Saturday, 27 September 2014

Slickenstones and other pressing matters

  I used to deal in country antiques and folk art and tools, supplying my stall at Little Chelsea and also a gallery nearby. One day I took a nice wooden object which was rather mushroom in shape in golden sycamore wood, made with a handle and a big flat saucer. I had thought it was to do with butter-making and used to press the salt in, and extract the water. I sold it to a young lady for a reasonable price and after the Fair she couldn't resist coming up to me and saying "do you know what you have just sold me It's a slickenstone for smoothing linen!," Of course I was quite miffed to have missed this, especially as I was dealing in linen and should have known about the different 'tools' used in its care. I  looked up slickenstones in my copy of the wonderful reference book TREEN by Pinto. There I found lots of info. and read that these tools were used before (and after) irons were invented and were completely flat on the base which was used to polish and smooth the linen, made of wood, glass or metal and quite rare to find.  I think this process is known as calendering and what I had found was the home-made version for the process.   If you go to Ireland, you can see linen being hammered and pummeled in one of the mills, smoothing the surface and binding the tiny hairs of the fibres into each other, giving the fabric great strength and absorbency.
    Sometime later I visited Marlborough market and there I found a strange object made of dark green glass, rather like a mushroom, found by a boy in a local stream.    I bought it for a few shillings as a 'glass paperweight', took it home and eventually sold it to a real collector, who told me that many of these objects had been found in the marshes of Holland when they dug the dykes and my 'stone' had great age and was a most interesting relic of a very primitive kind.   The Netherlands had a great reputation for their clean water and grassy banks for drying the linen - and in the 18thC the French Royal Palaces sent their laundry there by coach for the whitest wash!
    I now have another sycamore slickenstone in my laundry tool collection which reminds me to do my homework more thoroughly next time I FIND A MYSTERY OBJECT.
   I also have a super- large posser or washing plunging tool for pushing the soapy water through the wet laundry, made in Wolverhampton, of copper,  and a Victorian clothes line prop, a neat contraption of two sliding staves bound with leather, and fixed with little pegs for different heights.  In the days when there were no commercial laundries, every large household had a lot of sturdy equipment for dealing with the large amounts of washing, and really large establishments had buildings set aside for the work and employed special staff.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


An extra large fine linen sheet embroidered and decorated with fine hand-made lace
   These are all names for the finest linen and cotton fabrics., so fine they are transparent and gauzy. I have yet to see batiste sheets - I know they were woven for the grandest beds but maybe they are so delicate that they did not survive for long! In France last year I saw a fabulous sheet with a huge monogram A, a large crown and lots of exquisite floral embroidery which was a mix of silk and linen fabric - it felt wonderful to touch and had a lovely silky sheen - over 1000 Euros to buy!  I saw it again at two later fairs so maybe the price was a bit too high! 
    Nowadays most French housewives opt for poly-cotton and other easy care fabrics for their beds and the heavy old linen and hemp hand-woven sheets are consigned to the attics and many are simply burnt - the French have only recently opened charity shops (Emmaus depots often open on a Saturday for sales in the yards and sheds which they occupy). Emmaus was inspired by the Abbe Pierre who took over large run-down houses to house needy people, called compagnons, who were expected to contribute working skills to restore donated furniture and other goods which they then sold to the public on certain open days. Quite a good source of bargains! They sometimes have piles of old stuff but the local dealers probably get the cream!
  During the last war the farmers in France were restricted in the amount of flax and hemp they were allowed to grow, so people gathered thistles, nettles and broom to mix in and convert into woven cloths - those with broom are a lovely pale golden shade and extremely soft to touch.  All these plants have long fibres in their stalks which can be mixed in with the flax and cotton.  I only ever had a few and they were picked out immediately.

Saturday, 20 September 2014


  Short smocks seem to be quite fashionable just now and are good for hiding extra layers for warmth underneath without showing the bulges.    The French used smock shirts for arduous labour in the fields and vineyards and they were designed for ease of movement and frequent washing, so all the tension points were reinforced with gussets or made double thick, i.e. the collars, the yokes, where heavy tools carried on the shoulder wore them thin, and the cuffs which probably took the most strain.  The double turn-in of these double sections also made a good neat finish for all those pieces they joined, which were gathered with the strongest linen thread and would have frayed - at the wrist, the back and sleeve top.   The cows were milked in the fields and the buckets of milk had to be carried on a yoke back to the dairy, and the thin patches on the shoulders often shows signs of wear and tear.  Water was also carried from wells in the same way.  Country life may look idyllic in the charming Toile de Jouy country prints, with the peasants dancing and canoodling in leafy bosquets, but the reality was a hard and poverty-stricken life for most of the womenfolk who had  little luxury in their lives, what with endless child-bearing, menial chores and sparse conditions.

