Carnivale….it’s all about the textiles and the smiles

Carnivale started yesterday afternoon in Fort de France, and will continue through Ash Wednesday. The schedule of events is complex and interesting — everything from children dressed up as little devils on ‘Red Day’ to ‘Unilikely Couples’ on Wedding Day. I think Ash Wednesday is a Black and Red day, when a relic of King Vaval, the devil, will be paraded around and then symbolically buried for the start of Lent.

The parade on Saturday was like a pre-game event. It began with locals carrying colorful umbrellas and walking/dancing to loud drumming. It got us all in the mood!

Two years ago we were here in February, but it was not yet Carnivale. People were getting ready, though. The fabric store wares were spilling out into the street, and the fabrics were all garish, glittery yardages geared for making the most outlandish costumes.

I happened to wade/paw my way through the bolts to the back of one particular store, where I found beautiful printed linens from France. I hope to find a similar treasure this year….. I did not remember where the shop is located, but I have now managed to stumble on it twice, and lose it again. I hope I can find it one more time tomorrow morning when the shops will be open only for the morning. No pressure!

Some of the bystanders in yesterday’s opening parade were as interesting as the participants! Perhaps this little lady bug will be part of the childrens “red day.” I saw this gold sequined fabric in a number of shops.

Face painting extraordinaire!

Drumming factors heavily in these parades, and for several days prior we heard various groups practicing. It’s hard not to get in the mood when these wonderful rhythms are pulsing and vibrating through the city!

There were costumed dancers to accompany every drum corps (do you think that’s what they call themselves? Nah….), and plenty of spectators joined in the dancing too. Tutus came in all colors, sizes, and lengths.

There were queens of every conceivable type. I think this lovely woman must be queen of Fort de France for Carnivale.

The Coconut Queen….actually, I believe her banner reads Dauphine for next year’s Queen of Fort de France. Madras is the traditional fabric for all these islands.

There were lots of other queens too…. here is a tiny bride. Perhaps her ‘dauphine’ title suggest that she will be a bride in some future Carnivale….perhaps in 3 more years. I wonder if they pick these queens so long ahead of time so there is plenty of time to make these incredible dresses. I’m just conjecturing.

In the realm of beauty queens there were quite a few categories. I believe this beauty’s sash reads “queen of the north.” What beautiful young women, all. And the dress…it has hand drawn images, carefully placed

I’m not sure what this woman represented, but what a great costume!

Not all the women were young. Here’s a woman of a certain age, looking elegant as ever. I could not read all of her sash– perhaps queen mother of St. Lucia.

There were two children’s groups. One had children dressed in stereotypical Native American costumes–although this photo of the first row does not show that as well as the next several rows of chidlren– riding tiny ponies. They were adorable. Comically, they were followed by several older children carrying shovels and a one large garbage can in case of droppings.

The cutest children’s group was a drum corps. They seem to be elementary school aged children. Some played lengths of large bamboo while others played bongos and small drums. Their headdresses were the most fun! Can you see the bongos on their heads?

Even better than wearing a bongo on your head might be wearing a cage with a parrot inside! Do you think the kids quarreled over got to wear the caged birds? Do you think moms and grandmoms had fun making these? — though I certainly don’t want to assume that only women could make these fun accessories. Some men could have had a hand in these great headdresses!

Then there was a group I have dubbed The Grandmothers. Enjoy their ageless beauty, and most of all, their grace! I wish I could show you how they danced their way down the street.

And my favorite, the Queen Mother of Fort de France.

Tomorrow, Shrove Sunday, is the beginning of the true celebrations. It’s the day for all colors. And it’s King Vaval who will be buried on Ash Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday are called the ‘fat days,’ Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras. Who knew? Here is a rather clumsy Google translation of the day:

The Shrove Sunday is the first day of the carnival celebration. This day is open to all follies and everyone puts on the disguise of their choice. A richness and a creativity are mixed then in the various parades, thanks to the freedom left to each one, to show his imagination. This day is characterized precisely by the variety of colors. It is also the day when King Vaval, a giant puppet made for weeks, will be presented in total secrecy. He will take the lead in the procession and will be promoted until Ash Wednesday.

I’m looking forward to it!

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Mend and Make Do

…a well used phrase from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It served them well through two world wars and the depression. It’s gaining favor again, as our affluent culture has had so much consumerism and so many things sent to landfills. Some of us are trying to make do with less, and repurposing the things we have. The culture of recycling things, reinventing uses, and making do has never gone out of favor in the small islands where Bob and I are living this winter. The people here have had no choice about that!

Bob and I are in Dominica now, the ‘nature island.’ Indeed, the rainforests here are as unspoiled and pristine as you could possibly imagine. It’s been just over two years since this island was flattened during hurricane Maria, which rapidly escalated to a category five hurricane. Bob and I visited here about two months after Maria occurred. The entire island was brown, with not a leaf left in the rainforest. Along with many other cruisers, we delivered tarps for use on houses and buildings that had lost roofs. Here we are again, barely more than two years later, and the rainforest is healed, but many man made structures are still covered with tarps that have decayed and shredded over the past two years. Patrickson Wallace, who was our guide for a day tour of part of the rainforest told us that he was without electricity for 10 months. At least he now has power and a real roof. Meanwhile, nature heals herself faster and more thoroughly. I am currently reading Overstory by Richard Powers. Being here is a wonderful environment for reading this book. The link will take you to Barbara Kingsolver’s review in the New York Times.

Dominica is a small island (17 miles wide by 29 miles long) that rises straight out of the sea with volcanic mountains covered in rainforest. This island has 365 rivers, and many waterfalls. A small group of cruisers that we’ve met over the past few years spent a day together with our guide to visit a number of waterfalls. We were lucky to be almost alone at Emerald Pool where we swam at the base of a tall waterfall.

