Now what? Life in rural Ariege

Burblings about adjusting to life in the deep south west of France or "la France profonde" as they call it here and the challenges of restoring a ramshackle collection of tumbledown buildings. I mainly write about local festivals, events and celebrations and, most of all, the weekly ritual of combing vide greniers and brocantes for pre-loved vintage treasures.

2 December 2011

It's almost a religious experience

As the year accelerates towards its end the vide grenier season is all but over. At this time of year they give way to toy and Christmas markets. There is still the odd highlight and last weekend was another first for me - a vide grenier in my home village and in the grounds of the Abbaye Chateau no less. Needless to say I was up and about early that morning and marched purposefully through the thick and freezing fog up the hill to the Abbaye. It was a hive of activity with cold stall holders still setting up.

I realised as I entered the outer courtyard that I have developed a kind of ritual. I do actually chant to myself a list of objects that I would really love to find at this particular vide grenier. On this particular morning I was chanting "wirework, enamelware, handmade hand tools and art deco". For something I now do with an almost religious fervour it hardly ever seems to actually work and I found myself gazing gloomily at the usual array of plastic toys, grubby bedlinen and a fair smattering of war and hunting paraphanalia. I was just about to go home for a hot mug of coffee and wander out again later when I spotted a quite astounding item. This.

Yes, its an old religious vestment, a chasuble to be precise. It is the outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy for the celebration of the Eucharist and a green vestment signifies new growth, the flourishing of the "vineyard". It is traditionally worn during Ordinary Time, which is the largest segment of the liturgical calendar. How appropriate to find one in the grounds of my local abbaye.

I failed to find "wirework, enamelware, handmade hand tools and art deco" but maybe the last vide grenier of the season next Sunday will offer up some of these items. I think it's unlikely I will be finding another chasuble!

11 November 2011

Nearly famous

We live in a celebrity obsessed age. The tradition of fascination with the lives of the rich and famous is not really as recent as we might think. Before the "Hello" magazine age earlier generations were enthralled by the private lives of Hollywood film stars and giants of the sporting world. I, myself, have always had a quiet fascination with the aura of, what can only be described as, things. In other words objects, symbols and all manner of "trucs" that have become overly-celebrated for a short period of time as "it" or the latest thing.

In the course of my thrifting and rummaging for stock for Histoires I routinely ask people if they know anything about the particular item that I am purchasing. How old is it? How long have you had it? Do you know who made it? All these questions sometimes build a picture of the previous life of an item I might acquire. And sometimes these "histoires" or stories almost eclipse the object itself.

During my long sojourn in Britain over the summer I amused myself by attending auctions and car boot sales and I was really quite amazed one soggy Sunday morning when I spied this item lying on a blanket on Southsea seafront.

It is a pretty special object. It is an early Victorian dimity bonnet. The fabric dates back to the 1780s and the bonnet was probably made somewhere between 1830 - 1850, making it during the first decades of Queen Victoria's role. So far, so good. An unexpected find in Portsmouth amongst the broken Star Wars toys and knock-off DVDs. But its credentials alone are not what fascinated me. No. The seller told me a much more recent story of its past - that it was ALMOST famous.

It transpired that she had supplied many of the bonnets worn in the recent acclaimed BBC TV adaptation of "Cranford" and, amazingly, this bonnet had not been purchased by the BBC's wardrobe department. It has never sat on the head of Dame Judi Dench. It was the runt of the litter. It's a 9 stone weakling. It didn't have the X factor. It didn't cut the mustard (what does that mean anyway?!?). Well, you get the idea. It was an also ran. And to my mind that makes it all the more special.

Sometimes while I am rummaging for treasures for Histoires I really do believe in destiny. I was meant to find this rejected bonnet. Somebody else in a (probably) far flung corner of the world will buy this bonnet from me and will know that it was stored against other bonnets which passed the auditions and have been on TV. This  despised bonnet was quite literally lying in the mud. I've launderd it, pressed it, photographed it and told the story of its recent history. Who knows what else it has experienced in its long life?

