France Patchwork, covering various textile art techniques, with the aim of producing fabric books in three different styles, over 3 months. Four of us signed up, along with another eight women from across France.

It has to be said that the teaching was somewhat sparse, comprising one 15 minute video per month; if you didn’t already know what you were doing, you’d have been lost quite early on. The subject matter proposed was also unimaginative – all the teacher’s books took India for their theme and, apart from the style of book, looked very similar.

First we made a scroll, making or buying stamps to print on used teabags and learning how to sew little Indian mirrors onto the fabric. I also tried my hand at traditional Indian embroidery, though it’s not my forté, requiring far too much patience for me. Unlike most other participants, I also used techniques I’m already familiar with, to give some variety to the end result.

Next came the “Sumerian tablets” book, square pages joined together concertina-style. My theme for this was the seasons and as I started working I began to get into a different frame of mind artistically, attempting to mix styles and techniques in a way I hadn’t tried before. The new techniques this time were stencilling with fabric paintsticks and using paper in the work too. I didn’t have paintsticks and found they were quite expensive to buy, but having plenty of fabric paints, stencils and stencil brushes already, I was able to achieve the desired result. I used some lyrics from the “Seasons” album by Magna Carta, who I used to know and who gave me permission.

The other new technique for this book was the use of angelina fibres; our textiles group bought some, which each of us used and posted to the next person on the list. Maybe they’re available in other, less hi-viz, colours as well as the ones we bought, but I wasn’t impressed, so used them for the cover of the book; frankly, I think the result’s pretty awful.

I always send photos of my current project to Gemma, my daughter in Australia; she gives me good feedback. When she saw the summer page she loved it and wanted a decent quality photo to have made into a canvas; better than that, I thought, why not give her all the finished pages; so I didn’t actually make up the book, but kept the pages separate, mounting them on background fabrics so that she can frame and hang them.

Spring
Summer
Autumn
Winter

The new technique for the third book was to use gesso; I’ve had a tub in the cupboard for years, but never knew quite what to do with it. We cut some firm cotton fabric out, soaked it in dilute PVA glue, then glued on bits of scrunched up tissue paper, muslin, gauze and lace. We let it dry then painted it with gesso; mine took two coats as I’d used heavy cotton lace. Once that was dry, we painted it, added gold foil and gilding wax. The result was spectacular, definitely my favourite technique of the course.

This was to be the cover of our third book and was to be cut in an interesting shape, so I used a Moorish arch shape and dug out the photos of our trip to Morocco, choosing several as inspiration for the inner pages of my book.

I was totally engrossed in what I was doing by now and keen to explore as many new techniques as possible; Nick made me a weaving frame so I was able to weave one page to give the effect of a terraced hillside, as well as a tiny rug for the page based on the souks of Marrakech. I embroidered by hand and machine, used water soluble fabric and bits of a page of a Moroccan newspaper we were given while on holiday; I stencilled onto teabags, embroidered on organza to give a transparent look to a cut out window, appliquéd, foiled and of course, used my newly discovered gesso technique.

The souks of Marrakech

Tiles and orange trees in the El Badi Fort and blue pots representing the Majorelle Gardens, Marrakech

I made a back and a spine for the book, to match the front cover and my son in law’s father very kindly printed my “inspirational” photos onto canvas for me to include in the book. It took a while to work out how to put the whole project together as I wasn’t impressed with the method used by the teacher (her book had neither back nor spine), but at last, after 3 months, it’s finished. I’m very pleased with the end result; it’s a very personal and evocative souvenir of our holiday. 

Nick keeps promising to add another page, or gallery, or something, to this blog, one on which I can put photos of the textile work I’m doing, so one of these days it might appear.