Emerald Pool

Then we visited Trafalgar Falls and had lunch on a deck overlooking another waterfall that made us feel as though we were high up in tree house! We ended the day at a hot spring fed from volcanoes.

Trafalgar Falls
The view at lunch

I took a video of Trafalgar Falls, but I don’t have enough bandwidth to upload it. Hopefully I can get that done sometime soon from someplace onshore!

Another visit we took was to a small, family run chocolate factory. The estate grows both cocoa beans and coffee beans. The chocolate is made entirely by hand, and the daughter of the founder took us on a tour of the process. So… speaking of using what’s available…. the father and founder of this endeavor used wood from the property, that was mostly downed in hurricane Maria, to make a small living space above the chocolate sales area for his daughter. Wow! Sometimes making do turns into something spectacular. All the exterior wood–railings and shingles–and all the wood in the interior came from this property. The owner sold Bob two very nice boards of Galba, the local name for this hardwood. I will let Bob figure out if there is a more familiar name to us for what he got.

A romantic aerie with amazing views from the unglazed windows
Farewell to the Pointe Baptiste Estate

Onboard our floating house, Bob and I have done a moderate amount of mending and making do. Our refrigeration is failing. We need a new compressor, or perhaps an entirely new system. Our system is not made anymore, and Pandora has a 24v system since she was built in Finland. Someone in California is cobbling something together for us. He’ll ship it to St. Lucia sometime in the next fews days/weeks. We’ll sail there, and either Bob will install it or he’ll find a local technician to do it. In the meantime, we mostly buy each day’s food, and we plan to live off pantry items if (when?) it fails.

On a more personal level, both Bob and I have had to repair some of our clothing! We can’t just pop down the road to the local Marshalls or a local shoe store to replace the clothing that has fallen apart. I bleached one of my white shirts which had become dingy from so much sunscreen on the arms. Can you believe it? Sunscreen turns cotton a very odd yellow. I must not have rinsed out the bleach well enough because the fabric at the neckline just disintegrated while the shirt dried on a line. And of course the decayed fabric did not occur on a seam, and of course I don’t happen to have any white thread on board. I had to make peace with using pale blue thread for the repair. It’s not quite as discreet a mending job as I’d like. So another adage came to mind: if you can’t hide it, decorate it!

I do have quite a few colors of embroidery thread onboard, so I had another run (with running stitch) at poppies. I do love poppies!

Bob has found that his best walking shoes (Tevas) have delaminated on the soles….both shoes, not just one! He happens to keep some rubber cement onboard, so he peeled apart the layers of the shoes and used a small paint brush to cover each delaminated layer with rubber cement. In this photo he has just finished clamping the shoes, hoping that the pressure will make the glue adhere better. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow when he tries them out walking up to a Fort Napoleon.

Both Teva sandals are clamped together for get the rubber cement to take.

The first time I visited Dominica I bought small baskets with lids for the members of my basket group. I was told that the baskets were made here, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. And I didn’t ask enough questions! On this visit, I am seeing many more baskets!–some of them are exquisite. I asked some questions! There is a native culture here called the Kalinagos who live in their own community. They are known for making baskets out of a type of reed plant that some early native settlers brought with them from South America. The first of these settlers may have arrived on Dominica as early as 500 bce, a full millennia before the French claimed Dominica as their own in 1635. Along with baskets, the Kalinago make items out of gourds and coconuts, as well as making dugout canoes and throwing pottery.

The basket materials come from a reed plant called larouma. The reeds are shaved into 1/4″ staves and 1/8″ weavers, and are often dyed with natural dyes in brown, black, blue, and yellow to create designs with the natural tan. I’m so glad that I learned a bit more about these basket and the people who make them. If our refrigerator holds out a bit longer and if the weather keeps us pinned here, we’d love to visit the Kalinago Territory here in Dominica. Mother Nature will make that call for us.

We’ll see what the next few days bring. Our weather router predicts that we’ll be here in high winds for some time longer. Meanwhile, Carnivale will start next week in Fort de France, Martinique, and we hope to be there! We cannot make any definite plans since the weather controls our destiny. We’ll have to see what comes and make do.

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From Antigua to Orkney

The weather has been wild in this part of the world, not unlike many places these days. We are having multiple squalls a day (and night), with high winds and torrents of horizontal rain to go with it. At night we open and shut our hatches so many times, first to get a bit of a breeze in order to sleep, then to shut things down so our cabin doesn’t get drenched. We both lose track of how many times we get up in the night, and at this point we are both suffering from sleep deprivation. So, when I found this recent article from the BBC online, I could not help but notice the similarities, even a world away from here.

The article is about Ronaldsay sheep on Orkney Island just off the northern coast of Scotland. Another article called Orkney “a freckle off the north coast of Scotland.” How true. Ronaldsay are small, hardy sheep who’ve managed to live on a seaweed diet for quite some time now, ever since the sheep owners cut the sheep off from pasture.

Ronaldsay sheep on Orkney. photo from BBC

Cute sheep, isn’t she? About a decade ago I ordered a kilo of white Ronaldsay fleece from Elizabeth Lovick on Orkney. She has a venture called Northern Lace, and she teaches and designs knitting patterns in traditional Orkney lace work. It took a long time for my fleece to arrive. When she mailed it, she mentioned that I might never get it, if US customs should deem it unsafe. Well, it did arrive, and I enjoyed the process of washing and combing it before spinning it. When at last I had a medium weight, 3-ply yarn, I knitted it into a fisherman’s gansey for my younger son Chris. No, it’s not traditional. The yarn was, but I made up the sweater pattern myself, attempting to satisfy Chris’ needs and style. At the time he was an undergrad student in Rochester, NY. Later he took the sweater, along with several pairs of wool socks that I also knit for him, to Manhattan while he continued his studies there and then worked for a few years. At one point, he lived in an unheated hallway in Chinatown (yes, he paid rent for this dwelling; yes, it was illegal). That sweater came in handy for a few years. Now he lives in the Bay Area has no need for such a garment!

