Raison d'etre

I am enthusiastic about home design and love French antique and vintage treasures.

This blog is about the things I find and use.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Cleaning Antique & Vintage Linens

Some old fabrics are remarkably strong and resilient and can put up with washing in a machine but some are more fragile and require gentler laundering.  Each piece needs assessing before you start.

Whites  - bed linen, tea cloths, napkins, chemise etc. 

1.  These will benefit from a long soak in cold water to begin with - overnight at least..  I use a large bucket - or a bath for large sheets.  Soaking opens up the fibres and renders later washing more effective.

2. If very discoloured - for example there may well be brown marks along the folds if they have been stored for a length of time - then I will wring them from the cold water soak and put them in a bucket of hot in which a scoop of Vanish OxiAction has been dissolved.  Again, leave overnight.
 3. Wash in a machine with Persil non-bio (or your choice of detergent) at 90 degrees.  This should only be done if you are sure the fabric is strong.  I have not yet lost or damaged an item with this method.
 4. Dry outside in the fresh air on a washing line.
 5. For further whitening hang out while still quite wet (not spun too much) on a hot sunny day or a cold frosty night.  It is remarkable the bleaching effect this has.  I don't use other bleach because it can weaken the fabric and should not be necessary.
Note: Rust stains - I use a French product called Rubigine-Anti-Rouille, it is the only really effective rust remover I have found and the results are magical.  It is freely available in French supermarkets so, if you can, buy some when in France.  It is important to follow the instructions to the letter!
Again it is vital to judge the strength and condition of the fabric and not subject it to strong treatment if it appears fragile in any way.
1..First soak in cold water
2.  I will use the Vanish stage if I think the fabric is colour-fast.  If you have a smaller piece of the same fabric, or can test a hidden part, then dab on a little solution and leave to see if the colour runs or fades. 
I once soaked a piece of vivid blue toile and was horrified when I looked in the water to see the blue colouring had completely disappeared and all that remained was a faint design on a cream background!  That has only happened once though!
Many (perhaps most) French 20th century fabrics, and some 19th century, are colourfast but some are not.  I have found that blues can be particularly fugitive.
 3.  Wash by hand in tepid water using a gentle liquid for woollens such as Stergene or Woolite
 4.  Rinse well several times in tepid water.
 5. Wrap in a towel and squeeze gently to remove as much water as possible.
 6. Dry in the open air but avoid full sun.
Heavy or Large Items - quilts, hangings etc.

I prefer not to have these dry cleaned.  The chemicals used can be quite destructive.  However, in one place I lived there was a wonderful dry cleaner - not one of the chains who just take in cleaning and are not well versed in the art.  If I took something to this dry cleaner she would assess the fabric and determine the best way to tackle the job, adjusting the chemicals used to get the best results.  Of course, having it done at all was at my risk but she never failed to come up trumps!  Unfortunately that was several house moves ago and, sadly, I have not found anyone approaching her level of expertise since.  Consequently when I am buying something I assess whether I can clean it myself - if in doubt I don't buy.
1. Prepare a bath of warm water with the recommended amount of Orvis Quilt Soap (see below).
2. Press up and down on the fabric to force the cleaning water through it
 Leave for several hours.
3. Drain the bath and press the fabric to expel as much dirty water as possible
4. Rinse several times, draining the water and pressing the fabric each time.  When the water runs clear with no suds place a clean sheet under the quilt and lift out of the bath.  It will be heavy and care should be taken to ensure no unnecessary strain is placed on it.
5.  If possible dry flat - outside on a lawn or other suitable area is ideal - using the sheet underneath.  Another sheet can be placed on top to prevent anything falling on the quilt. or risk the danger of fading if exposed to bright sunlight. Given the uncertain nature of the weather in the UK I have used a thick polythene sheet laid on the floor of a spare bedroom and arranged the sheet and quilt on top.
6.  Ensure the quilt is completely dry before folding and storing - damp will encourage mildew.
Cleaning an antique quilt is a labour of love!
Orvis Quilt Soap - I haven’t found this in a retail shop in the UK but it is readily available through quilting web sites.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Books.. and Magazines

I'd like to mention several publications which I have found both interesting and useful over the years and hope you will too.  Apart from more specialist works which will be described in later posts, there are some excellent interiors-type books within which you can see antique and vintage French items used to enhance the character of real interiors.

A series of books by American author and designer Betty Lou Phillips contain a wealth of pictures combined with intelligent and informative text.  I think there are nine or more in the series. The one I bought first was The French Connection and another is Quintessentially French available from Amazon - or your local  library should be able to obtain them through inter-library loan if they don't already have them in stock.  On a rainy afternoon there is nothing better than curling up on the sofa and leafing through books like these.  Not only do you see things used within a context but can plan new uses for your finds or make a mental list of what to look out for.

Another book which I found only recently is Antique French Textiles for Designers by June K.Laval which gives a basic history of French textiles from the Middle Ages to Art Deco and also ideas on how to use them in traditional and contemporary design.

