Change of Rhythm

We’re back to the time of year when the sun rises when we do!

July and August are always busy months for us at the Maison Conti, but this year they were particularly intense. Of course everyone wanted to get out of town and most of them were headed straight to the beach. Our house is conveniently just about halfway along most of our clients’ trajectories. We generally work seven days a week from morning to night trying to keep up with the comings and goings of our guests. The work is quite physical. Of course each year I get a little older and this year I really noticed the physicality of muscling large quilts around and carrying huge stacks of laundry and dishes. In fact I pulled something in my right shoulder one day while stripping the bed linens and I am still in pain.

September, however, brings with it a real sigh of relief. For one thing the weather cools way down, and for another the clients arrive in smaller numbers and less often. It gives me some time to focus on other things and to spend more hours in the atelier.

I hadn’t done any of my usual cyanotype projects or eco-dyeing this summer. During this last week I rectified that.

My favorite material to work on, for any of these mark-making activities is silk. It takes the colors so beautifully. I happened to have a few little pieces left over from my wall hanging project completed last spring, and I painted one of them with the photosensitive concoction used to make a cyanotype exposure. The chemicals, when painted on paper or fabric, must be left to dry in the dark before the support can be used.

When the silk had dried over night, I arranged some flowers on it, clamped it into a glass frame and brought it outside to be exposed in direct sunlight.

It takes about 10 minutes for the exposure to be complete. I then developed the image in running water for another 10 minutes. I love the way the flowers turned out looking almost like x-rays. The parts exposed to the sun turn blue.

My next activity was to do a little rust dyeing. I have lots of rusty objects which make interesting red patterns on fabric or paper if left in contact for a few days. I used a piece of cotton, a piece of netting and one of silk. I wrapped them in different ways. I spray the rusted object and the fabric with a mixture of 1/2 vinegar, 1/2 water, put them in tight contact with a rusty object, cover them in plastic, so they don’t dry out too quickly, which I hold down with river stones, and simply wait 2 or 3 days for the rust to do its magic.

I have a beautiful decorative object I got at a local antique store which I have tried using for mark making before, with limited success. but this time, when I took the plastic off, my piece of silk, which I had laid over it, was very richly rusted. Again, I think the silk itself is the special ingredient, since the cotton fabric I used on another rusty object, wasn’t nearly so affected.

The front of the silk, on the left, almost looks photographic. The back, on the right, is even darker. I found that curious.

Next up was to do a little eco-dyeing, using flowers from the terrace. I had intended to use the rust dyed fabric as the base for the eco-dyes, but since the silk was so deeply rusted, I couldn’t and didn’t want to use that piece. The net fabric failed, as the rust washed out completely when I rinsed it, but the cotton was rusted only around the edges, so it was perfect for my experiment.

I liked the result very much. The rust adds a color you don’t usually get from a plant and the purple petunias, which make a fairly strong purple impression once dyed into the fabric, look good with it.

Another piece of cotton, not rusted, was eco-dyed using Virginia Creeper and some little bright pink flowers we have in our planter this year. I don’t know what they are. They almost look like little begonias or perhaps malvia. They turned out to release a blue color.

Ah! The mysteries of plant dyes. The results are always a surprise. I haven’t found too many species of plants that I can rely on for the results I want. I prefer plants that leave a strong impression of their shape.

The one thing my experiments convinced me of is that working with silk is my preference. Why screw around? I sent off for a nice piece of my favorite satin silk, from my favorite online vendor, Ma Petite Mercerie. A package arrived yesterday presented, as always, so beautifully and, as always, included a piece of Carambar which Rick does appreciate.

Speaking of wonderful things arriving in the mail, this week I got a letter from my son who lives in California. He sent it on March 17th. It only took 5 months and a week to get to me! Inside were some spring flowers and they were in amazingly good condition, dried and pressed to perfection. I really enjoy looking at them.