  Early on in my travels in rural France, I met a young woman who seemed to have lovely and original folk art from the Normandy and Brittany coasts, lots of  colourful painted sea chests, anchors, lobster pots and fishing tackle, ropes, also byegones from the farms.  She ran a fair which I then visited and I bought the most amazing long hand-trolley, all blue and yellow with many shelves to hold baskets of shell fish, including oysters, for pushing along the streets and markets..  The cart had a banner on it advertising Paimpol, le Grand Large, which was a huge centre for high grade fish and shellfish, and I just had to wheel it away and load it on top of the Volvo, where it caused much surprise at the Customs in Calais and Dover! It made a wonderful display for f\zairs and my stand at a furniture depot, and caused much interest before it went to Ireland!

  I visited this lady at her tiny seaside house to see what else she had tucked away-and was rewarded with two of the finest traditional peasant costume shirts I have ever seen;  they were shortish, in very dark indigo blue and the whole of the yoke and collars were of the finest white embroidery of  massed little flowers and leaves in a closely worked pattern - the tiniest of stitches and exquisite work on the slightly polished fine cotton material.  I later traced them back to the nearby Vallee d'Auge and they were extremely rare to find.  How I loved them, but like all good things they were soon sold away and I have never seen their like again, despite seeing many country people dressed up in local costumes, which they now do to music and dancing on folklorique days.  My new friend later opened a brocante shop in Paimpol.  (Good place to stay with dozens of fabulous fish cafes and restaurants we often visited).


Wednesday, 17 September 2014


This post will be very boring, all about the shirts of France, so do skip it unless you are a collector of these attractive costume items or deal in them.    French rustic shirts were made in their thousands for wear by the working people of France for well over 100 years.   The material was usually linen, often home grown, hemp which was also grown for making into textiles, sometimes mixed with cotton, not homegrown, from overseas., and known as metis (mix)  The earliest shirts seem to have been very simple and plain, with bone(mutton) buttons at the neck opening and various different kinds of pleating down the front to allow for movement.  All were made with square shaped pieces of cloth, for economy and curved seams were not known - just as with English smocks.
They were however, amply fitted with folded square gussets to give space and movement while working - the gussets in different sizes were placed under the arm, at the joint of the tails, at the wrists, and at the neck.
The main body and the arms were fairly standard, also the yokes, but the fronts had several different treatments,   - flat pleats, gathers or stitched pin tucking (rare), all from the yokes. There were no waist seams but when pleated, the fronts often ended in a straight short bar of material applied just above the waist.  Others had a 'plastron' or triangular bib shaped piece applied over the chest,     Two or three buttons sometimes m.o.p. or ceramic and hand stitched holes completed the garment and there was usually a single button and hole at the sleeve cuff.   The back was always gathered into the yoke piece and secured with very strong fine stitching.  The collar was one of the main differences, possibly varying from one district or department and also from one convent, or another,  where most of the sewing was done.  I always found the most attractive were large, slightly floppy square collars with big points, rather like Puritan dresses, whereas the low-cut, stand-up collars were more difficult to wear for most women.  And, yes, it was the modern women who bought these becoming, hand sewn garments, from the eighties onwards.   They bought them as leisure wear, for cooking, gardening, safari wear, tropical wear, for music, for art, for sculpture and every kind of activity - they were everlasting and could be boiled clean in a day.  I sold hundreds and their friends came back for more - they were £8 or £12 each and I could buy them then in France by the dozen, thrown out of the linen stores in the old farmhouses and vineyards, once  I GOT TO KNOW THE GOOD SOURCES.  They were part of every girl's marriage dowry, so there were thousands beautifully stitched!

  I have told the story of how the fashion editor of Vogue found herself trying one on which had her two initials correctly embroidered on the tail.  Another good story was how a very leading socialite client of mine went on holiday to a most exclusive Mediterranean resort and simply dyed 7 shirts in 7 different colours in her washing machine and wore a different one every night which impressed her house party mightily.