Many English magazines such as Interiors, Period Living and 25 Beautiful Homes, among others, frequently have articles on French interiors.  And then there are French journals:
These I highly recommend.  They are obtainable in some parts of the UK but if you are going to France then Brittany Ferries certainly has them in the on-board shop as, I think, does P&O.   They can also be found in airpot terminals and are readily available in French supermarkets and paper shops.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Searching for finds in France

From the puces (flea markets) of Paris - especially those of the Porte de Vanves (my favourite) and Clignancourt - to antiques markets (brocantes) in Chartres, Le Mans, Bordeaux, Lille, Montpellier and all places in between, the wealth and variety of goods on offer is astonishing.  Then there are the local fairs and, in summer, the vide greniers (much like our car boot sales but more interesting - although I am prejudiced here!.   With a careful eye and good haggling skills it is possible to find things to suit every budget.  This is one local brocante I have visited regularly in the summer:

I once bought a suitcase full of extremely brown and dirty 19th century children’s dresses from a brocante.  Despite their filthy condition I could see they had delicious frills and lace and wonderful embroidery.  Buying them was a gamble because I had no idea whether I could return them to pristine whiteness.  However, I did and they were the most lovely I have found.  In a later post I’ll share with you how I have learnt to launder and clean old textiles.
Getting around is easy because of the excellent autoroutes. Far fewer vehicles than on our overcrowded motorways means they are a dream to drive on.  It really is worth paying the toll fees!  With more time to meander you can, of course, use the A roads without a charge.  However, getting up at three in the morning to drive a couple of hundred miles to a brocante the autoroute is my choice.  As for Paris I favoured the train which only took an hour in the TGV - no good for buying anything large or heavy though.
Train your eye to look and look, each time thinking how you will use whatever your interest alights on.  Of course, sometimes you just have to buy something but don’t have a clue what use you can make of it - don’t worry - the solution will come in time.  I bought a pile of old sheets on one occasion - they always seem to come in piles - if they are for sale singly and wrapped in cellophane I know the price will be high and avoid them - why pay for someone else’s laundering skills when you can do it yourself?  Much more fun anyway to resurrect what seems a lost cause.  Thus it was with the linen sheet I used as a curtain in my French bedroom.  That was one of the pile and turned out to be pure linen, which drapes divinely, and had a huge white embroidered monogram.  From the rest of the heap at least six of the sheets (draps) were fine and useable while another three were torn but the ends with lace and/or monogram were sound so they could be cut and used for many a project.

I have a penchant for ecclesiastical antiques - mainly because they are high quality and most of those found are 19th century with its richness of historical references from Renaissance to Gothic to Baroque and Rococo.  In the picture of the brocante above there is a pair of pique cierge (pricket candlesticks) on the ground.  I have always loved these and use some as intended but have turned others into lamps.


Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.  William Morris
My sister, who is an artist, accompanied me one year and took the opportunity to create paintings from the places we visited.   There is a great antiques market in Poitiers on a Friday just by the cathedral - Sheila's painting of flower sellers in the cathedral square can also be seen on the archived works page at http://www.sheilamburyartist.com/ - see link in sidebar - along with other French paintings.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Linens & Textiles

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I have a passion for old French linens and textiles.  I use large bistro tea towels (torchons) in the kitchen - these often bear embroidered initials in the corner and are the best drying cloths I have found.
Antique linen torchons with monogram
Antique linen, cotton and metis (a mix of linen and cotton) sheets can be used as curtains as I have in the picture of the French bedroom.  I look for those with large monograms - usually embroidered in white or red - and hang them simply from a curtain pole with the embroidered end over the rail to form a valance.  This won't draw of course and looks best on long windows.  Alternatively you can use French brass clips which have a toothed grip - see below - which will draw.  Simplicity is the key I think - let the fabrics speak for themselves.

Old brass curtain clips - hinged and with toothed grips
There is a wonderful book I have had for years - The Book of Fine Linen by Francoise de Bonneville.  The illustrations are to die for!  Embroidered linens folded in an old armoire; delicious piles of whiter than white frilled, lace-trimmed and embroidered table cloths and napkins and dreamy lace curtains fill the pages.  The old carved walnut armoire with shelf upon shelf of white sheets, cloths, towels and frilled knickers is the one I aspire to! There is another image that sticks in my mind - that of a group of nuns 'pulling' sheets.  I remember as a child doing this with my mother.  We took barely damp sheets from the line and, taking an end each, pulled them to take out creases before folding them for ironing.  Does anyone still do that?

Even damaged cloths can be used.  The embroidered ends of sheets which are past using on a bed can be transformed into laundry bags, cushion covers and whatever else your imagination leads you to.
Unfortunately Francoise de Bonneville's book is rather expensive on Amazon at the moment so a search of second hand bookshops or ordering through your library are useful options.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Chic - or just shabby?

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That oh-so-outworn phrase 'shabby chic' will, after this first post, not be mentioned again! I don't believe that painting an old dresser and 'distressing' it makes it anything other than shabby - certainly not chic.  There's no reason why you shouldn't paint it of course but do it well - perhaps add painted decoration in that old French manner.  Over time it will receive knocks and bumps, the paint will become rubbed and it will take on an aura of being aged - because it is!
Everything was new once.  If you look, for example, at some old textiles - when new the colours were vibrant and brash but the effects of time and light have transformed them into softer tones infinitely easier to live with.
Anyone can go out and buy the latest thing, it takes more thought to look for those older pieces loved throughout time which fit comfortably into your home and don't stand out in their brash newness.
From My French Window
Such thoughts are useful to me because I neither desire - nor can afford - the latest whatever and I reap much, much, more pleasure in finding an object which other people have used and loved - and even adapted - as I probably will - to fit into their surroundings.

Antique French Garden Furniture in an
 English Courtyard
My French Bedroom with Antique Doll and Bear
and Linen sheet used for a Curtain