Thursday, 28 November 2013

Re-using a pretty piece

This is a typical flowery chintzy bedroom of the last century. The curtains are old hemp sheets, lined and interlined, with an old re-used pom-pom fringe set well back to make a good silhouette against the light. The wallpaper is a trad. 18thc. design by Zoffany now out of production, and the piece of applique work using flowers from old chintzes was the centre-piece of the bedspread, also made from old hemp sheets, with similar valances.

Memories of the pre-war years, when I was growing up

I wrote a Post about my Welsh upbringing and my Nain's (Welsh) interest in needlework and design and a bit about the old laundry wing in our home. I was therefore quite surprised to find another huge laundry (cottage) at my London Granny's country house which I visited near Harpenden when I was little. She had to entertain large house-parties in the big house and she told me that she used to have up to 15 people to stay for a week-end (Grampa was a well known City business man) and as they had to have clean napkins for every meal, 4 times a day, that meant that there had to be hundreds of them ready, white and starched, to put on the long dining room table. I know I wondered how I would manage when I grew up, little knowing that I, too, in my Granny mode, would be myself washing, bleaching, starching, several hundred each year, mostly for my overseas customers who adore the big old fashioned initialled napkins...... shades of the last Washerwoman of Freshford!  Two long sets at Christmas-time, 30 to USA and 18 to South Africa for large family parties. It's so good to think these beautifully woven linens will be enjoyed by so many.
By the time I saw much more of my London Granny, she had moved into a lovely flat in London and all the paraphenalia of entertaining had gone - the huge banqueting linen damask table cloths had been turned into gorgeous loose covers for easy chairs and sofas, dyed in very pretty pastel colours. and the patchwork quilt over the grand piano had been made into sweet cottage curtains for the old laundry in the country which was converted into the family's retreat during the war. I inherited a lot of her fine Egyptian cotton linen and have used it ever since - so soft and so easy to care for on my spare beds, and it dries in a trice - unlike my own heavy linen that is beautifully embroidered but takes an age to dry in the winter when it cannot blow in the wind.

I found this beautiful piece of applique work amongst my Grandmother's linen and have used it as a centre piece on a heavy creamy hemp bed cover and found some good old guilloche braid to encircle it and run a border along the edges to hang down over the sides. The colours of old chintz are always something special and they blend with an antique bed and the Zoffany wall paper very well.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


I have sold several of these French stools which are very useful when placed in front of the fireplace - for magazines, books, tea and coffee trays and even for toasting your toes. Originally many of them were made to go with large comfortable armchairs and could be literally hooked up with a couple of large metal hooks. You need to check the state of the webbing and stuffing (which can add a lot to the upholstery charges,) also that all 4 casters are working (again costing over £40 for a good new set) and to find a good strong fabric to re-cover. This one had the original striped velvet stuff but was too shabby and so I used up a remnant of Shaddow Rose from Bennison's which has a sort of ikat look ( very Victorian, like the stool itself) and added some long bullion fringe from an old chair, and it is now a very favourite perch when the fire is lit. This stool has two strong hooks on a slightly concave side and the opposite side curves outward and was a comfortable foot rest to go with its armchair in matching fabric. I don't know if it is called a pouf or if it is a tabouret or ottoman. American dealers and decorators are buying them and the price has gone up from about 50 Euros to 150, even in poor condition.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Working to a deadline

    House and Garden Magazine has been listing current designers, month by month, and I was not surprised to see one of my clients, Penny Morrison, described as a leading decorator with her own  workshop in Wales.  I remember her very clearly as she stopped at my outlet in Freshford and told me she had to completely re-style a boutique hotel in the Caribbean and had only a few weeks to get everything together.   She instantly approved and bought  a huge pile of coarse, creamy, hemp sheets for all the curtains and bed covers - she was looking for a very cool relaxed look, and then there was the question of how to trim the curtains and valances to give them some definition and style.  Everything had to stand up to strong sunlight, endless laundering, and frequent hoovering and brushing.  Looking round my sheet and linen stores, she spied the 8 inch wide webbing in bright blue, natural and cream strong cotton braiding I had used to cover the metal supports of the shelving there.   She intended  putting a border at floor level on all the bed valances, which would not get marked by shoes and the Hoovers, and a border line down each leading edge of the curtains;  very smart!  I had justbought some huge rolls of the braid, all in a rather mad moment at Francine's Boutique in  Isle sur la Sorgue, Provence, when she offered rolls at  give-away prices because she too had had a mad moment and bought  dozens of these braids in rolls of over 90 metres.  She kept on saying that she would never sell them all and she had wasted a lot of money.   Funnily enough,  I was able to sell mine with ease for all sorts of projects and I had to explain to my buyers that the braid was used to make the uppers of espadrilles, the colourful beach shoes of Spain and the Med. so would stand up to sun, salt and sand.  I went back to Francine for more and I found that she, too,  had sold out and gone back to the Pyreneese to buy massive more quantities from the old shoe factory.   This all helped to encourage me to start  buying larger quantities of interesting and original textiles that I really liked, and it paid many dividends when I became a supplier to various film wardrobes and their massive requirements for crowd scenes.