The last thing I have to share for the week is a gift given to us by our dear friend Nelly the last time we saw her a few weeks ago. She is the master of old papers and old paper markets. I have been the grateful recipient of many of her historic documents. On one of her recent expeditions she found a very old map of our departement, la Sarthe, and she bought it for us.

This is a marvelous object, obviously handcrafted, dated 1836. The cover is made of some kind of thick paper that feels lusciously soft, almost felt-like. The map inside has been cut into nine sections and carefully mounted so that the user could fold up the map and take it with them. It is a road map in origin, but for roads with horses, carts and carriages, not cars. Someone has gone to the trouble of adding their own elaborate cover, presumably to preserve it for strenuous use. The label on the outside is lettered in that beautiful old fashioned script and then cut by hand, obviously, as the shape is not symmetrical, and pasted onto the cover. And why label the map “Sarthe” at all? Unless this was not the owner’s local area? There was meticulous effort extended to make the map durable/portable, suggesting to me that the map users were on a pursuit, not just a one-time journey. And what were they after? It is a mystery. There are little handwritten notes sketched on the top right, bottom left and middle right. They are mostly faded, or erased and difficult to decipher. At least some of them are directions. Some red route lines have also been added by hand to the map, to show that the users were going somewhere special, doing something important. A few red “x”s are also scattered here and there, some in the middle of nowhere, looking, for all the world to my imaginative mind, like spots to hunt for buried treasure. “X” marks the spot. Montmirail was not one of the places they seemed to be interested in, but I do want them, whoever they were and wherever they’ve gone, to know that we value their map very much, and are thinking and wondering about them!

Eco-Dyeing on Silk

I had quite a lot of plant material left over from our holiday, including two generous bouquets of flowers; roses, mimosas, daffodils. I dried many of them, as I discovered last year to my surprise that one can still extract color from dry plants. Some of the fresh flowers and leaves, however, became subjects for silk eco-printed pieces I have been creating over the last two weeks. I was able to make so many prints of various sizes, that when sewn together (using some pieces done over the last year), I had a large quilt of about 3 X 5′.

Silk is wonderful to dye with, but a bit of a pain to sew with. It’s hard to make everything square, but Rick, who is very meticulous with such things, helped me make a good rectangle.

The way the eco-dyeing process works is that you soak the fabric in a basin of water which has a couple of tablespoons of both alum and washing soda. This is an effective mordant for the silk (or cotton and paper, for that matter). The plants are soaked in a bath of half vinegar and half water. Just a few minutes of soaking both for the fabric and plants is sufficient. Before arranging the plants onto the silk fabric, I take the plant pieces out of the vinegar water and dip them into a bath of iron water (made by soaking rusty nails in vinegar and water for a month or so). The fabric is then rolled tightly around a stick or a bottle and tied with string so that the plants and fabric have maximum contact. The bundle is placed in a pot of boiling water, not submerged, but suspended above the water, so that the whole thing can steam for an hour. It is that simple.

Here are a few details from the quilt. I love how the results can almost seem photographic.

The roses were white, but they printed a golden yellow with blue outlines.

This hobby is rather addictive because the results are always such a surprise. All variables, the weather, the time of year, the quality of the soil, the exact plant specimen, the fabric or paper used, all will change the results, and sometimes quite dramatically. In Australia eucalyptus leaves print red but in France they print yellow. In the late fall maple seeds print purple, while earlier in the season they print rusty red.

Silk is the best medium for eco-dyeing, in my experience. It takes the plant images in the most detail, but of course it is expensive, so I feel as if I have to use my results in some kind of project, rather than just adding them to the stacks of eco-dyed materials I have in drawers. In this case, I intend to make a large wall hanging, which will involve doing some quilting onto cotton batting with some beautiful silk embroidery thread I have ordered.