Pretty low resolution back in 2007.
wow! Small photo, low res. He’s so young!

But back to the sheep. Close to 200 years ago, the sheep farmers built a stone wall around the entire perimeter of the island to keep the sheep on the beach so that other livestock could feed on the pasture. The sheep have become accustomed to, and have actually thrived on, their seaweed-only diet. Occasionally a sheep will get through a broken or weak part of the stone wall, and you know if one sheep gets out it’s not long before they are all out.

The sheep on the proper side of the wall. Photo from

The article is about the new sheep dyke warden/shepherdess who’s been hired to maintain that wall and keep an eye on the sheep, as well as what scientists are learning about a seaweed diet. It turns out the seaweed-eating sheep do not emit methane when they belch. It turns out that methane gas is 30 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Think of all the ruminant livestock throughout the world, adding so much methane to the environment. While it’s certainly not a cure-all for our problems, it could be one of many efforts to ease things. These diminutive sheep have led scientists to research the possible benefits of adding seaweed into more livestock diets. The North Ronaldsay Trust began looking for someone to fill the position of sheep dyke warden during the past summer, 2019. Sian Tarrant who is from East Sussex, and has a degree in marine biology from St. Andrews, seems to fit the bill. She wanted the job, and the island folk wanted her. She has already worked on a number of National Trust projects, recently studying seals on one of the uninhabited islands in the Orkneys as well as in the sub antarctic off the coast of South Georgia. Want to read more about this interesting woman? Here you go!

All this makes me want to comb and spin some Ronaldsay again. This time, I’d go for the darkest brown fleece. Maybe I would use it for tapestry. So many ideas, so little time! Meanwhile, the wind is howling here on this Sunday afternoon. We won’t get frostbite from it, or die of hypothermia, but it is still pretty extreme weather.

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A New Year, A New Decade

The last couple months of 2019 brought some unexpectedly sad surprises. Archie Brennan left this world on Hallowe’en, followed closely by one of my tapestry students. I did not know her well, but she was instrumental in helping me realize how important it is to share our knowledge with others. She was new to tapestry, and after a lifetime of beautiful work in other areas of handwork, she was serious and committed to learning a new skill in weaving tapestry. I was so sorry that we didn’t have more time together. The final shock came when a close friend of mine died unexpectedly in early December. She had not shared her situation with anyone but her closest friend, another tapestry weaver and mutual friend. The mutual friend made sure that things were in place as well as they could be. I’m still reeling from this loss. Of course, it was cancer, one of the most likely causes of an early demise.

I am still thinking of these friends– Archie, Nancy, and Anna– every day, repeatedly going over my memories and shared experiences of each of them. It’s a treasure trove of learned insights, experiences, and shared fun. Sometime over the past few years I came across these quotes about grief–

“I’ve learned grief is just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

I’d like to think that during the next few months I’ll begin to enjoy my memories without so much pain attached; I’ll learn to swim the tides and currents. The important thing is to take these dear friends with me, to remember them, to keep working, knowing that in some way they are at my side.

And through all this the holidays were insane. We spent time on both coasts, which meant a lot of travel, and this occurred after deciding to spend 10 days with Bob in Antigua, in mid-November. It was a great distraction to be with family. My last few days at home before traveling to Maryland and then California, were spent in a frenzy of knitting and weaving presents I wanted to give. In most years, finishing projects is a stressful time, and of course it was stressful this time around as well. But, it was different in a significant way. It was therapeutic to be at my loom for hours on end. It was therapeutic to sit in my favorite chair, with my feet up on an ottoman, knitting for someone I love. I realize how essential handwork is to my well being. Duly noted for future.

So, my new year’s resolution is do more handwork. I made a good start yesterday by warping one of my copper pipe looms and even starting to weave. I worked on the idea for my image, and I felt so proud to get such productive work done on the first day of the year.

Here are some photos of those projects that calmed me during this time of loss. I didn’t finish everything I’d hope to do, but I made peace with that. I had bigger fish to fry for sure.

Here are two of a set of napkins that I wove for Chris and Melody. I barely had time to weave just the two and get them hemmed. I knew they’d understand, and of course they did. I was so touched by how much they like them.

Before I left I stayed up late retying the loom so I could get back to it when I return in April.

I had a long warp of deflected double weave on the loom for a good part of the year. Of course, when November rolled around I thought what great gifts cowls would be. There are six of them, in differing lengths. I gave five of them to friends and family. I loved seeing Melody wear hers, which is the one all the way to the right.

Lastly, there are the knitting projects: a sheep named Spud for our granddaughter Tori who just turned 3, and a tunic sweater for our 18 month old granddaughter Emme.

Emme is adorable in red, and I loved making this sweater pattern.

When we celebrated Christmas with our grandchildren and children I brought Rhett a sweater that I knitted for his father Rob, more than 30 years ago. You can imagine what this photo means to me.

So we are at the start of a new year and a new decade. Admitting to myself the importance of working with my hands every day, I hope this will be the start of some good things. Grief never leaves, but it can certainly be put to use for healing and celebrating the wonderful times and learning experiences that have come from those who meant so much to us. I know that sounds quite sentimental. It is what it is.

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Loss in the Midst of Bounty

It’s a fact that we all march on with our lives, lurching or gliding, and then something stops us in our tracks. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Oh boy. So true. (Actually, I just googled that phrase, and it seems that it is attributed to someone named Allen Saunders who wrote an article for Readers’ Digest in 1957, with that phrase in it. There you go….the marvels of the internet. Most of us know this phrase from a wonderful John Lennon song, “Beautiful Boy.” If you’re interested, see this.)

