. Our 6 km walk on Thursday to the medieval village of Montpezat-de-Quercy took us past fields of giant upright sunflowers turning their sea of faces to follow the sun. In the middle of the rolling sunny fields, French farmhouses drowsed, cooling behind their blue window shutters. We enjoyed another blue-sky day in a week of wonderful weather. The narrow country road wound about, with quite a bit of uphill, not so much downhill to compensate, and not much room for both us and the occasional passing car. Where trees lined the road, there were signs posted usually saying "reserved for deer hunting" (a highly-regarded rich-in-tradition French sport), but once I noticed a sign indicating an area reserved for truffle hunting.
Montpezat is a protected historic city, due primarily to its remaining 14th-century college and chapel, where the apse is filled with a long 16th-century tapestry relating the 13 temptations and miracles in the life of St Martin. The tapestry hangs unprotected except by the dark, so after depositing our 2 euros to turn on the dim lights, we were rewarded with a close-up view of the intricately woven designs and remarkably well-preserved colors. Our guide related the various temptations, pointing out the devil in many panels, along with the "scribe" who inserted himself often, too, identifiable in his black hat.
. . . taking photos of the chapel on the ramp down from the priest's home . . .
After a refreshing picnic in a small park next to the priest's house (the old priest is retiring and will be the last), we continued our weaving lesson with a visit to the village studio of a retired but still active weaver, Janine Dassonval. She is one of the last remaining practitioners of le basse lice or low-warp horizontal weaving in France. During her career, she told us, she collaborated with French artists like Jean Cocteau, Jean Lurçat, Commère et Volti to transform their paintings into tapestries. Three years older than I, sitting upright at her large floor loom which she warps and wefts herself, Mme Dassonval explained why it can take her over 2000 hours to hand weave and cross over the wool threads to blend a beautiful wall hanging, plus another 200 hours to tie off the loose threads on the back. Her current project is an Aubusson-style tapestry full of soft blues, greens, and earth tones, proceeding from a color enlargement and her drawn cartoon slipped under the threads for placement.
On Wednesday we learned about woad, an ancient blue pigment taken laboriously from the leaves of a local plant. Before indigo changed the market, woad blue was the only blue dye available, the "blue blood" dye of the royals, making the medieval Counts of Toulouse wealthy men and Toulouse, the city they built, a center for dyeing textiles. Only the leaves of the first year's growth yield dye, which makes the plant a weed when it grows wild. After a lengthy extraction process, the dye first turns fabrics yellow, then green, then blue as it oxidizes with exposure to air, all of which made woad dyeing changeable and almost magical.
Dr Denise Lambert, our modern-day woad master, mixed up the woad dye bath in a clearing in Lizzie's woods early in the morning. Soon we were transforming our flea market finds, linen cloths, pieces of lace, hanks of yarn and even straw hats. With Denise's instruction, we all took turns dipping the fabric into the dye bath, poling it down into the vat, wringing it out and watching it turn its colors, then hanging it on the lines to dry. For a deeper blue, we repeated the process. The lines were filled and refilled with various glorious deepening blues as they glowed against the green forest.
Above, Lisa's tie-dye shirt for one of her twins, one of the stamped cloths we made in Rowena's studio, Kaari's embroidered trim, my one flea market sleeve (to be used in an altered project).
In the center, an embroidered tablecloth I couldn't resist turning blue.
One interesting side note: The leftover woad dye baths, when the color wore thin, were used to dye the local medieval farm shutters and doors, not just for the lovely color, but because the leaves are a natural preservative and pesticide that treated the wood.
Post note: Drs. Denise and Henri Lambert have an interesting story of researching the blue color they found on an 18th-century find at a flea market, collaborating for years with chemists at U de Toulouse, finding by chance at another flea market the diary of Napoleon's chemist, and spending more years working to revive this craft and finding their niche in preparing haute couture fabrics. In Lectoure you can visit their workshop and gallery. He even drives a woad-dyed Jaguar. AND -- Kaari and Lizzie are planning another week at the Chateau next summer (2010). Lizzie already bought her own large tub for the woad dye bath, and I'm sure she's planning on offering woad day again. So keep checking Kaari's blog.
. On our fourth day at the Chateau, we trekked to the nearby medieval city Cordes sur Ciel, perched high on a rocky promontory that allowed its fortified long view of the surrounding valleys. Sometimes it even has its head literally in the clouds. Built in 1222 by the Count of Toulouse, a Cathar heretic, and with many 13th and 14th gothic homes still preserved inside the fortified walls, the town of Cordes ("rocky heights") was renamed in 1993 to reflect its romantic appeal to artists and tourists. On our walk uphill, we visited the printing studio of textile artist Rowena Maybourne, tucked in a narrow 13th-century house with her main studio up the winding stairs on the 3rd floor.
For atmosphere, here are some of my photos from our uphill walk on narrow worn cobblestone streets to the town center at the top -- flowers blooming everywhere, wonderful juxtaposed textures of old stone and weathered wood, ubiquitous shuttered windows. The vivid blue sky was somehow, unfortunately, too ethereal for my camera. But if you visit my new friend Cathy Mogull's blog, you'll see some great photos there of the whole week.
Even where stone wall meets stone walk, there's usually a bit of flowering garden.
Finally, up to the town center inside the town's walls, where our sculpted greeter waited just outside one of the main gates. By appointment, we ate lunch in a restaurant specializing in a medieval menu, quite tasty, served with spoon and knife only, no devil's fork. Then a little shopping was followed by the trek back down the hill.
Old sewing machines lined up in the leather shop where Cathy bought her soft green suede boots.
Flowers carved from wood, then perfumed, were light enough for me to buy a big bouquet to fill a glass urn at home.
Leaving town, we stopped at a couple more small antique shops, where I noticed this old brocante wagon waiting its revival. .