29 October 2011

Clocks going back - countdown to winter

We're both looking forward to a well deserved lie-in tomorrow thanks to the clocks going back. But this always makes me feel that it's nearly winter and that we're on the rapidly accelerating countdown to Christmas.

The weather has changed. Early mornings are misty, cold and we've already has our first frost.

The snow line is creeping down the mountains. We crossed over the Pyrenees into Spain last weekend and there's definitely snow in them there hills!

The neon board positioned at Lavelanet roundabout has spluttered into life and is now displaying the tariffs for the 2011/2012 ski passes.

I've ordered the wood. This year it is a LOT of wood because I think we're going to have a cold one. This year I've managed to order the logs cut to a size that will actually fit into our log burner without Jeff cutting them...

OK so this is not our wood pile. This incredible display of perfectly graded and stacked logs belongs to a neighbour. Every year I attempt to replicate this and totally fail. Maybe now we're in year 2 of life in Ariege I'll manage.

19 October 2011

New name, same old stuff

To those of you who have been enquiring, my Etsy shop has not disappeared... I have taken the rather drastic step of renaming it. It is now Histoires. I realise that this is not as meterioc as the much loved Marathon bar becoming known as "Snickers" or the changing of the Coca Cola recipe but it has been a source of much deliberation and discussion.

I had discussed my new shop name with a select few, taken on board their suggestions and preferences, and then on the whole totally disregarded them. And I'm very happy with the new name. To me it conveys many things about my merchandise: that is vintage, historic, French and also that it has a story.

Thanks to the talented Suzie Chaney for her support and design input (and copious amounts of wine!!). She listened to me babble on about how I DIDN'T want my shop to look and managed to produce a cool, contemporary yet sympathetic shop banner for Histoires.

So it's all systems go for Histoires.

13 October 2011

Tah dah... Maison Dumay is open

It was a meteroic day for me yesterday as I finally opened my Etsy shop: Maison Dumay. To recap I hadn't been able to open the shop due to a lengthy sojourn in the UK followed by almost total immersion in our renovation project. But yesterday was the big day. I pressed the button on all the draft listings I'd been creating and filled the shop with my rummagings.

I've been generously helped and encouraged by fellow Etsyians which made yesterday a little less daunting but I was still unprepared for my first sale. Overnight my first customer (from China no less) purchased 3 items and I had to smile when I checked my emails this morning.

The first item she had selected was this joyous piece of English kitsch. A truly fabulous hand knitted mustard coloured wool tea cosy with porcelain lady top.

I had bought this stunner at an English auction house over the summer in a mixed lot with 3 glamorous evening bags and I confess I thought the bags would sell quicker than this item!

Sadly I don't think I'm likely to able to find another one like this in France as tea drinking is not widespread here. Oh well, better get back to the rummaging and start daily prayers to the Goddess of Thrift that another one crosses my path.

5 October 2011

Roof works

We're making steady progress with the roof work at our old barns.

The first job for the team was to carefully remove all the lovely old handmade canal tiles which could be saved. They will be reused on the roof of our "remise" which will eventually cover the summer kitchen.

Then the substantial old poutres (beams) which have held the roof up for over 200 years were removed leaving the "gite" section of the house open to the sky.

It was a nail biting moment for our foreman, Gareth, when he hoisted the first of the new poutres up on the materials hoist we had hired.

We all stood well back as the 150 kilo beam was moved slowly up the lift.

Fortunately this went without a hitch and the first of the new wood was balanced on the roof of the stone house. Mouse (left) and Paul (right) lifted off the huge beam.

After constructing an internal platform which they could work off, the team repaired the tops of the walls and man-handled the new beams into position.

The picture below shows the top of the triple row of Genoese tiling on the front of the gite.

Harry has cleaned them off so that a layer of lime mortar can be put on top to form a bed for the wood wall plates which will support the roofing panels.

2 poutres and the wall plate on the back of the gite roof are now in position.