I did not mean to digress. Nothing can match that feeling of hurtling along through life and having all your plans stopped cold by an event, a moment after which nothing can ever be the same. During the morning of November 1, only 10 days ago, I learned that Archie Brennan had passed away during the afternoon of the previous day–Hallowe’en. At that moment all my whirling and spinning stopped. I know that thousands of others, across every continent, felt that same shock. Dear Archie…. he meant so much to everyone he encountered.

Archie at Edinburgh College of Art

I imagine his many students and friends are in much the same position I’ve been in lately: struggling through current projects, delving into uncharted, creative ground, making progress and facing setbacks. The bounty of our work: I have too many projects going on at once, and I imagine you do too. Inspired chaos….well, hopefully inspired.

So what do we do with our grief? With our wonderful memories of classes and workshops with him? Meals shared–pizza and Chinese take out? With the memories of his humor, his gentle critiques of our tapestry work? Most of us who studied with him are not spring chickens ourselves at this point. What’s the best use of our own time left? There’s no one answer to any of these ponderings . But there are lots of possibilities for each of us to consider about our own creative output, whether in tapestry or some other art form, or in the way we interact with others. Everyone who encountered Archie certainly got a glimpse of how creatively Archie looked at the world. There was humor and a gentle social commentary in every piece that Archie chose to spend his time creating. He was endlessly fascinated with getting know the people who crossed his path, and he was generous, so generous with his knowledge. Those of us who weave are much indebted to what he taught us.

Someone once asked Archie what was the most difficult piece he had ever woven; he answered: the one on the loom right now. …and there it is, the very nature of everything we do. Each of our hurdles advances us some tiny bit forward for the next hurdle. Archie was part of our advancement, either in tapestry weaving or in looking at the world in a more creative and socially conscious way. The best we can do is take our hard-won knowledge and use it, over and over, and remember him often along our journey.

I am not a religious person, but it was poignant that Archie left this world during the hallowed evening, on the precipice of all saints. His patience and his humor always made me think he was a bit of a saint…. Farewell, dear teacher.

Archie and his tapestry “The Mary Powell,” at the opening of the Wednesday Group’s celebration of the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that bears his name . Autumn, 2009
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Haberdashery(ing) in Paris

It has been a month since Bob and I returned from France. We are hurtling through time, getting ready for our winter living onboard, and I am attempting to do something textile-y with every day I have left on land! So, in some ways it feels like our trip to France happened about 6 months ago! In other ways I feel like I’ve just returned.

A friend of mine alerted me to the fact that Paris has wonderful shops for notions and fabrics. I had experienced a bit of that two years ago, when I found a fabric shop in Fort de France, Martinique. I couldn’t wait to see what a shop full of buttons, ribbons, and trims might offer–in Paris!

My friend had mentioned Ulta Mod, which has two shops on opposite sides of the street on Rue de Choiseul. It might be the oldest haberdashery in Paris since it opened in 1832.

Rebecca Devaney has some wonderful descriptions of the history of Ulta Mod as well as its current offerings in the newer store–and great photos! You really should take a look at all the great interior shots of the store on Devaney’s website. I think it vies with French boulangeries as a compelling reason to visit Paris! While I was there, a woman had her tweed coat spread out on a counter and was choosing new buttons. I thought the buttons that were already on the coat were quite nice! I don’t think I would have considered changing them, but then I am not French, let alone Parisienne. This woman, and the saleswoman waiting on her, clearly understood that the coat could be so much better with new buttons! How they got through the wall of buttons to make a choice was mind boggling.

I got lost in the section of trims. I was thinking of braiding as I looked through bins and bins of offerings. There had to be about a 100 color choices of just one type of cording that caught my eye. As often happens to me when there is too much choice, I couldn’t pick anything! My loss….

I had done a bit of internet searching ahead of time and wanted to visit Maison Sajou. Oh my! This is an embroidery shop where every project, every spool of thread, package of needles, and every fabric on display made my heart race. I don’t even do embroidery anymore, but I wanted everything in this shop! Actually, I wanted to live here.

Now I plan to give embroidery another whirl. It’s certainly an easy thing to take onboard for the winter. After much deliberation, and after putting various spools of linen embroidery thread and some cute packages of embroidery needles in my cart, I added this project kit. Tres adorable!

I bought the book online before I ever even got to France! The cross stitch in the background was done by one of Bob’s great aunts as a gift to us back in the 70s.

I think I missed a great opportunity to see some fabric shops in Paris. We were leaving the Cathedrale Montmartre, walking down a street of fabric shops, all closing for the day. I have no idea if this is the hotbed of French fabric shops since I didn’t get to check them. On another day, I went searching for a fabric shop I’d found online in the area where we were staying, the 11th arrondissement. I found a Japanese fabric shop called Jhin.

Of course I envisioned returning home with French fabric, perhaps outdoing the beautiful linen print I found in Martinique. But fate took me to Jhin and I came home with two beautiful Japanese prints for me, and another two for a friend. Serendipity can be so much fun!

Japanese fabric from my trip to France.

I’ve begun embroidering the cute little tote from Sajou. It’s a restful way to spend time–perfect for days in tropical harbors in the Caribbean. I’ll be there soon.

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The Most Famous Tapestry

The most famous tapestry in the Western world is not, in fact a tapestry, but that does not diminish its incredible workmanship or its place in history. I’m referring to the Bayeux tapestry. A visit to Bayeux to see this work was high on my list of things must-dos while in France last month. (It was 2nd only to seeing the Lady and the Unicorn.) It remains in excellent condition after almost 1,000 years. I don’t think it’s ever been stored away in an old barn as many woven tapestries have been, so it is in remarkable condition. At the museum in Bayeux, where it is housed, you can walk along the length of this epic embroidered tale, and marvel. I marveled that the background was entirely handspun and handwoven. I marveled that all the embroidery threads were handspun and hand dyed. I thought about those nuns who sat together and wielded their needles one thousand years ago. In some fundamental ways we are so similar to those women. Nihil novi sub sol.

