Thursday, 28 February 2013
When I was in Brittany, a long time ago, I bought from an elderly brocante dealer, some very rough sheets in hemp which were top of my shopping list - they are simply wonderful in colour and texture, very porridgey, for upholstery and backing rustic cushions. She said she could only wash one at a time in the big washer at the laundrette because they were so heavy when wet and I have found the same. I asked her how the women managed to wash in the old days before the war and machines, and she told me that her mother had been a washerwoman for 17 years. If you look at the woman on the right, you will see she is kneeling on a box-like stool which kept her clean and dry and with a place for the bars of Marseille soap. I was imagining an older lady kneeling for hours with red hands from the cold, cold water, the endless rubbing and wringing and then pushing a heavy wheelbarrow, full of wet clothes and linen somewhere to dry - no room at the 'lavoir' literally 'the washplace'. You can see one of the special wheelbarrows which carried the heavy load and kept it out of the dirty, dusty roads. I often used to buy these barrows in my art populair buying days, sometimes painted a lovely French bluey-green and they made delightful garden accessories. My friend told me her mother prefered to scrub all the clothes with a brush but others favoured a woooden bat which was used to smack the soapy water through the cloth and carry away the dirt - the lavoirs are now often listed as historic buildings and are enticing with mirror like reflections but they also remind me of the hard times and unremitting toil some of the women suffered in the past; washing heaps of heavy linen on a cold winter's day must have been very hard work for hands, arms and backs.