Let's hope it stays sunny as there's a lot more to do

24 September 2011

The garlic man

I realised a few days ago just how attuned I am now to life in this tiny village in South West France. At about 10am on Tuesdays the calm is shattered by a long, loud blast on the car horn of the mobile Charcuterie van who rounds the treacherous bend around the art gallery at high speed before screeching into the village car park. Once there he jumps out and flings open the side of his van and impatiently waits for the eldery village ladies to appear. 

Last Tuesday however there was a different sound. Definitely a car horn but quieter, more hesitant and definitely made by a slower moving vehicle. I peered curiously out of the front of the house and saw the garlic man pull onto La Terrase and open the boot of his car to display his wares.

The garlic man (on the left) is discussing this year's new crop of purple garlic with my next door neighbour, Yvan. He has come from Gers and the boot of his car is set up with a mini display of shallots, honey and lots of garlic in bunches and plaits.

My neighbour prods, sniffs and handles the beautiful plump bulbs of garlic while moaning about his failed crop. He is oh so French. Eventually he moves away bidding the garlic man a cheery "bonne journee" without buying any. At last I can select a plait and a bag of shallots. Now, where shall I hang it?

12 September 2011

Car Boot Britain

I had not been totally neglectful of my Etsy shop, Maison Dumay, while I was trapped in rainy Britain for 2 months. In fact I think I must have spent most of my leisure hours combing car boot sales for vintage goodies. Rather surprisingly this yielded some fascinating additions to Maison Dumay's stock.

My main incentive was, fairly obviously, the prospect of finding some glorious vintage and antique goodies but I must admit I had a second motive. And that was simply that I just LOVE the whole experience of trudging around a muddy field at some unseemly hour on a Sunday morning.

I LOVE the sellers who typically ranged from young couples selling off their no longer needed baby equipment, to middle aged, "middle class” couples who were zealously decluttering their homes and lives, to little old ladies intent on supplementing their pensions by turning out their sideboards and bottom drawers.

For me there are 2 types of seller that make car boot sales so enjoyable: the people who are genuinely having a good old clear out of years of accumulated “rubbish” and the professional “booter” who has recently purchased a job-lot of “dead stock”. I was quite literally stopped in my tracks by this particular traders range of goods:

Eat your heart out Del-Boy and Rodney Trotter... sadly I didn't see anybody actually buy one of these.

As well as the interesting people there was the allure of the almost infinite range of goods available. Rather sadly British car boot sales are frequently dominated by traders flogging low quality “must haves” and it is not unknown to spot counterfeit “designer” shoes, clothing, perfume and accessories as well as bootleg CDs and DVDs. I accelerated past many of these stalls in the course of my vintage treasure hunting. 

This is my favourite finding. It is a photographic postcard of Jack, aged 10.

Handwritten on the back of the photograph is the information that Jack, aged 10 years old, travelled home to Barnsley (Lancashire, UK) from Ramsey I.O.M (Isle of Man) alone in August 1921. Britain was certainly a different world in the 1920s; I don't think Jack would be allowed to travel anywhere alone at the age of 10 in 2011.

The connection is made

Work on our rather ambitious restoration project began one day before I boarded a plane bound for the UK in June. I was away for 70 days and during this time the project has surged ahead. Jeff had kept me up to date on progress but I couldn't wait to get up to site to see it all for myself.

I must confess that I found it difficult to enthuse about the deep trenches filled with concrete, foundations and footings but the one piece of work that made my heart beat a little faster was the opening between the "gite" and the "stone house".

Before I go any further I should explain the names. The "gite" is so named because it had outline planning permission to be converted into a gite (holiday accommodation). We have subsequently decided to incorporate it into our future home and it will house a workshop (ground floor), a fabulous bathroom with separate toilet (very French), an office and a mezzanine area. The "stone house" is the original old house and the middle building of our three.


Meet our builders, Gareth (left) and Paul (right) looking rightly proud after making the first opening in the stone.

The reason I got so excited about the raggedy hole in the stone between the gite and the stone house was simply because until now these two buildings had been totally separate with no connection. But now it is possible to look through the "doorway" from the gite, across the stone house, and into the new barn. At last these buildings are connected.