The museum in Bayeux has done such a clever job of displaying the tapestry that I never even missed the fact that I could not take photos. The “tapestry” is displayed in a dimly lit glass case that flows in a large circle in the center of a darkened gallery. Everyone is given headphones to listen to an audio description of the work and the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Like everyone else, I was compelled to keep up with the narrator so that I could see the bits of the story illustrated in the embroidered piece, as well as taking some time to enjoy the lovely colors of the dyed threads and examine the stitches.

The piece is 224 feet long. It tells the story of the Conquest, from King Edward’s death, through the envoy that went to France to alert William of Normandy that he was the chosen successor to Edward, to cousin (or some kind of relative) Harold usurping the English throne for himself, through William’s amassing troops and building ships to sail to England and claim his place. It’s intriguing to ‘read’ this story in the imagery of the embroidery. It’s hard to pick any part of the piece that stands out above the rest. The building of ships caught my eye, with all the details of cutting down trees and the depiction of the tools used for shaping the stem and the planks for the boats. I think this was part of the work that captured Bob’s attention.

The scenes of the ships sailing across the channel made me realize how much I’d enjoy weaving the various men onboard and the colorful sails. A few years ago, one of the Wednesday Groupers decided to weave a small section of the Bayeux tapestry as woven tapestry. I totally understand. I’m feeling pulled to weave those ships under sail. I hope the nuns enjoyed their creative interpretations as they stitched.

The battle scenes were equally well executed, and I found the depiction of horses in battle quite moving.

Standing in the presence of something so well preserved and so beautifully made is quite emotional. It’s impossible not to think of the women who made this piece, the men who commissioned it, the men who lived the story being told. It’s impossible to ignore the long projection of time that brought us to the 21st century, how our native tongue is now a mix of Norman French and Saxon and Old Norse, how our way governing spread through the world through England’s vast expansion of colonies. Here is one story, told at the beginning of this long history of evolution and progress of the English language and English justice, worked in embroidery by women.

A Short Tour of the Normandy Coast

Normandy is a beautiful area of France, known for cheese, for apples and pears and Calvados, for damp foggy days along the shore.

We were quite lucky to have clear, dry days while we were there. The beaches were stunning, but it was easy to imagine how difficult that D-day landing was over 75 years ago, on a far less beautiful day. That was another memorable part of our trip that lies outside the subject of my post. Still, after seeing the amount of work in the Bayeux tapestry, telling a 1,000 year old story, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in the various battles fought along the same coastline, during the past 10 centuries.

Omaha Beach on a sunny September day
The infinity pool at Omaha Beach
The American Cemetery

We ate cheese each day, and each day we sampled some apple cider and a few times some Calvados. My compulsion to make lists of must-sees/must-dos included having sole Normandie. I couldn’t wait to have the same meal that Julia Child had on her arrival in France so many years ago. I was shocked that I could not find it on any menu in Bayeux, Honfleur, or Etretat! That was another little disappointment, but the cheeses surely made up for not it…and the bread!

In spite of the fact that the coastal towns along the Normandy shore are famously scenic, I found Bayeux to be my favorite. It may have been the light. We were blessed with dry, clear days.

A stunning day in Bayeux

The streets of Bayeux are festooned with colorful balloon type decorations, and many shop windows have been painted with images and slogans of gratitude for saving French culture during WWII. There are French, British, Canadian and US flags everywhere, and even a few German flags.


We stayed just outside Bayeux in a farmstay, and it was an excellent choice. This place is as charming as a fairy tale, and we walked along a country road at the edge of several farms and into a tiny nearby village.

From Bayeux, we traveled north to Honfleur and Etretat. Honfleur is incredibly scenic as touristy, and Bob enjoyed a day of looking at boats. I think he took about 1,000 photos. For lunch we sat under one of those umbrellas to the left of this photo.

If I were to start writing about the gardens….well, it would be a deep rabbit hole. Gardens, window boxes, and florists were so lush everywhere we traveled. The roses I saw everywhere were as perfect as roses in June in New England. Can I limit myself to one photo? Maybe….just for this post.

I hope I never forget the view of the shoreline in Etretat, seeing the very view that Monet painted on several occasions. It made me realize how fluid time is, that I could stand in the same spot that someone immortalized in art a century (or 10 centuries) before I stood in that very place.


We could even see this memorable landmark from the tiny balcony of our room at one of the highest points in town.

We celebrated Melody’s birthday in Etretat and then began our journey back to Paris, stopping in Rouen and Giverny.

Happy Birthday, Melody!

I think I need a post about the bounty of French markets’ fresh vegetables and fruit, perhaps touching briefly on gardens which of course includes Giverny, and all the lace I saw throughout Normandy. Next time…

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A Digression and a Rare Treat!

This has been an olympically busy week, and all of it was unexpected. We had an unplanned visit from Bob’s brother at the beginning of the week, which made my mother in law’s 90th birthday truly special. Boating friends have arrived via sailboat midweek, and we want to spend time with them. Bob is up to his chin provisioning our boat Pandora for his departure next week for points south, leading down to Antigua in the Caribbean. This is a giant hurdle for us each year, because all our clothing, all my textile projects, and all our food staples have to get onboard before Bob sets sail. We will not be able to ship any of these items, or take that much stuff on a plane!

And to top off a week of fun but unexpected pleasures (read hectic), I got an email about a presentation at Yale Art Gallery that I simply had to attend, no matter how much schedule rearranging it necessitated!

