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).


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