This photo is taken from the gite. I can stand here and can actually really visualise for the first time how the layout of the houses will relate to each other and how we will eventually be able to live here.

I can hardly wait!

4 September 2011

The start of the restoration work

Jeff and I had equipped ourselves with old clothes, hammers and chisels, protective masks and gloves weeks before in preparation for the day that work began.Before I go any further I think it might be useful to state in the manner of Dragons' Den “where we are” when we finally started work.

  • our planning dossier was accepted at our local Mairie on 9th February and had been passed to the main planning office in Lavelant. They had 3 whole months to authorise or decline our proposal. “Forget about default permission” Neil, our architect, had told us, “and there is an additional 2 month period after permission is granted when anyone can raise objections”. So the earliest we could begin “les grands travaux” was May 2011, and even then the work would be restricted to the restoration aspects of the build (e.g. roof replacement) and not involve any of the facade changes that might be objected to.

  • Mr White, the Géometre, had made his initial visit and stuck a few wooden stakes in the ground. He now had to do various clever calculations and re-register the results with the cadastre. Hopefully he will then return and put the final bornes in position which will precisely define some of our boundaries. We do not have any idea how long this will take (but I'm betting it could be quite a while...) * Update: at the time of publishing this blog for a second time on 4 September 2011 this work has STILL not been completed...

  • We had asked for a water supply to be connected 2 weeks before. We visited our local mairie and completed a form. “I'll mark it as urgent”, the ever helpful secretaire told us. We're haven't received the devis yet and we're not holding our breath on this one either. * Update:  we do now have water!

  • We think we now understand who to ring for an electricity supply (you might imagine this is a simple matter as there is only one supplier in France – EDF, but let me tell you, you'd be mistaken) and what to ask for (a temporary Chantier connection apparently). We expect the lead time on this to be at least 3 weeks. * Update: Although we have managed to get the supply connected and have a meter we have not actually managed to obtain any electricity from it. This, apparently, is controlled by a different part of EDF...

Basically the above meant that the only useful work that could be done fell into the bracket of demolition and that is exactly how we started.

Jeff's first task was to remove the only internal partition wall at the property which is on the first floor of the gite. Now if this had been down to me I would have done it considerably quicker and would have merrily whacked it with the sledgehammer we had just bought and hoicked out the rubble with a crow bar. But not Jeff. He looked up and pondered the possibility that this flimsy bit of stone and plaster was, in fact, supporting the floor above. He then gingerly tickled out individual pieces of stone, muttering the whole time about the inadequacy of the ancient twisted timbers (they could be 16th century).

Meanwhile... I was let loose with a hammer and chisel and the result was mayhem. I notice several things pretty quickly (that is when I'm not distracted by the sparkling view of the lake through the window)

    * these tools are quite heavy after a while and its a good job I'm wearing gloves which give a small degree of protection to my knuckles which I've managed to hit repeatedly with the hammer instead of the chisel.
    * the chaux is in 2 distinctly different layers. The top coat is a finer plaster type mix which has been painted and is hard and brittle. The lower coat is coarser and in places is in excess of 4 inches thick. This is softer, crumbly and contains small stones. On the whole it was easier to remove.
    * I reveal what I can only describe as huge chasms in areas where the quite alarming, and apparently random, mix of earth, straw and smaller stones fall out from between the stones when I remove the thick chaux.
    * Some of the stones are quite beautiful. They are the colour of Bath stone, a luminous golden colour. Some of the stones are not beautiful. Some of the stones are not stones at all but bits of smashed brick, twig, straw, loose dirt, and a generous helping of the sticky yellow soil that is all around us. These walls appear to have been constructed from anything that was available at the time.

Before: the lime plaster still shows the vestiges of a sponged paint effect and borders. You can clearly see the intials R.A. in the shelved alcove which incorporates the simple basin made from 2 flat stones and one central sloping stone mounted in the exterior wall. There is a drainage hole directly underneath (almost at floor level).

