An abbreviated article appears in this seasons The Good Life Magazine.
On a cold, crisp April morning, with numb fingers, two seemingly mad English, with an almost feverish determination, searched for buttons; muscling locals aside to pounce on another matching set, or to accumulate a whole euro bag worth of those lovely cute orange ones. Their fingers became blue, their noses blue and snuffly, but the button search went on and on, till every button had been turned and either discarded or bagged as a treasure found.
The assistant in the shop took the bulging bags and pointed us to the heater unit. We can thaw out there whilst she weighed and tagged them. We shivered and dripped but felt elated. Over 100 buttons – 10 buttons per euro, what a bargain. Never mind what we would do with 100 buttons, it was the elation of finding such a shop in the first place. The shop was Mess Folles De Soeurs, on a corner, almost missed. The boxes are outside, full of buttons, notions and zips. When the rain comes, you get wet, but who cares when you are a button seeker!
Why was the Paris fabric and haberdashery area so overwhelmingly exciting in the first place? Back in the 1980’s finding my banking career was not what I really wanted to do, I walked into a curtain shop – The Curtain Exchange run by Jackie Horsford in North London – and asked for a part-time job. With no experience and no “Kensington education”, I was an outsider, but having the nerve to ask, the Saturday job was mine.
Since those days the curtain exchanges have grown and sadly Jackie is no longer with us, but it was an era in London where making and crafting and interior design boomed. John Lewis had a whole floor dedicated to haberdashery and the fabric was still measured and cut by hand. The Curtain Exchange sold antique second hand curtains – the seller received 60% and the shop 40% of the sale price. Ornate tie backs from French chateau were snapped up very quickly and hefty curtain poles were driven home, sticking precariously out of Citroen and Mini sun-roofs by the well-healed on London.
My next stop was to try and get into International Designer Mary Fox Linton as an intern. Swilling whiskey with a large fat cigar in her hand, she thought I had a nerve to ask, but as I had asked and my portfolio was promising, she couldn’t give me a job but could recommend I go to Elizabeth Eaton in Sloane Square. I went, a lifetime opportunity to work with the best, and I got the job. A runner, poorly paid but in two years I could open my own interior design shop. I went home. Newly married, my husband was not pleased. I turned the job down, and I regretted that decision for the rest of my life. Its sounds dramatic, but I had always loved crafting and design. My parents wanted me to have a City Job, so I became a banker.
Now at fifty, after a long career in finance, re-marrying too, I came to France. Paris got my pulse racing. London haberdasheries had long fallen victim to capitalism and John Lewis offered coffee rather than curtains. The Paris haberdashery area in Montmartre, just below Sacre Coeur IS a revelation. A whole district devoted to fabric, tassels, ribbons, bias-binding, and buttons. A candy store, where choice was endless. My pulse raced, I couldn’t quite take it all in. Boxes on the pavement and on the first floor were labelled “Coupons” – remnants at 1-3 euros. For patch-workers there are packs of little squares at discounts and buttons are sold by weight.
No time to be proud, roll up your sleeves, rummage, get messy and dig deep for those bargains and savour the fabrics – lawns, toiles, wools, jersey, cashmere, silk, gabardine, leather – they are all here and more.
Not for the faint-hearted, if you wish to browse and buy you need a full day with a coffee break mid-way. And where best to start than with the Empire of Dreyfus – Marche Saint Pierre – six floors devoted to inspiring sewers, old-hands and those new to the craft. Here you can compare textures, weights, colour, prices and come home with bolt upon bolt of fabrics or just a few remnants to make a cushion to remind you of Paris.
But before the tour, some history. My other passion is French literature and in particular Emile Zola. Emile Zola wrote a book called “Au Bonheur des Dames” – The Ladies Paradise. The paradise was the Paris fabric quarter and the business and gossip that surrounded it. There is a fabric shop called The Ladies Paradise in the area, but I didn’t have time to visit. But read the book, it’s very informative on the rise and rise of a fabric empire and what created Marche Saint Pierre and its equally large neighbour Tissus Reine. In 1879 two families – Dreyfus and Moline set up shop. They expanded and Marche Saint Pierre became the byword for fabric. Broad beamed wood floors, old cash registers in cubicles where you go to pay are an historic throw-back that remains and makes this place magical. Here I hovered by the assistant who measured and cut, metre rule in hand and large haberdashery scissors to the ready. You have to be quick or another customer might take your place and your fabric, so I lugged two bolts of cotton drill around with me till I could find a cutter.