Earlier in the week, we had occasion to go to Vendôme, a forty minute drive southeast from us. It was a chilly day but rather pretty nonetheless. The Loir River (baby brother to the larger Loire River), which passes through the town was high and lively. I caught a photo of these fishermen on the banks, trying their luck. Vendôme is a very elegant town.

Starting This New Year

For the first time in my life, we did not celebrate Christmas this year. For our family in California, the price of flights to Paris for New Years was less than a quarter of what it would have been for Christmas. I thought I was sentimental about trees and ornaments, but it turns out I’m not. Christmas passed without much notice and with no regrets for Rick and me. Instead everyone arrived on New Year’s Eve and spent the first week of 2020 with us at Maison Conti. New Year’s Day has always been my favorite moment of the year anyway, so I found it an especially nice time to come together.

Let’s begin by talking about the food. Most of the family loves to cook, and all of us like to eat. The main celebratory meal we had together was on the 1st. It included the essentials, such as oysters, foie gras and roast beef.

But there were a few surprises too. Emily, being a vegetarian and an excellent cook, always has something special to share for our meals together. This time it was a galette made with a crust of ground nuts, topped with avocado purée and mushrooms. I have added a link to the recipe as I highly recommend this dish. It was spectacular.

We bought some beautiful côtes de boeuf from our local shop. They directed us to cook them over an open fire, so we turned our downstairs fireplace into an indoor barbecue.

We had several organized activities planned for the holiday, but most free time was spent walking, sitting by the fire, reading, chatting and doing crossword puzzles.

The weather was mild but not bright and sunny.

In the past we have often done some crafts projects together during holidays. One year, inspired by Calder, we made lo-tech mechanical toys. (Calder had a fabulous collection of handmade puppets which he used to create magical circus performances for his friends.) We have often done sewing projects. This year we decided we would make a book together, and I was left to arrange it. I prepared all the pieces in advance, so that we could put the journal together in a reasonable time frame.

Since I have had so much fun with eco-dyeing, I decided to begin by having everyone make a title page using this technique. I collected leaves and asked James to bring me some eucalyptus from the U.S., which he kindly did. Eucalyptus is one of the best leaves for this process.

I chose to show them how to create a little book that binds the pages together with elastic so that pages are easily added and removed.

Everyone seemed pleased with the results. Each had a unique book well put together. Each cover and the decorative inner lining pages were different one from another.

Several people have told me since that they have put their little books into daily use.

Another project we did together was some canning. We made pear chutney, lime pickle and pickled vegetables.

One day we decided to show Daniel the first house we bought in France, which is about an hour northwest of Montmirail. We visited the old haunts on a very chilly day.

In those early days, we literally lived in the middle of a forest beside a little stream. The old house has fallen into some disrepair these days. It is really a little paradise in summer, but not so much in winter. It’s hard to picture now the life we lived there, especially at this time of year. We used to roam the woods looking for fallen branches since there was only a small fireplace and no central heating.

After everyone had gone back to their own homes, ours got very quiet. Still, it has given us some time to get a few things done around the house and to start projects of our own. I’ll share some in future posts.

Using Plant Prints

Wall hanging quilted with a traditional Sashiko stitch design

Printing with plants is a magical process and it can get quite addictive. Over the course of a few years I have used a lot of fabric and paper to imprint plants. I have a large stack of both. I like to be able to put these prints to some kind of practical use. Some eco-dyers make clothing with the fabric they dye, but I tend to prefer to make wall hangings.

With a stack of my recent mordant experiments, I recently made an accordion book which I can use as a resource to remember effects I have gotten from various plants.

It is a small object d’art in its own right.

One of my favorite plants to print is bergamot (also known as bee balm), which is an invasive volunteer in our garden. It has literally taken over several of our beds. Of course it is also an edible plant, from the mint family, and, as its name suggests, a supporter of bees and butterflies. It produces my favorite images, so I guess it goes to show that sometimes nature knows better what to offer the garden than the horticulturist herself.

