Letter from Paris: La Vie En Crochet
I wrote in my first letter about the carnival of thrills that was getting all my stuff across the ocean. What I haven’t described is dealing with it now that it’s here.
Let me tell you about the apartment.
I am, by great good fortune, in central Paris. I can easily stroll to places I used to think I might never see–the Louvre, for one. Even so, my immediate neighborhood remains resolutely unfashionable and well off the tourist trail. Rick Steves has nothing to say about it. It is noisy, crowded, and labyrinthine. We are hemmed in by boulevards; but our crazy-quilt network of narrow streets, alleys, courts, and passages would still be familiar to the ghost of anyone who lived here before the Revolution.
I didn’t know when I signed the lease that the whole quarter has been associated with textiles and needlework for more than two hundred years. There are sample-making shops and a garment photography studio on the ground floor of my building, with more sample makers just across the courtyard. What’s now my workroom is still marked on the apartment’s official floor plan as a “buanderie,” the word for a space in which clothing was laundered and refurbished, and before the floors were refinished you could still see the scuff marks left by a gang of sewing machines.
The interior is by no means a pristine survival from the late eighteenth century; but when my landlady removed a nasty drop ceiling and several layers of linoleum, she uncovered plaster moldings and herringbone parquet from a renovation that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. She also found the oldest door in the apartment: a low, narrow thing, still hanging on its original bulky hinges, sealed up inside the wall that separates the library from the workroom.
With that door restored, the apartment once again became what is called enfilade or sans couloir, meaning the rooms lead into one another without a corridor (couloir) or hallway. We have the same sort of arrangement in America, of course–our old “railroad” or “shotgun” houses. But my apartment doesn’t go in a straight line, it goes round and round …
… which means that when I misplace my phone or glasses or scissors, which happens six or seven times daily, I can literally walk in circles looking for them.
The windows are enormous, the light is abundant. I’ve never in my life had a space this beautiful to play with. Maybe that’s why I’ve become such a pain in my own ass about furnishing it properly.
A corner of the buanderie, my workroom
William Morris famously said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” That’s a sentiment I’ve always admired, but it’s a short trip from there to becoming a person who asks himself questions like, “Are these drawer pulls Sincere?” and “Does this butter dish express the Real Me?”
Mercerie drawers filled with my collection of antique needlework tools.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that I can’t go terribly far in that direction because, bluntly, I lack the funds. Being a person of modest income means that sometimes you have to buy the table from Ikea whether it speaks to your secret heart or not.
However, when it comes to soft furnishings–linens, cushions, curtains, rugs, and so forth–there arises the possibility of making them myself. Because I can. Because I want to. Because I feel that I must.
It’s madness, but given all the stuffing and plush fabrics and soft yarn lying around, it’s a cuddly sort of madness.
Right now curtains for the workroom are my obsession. I am expressing it through the medium of crochet.* They will be sewn from natural white cotton or linen inset with pieces of filet crochet.
I know some folks have strong negative reactions to filet crochet, much as I do to ripple stitch crochet. I love it, though. It’s something plain, square, and lowbrow that longs to be taken for something elegant, sophisticated, and expensive. Just like me.
For months I was agonizing over which motifs to pick from my embarrassingly deep collection of antique patterns. There are, after all, only two windows to cover.
I stopped agonizing when I realized I didn’t have to choose. The curtains don’t need to be a perfect pair. I’m going to sew and hang the fabric panels, then add filet insertions as I finish them. That means florals and putti and Roman gods and French shepherdesses and art nouveau swags and bunny rabbits and urns and Aesop and whatever the heck else I want are all fair game.
However, this is all I’ve got so far. Gonna take a while.
That’s okay. It took me fifty years to find a place that feels like home. No reason to rush the window treatments.
I’ll write again soon.
*The French word for crochet is “crochet.”