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    This year my family and I had our first holiday in Brittany in France. Lots of people had told us it was like Cornwall but warmer and quieter. We took the ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff and by the time we disembarked, we were peeling layers off desperately trying to adjust to the sudden rise in temperature. Who knew that a few small miles could result in such a large fluctuation in weather conditions.

    We drove 2 hours down to our lovely cottage in Loc Tudy which is sited on the coast about 20 minutes from Quimper. We'd taken our bikes and Littlest Daughter was happy too as we could cycle to the beach and managed to swim, dig in the sand and collect shells in roaring temperatures. She even got a little sunburn and we were glad of the Calamine lotion DB had packed (along with half a pharmacy although we had failed to pack shorts or flip flops but had plenty of coats and wellies).

    Meanwhile, I headed to the Musee Bigouden in nearby Pont L'Abbe anxious to find out more about the wonderful Breton Coiffe ie: the tall lace head dress which is part of the traditional national costume of the region. I didn't have to go far to find it. Even the walls are covered in lace at Pont L'Abbe


    The museum is an old castle and perfectly suited as a backdrop to all the fantastic costumes on display there. It's full of twisty stone staircases and flagstone floors. I recommend it most highly.


    There were many beautiful Coiffes on display- all hand stitched Broderie Anglaise. This is a method of embroided white work on cotton which is later snipped with sharp scissors to create the lace. I think it is then starched so that it stands up stiffly to form the lovely tall cone shapes. There was a fascinating video playing on a loop that showed an elderly Breton lady arranging her hair into a tight bun on top of her head on which the Coiffe sits. The back of the hair is swept up tidily whilst the front has two ringlets which hang down to frame the face. Everything is held in place with copious pins and hair spray


    There were also beautiful men's tunic's all hand embroidered with brocade swirls in the distinctive Breton Orange colour which is seen everywhere. I was priviledged to visit Le Minor which is an atelier opposite the museum, famous for the owner's personal collection of traditional Breton Costume. It also sells Broderie Anglais and exquisite needle work produced by local artisans. Again, if you ever visit, I urge you to pop in.


    We visited Penmarch to see the iconic lighthouse, Pharle d'Eckmuhl. Whilst there I happened across a stall with a Breton lady Filet Crocheting and selling her wares. She tells me she is one of a dying breed of artisans. Much of the lace is created by machine now. She also told me the traditional colour of Brittany is the ecruc colour seen here and not white as you might expect.

    Filet crochet is entwined with the region's social history as much as the contract knitters are in ours. Around the same period in history, Breton women were married to fishermen, involved in preparing the herring whilst creating and selling their filet crochet to subsidise their family income. So, there are many parallels and, as ever, it is the social history of these women that fascinates me.


    Filet lace initially was exactly that, needle lace created on filet or net. Women were employed in net making for the fishing industry and soon they began embellishing the net with intricate embroidery. The net was stretched over a frame as in this photo.


    However, when the Irish emigrated to France around the time of the Potato Famine, they brought their own Filet crochet with them alongside iconic motifs like the Rose which is immediately recognisable to those of us who are nerds about these things. The Breton women liked this new technique so much that they immediately adopted it. One assumes that it was far more portable than the frame and thus easy to employ whilst on the go, rather like our contract knitters. Far more profitable if one could keep working on something throughout the day when time allowed. 


    Here is a Breton girl working on a filet lace edging which could be rolled up and popped in her pocket if she needed to be employed in other more mundane tasks. 

    Obviously, I was very inspired and hot footed it to the local Magasin de laine (wool shop) where I parled a petit peu of mangled Franglais to the owner who immediately got the gist of what I was after and was delightful. She sorted me out with a 1.25 mm needle and number 20 crochet cotton, declaring number 30 'trop fine!'. I wiggled off to the local Presse and bought a copy of Le Monde de Crochet and settled down for the night. The result was not good!


    My clog and coiffe wearing days were numbered. My tension was awful! I put it on the shelf until I returned home where my good friend Sioux who is a Filet whizz gave me a fantastic one to one lesson in our scrummy local cafe. She declared my hook and cotton too fine for a beginner and swapped my hook for a 1.5mm and my cotton for number 10 and Voila! What do you think?


    It's a start isn't it! All I can say is the change in weight made all the difference and I have since made a cushion cover and hanging heart and am well chuffed. As ever with needlecrafts, there is always something we can learn from our ancestors. The women of our past continue to teach me something new every day!

    Au revoir until next time. 