Hello Summer!

View from our upstairs window, a swallow swooping past

This week our hemisphere tilted its maximum towards the sun. We had our longest day, which in our part of the world means that it is light from 5AM until close to midnight. From now we move inexorably towards winter again…but in the meantime, the long, languid days bring that sense of well-being that comes with the various bird songs I hear outside my window as I write this, the warm weather and all the happy travelers who come to our door.

Painting the front doors of the Maison Conti

We have had five Japanese artists staying with us this week. They have been a sensation in our town, as they seem quite exotic and attractive to the locals. The artists have been traveling around France with their painting supplies and portable stools, making many watercolor sketches. Their routine is rigorous. They were off right after breakfast, took only a short lunch break and worked again all afternoon. They made paintings in every corner of the village.

Left: California Poppy. Right: Canterbury Bells

My time in the atelier is somewhat curtailed during our busiest months, but I did manage to collect some garden flowers and eco-dye them onto paper.

View from the back window, village cat resting on the castle wall

Summer always brings a renewed interest in cooking, and dare I say, in eating. We have so many fresh ingredients and our wonderful window herb garden gets used at practically every evening meal.

Moon rising over the village

A nice bonus to this first week of summer was a full moon.

Wall Hanging

After several months, I finally finished my silk wall hanging, which I first stitched together last winter. I had bought some backing and some silk thread but did not get around to actually putting it all together until this week. I had thought I would do much more needle work on top of the ecodyed silk rectangles, but in the end, it seemed unnecessary. I quilted it very simply and put a blanket stitch around the perimeter and that seemed enough. The fabric is so beautiful, soft and shiny, that in this case, less seemed more.

I’m happy with the way it hangs in our entry.

I am ecodyeing our local plants as they come into bloom. Here is a poppy dyed onto paper.

Projects from the Garden

When spring arrives, trees leaf out, flowers come into bloom and more possibilities present themselves for work in the atelier. I am happy that nature, the garden and the studio are intertwined. I appreciate the seasonality of my projects. This week I finished sewing together squares of leaf prints, cyanotypes on cotton. They were created in April, mostly from our little Japanese maple tree. I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the results, but it shows me a path that can easily lead to other more successful creations.

It’s the time of year when our peony gives us a profusion of huge red flowers. We had several large bouquets around the house last week. Once the blossoms began dropping their petals, I eco-dyed one of them onto paper and got a very lovely print.

Gathering (and printing) plants

We have had some Australian artist friends/clients staying with us during the last week. They have been coming every two years since we first opened the Maison Conti in 2008. Wendy is a very clever illustrator, who has made some wonderful etchings over the years in our atelier. Margot encourages, critiques and runs the press for Wendy’s creations. They make a good team. We always have a lot of fun with them when they come.

On one of the days of their stay we took them on a tour of the Perche, which they had never visited. It was a glorious day with extravagant spring flowers and green fields of many shades to delight the eyes.

Such outings always give me itchy fingers, and I couldn’t help myself from collecting a few leaves and flowers along the way to bring back home to my eco-dyeing station. I was happy with my results. The color that is extracted from the plants is often such a surprise. A deep purple tulip I gathered from our own garden turned turquoise blue and a bright yellow and orange gaillardia made a deep blue impression.

We had a happy week in and out of the atelier.

Wendy and Margot admiring a typical French country shop.

May Flowers

Inspired by the season and the garden, I’m back to etching. We have an entire wall of pink clematis in extravagant bloom at the moment, as well as a lavendar wisteria which covers the front of the house. Yellow roses are in bloom and the climbing roses are budded up and waiting for their moment. Peonys and Iris’ punctuate their corners of the landscape.

After enjoying an enormous bouquet of soft violet colored lilacs in our entry, as the blooms began to fade, this branch was eco-dyed and gave a soft blue shade

May has brought some rain, wind and cold, following a glorious and sunny April.