Saturday, 13 September 2014


      Our Talent for Textiles Fair here at Bradford on Avon last Saturday went very well and lots of old friends going back to the first events twenty years or so ago, all came, and they all bought something, even if it was only a cup of coffee and a home-made Devonshire  cake!  Thank Caroline Bushell for those!
     As I have almost finished my business  in the wine vaults of my own house, next door, it has made me recall those early days when you could go to France and fill a van with Brocante and textiles, just driving to Paris from Calais for a weekend and stopping on the way, wherever the chair stood outside on the pavement, with an old shed stuffed with junk behind and an old man with a hat smoking his pipe.
      Since then, things have changed a lot, the old dealers have packed up because the new by-passes steer the traffic away from the village streets and you are more likely to find big old barns near the towns with parking for lorries and vans and keen traders who want the last Franc out of you.  It's the same with the wonderful roadside cafes where all the tradesmen and commercial travellers stopped for a whopping lunch of three major courses of excellent home cooked peasant fare and free bottles of local plonk free for all on the table, and stout ladies beamed across the crowded dining rooms, wiping the tables down with a flick of the torchon tea towel.  They are now few and far between and many drivers go for the quick and easy supermarkets that have massive parking areas and big choice of food outlets.
      Dealing with the wily old antique dealers in rural areas (la France Profonde), I soon discovered that it was best to ask casually for a price on any likely item, and then go on to enquire about the more desirable lots, one by one, till the dealer got a bit anxious that he had failed and would make no sales to this difficult- to-please English lady!  Then, having chatted in general, I would ask the leading question, 'how much for that lot over there? i.e. usually a big pile of linen and laundry in a dishevelled stage.  The next round of the game was for me to hold one or two pieces up, tut-tutting at the holes, repairs and dirt, and surprise the seller by saying I would probably take the lot and would sort it out later - this disarmed the seller, completely, who was expecting me to choose the best and leave the faulty, which would be very unsaleable and so much dross, and in the excitement of selling the whole lot (men dealers hated textiles and household linens anyway) they would quote me a very give-away price, bundle it all into black refuse sacks and say good riddance to a shameful lot which destroyed the beauty of their untidy sheds.  I did the same at the very big commercial fairs, trade only, where dealers would arrive with a van or pick-up with the contents from a farm or vineyard, often from dusty sheds and chicken houses and wanting to shift several hundred linen pieces going back to the last century, and despised by the young people who inherited the contents of the old farms and couldn't wait to clear " poor old Granny's peasant stuff" - they were, sadly, ashamed of the rustic look and the hand-sewn finish of shirts and sheets and preferred cheap poly-cotton and nylon from  Spain and Portugal.    
   The many convents and priories which were the sources for a lot of the flax and hemp, the growing, the weaving and the sewing of it all, were disbanding, with their laundries and workshops and hospitals, and I used to see whole heaps of their work piled high on the stone floors of the local market halls - sad and unwanted by the French, though eagerly sought by the English and Americans when washed, repaired and properly presented.  It was quite a lot of hard work, but I have always been super-economical and a great re-cycler and it really did give me huge satisfaction when many very well-known and fashionable women
used my stock for their wardrobes and linen rooms.
Washday at Freshford

Monday, 8 September 2014


       When I was a child, my mother told me that the huge; flat, rosewood box in her bedroom under the spinet (both there for safekeeping from a family of curious children ), was to be mine, as it had been a wedding present  to her from an elderly Professor in the nearby town of Bangor who had a connection with our family.  When I was finally allowed to open this treasure box, it contained a truly wonderful collection of shells all carefully sorted into blue velvet-covered compartments,  I was allowed to sort them into their different groups and I loved the pale mother of pearl linings of the big ones and the exquisite mouldings of the little ones.   I wanted to add to the collection so we went to Trearddur Bay on Anglesea to pick up cowrie shells on the beach there and I was fascinated to learn that they were used as money in faraway foreign islands.
  When I started furnishing my own house, I left the big box behind to stay in the Welsh family house and tried to find my own shell treasures - they were still around in the more junky antique shops.  I found a pair of decorations made of hundreds of shells to look like a bouquet of flowers under a glass dome and then hunted for the sailors' valentines which were made with a pair of octagonal, hinged, walnut -framed display boxes with wonderful, multi-coloured, mosaic designs and mottoes in the centre saying 'love mee' sic
                                                    Sailor's Valentine from Barbados
 or 'home sweet home' and were sold in Barbados to returning sailors for their wives and sweethearts.   I saw some in smart shops in Sloane Street, London, because by this time it was known that Princess Margaret collected them for her wedding present house in Barbados!  So I rather gave up because they were now several hundred pounds each.  However, by chance, I found a pair in Aberystwyth where the news had not spread, and I was also offered a pair at an antique fair by a visitor who wanted some cash to buy a dolls house and was happy to part with  "these old shells - would anybody want them?" I did, my good luck!  Since then I have added a couple of charming sea-weed pictures from the Isle of Wight and my shell corner is complete.  I don't believe in mass buying and collection, as I like to make a nice arrangement and then leave a few examples for other people to acquire!
"I do like to be beside the sea-side" - two  decorative vases of shell flowers up top, a sea-weed basket from the Isle of Wight and a large Sailor's Valentine with heart centre and a small hinged pair (Home Again) hung from scallop shell hooks which were originally clasps for a dress.  A pair of bracket shelves I found in France already painted in a good gray colour and I found, at a junky bricabrac stall, two small pressed brass scallop shell plaques to stick on them and finish the ensemble.