Monday, 7 September 2020

The art of Passementerie

I'd like to introduce you to a little-known industry where artisanship, creativity and beautiful materials combine to enliven historic buildings and homes or contemporary appartments, museums and fashion. 

Passementerie consists of ribbons, bobbins, tassels, fringing and braids. It's an old industry that survives to this day in Europe. I first started to appreciate it while visiting chateaux in France and Royal residences in England.  

Any passementiers in the 1600s were French Protestant Huguenots who, on being forced to flee France due to religious persecution, took their skills and tools with them, thus transforming the skill base available in London. 

Today, there are at least three major businesses in Paris still manufacturing these exquisite 3D objects and trims and other businesses in other locations. Multiple contemporary uses and the renovation of historic buildings means there is a demand for these products. Much of the work is done by hand, as well as using looms and other mechanical devices.

I discovered an order book of passementerie in Millers Home Centre, Christchurch, while I was in the throes of designing the interiors of my new home under construction in 2018. Curtain tiebacks (embrasses) were priced at around $120 each. Hmm, I hesitated. Yes it is pricey but they had to be ordered from Paris and the workmanship and detailing was outstanding. I waited a couple of months while considering various decor options.  

I went back to Millers but couldn't find the book. I was informed they would no longer order in as volumes were too low. I had left my decision to proceed too late. Instead, I had to make do with the cheap and nasty stuff available from Millers. Mass-produced in Asia at $15 each, and they look it. Sigh! I had the same problem trying to find trim for reupholstering two antique French armchairs. No retailer had anything suitable. My upholsterer had a very limited choice but we did manage to choose a trim that could match the fabric.

While in France I would come across situations where passementerie had been essential decoration in the past: fringing and tassels for royal carriages and hearses, decorations for horse bridles and carts, curtain decoration, lampshades, bed and cushion decoration, upholstery, fashion accessories, jewelery. The Victorians loved tassels and bobbles and these items were widely used in NZ up until around 1916 when they fell out of favour and were associated with 'stuffy old things'. There is currently a resurgence as fashion houses use more and more of these exquisite decorations to distinuish their designs.

Their manufacture is interesting and I include the link to videos you can watch. No wonder the 'real macoy' is expensive but worth it. 

And this guy was voted best artisan 2011- lovely work

First up is research for the different materials needed for each order. The threads are grouped by width and quality, in appropriate color tones and according to use. If the dyed material cannot be found in existing stock, the raw materials are dyed. After dyeing, they are spooled.

The next step is preparation of the threads on the loom. If the item is composed of decorative ornaments, these are prepared with le retordeur, the mechanism for twisting threads.

Some materials are destined for the mechanical loom: first carefully threaded onto the loom as the pattern requires. The mechanical loom enables the creation of ribbons, braids and bullion fringes.

Still other materials are destined for the work-table, where items are assembled by hand without the use of looms: for example tassels, complex gimps.

The last step is the production itself: weaving on a Jacquard mechanic loom, hand weaving or at the handwork table. 

You can buy quality work online and see examples on eBay and Amazon. There are heaps of photos on Pintarest. You can also teach yourself to make simple tassels via YouTube. You'll be learning a whole new vocabulary too.

The photos are those I have taken to show you some ways passementerie is used. They include from sites such as Versailles and Fontainebleau. Queen Elizabeth wouldn't let us take photos inside Windsor Castle to show off English versions.


Monday, 24 August 2020

Solving an urban drainage problem

When you buy a new section in a swanky new development you expect you will get a safe place to live with a useable section. The terrain is flat and grassed. T1 ground, so not prone to liquifaction during earthquakes and too far from the sea for tsunamis. It's a town known for good drainage and you think, " Well,  it should be good for gardening." 

The covenants are onerous and owners are expected to spend quite a bit of money on landscaping to increase the amenity of the subdivision.  Council charges high rates for the privilege of living in Selwyn. The general area was a farm. My part of the subdivision used to be, I have discovered, an orchard.

Since late 2018 the back half of my section has been getting progressively damper, to the point of serious surface flooding. A large part became totally unusable. All my plants had died and it was impossible to get a trowel in to dig out weeds. Each time it rained I felt incredibly stressed as the water crept across my section, rotting my raised beds and compost bins.

Clearly, the soil would not drain. One neighbour wasn't having problems such as this but the other was, though to a much lesser extent. They had lost trees and plants too, tried to dig out their beds to a depth of 1m and replace the shitty soil with compost but to limited good effect. What to do? 