Last year House and Garden magazine listed 100 leading designers and I was not  surprised to see a client of mine, Penny Morrison, with a picture of a cool creamy bedroom.  I remember her well as she arrived with a list of window measurements and said she had to transform a very unattractive boutique hotel in the Carribean and wanted to convert to pale creamy curtains and matching bed dressing, but all had to be sewn and ready within weeks for transport in one lot to the island!   She was so pleased to find I had vast piles of good coarse linen sheets, ideal for both windows and bed covers and then the problem was to find something that was practical (to stand up to endless and possibly rather unskilled laundering, the constant rubbing of hoovers during the daily clean) that would bring colour and definition to each bedroom.

  Looking round my showroom  Penny spied the very unusual blue, gray and cream striped braid that I had used to cover the metal base for all the shelving there and asked me if I could supply 'really a lot' :  Luckily, only weeks before, in Isle sur la Sorge, I had bought a huge roll of about 100 metres of braid which Francine (owner) said had been used to make the open-toed Spanish espadrille beach shoes.  Francine said she had overdone it, it was ridiculous and no-one would ever buy this stuff - I thought I was mad to buy so much, though the price was only a few hundred francs for the lot, and yet it turned out to be exactly what Penny was looking for!  After that I bought a great deal still at the silly price and now it has all gone - Francine went on buying it and probably still has a stash in her huge stores!

  It is quite exciting and very rewarding to be able to supply someone's wants and necessities all on one big shopping expedition, and one has to remember that you have to have a decent stock, if it is available, on the day that desperate customer calls or telephones - huge advantage now that Email is so instant. - tomorrow or next week is not much use when deadlines have to be met.   This applies specially to film wardrobe ladies!


Thursday, 14 November 2013


Pretty  cool!  cool and pretty!
   At the end of the 'frilly knickers' period of decorating 80s-90s, when extravagant ruched looks for curtains, pelmets, sofas. chairs had peaked (this was after the cheap shabby-chic, rather dowdy- looking style fell out of favour,) suddenly cream, linen, and expensive simplicity came as a positive relief. Husbands thought those miles of chintz terribly extravagant, (and the designer bills were outrageous) and were fed up with the uber-feminine excess of it all and welcomed the cool classic calm of linen, cotton and pastel colours
    I have pictures from a Californian Home Magazine which shows models and celebs standing in white linen suits, with ditto sofas and chairs , white walls and one good blob of colour provided by a well chosen, rug, or clock or picture. All that white linen told you that they were not afraid of the laundry and dry cleaning bills and they could afford to change it all for another set, another day. This is where I came in with my white linen and creamy hemp sheets which I had collected by the hundred in France and was able to sell for a fraction of the price of of the new stuff and it had twice the character, weight and charm of the machine-woven from Pierre Frey and other designer firms.  My prices were very low, because I had good sources and I was not afraid to buy linen in bulk and sort it all out before selling it in good clean usable state, with no hidden faults and problems.  The seconds were snapped up by film companies to be converted into the togas, shifts, tunics, gowns of every century right up to Elizabethan times as they were historically correct and were sufficiently rough and  rustic to show that they were all hand-woven, in hand-spun weaves and could be safely dyed any shade, much to the delight of the wardrobe ladies.
   Californians were particularly keen on my linens as they stood up to the strong sunshine, and shops who used to use cheapest calico to cover their soft furnishing soon 'cottoned on' and could cover the sofas and chairs in nubbly, tactile hemp and make record sales. I found too that these wealthy buyers, usually smart decorator designers, were pleased to buy the finest linen embroidered and lace edged bed linen and lots of best 1900 large dinner party sets of table napkins, the more noble crowns, initials and coats of arms, the better, quite often for their own personal use - a good 'perk' !   They did not have to battle with the rather formidable linen ladies in the Paris Flea Market and preferrerd to deal in their own language and make one big container load.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Versailles and Marie Antoinette

< Marie Antoinette's Bed

Royal appartments at Versailles

Whatever we may think of the mad extravagance of 18th C. Royalty. their palaces and way of life, they gave employment to thousands of artisans who used their talents to produce some of the most exquisite furnishings and works of art ever produced.
In France, an army of cabinet makers, weavers and artists decorated the rooms with the finest and best materials available. The designs of furniture, mirrors and plasterwork were used and copied all over Europe. Despite the ravages of the Revolution, most French palaces have been preserved and are now all restored and thousands of tourists are able to enjoy and marvel. French designs have always been considered the richest and most elegant and I thought the two pictures I chose show their genius for comfort and luxury in a very decorative sort of way!