After: a close up of a section of stone wall with the 2 layers of chaux partially removed. As well as stones you can see mud and straw... I also encountered patches of small layered stones, black soil (interesting as I haven't seen any around here) and tree branches (still with bark attached)

I used a range of techniques to remove the chaux varying from the aforementioned hammer and chisel, to levering it off with a claw hammer, to simply whacking it and standing back.
Try this”, suggested the builder, brandishing a small drill with chisel bit. Jeff dutifully connected the drill to the compressor (which was outside the gite) and connected the compressor to the generator (inside the gite).
And oh boy, did I love this tool. After getting used to how to apply the necessary pressure, I was merrily removing large chunks of chaux with very little effort. I felt so much like a real builder that I was soon imagining sitting outside the pub with a foaming pint of beer in my dusty old clothes slaking the thirst of honest toil. The only slight problem with this fantasy was it's Wednesday and the pub doesn't open again until Friday night. Oh well, there are many more days of toil ahead.

In the meantime Jeff had finished his painstaking dismantling of the wall and was pondering what to do with the mountain of debris we have created.

I'll remove some floorboards then we can chuck it down there and we can pull it out with the digger”, he says.
Good plan”, I say, taking aim at a patch of chaux immediately under a beam.
eh?”, I enquire as my hammer lands on the wall. I look up just in time to observe the entire beam moving sideways and downwards towards my head.
I have various thoughts at this point, such as “is this whole place held up by the chaux?” and “why have we started work on the middle floor of this decrepid barn and not at the top?”.

Jeff-y-fix. A too short salvaged timber (note the tenon at the top) is propped up on two flat rocks. The tenon is nailed to the beam to provide support. Well that's alright then, isn't it? Of course its not going to fall down.

* * * * * * * * *

We agreed that our next task was to purchase hard hats and to check our insurance. Oh yes and I've agreed not to aim my hammer at any corners.

Treasure trove of vintage glass buttons

I'm feeling particularly pleased with myself today. It is a rainy Sunday morning in Britain and it is the last rainy Sunday morning in Britain that I will be experiencing until 2012 because I am flying back to France next week. Enfin! I will have been here nearly 70 days and I can't wait to get home and get Maison Dumay started.

I'm also feeling pleased this morning because I made a Hurculean effort to get out of bed on this dismal morning to go to a car boot sale. I admit I did not have high hopes as I thought the persistent drizzle would put off even the hardiest of car-booter. But luckily I was wrong.

Here in Salisbury, Wiltshire, the local cattlemarket is the venue for many types of sales: chickens, sheep, cows, art & antiques and on Sunday mornings a car boot sale. Unbeknown to me the sellers actually set up their stalls in the cattle pens in inclement weather but it was a little startling to drive in to the old cattle market and see row upon row of stalls selling all manner of goodies including bric-a-brac, plants, homemade jams and even bacon sandwiches. And it was heaving with people at 0800.

And amongst it all I found a lady who has selling off some of her antique button collection and sewing paraphanalia. The first item that caught my eye were her button hooks. She had several pieces with mother of pearl handles, a couple of hallmarked silver ones and this small, rather distressed, travel button hook.

OK so its not much of a looker but I just loved its well-worn patina, its rusty bits, the bare metal areas and the rubbed remains of it's original silver plating. It still works well and the hook folds neatly back into the hand loop. A perfect little travel accessory from a bygone era. When I acquire an item like this I can't help but wonder how many people have used this, generously loaned it to others and maybe even lost it for someone else to find and tuck into their pocket.

I also bought some stunning buttons from this lady. A set of 3 "Austrian tinies" in orange gilded metal. A magnificient set of 4 black and silver lustre buttons, two tiny pressed black Austrian glass buttons with a gilded flower in the centre and these stunning glass and gilt buttons.

This photo does not really do justice to the gorgeous opalescent glass centres which range from pink to green. The large glass centres are bordered with a gilt metal overlapping disc design. Quite simply they are stunning.

I am also congratulating myself on my self-discipline today. All today's treasures are tiny little gems which will be easily accommodated in my bulging luggage. Luckily these beauties will not be left to languish in an English loft until my next visit in 2012.

