Melanie Falick is one of the most well-traveled crafters we know. As part of her work as an author and editor, Melanie traveled extensively in 2016. We are thrilled to present Melanie’s account of an enchanted two weeks learning new making skills in France last summer. It’s a “Calgon, take me away” reverie like no other.
—Kay and Ann
These frosty, dark days of January seem designed for quiet, cozy activities like knitting, reading—and reminiscing about summertime. And so this morning I am armchair-traveling back to Chateau Dumas in sunny southwestern France.
The Story of Chateau Dumas
Londoner Lizzie Hulme purchased this 18th-century chateau on more than twenty acres of rolling farmland in 2006, to create what she dreamed of for herself: a special place to visit for exceptional craft classes, delicious meals, casually luxurious accommodations, and warm, first-rate pampering. After hearing about the chateau from Julie Weisenberger of Cocoknits, a veteran Chateau Dumas instructor, I happily signed up for two classes in August: Shibori with Indigo taught by Jane “Cally” Callender and Thread and Thrift: Fabric Collage with Mandy Patullo. I flew from New York to Toulouse, then caught the chateau shuttle for the one-hour drive north, traversing miles of the region’s sweeping farmland, to the small village of Auty.
I arrived in the rose-colored chateau’s courtyard and it was love at first sight. My room was on the second floor, just above the front entry, and each time I walked up the wide stone staircase or peered out my window onto the idyllic scenery before me, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a little girl in a fairy tale or Juliet awaiting her beloved Romeo. In the evening I would open the windows and shutters to peer up at the star-speckled sky and welcome the breeze and, in the morning, before I rose from bed and closed the windows and shutters to block out the day’s heat, I would spend a few minutes listening to the birds tweeting and, as others began to stir, to the comforting, soft crunch of footsteps on gravel below.
No Idle Hands
During Week 1, Cally taught our group of ten women from the United States, England, Ireland, and Australia many different ways to stitch, fold, bind, and dye fabric with indigo.
I was an absolute beginner, but by the end of the week I had created about ten different designs, including two “plaid” fabrics of which I am especially proud.
During Week 2, Mandy taught a slightly larger group of women a variety of ways to collage, embellish, and assemble fabric, much of it repurposed from worn vintage textiles. We started by hand-stitching fabric fragments onto bases of bump (a curtain interlining fabric that is a good foundation) and vintage French linen.
Next we worked on several different kinds of books, including concertina-style and books made by stitching cloth pages into old leather wallets. Fabric collage became a relaxing form of aesthetic expression and storytelling.
Day Trips and Woad
Workshops at Chateau Dumas generally run a week, Saturday to Saturday. Classes are held in the carriage house studio from about 9 to 4:30 each day, with breaks for lunch and morning and afternoon coffee or tea, plus the occasional field trip or dye day.
I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the nearby village of St. Antonin Noble Val for the bustling—and picturesque—Sunday market.
And I loved woad-dyeing day. Woad is a natural plant dye native to southwestern France. Local expert Denise Lambert regularly captivates guests with her lecture about its science and history, and the wondrous shades of blue it bestows. And then the group hits the vats.
Dyeing at Chateau Dumas takes place in the “fairy ring,” a clearing in the woods just up a small hill from the carriage house. Both weeks I was there the group began tentatively, slowly nudging their cloth into the vats with long wooden poles, but before long nearly everyone caught “woad fever”: a collective gaiety and an urge to dye everything in sight. That might be vintage linen, a lace remnant, or garments from home or picked up at a local brocante (flea market) or St. Antonin, a pair of sneakers, even a lock of hair. (Woad is not permanent on hair, Denise assured us.)
While Lizzie makes sure the curriculum for each workshop is full, guaranteeing that everyone has the chance to learn a lot, the overall vibe is always laid back. The meals, mostly shared at a long table on the terrace or in the dining room, are delicious, informal affairs. And there is plenty of time to relax—or to work after hours in the studio or anywhere else on the property.
If I had to choose just one word for my experience at Chateau Dumas, it would be “bliss.” Spending two weeks in a beautiful place, learning new handwork skills, making friends, and being served delicious meals. For me, summer vacation doesn’t get much better than that. Nor does wintertime reminiscing.