I expected to spend the next two blog posts sharing some textile-y experiences I enjoyed in France, but I need to interrupt that program to talk about last night’s presentation at Yale. The speaker was Jenny Balfour-Paul! I certainly was not going to miss a chance to meet this fascinating woman who has done so much research into the world cultures that have a long history of dyeing with indigo. Two years ago, my local weaving group read her most recent book Deeper than Indigo and then spent our September meeting discussing the book. Indigo is such a fascinating subject! How did anyone ever figure out how to extract that wonderful blue from the plant? It seems like alchemy, especially since the dye itself is not blue, and when you pull your yarn or fabric from the dye vat, it does not turn blue for several seconds. It starts yellow and goes deep green before finally turning blue. It’s quite a magical experience, and I can imagine how ancient cultures who had no knowledge of the chemistry involved, must have marveled at this mysterious process. The Indians and Japanese always prayed to their indigo god before beginning a dye session, and they always gave thanks to that god at the end.

Jenny Balfour Paul has been researching indigo for over 40 years. If I wrote about all I learned about her last night, this post would be far more than a little digression. She is a living treasure on the history of indigo, and she has traveled all the parts of the world where indigo dyeing was done in ancient times, and the parts of the world where indigo dyeing was big business during the colonial expansion era of the Western world. Recently, she’s been involved in projects for creating textiles with less impact on our fragile ecological system. She will be talking about that on Monday, next week, at the Explorers’ Club in Manhattan. You can read about the project here. Her first exploration, 40 years ago, was to the Middle East, where traditional dyeing techniques were fading into obscurity. She wanted to record those techniques in order to preserve them. Considering the language barrier between her and these remote tribes, she mostly gained knowledge of their dyeing process by watching them. This included seeing the plants grown in the fields, harvesting, and the complex process of turning plant into dye. After the Middle East and North Africa, her research has taken her to the Far East, to remote parts of China, to remote parts of both Africa and India, to the South America and the tropical islands where Western ventures into mass production of shippable dye stuffs took place during the colonial period. One of the most fascinating projects she’s working on is using indigo cakes that were recovered from a shipwreck in the Marquesa islands in the late 17th c. She let us all hold one of the indigo cakes, and it looked brand new, even after being submerged for centuries.

For her presentation last night, Jenny draped the podium in beautiful indigo fabrics

She wore a stunning outfit of indigo dyed fabrics. Her beautiful dress was dyed by her first teacher who set her on the path of researching the dyeing traditions of other cultures. The colors in my photo are quite ‘off’ due to the stage lighting. Her silk scarf is really a deep blue touched with subtle shades of green. Her beautifully printed dress fabric is what her teacher dyed. It has a lot of green in it, and also tan from where it was tied to create rows of resist. It is also patterned with tiny dots where her teacher used a wooden block with nails, dipped in wax, to add resist to the fabric (like batik) before dyeing.

I was thoroughly enchanted with Jenny Balfour Paul, both as a dedicated researcher and as someone who was refreshingly passionate about her subject. Her enthusiasm is contagious! When I spoke to her after the presentation I admitted my lack of confidence in dyeing, especially with indigo. I’ve had some successes, but only using someone else’s dyebath. I’ve been fortunate during my time in Connecticut to have other guild members share their indigo vats me. Last night Jenny gave me a bit more confidence to try again to make my own vat. She recommended the indigo kit from Maiwa. I’m on it!

And so goes a short digression. Like many things, this is going to send me down a deep rabbit hole. But I’m looking forward to gaining some confidence in dyeing with indigo. I wonder what Bob would think of that as a project onboard this winter. Hmmmm….

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Tapestries, Paris, 500 Years Apart

The tapestry class I’m teaching started earlier this week, and since we are studying traditional Gobelins style techniques, I can’t get the “Lady and the Unicorn” off my mind. I started reading the book I bought at the museum, which also brings up bits of info that are filed deeply in my brain from my college years–a long, long time ago at this point. I enjoyed studying the MIddle Ages in college, in between the classes I needed for my majors.

During the Middle Ages a popular literary form was the bestiary, in which stories about real and imaginary animals were told in order to convey moral concepts. The unicorn featured often in these tales, where it represented two opposing sides of the same idea: ideas of purity, virginity, and Christian virtues, as well as less pure concepts of sexual desire and attractions, giving into one’s senses. At this time in history the senses were considered to be base, in need of control by the higher call of duty and control of one’s desires. There are descriptions of a 6th sense, the heart or the soul, an inner compass that could give guidance to the lower senses of touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. So, naturally, many scholars have weighed in on what that might mean to the purpose of the story in the six tapestries of the ‘Lady and the Unicorn.’ After 500 years, there are still so many disagreements–and unknowns.

“Hearing,” from “The Lady and the Unicorn”

I was intrigued to learn that the tapestries were repaired in the late 19th c., after being acquired by the Cluny Museum, and that the woven areas near the bottom of certain pieces have faded dramatically from the rich red to a greyish pink. The upper areas that are still original have surely faded some, but are still a deep madder red. What was used on the repaired areas? Could it have been the recently developed aniline dyes? Can I get an answer on this? Do you see the badly faded area at the bottom of “Hearing?”

I find the photos is in the book I bought so inspiring! The facial expressions on the woman and her lady in waiting, their wonderful hairstyles, their jewelry, their clothing!–I can look and look and still find more that amazes me. The animals and flowers are endlessly entertaining, aren’t they? A few years ago, when I still lived near the Cloisters, I took a tour with a docent who focused on the gardens there and what the plants were used for edibly and medicinally, and in folkore . She told us stories about what strengths various plants were believed to lend to the body if eaten, or applied in some way. At the end of the tour, the docent took us to the gallery with the “Hunt for the Unicorn” to show us many of the same plants depicted in the millefleur: foxglove, carnations, roses, lilies, and plenty of others. How amazing that these plants were so well portrayed 500 years ago. Just writing about this memory makes me want to weave!