3 September 2011

Introduction to our restoration project

Almost as soon as we arrived in France in late April 2010 we began to think more seriously about our future lives here and what we wanted to do. I know its come as no surprise to most of you that know us that this involved undertaking another project. For once Jeff and I appeared to agree that this could involve buying a plot and building a house on it. I had a few requirements – views, garden with potential for vegetable gardening and fruit trees, a comfortable, eco-friendly house and a pool. Jeff also had a few requirements – parking for several cars / bikes / trailers etc, an eco-friendly house and a pool. So far, so good. We both started trawling the internet and soon spotted a building plot which was for sale through our immo-pal Lizzie, with panoramic views of Lac Montbel. Let's touch base with Lizzie and go and take a look we said to each other. Just a look mind you, because obviously we wouldn't buy the first thing we see like we did with our current home, oh no that would be pretty dim.

So the French-style of communication began. I sent Lizzie and email and got an immediate enthusiastic response followed by complete cyber silence. OK, I thought, I phone her. She didn't answer the phone. She didn't return my call as I asked. So, we adopted the Jeff approach, which is we know where she lives so we'll go over and knock on her door so loudly she'll think the bailiffs are here. Success! We get installed in her winter kitchen (yes larger French houses do tend to have 2 kitchens...) and ask her to show us the building plot. “Ah”, she says “that is as good as sold. Could I interest you in 2 barns on the adjacent piece of land? I can run you up there now”
No”, says Jeff.
Yes”, says Nickie.
And so we get our first glimpse of the, I admit it, rather unpromising looking buildings you see here.

OK I imagine you're thinking its not much of a looker from the outside. Trust me, its worse inside! The image above is of the lake-side of the buildings and it comprises a modern block-built barn (left), a stone house (4 windows, 1 large red door) and a further small stone house (2 windows, 1 door). The rest of the property in the image belongs to a young French couple. Jeff is fairly quiet at this point (this is not a good sign), especially when he sidles up to me and says, trying to suppress a nervous laugh, “this isn't what we're looking for... is it?”. Hmmm, I'm not really one to make snap decisions but based on what I've seen so far I'm inclined to agree with him.

Meanwhile Lizzie has opened the red door which leads into the main stone house. I'm sure I hear scurrying noises and spot dark shapes rapidly disappearing into the accumulated agricultural debris that is filling the space.
Obviously it needs some work” says Lizzie, mistress of the estate-agent understatement.
She is not kidding. Dirt floor, stone walls held up by mangers and other animal feeders, ceiling held up by split tree trunks. There is a sturdy wooden ladder in one corner leading up to... well, who knows where. I'm not even sure if it has a roof.
Mind your head”, says Lizzie, determinedly scaling the ladder.
Jeff is holding back.
I don't think I need to go up there”, he says, “You go and take a look”.
I do just that and this is when it happens.
I see this.

Yes that is straw.
No there aren't any windows.
Yes there is a roof but it is knackered (technical term for it needs completely replacing).
What you can't see from this image is the view – it is simply surprennant, incroyable. As they say here, this property is a coup-de-coeur (literally heart attack).
This is it. I'm smitten.

Honey, why don't you come up here and take a look” I call down to Jeff while mouthing “I love it” to Lizzie.
Jeff reluctantly ascends, blows his cheeks out and expressively mimes “you cannot seriously think this is a good idea” when he spots my rapt expression.
We can't do the work ourselves” is his opening salvo.
No, we'll get a builder”
I know one” says Lizzie
We can't afford it” is his next shot
Possibly not”
You could phase the work and costs are much lower here” says Lizzie
Well...” he's faltering now, “it's not what we're looking for”
True”, I say, “it is MUCH more thrilling”
It's up-and-coming”, says Lizzie, “I think of this location as 'Léran Heights”.
I want to go and look at some building plots” says Jeff, quite reasonably.
OK” I say
OK” says Lizzie, sighing, “I fear you might be disappointed though”

What she means is, of course, that I will be disappointed now with anything else.