Friday, 8 November 2013


   If you look carefully at this picture you will see two rather original features in the top class upholstery -the gathering and little rosette on the side panels of the chair back, and other little button bows half-way down the kick pleats covering the legs, a very feminine comfy little boudoir chair. The fabric is interesting too - a reproduction of a classic Indienne (late 19c.)French cotton fabric, where the birds are a bit fierce with large beaks and claws.  Also note how carefully the bird has been centred in the middle panel of the back, the seat and the valance.  This takes more material, but I think this chair would have been pretty expensive anyway.
  I had a friend who had a little recess on a landing with a similar chair and she called it her 'sulking' room for when the family got her down!  A cup of tea in a pretty, relaxing chair might soon soothe you back to normal!


2 cushions made with Toile scraps and toning piping and another of white pique cot lining with pearl buttons added.

     When I unload a big pile of French laundry (I only buy it in bulk) there are always some faulty linen sheets - nothing very serious but they are not good enough for bedding. I have a number of uses, myself, for these "seconds" - I make under-pillow cases, simple housewife style, as I cannot bear to sleep on stained and smelly pillows and they do need this extra protection. Then I make laundry bags with drawstring tops to hang on the bathroom door, shoe bags for precious, fragile sandals and shoes, and a couple of pressing cloths for my table ironer - I write PRESS in big letters on a big cloth and zig-zag over the writing so that the cloth does not stray. I also zig-zag the edges of a large number of squares which I will use for cleaning windows, the car, and chrome fittings in the bathrooms - linen is a strong material so you can rub hard and it leaves no lint behind and it comes up very clean in a hot wash.   I always have a supply of the seconds and for £5 or £10 you can make up any quantity for yourself - or you may prefer to make place mats, table runners, tray cloths, new pockets for gents trousers,  and possibly dye them with a dylon dye for different uses.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Cornelli, muslin, voile .

Full length muslin cornelli screening a blank wall.

The delicate design of a muslin cornelli

French people have always been very keen on privacy and screening their houses from view by the ordinary passer-by. You have only to see the immense variety of railings, fences and hedges protecting their front views to realise that they do not welcome strangers staring over their property. In the same way, they screen their windows with an amazing variety of light and see-through fabrics, many very traditional. You see little voile and white linen curtains and half-blinds in the streets, often with net pictures of local traditions, boats, garden subjects, children etc. worked in fine net. Elsewhere you will notice fine voile 'cafe' curtains in gay checks, with a frill all round and a tie-back which reveals the centre of the window for looking out. The amount of real and factory-made lace in all weights is incredible and varies from heavy macrame in sludgy shades of ecru and coffee to fine and dainty borders tacked onto muslin and voile. Many of the current drapers shops have large departments still filled with all these essential fabrics.
   There is one kind of curtain, however, called a cornely,  or cornelli, which is quite special and which I really love.  Basically,it is a very long muslin curtain usually about 8ft drop,with scalloped edges down each side and across the bottom. There are flowery borders and spray designs over the central part,  all in chain or tambour stitch (worked with a hook, two hands and with the muslin stretched over the tambour frame) and they can be utterly charming and make wonderful, light and airy dressing for four poster beds, as well as the windows for which they were made during the last quarter of 19c. It is rare to find them in perfect or unused condition, but some of the more skilful dealers hide the inevitable snags and holes by stitching additional little lace flowers here and there and you have to discover these repairs for yourself and judge the real condition of the Cornelli. Good ones (best in pairs) are not cheap - usually well over £200 pr.
  The machine that made them was probably called a Cornely and these dainty patterns come in  huge variety - some graceful and delicate in design, others with bolder geometric and heavier borders, possibly of a later date, but most date from late 19C.   I am going to investigate Bath Textile Dept. at the college to see  the machine working, as they have two, I believe. The curtains were of course made to keep out prying eyes but more especially to keep out the sun and the dust from the unmade-up roads outside the bourgeois houses which caused much damage and distressed the precious silks and velvets of the well-furnished house.  Washing these nets is quite a skilled job - sometimes they are quite rotten and disintegrate as you immerse them in water, and any weight or strain can cause them to 'flake', so examine the fabric well before buying, and inspect for tiny pinholes which may be the start of weak patches that wreck the netting; so negociate the buying price accordingly!