At the moment it’s the organ and the woven rug in “Hearing” that make me think this is the best tapestry I’ve ever seen. How many weavers sat side by side to work on this? Did more than one weaver work on the organ pipes which are spot-on brilliant? That rug is a show stopper too, not to mention the Lady and her maid. Whatever these weavers made in wages, it was not enough!

“Hearing,” detail from “The Lady and the Unicorn”

So now I’ll skip ahead to a couple of 20th c. tapestries that evoke these medieval masterpieces with a modern sensibility. We weavers still do not make reasonable wages. Some things never change.

A Medieval Maiden Meets Princess Diana. Archie Brennan.
A friend helping me get ready for Bob to photograph Archie Brennan’s “The Lymerer,” which is Archie Brennena’s reconstruction from “The Hunt for the Unicorn.”

Archie Brennan was my teacher for about a dozen years, and actually he still is. There will always be something to learn from him as long as there are images of his work available and memories of his terrific advice. Like medieval tapestries, the more you look the more there is to see.

While in Paris, Bob and I visited the address, 31 Rue de Seine, near and dear to my heart. It’s been a well known address over the decades of the past century and a half. First, it’s known as the residence of George Sands (1804-1876), who happened to write about the “Lady and the Unicorn,” as well as set her novel Jeanne in the Boussac castle, where the tapestries lived during that time period. Fast forward a few years, and Raymond Duncan (brother to Isadora) lived at this address where he ran a sort of commune for art students. Archie found himself there in the early 1950s, weaving tapestries for Raymond. I have no idea where Archie’s work there may have gone.

31 Rue de Seine, Paris, where Archie lived briefly in the early 1950s and worked for Raymond Duncan as a tapestry weaver.

You can’t imagine how it made my day to visit this spot! We went into the art gallery next door (to the right in the photo, Hourde Charles-Wesley) to ask about the current owners of #31. The gallery assistant said the gallery has a key that opens those big blue doors to the courtyard. Archie has written about that courtyard, where Duncan made large sculptures. I’ve often felt that I could picture it based on Archie’s descriptions (and one tiny photo I found online years ago). And voila! I saw it for real.

The gallery assistant told us that recently the owners found some artwork in the basement. She didn’t say what–Raymond Duncan’s sculptures? Archie’s tapestries? I doubt it, but something may have been left from that time period, and, if so, likely it would be work of some of the students. Archie felt that Duncan’s work would not stand the test of time. Most of the residents of the commune were students, mostly wealthy American and Japanese women who found it trendy to live in a Bohemian setting and study under Duncan. Archie was one of a few artists who were paid to work there. Interesting times.

This piece happened to be in the courtyard. I have no idea if it’s one of the pieces found in the basement. I have a lot of questions, and luckily I now have a contact in the gallery next door!

Recounting these days in Paris: the disappointment at not seeing “The Lady and the Unicorn,” the excitement of getting past those big blue doors at 31 Rue de Seine, piecing things together from my (almost) 20 years of working in tapestry, revisiting medieval history; well, it’s been memorable for me. Tapestries, Paris, 500 years apart. It was a moment.

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My Excellent French Adventure

Part I: Paris

Yesterday Bob and I returned from two weeks in France. The idea for the trip started with an invitation from our son’s partner, Melody, to meet them in Paris before joining them on a jaunt to the wedding of one of Melody’s friends from college, who was getting married at her family chateau in a small village in the Loire region. No kidding!– a family chateau…first built in the 12th c. and renovated and expanded in the 15th and 17th centuries. Even the local church where the ceremony took place was from the 12thc. It was the stuff of fairy tales! It was also an opportunity to spend time together in magical places, like Paris, the Loire region, and Normandy.

Melody and Chris at the wedding of a friend in Lencoitre, France

Of course, I had an agenda. At the top of my list was seeing the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris. In my heightened state of excitement about the trip, and clearly in my growing ‘feathery’ state of mind, I called this set the Unicorn in Captivity several times before I realized my mistake. Duh…. what can I say? I’ve known that this is the name of the final tapestry in the Hunt for the Unicorn series, so I have no excuse or even possible reason for my confusion. These moments do give me pause to wonder where I’m headed (mentally).

I thought I might spend most of a day at the Cluny , so I planned to do this before the kids arrived, in order not to bore them to tears. That was the first and biggest hurdle of a trip that had a few more hurdles. I have always had the experience that museums are closed on Mondays, so since Bob and I did not get to our Paris hotel until mid afternoon on the first Monday in September, I put off making the Cluny the very first thing we did. Instead, we took the afternoon and evening to travel on the Seine and enjoy floating by such famous monuments–Notre Dame, looking decidedly memorable after the terrible fire; the Louvre; the D’Orsay; the Grand Palais, the Eiffel Tower. It was amazing that we could sit in a boat and see so many beautiful examples of architecture from so many centuries pass by in the space of only a few hours.

Approaching Ile St. Louis by ferry,with Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame in the background on the left.

Notre Dame with all the repair work underway.

First thing on Day 2, Tuesday, I was off to the Cluny, which is when I learned that many museums in Paris are closed on Tuesdays. They had all been open on Monday when I passed on going. Ugh. We learned the hard way–meaning a long walk and metro ride– that the L’Orangerie was also closed on Tuesdays. This a good lesson to check the guide books before making plans, but I may be too old a dog to have this lesson stick. There is more to come on that!