I went in person to the Selwyn District Council to see what the problem could be and what to do about it. At first they did not want to deal with it, telling me to simply send an email with some photos. Yeah, right! Knowing I would be fobbed off if I did that I stood my ground and asked to speak to an engineer. Eventually, after a bit of nervousness on council staff's part they agreed. After a wait, a stormwater engineer spoke with me saying Council don't give advice and that anything on my section is MY problem. They only care about what's on the street. I pointed out there was clearly a problem with my section and the council was in partnership with the developer. I also pointed out I am a pensioner with everything I have, sunk into my home. Could there be a problem relating to the sewer crossing my property? The engineer said he would get back to me.

Later that day I was pleased to see a council contractor drive up to take a look. He agreed it was not normal but we could not smell effluent. He felt the ground was the problem, as did I, but he decided he would check the sewer manhole further down the road to see if levels had dropped. I did not hear back from Council for 10 days so I rang and left a message. It was not returned. Clearly, they had only shown some interest in case a public health scandal was looming. Yet again I had to go in and front up. Not good enough SDC. The engineer said he had been too busy to get back to me or return my call. I told him I paid my rates and had worked for a council in the past so I understood all about service. It was better service where I had worked than what I was receiving from SDC, that you do NOT just ignore a ratepayer or customer. It takes little effort to send a quick email to say exactly when I could expect info. He then said he would send me an email regarding the matter. He never did.

With yet more rain falling in winter I was getting desperate, worried for my plants and expensive landscaping so I contacted the subdivision developer (but not the person I had had such unpleasant dealings with during the possum affair). I was pleased he took my problem seriously and he sent a couple of employees around to check it out. They agreed it was not normal and not my fault. They took pictures and it all seemed like a useful and productive meeting. They would discuss and find a solution.

They came back a few days later with a slightly different attitude, looking for a way out of what was clearly their responsibility. They admitted the ground was not good quality but said I must take some responsibility for the problem. You what? Well, apparently they had now decided it was the fault of my lawn. 

They had looked online and found the manufacturer and the description that said when laid it would help germination by conserving 30% of the humidity applied at the time. With spades and crowbars they started digging parts of my lawn up to prove a point. I was shocked and not convinced. What I saw was good root growth and a lot of impermeable soil underneath.

I contacted the lawn manufacturer to let him know what was being said about his product. He was shocked and gobsmacked. They've been in business many years, have never had a drainage problem because it's a biodegradeable product which disappears within months once it is laid. Still, I felt shaken, having to now defend my lawn which couldn't drain because the soil underneath could not absorb water, water could not flow away. 

Eventually the developer agreed to remediate the drainage after a friend had put me in contact with the Council Development Engineer via a roundabout route. (see, it's who you know) He was very familiar with the development, of course, very nice and popped over to take a look. He told me what could help the drainage. I wrote a detailed instruction and drew a diagram for the developer to plan the repairs. Small modifications to the relocation on my compost bins were necessary to avoid digging down and distrubing the sewer (there's an easement above it).

A hydrovac machine arrived behind the back of my property. A big sucky truck and waterblaster were used to break up the compacted ground, rocks, silt and clay. It was a hell of a job, even for that machine. It took hours longer than planned as my section was full of tree roots. Clearly the development contractor had not prepared my section properly, scaped the shit off the other sections in my street and dumped it and compacted it on my lot. The soil used was clay and silt with rocks, not at all what should have been laid down. There's nothing I can do about that but I am so disappointed.

I do appreciate that the developer has tried to give some drainage relief because I do not have the resources to try to fix something that should never have happened. They found a solution (proposed by the council development engineer) to cause the least damage to my urban property as machinery cannot access my section now.

A trench was dug, a narrow soakpit constructed. Filter fabric was laid around novacoil drainage pipe to be set and connected to a perforated pipe in the middle of the soakpit. The pipe in the soakpit has a lid so it could be inspected in future or silt sucked out if neccessary. They had to go down 2m to get past the hard pan and would have liked to go deeper but the rocks in the bottom were too big for the hydrovac to remove.

Fine gravel was then tipped in followed by larger gravel. I was told I would not be getting gravel that matched my paths alongside as it was too expensive. It's ugly as hell that part of my section, but at least the trench drains. Twenty centimeters away from it the soil does not drain, of course, so I will always have a problem, though lessser than what it has been. 

They have screwed plywood to the bottom of my compost bins to stop soil getting into the gravel. OK but useless for a compost bin so a neighbour has drilled holes in the bottom and I have laid weedmat to stop soil working down into the gravel and trench, yet allowing rainwater to drain away. The Council engineer had said I could not plant anything in the gravel nor have a raised bed on top. The council development engineer never replied to my project report and photos and request for  confirmation that what had been suggested and done was OK. Folks tell me Council will be distancing itself from my problem.