In the 1930’s Tissus Reine, a more up-market shop came on the scene. Again six floors, the fabrics are more designer and more organized. Here your fabric is cut and held for you. A small hand-written ticket is issued and you queue to pay at an old-fashioned cashier desk. If you buy notions [all those little bits n bobs you need for sewing but can’t recall their name , you are given a basket that you fill, leaving with an assistant, who tots up the whole on a tab, like adding beers to the menu. The cashiers still use the “air” system to send notes to the accounting office – an overhead and in its day pioneering transporting system that send pods of notes across the ceiling and into the offices for counting. I have only seen one in England like this, but long gone.
On the ground floor of Tissus little mannequins are draped in exquisite miniature outfits made from the fabrics available. It is packed with women who it seems have the same enthusiasm as me and the shop is doing a roaring trade. I bought seven different shades of thick cotton drill to make aprons with and a few decorative trimmings. They came in at 16.90euro per metre. On the upper floor is a huger pattern section – Vogue, Butterick included.
I love the old fashioned terrazzo floors here, made from multiple chips of marbles and tile. You could be in the 1950’s with all the hands-on measuring, wooden cabinetry and the bump-bump sound of fabric bolts be turned and measured on cutting tables. Tables are piled high, shelves are everywhere stuffed with pins, bobbins, tape measures, pin cushions, embroidery thread and dedicated button sections – buttons neatly labelled and tubed and not sold in silly packets of four. It’s all by length or weight or individual item price. Take a calculator and a note book, visit all the shops and you start to see who provides the best choice, or quality.
Next MBF Decoration – where I bought an ornate jacquard Belgian fabric. It was too expensive to buy a meter, so I asked for a small sample that included most of the repeat design and once home would either cut-down and use sparingly as a highlight fabric, or photograph and re-print in some way. This piece cost me 60.00 euro, but I felt I would faint if I had to leave it behind! For embellished and heavy-weighted upholstery fabrics, this shop is a must to visit. Ronsard Decors – Les Meruelles De St Pierre – covered all my bias-binding and notions needs.
In between these shops are many, many more. Take a trolley, easier than carrying heavy bags, and weave in and out. Don’t be shy, get stuck in and seek out your dream fabric for home or clothing. There are shops here specializing in leathers, leatherettes and stretchy knits perfect for jumpers.
The day complete, and utterly exhausted, we had to transport this lot back to the hotel room, and rather short-sightedly onto London, as we had come to Paris as a brief mini-break before visiting family. Stuffed into two wheelie bags, we tottered our way back down the cobbled streets towards Place De La Republic and our quaint little apartment set in a little, typically hidden courtyard behind a huge pair of heavy wood doors.
The exchange rate was in our favour last year – before Brexit and I saved money. I also managed to buy better quality fabrics than I could back in England. But it was the fun, the bargain hunting, the joy of finding such an enthusiastic group of French women still sewing that made my day here. And not just older women. Young mothers with children buying pretty dress material too.
Back at my French home our Petit Maison is going to become an atelier, and with a short three hour drive to Paris, the fabric district will become a regular haunt. I want to visit often as I want Paris to stay old-fashioned and artisan. There is a current movement in Paris – New Paris – that is looking back on its creative past. London is losing her identity rapidly and I had to leave.
This place is paradise for a seamstress – Zola was quite right!
For a little technical help, here are a selection of useful sewing words:
Tissu – Fabric
Mercerie – Haberdashery
Bobinne – Bobbin
Aiguille – Needle
Broder – Embroider
Coudre – Sew
Tricoter – Knit
Patron – Pattern
Ruban – Ribbon
Fermeture – Zip
Bouton – Button
Ourlet – Hem