First thing on Day 3, after another trek to the Cluny, I learned the truly terrible news that the tapestries were not on view at the moment. That was the reason that entry to museum was free that day. Their gallery was having some minor work done. Can you imagine what a bitter blow this was? This was the #1 one attraction to me in all of Paris, and I missed it. To add insult to injury, I learned that the gallery with the tapestries would open again this morning–while I am now sitting in my kitchen, drinking bitter coffee. When I learned this, my first thought was to change my itinerary and pay whatever penalty was necessary to stay an extra day at the end of our trip to see these tapestries. A fine plan, but sadly, I will be starting to teach a course on tapestry this week, and I could not spare even one extra day. Somehow I managed not to burst into tears in public over this. It does seem outrageously absurd that in all the years I have hoped to see these works, I managed to finally get there during a brief time frame when they were not on view. And I’m trying not to beat myself up too much since I found no notice online of this short closing of the exhibit. It was just a phenomenal moment of bad luck.

So I bought a book on the tapestries, and some paper bookmarks to hand out to my students during the first class this week. What a pathetic consolation prize. Still, the book is a good resource, not just a book of pretty photos, so I’ve already begun to enjoy reading it. There were two tapestries from a later time period on view in one of the open galleries. Later that day, I did get into the L’Orangerie to see Monet’s large water lily series. A couple of years ago I read the book Mad Enchantment, which is about Monet’s last years, when he painted these large scale works as his contribution to the war effort. He wanted to leave behind something truly French since everyone believed that France would soon be lost to Germany. He was suffering from progressive cataract problems, he was aging, and he had bouts of extreme mood swings. Reading this book added to my knowledge of what went into the display of these huge works.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (the six that are extant) were woven around 1500, the height of the Middle Ages. They were woven in a workshop in Flanders (now Belgium), where being a tapestry weaver was a well known occupation. The Hunt for the Unicorn series was woven about the same time. Scholars know that both sets were designed in Paris, but I have not found a reference for where the “Hunt” series is thought to have been woven. In fact, no one is certain that the seven tapestries now displayed together at the Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) are from the same set. No one can determine who commissioned the works. Both the “Hunt” series and the “Lady” series were rediscovered in the mid 19th c. The “Hunt” series had been looted from its Paris home during the French Revolution (first recorded hanging in the Rochefoucauld family residence in 1680), then rediscovered in 1850s, in a barn. The “Lady” series was discovered in 1841, also in disrepair, in a 12th c. castle in Boussac, in what is now the Nouvelle Aquitaine region.

Here are the six ladies in the Lady and Unicorn series. Each one represents one of the five senses, plus one extra that is a bit of mystery. These first three, which I photographed from the book I bought (I certainly didn’t want to imply that I’d actually seen these beauties, so you can see my finger holding open the book) represent, from left to right, hearing, sight, and the mysterious one which is called ‘Mon Suel Desir.’ That roughly means heart’s desire.

Here are the next three: touch, smell, taste. These are the most beautiful women in tapestry. Their clothing is exquisitely portrayed, although the Devonshire Hunt tapestries might be more exciting for examining how to weave garments. This is certainly the resource I’d turn to for examining faces. They are stunning!

There were two tapestries on display in the gallery of medieval art at the museum. One is called “The Bath,” from the 16th c. and shows a medieval lady in the bath with her ladies in waiting. I read on the nearby placard that bath scenes were a popular subject at this time. I certainly know that has been true for other periods of art, but this particular case is earlier than I expected. It seems to me that tapestries in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were used for telling great stories, either from mythology or the Bible, or stories about the importance of the person who commissioned the work. The unicorn and his many layered representations of maidenhood and Christology was also a popular subject during the Middle Ages. The thought that so much work went into depicting a bath scene is pretty amazing to me!

It was the second tapestry that really caught my attention. It is about a letter, but I was struck by the wonderful depiction of a woman spinning. There is a cat playing with the spindle and a dog in the woman’s lap who appears to contemplating the cat. It so wonderfully captures everyday life. Who knows about that letter the man is reading to her?….. is he reading it because she cannot read for herself? ….because nothing can distract her from her spinning?…..even a cat batting at her spindle cannot pull her away from her spinning. I love the possibilities!

Look at her dress and the fabric on the chair. And of course, there is all the millefleur going on as a background. Have you ever wondered about that style, and why the weavers created such elaborate, busy backgrounds during this period? I can give you a short answer: when you are weaving a detailed image on a plain background, you are likely to run into a lot of tension problems between the many small shapes and the large background. Trust me on that one….but don’t take my word for it; ask any tapestry weaver. Also, imagine a group of weavers sitting at a loom together weaving an image. Would you want to be the one who is weaving a solid background while your companions are enjoying all the details involved in the woman’s face, her gown, the dog, the cat? Simple answer, but likely true. I can’t take credit for this. I learned it from Archie Brennan, who also believes that prior to the Renaissance the cartoonist was likely to have been an experienced weaver. I believe that too. I wonder if it will ever be proved.

And I can’t resist adding one more thing. The text in tapestries from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was always quite elaborate. It happens to be easier and more effective to use angles and curves for letters than to weave block letters. Angles and curves allow you to create text that does not have as many slits that will not need sewing afterward. It looks more complicated but was actually more pleasant to weave, with less finishing work afterward.

I can’t close without a glimpse of our adventurous companion, Melody. She has a motorcycle license and enjoys touring her vacation destinations on a bike. I spent Rob’s entire adolescence trying to keep him from getting a motorcycle. He got his license about a nano-second after he graduated from college. Now I have two motorcyclists to worry about.

I had to hold my breath (and say prayers) when she drove in busy Paris traffic. It’s not a great shot, but I couldn’t give the photo my full attention since I was busy praying (and not breathing).

In spite of missing my most significant reason to be in Paris, it was still an excellent adventure. There is more to come, not only from our time in Paris, but also in the Loire region and Normandy. I had some excellent adventures in lace and other handwork along the way.

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