Through no fault of my own I cannot use part of my section as I would like. It was supposed to be a bushwalk. Now it just resembles the Waimakariri riverbed with sludge sprayed all over my fences and veges. I need to find a way to make it more aesthetic. Money, money.

Waterblasting does not remove the sludge so I have had to buy paint to repaint my fences. Part of my lawn has been destroyed. It's disappointing. It could have been worse but should have been better. Thank goodness the developer pitched in. I hope they have learnt something but they insisted to the end my lawn was to blame though parts nearby not in grass are still sopping wet. I can see I will have to do more drainage work myself in future, to save my potager beds.

It's hard on your own as a pensioner to deal with powerful organisations and businesses who may or may not want to play fair. It's really stressful and you always have to stick to your guns as a minimum but that is no guarantee of resolution. I could not have got very far without a little help from those who know 'the system'. I hope those of you with drainage problems find the construction details useful. I also hope past problems with possums and water are the last problems with my section.












Sunday, 2 August 2020

Couchsurfing and Feedback

I came across this record of an almost forgotten meeting which occured near the beginning of my life in France. I was a member of Couchsurfing and it dates from 2010. This encounter occurred just a few weeks after the end of my relationship with a major European gangster/drug dealer/hitman, smuggler and at times loveable rogue. I was sad and lonely and my only social life was limited and online so anyone wanting to visit me was very welcome.

Couchsurfing was popular before Airbnb came on the scene. As its name suggests, you stay at strangers' homes, often sleeping on the couch for free. No money changes hands. You get to experience local living in exchange for maybe cooking a meal or doing some other cultural exchange.

My first experiences of that included a German guy staying with me in Auckland, a French guy who was lovely and spent a couple of nights with me in Pakuranga, and also Frederique G a French lady my age who stayed with me and then reciprocated during my first visit to Paris. It can be a bit hit and miss as it is less locked in than the newer accommodation platforms but you meet interesting, and for the most part nice people. Here is a recollection from me ten year ago and an official online review from Brad who spent time with me during one day and evening.

It's not often you get a chance to see inside the head of someone with whom you have a brief encounter and are permitted to see what they have thought of the time spent meeting you but I have been privileged to have that from Brad. Brad was an American living in Antwerp who visited me in Rambouillet one weekend. I had a great time with him. Here's what he  posted to all the members of (an international group of folks interested in travelling via staying with locals to experience more of a cultural exchange, inexpensively).

"The real reason to visit Rambouillet,
though, isn't on the wiki page so I'll have to tell you myself. The number one reason to visit Rambouillet is Frances Harrison."

"Frances was such a delight to spend time with. She made a wonderful quiche, (well, okay, all she had to do was heat it up - which she did wonderfully after remembering to turn the stove on. The salad was homemade, though!) She gave a delightful tour of the city. (okay, she walked me from the station to her studio, then from her studio to the castle, which was closed until 2pm; then we walked the castle grounds, got a free carriage ride back to the city center; then she took me past Napolean's son's house; then we had a hot chocolate until the castle was open.) and she even organised a castle tour in Frenglish for me!"

"She also got me caught in a small snow storm and we essentially had to walk 1km back in the snowy dark and I would do it all again."

"Frances - (human; female) a wonderful person who is delightful and loves to laugh (often at herself). She takes care to make you feel at home and she enjoys sharing her thoughts and ideas with you (which she probably copyrighted first, so don't even think about stealing them)."

"This jewel is open, has a geeky side, and has a zest for life. (see also: witty; funny; risk-taker; dream-follower; Rambouillet; Yogi Bear)."

"Frances, what would my Saturday in Paris have been without you? The day was like being in a fairy tale and you were the princess (and we even had a white horse!). Thank you so much! I can't wait for a repeat performance."

I was so chuffed to see what Brad had written. It was such a pick-me-up and so appreciated. I'd been blessed to meet several wonderful people since I'd arrived in France and I made sure I got out and created opportunities to meet more, even if I risked meeting people who treated me badly.

... Unfortunately Brad and I never met again. Life  moves on and each of us moves with it. I hope he's living somewhere relatively safe from Covid19. Though officially still a member of Couchsurfing, I have not been active for years, once I lost my appartment in France, but now I'm thinking it might be good to revisit this, even if I'm currently limited only to travellers currently in NZ.

I deeply, deeply miss my old life in France and the unexpected and fascinating experiences you can have in Europe but I have so many wonderful memories and photos. I  enjoy sharing them with you all. I also enjoy looking back on my written recollections because we often forget a lot of details of our lives.