    Tina B xxxx

  2. Over the course of time, I have been having more and more customers contact me regarding repair of their old ganseys. This wasn't something I'd considered before although we all know ganseys are practically bomb proof and last forever. But more and more, folk rung with tales of their beloved sweater which was up to 20 years old (!!) that now had holes or worn cuffs etc and could I repair it. Of course they all said they could buy a new one but this was their absolute favourite; an old friend....

    To date I have had three ganseys into the repair shop. The first, from Bristol- an Ann Stewart Campbeltown Gansey which was 10 years old. Could I repair the cuffs and collar? I told him there would probably be some fade between old and new yarn and it may not be perfect but how wrong I was! The Frangipani Dark Navy was practially invisible after the mend apart and apart from the slight sheen of the original body due to wear, it was hard to notice the difference.

    Campbell town pattern


    The second gansey was just a laundry job. This one was 20 years old and pristine apart from a few stains. The original knitter had long since passed away and it's owner was frightened to wash it. A Polperro Seeds and Bars design in grey (probably Poppleton's wool if that's the age of the gansey) with the owners initial knit into the arm gusset on one side and the knitter's initials in the gusset in the opposite side. Beautful work by and expert pair of needles. I gave a bucket of hand hot water a good squirt of Soak and immersed the gansey for half an hour- no agitation! Afterwards, I gently squeezed the excess water and put it in my machine on a woollen spin cycle. Finally, I dried it flat over the course of a few days and then returned to it's owner, fresh as a daisy and looking as if it had been knit only yesterday.

    chest pattern

    My most recent gansey came to me from St Austell. When is a gansey not a gansey? Well this had been knit in wool unknown- a natural breed colour and probably a heavy weight DK/aran yarn. My husband queried whether it was an actual gansey. No arm gusset, wrong wool etc but it still had the well known gansey motifs across the chest- tree of life, cables, seed stitch and a very interesting twisted rib welt detail. This was in a very poor state with the collar, cuffs and lower welt all but disintergrated plus there was a massive darn under one arm which was very crudely executed plus many small holes. However, I love a challenge, especially matching that wool. I said I could repair it but had no guarantees about perfecting a yarn match. The owner was delighted with whatever I could manage as he loved this sweater practically as much as his wife and in fact, rang me several times for progress as he was bereft without it!

     It gave me the perfect opportunity to catch up with Sue Blacker at Blacker Yarns. There's a girl who knows her sheep breeds! We go back a long way, Sue and I- probably about 10 years. I have designed children's wear for Blacker Swan and also contributed to her delicious book, Pure Wool. We had a lovely catch up and Sue literally got all the natural breed yarns out and we debated the best match for the sweater repair. Whenever the colour matched, the yarn type was wrong and whenever the yarn type was perfect, the colour was wrong! It was thought that the Shetland 4 ply in Mid Grey and Fawn would work the best if I knit both strands together. Couldn't have done it without you Sue, so a big thank you.

    Sue Web

    Got a chance to say hello to illustrator, Katie Green, their newest member of staff too and she was wearing a very gorgeous fair isle sweater designed by herself and using Blacker yarn of course!

    Katie Green

    Back home, I charted the rib pattern successfully and played with Sue's yarn plus a few balls of my own stash. I then reknit the collar and cuffs and then came to the lower welt. I could have knit the welt in the round, cut the old one off and grafted the two together but you know what?-  Kitchener stitch and I, are not great bedfellows, so I decided to cut off the welt, pick up the stitches and knit downwards. It worked well and I was happy. The shades were not perfect but good enough and our man knew the deal about this so I wasn't too worried.




    I darned the holes and then came to the massive patch under the arm. It had been crudely darned and to be honest there wasn't much of any of the old fabric left at all here so I decided to use swiss darning to embroider over the top to make things more attractive and substantial. It worked out quite well I think but it's never an exact science. Our man was delighted to have his gansey back and it did give me a warm fuzzy feeling inside to reunite them both. (Photos show cuffs after reknit and hole under arm before repair)

    Finally, Cornwall had a brand new yarny fair called Cornwoolly and I was dlighted to take The Cornish Gansey Company on the road and take part. It was held at Heartlands near Redruth and was extremely busy from start to finish despite the appalling weather and relentless rain. It was so successful that Sue Stewart of Pipps & Co (a fabulous local shop supplying spinners, weavers, felters, dyers, knitters and crocheters) who organised it all is hoping to run more and perhaps expand it. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed the event and meeting lots of lovely fellow crafters and will certainly be on board for more.


    Happy knitting

    Tina B xxx