Simplicity or duplicity - secrets of a sewing pattern

I have reached my ultimate destination in the UK and am now installed, once again, in Southsea, Hampshire. As I am probably going to be here for two months I have decided to use my non working time (evenings and a few snatched hours at the weekend) to develop Maison Dumay, my future ETSY shop and to catalogue and describe the exciting stock I have already amassed in France.

Naturally I could not resist the temptation to see if I could source any interesting items here in the UK and surprisingly I have found several small items that I think are quite fascinating. These are mainly paper ephemera although I have found some quite stunning retro aprons to boost the household linen stocks.

Up to this point my main “paper” coup had been the discovery of several pre-WW2 copies of the sumptuous French magazine “L'Illustration”, a lavishly illustrated weekly magazine published in Paris. It has the distinction of being the first French newspaper to publish a photograph and in 1907 it became the first paper to publish a colour photograph. I have spent many hours now extracting fabulous advertising plates ready to be mounted. To my way of thinking these magazines are time capsules. Their pages are filled with scientific discoveries, reportage of significant historic events and a tiny smattering of Tatler-esque coverage of social events and fashion.

It is primarily the advertising that continues to draw my attention in these magazines. A Renault advert promises superiority on the road if you drive the new 6 cylinder model which boasts a top speed of 130 kmh. Apparently in 1938 only Fly-Tox could protect you from the horror of an enormous housefly and you too could have Mickey Mouse in your own home thanks to a Kodascope machine. I imagine a housewife would have craved a continuous flame AGA which offered the most economical cooking in the world and that a gentleman could picture himself in a Flechet hat which was not only the highest quality, oh no, they were PERFECT hats. These hyperbolic claims have all but disappeared from modern advertising presumeably thanks to the introduction of advertising standards but looking at these images I can't help but feel that some of the glamour has been lost too.

I wonder if Monsieur Eyston would have been able to beat the world land speed record without those Dunlop tyres

History, values, lifestyle and national identity are certainly writ large over the pages of these 1930's copies of L'Illustration but my discovery yesterday has a markedly different personal dimension.

I was lucky enough to chance on a collection of dress making patterns spanning three decades from the 1950s to the 1970s. They had all belonged to the same woman who lived and worked in the Portsmouth area during these years. These patterns are not especially glamorous examples of the style of their era. There are no designer names to be seen and there are no examples of evening or occasion wear. The 1970s patterns are simple tunic and trouser combinations or long, lean bohemian skirts. The patterns from the 60s are simple skirt shapes which could be made in any of the 4 key lengths of the decade: ankle, midi, regular or mini. The other 60s pattern is for a simple pullover dress with a choice of 3 different necklines. The single pattern from the 1950s is a wrap-around housedress and a dress with a matching housecoat. Although none of these particular patterns have been cut I imagine the lady who owned them made most of her own everyday clothing over these decades and prided herself on her dressmaking.

While checking that these items were complete and uncut I was amazed to pull out 2 letters from the 1950s housecoat pattern which had been carefully concealed within the pattern itself. They were stored neatly in their original envelopes (one of which is post dated 1977) and I pulled one out to see if it related to the pattern in any way. I was confronted with a love letter from a Dutch sailor, Piet, to his sweetheart, Pat. The first letter beings “My dearest darling Pat” and contains the telling line “I will not phone you anymore because Steve has arrived home”. The second short letter was sent while Piet was at sea and he writes “I still cannot put you out of my mind” and that he “is waiting for you in Exter at the central station”. Did she ever meet him again or was the affair over? Either way what better place could there be to conceal billets doux from your lover than in an old dress pattern? Her husband would almost certainly have never stumbled across these by accident and she always had them nearby as she did her sewing.

Simplicity or duplicity? This 1950s Simplicity dress pattern has concealed a lover's letters for over 30 years.

* * * * *

A selection of advertising plates, articles, covers and clippings from 1937 and 1938 issues of L'Illustration will be for sale in Maison Dumay at from September. A range of dressmaking, knitting and toy patterns will also be available including the Simplicity pattern shown above which will still contain the 2 letters.

"You should keep it"

Even though things are moving ahead with our Mireval project I must confess I have become rather distracted with my own personal ambitions. I have finally taken the decision to open a shop and this brings me full circle back to the “girl” of 21 years old who desperately wanted to train as a retail manager and spend my working day buying and selling ladies fashions and kitsch in all its glorious forms. Many, many years later (at least 25) I can see the way forward and.... tah dah... I am delighted to introduce Maison Dumay.

Firstly I must say that I envisaged Maison Dumay as “la vie enchantée” (enchanted life) or “ma belle maison franciase” (my beautiful French house)” etc etc. But sadly all the names I had chosen for my shop had already been taken by fellow Etsy entrepreneurs and were consequently unavailable. As I tapped in random combinations my lucky name was based on “maison” (house) and Dumay (the name of the only shopkeeper in our village...!!!!!) and so Maison Dumay was born, in name only.

Maison Dumay” has been a somewhat unplanned birth. It has been a combination of a moment of conscious decision (the golden formula of supply and demand appear to be synchronised) and the rather random process of sourcing stock which has involved combing vide greniers, brocantes and asking members of the general Ariège public if they'd like to sell me their bedding / kitchenalia / ancient magazines.... Astonishingly this appears to have produced viable retail material. At least I hope this is the case. I am going to have to wait until some point in September before I can fling open the doors of my (virtual) shop and see if there is anyone out there who actually wants to buy my wares.

I must admit I envisaged Maison Dumay as being an outlet for fine French household linens and items of esoteric interest. The reality of my buying regime has been somewhat different to these rather high ideals and although I have been enthusiastically snapping up some gorgeous French linens, I have also been acquiring some rather, now how can I describe these items, oh yes, BONKERS quite neatly sums it up.

Shouldn't you buy a couple of high quality items?”, suggested Jeff early on in my buying frenzy.
But I need stock”, I had replied.
Shouldn't you sell some items first and then buy more?”, he suggested, somewhat timidly
Non, pas du tout”, I replied, certain that I must accumulate stock IMMEDIATELY, before my scheduled 2 month sojourn in the UK.

He has remained taciturn during my enthusiastic ramblings about seamless stockings from the 1950s and 60s, he has remained impervious to my ranting about the historical significance of pre-WW2 magazine articles on Hitler and the Nazi party, and been resolutely indiffernent to my droolings over 19th century ladies underwear. But he has, however, weakend somewhat about this quite incredible discovery.

What is it?”, I had asked the stallholder.
We used it as a fish keep net”, he answered, “But it is really a snail hunting basket”

And what a joy it is. It folds almost flat but when it is released it has an upper section into which you deposit your unsuspecting molluscs. They are then transported via a cunning sprung trapdoor into the lower chamber where they are trapped, unable to escape. Apprently snails are supremely well organised and could, theoretially, break out of most containers. This is specially designed to block their escape route and the cunning sprung trap door delivers them into the lower chamber without the prospect of escape. OMD (oh mon dieu!) this is a serious piece of equipment. Once Jeff appreciated exactly what the whacky green wire basket might be used for he said:

You should keep it!”

I promise that no snails were harmed during the production of this blog.

My main focus has been, unsurprisingly to anyone who actually knows me, to pass on the glorious textiles of this region to anyone who might actually be interested. To this end I have been enthusiastically acquiring cotton crochet lace, heavy linens and damasks, plus a few fine handmade items. I was extremely lucky the day I went to a local vide grenier and acquired a lovely, unused metis sheet. It had belonged to her grandmother the lady who sold it to me related. When I told this to Lizzie she said:

You should keep it,”

And herein lies the problem. As I am only buying items that I personally adore I am now in the position of wanting to keep ALL my stock. I must be firm, I told myself. The metis sheet and snailing basket must be sold. I remained resolute during the laundering of this wonderful sheet and it was only when I was ironing it that I spotted a tiny tear. This makes it unsaleable. Oh well, tant mieux pour moi! I get to keep it after all.

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Maison Dumay will be going live on at some point in September. I will be selling vintage French household linen, kitchenalia, paper ephemera, brocante finds and vintage ladies accessories. Contact me at if you would like an advance list of stock.