What could be more appealing than the opportunity to spend week sewing in a wonderful setting with good food and wine and like-minded company? Davina Thomas called in on the Studio France patchwork course in the South of France to find out more.
Studio France is a small holiday company that specialises in high quality holidays and workshops. They aim to create completely personalised holidays that allow you to immerse yourself in your chosen subject and really get to know France and its people. They are based in the sleepy hamlet of Labarthe-Bleys in the valley of the Cerou River; a small hamlet of 20 houses surrounded by fields and rolling hills. There are wonderful views wherever you look and a great sense of calm. The accommodation is in various gîtes scattered around the hamlet and in the grounds of Château de Labarthe. Meals are taken at The Grange or as a buffet in the Château gardens.
When we arrived for an autumn break last year the quilters were sewing either around the dining room table in the imposing Château dining room or in the sun in the garden. Cathie the patchwork tutor is French so a translator was on hand throughout the course; although as Cathie had by then taken six courses with English-speaking students her vocabulary of patchwork words in English was improving and students too were improving their French as the week went on. Unlike a workshop in the UK where you might feel rushed to finish your sample at the end of the session, here the slower French way of life seemed to have caught on and students were quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) chatting and laughing as they sewed. If you didnít finish your block there was always tomorrow and even the work that was taken home at the end of the course you felt sure would be completed because the grounding in the basic techniques was so good.
Many of the quilters had been the previous year and had made sampler quilts with nine different blocks so this time they were experimenting with new techniques, a wallhanging using Japanese folded patchwork and more complex pieced blocks were some of the work on show.
Whilst at Labarthe-Bleys we visited the town of Cordes, one of the best examples of a fourteenth century fortified bastide town. An interesting walk up steep cobbled streets lead us to the top of the old town, where Cathieís shop Cathie Patchwork is situated. Unlike a UK patchwork shop it was stocked mainly with finished patchwork quilts and bags and a few kits. Each piece showed the number of hours work involved in its completion as well as the price so no one could quibble. For example a delightful Grandmotherís Flower Garden double bedspread had taken many hundreds of hours to make: the quilting was all by hand and was mostly done by Cathieís mother Paulette with Cathie responsible for the piecing. We also visited patchwork fabric shops in Cordes and Albi which were more like shops in the UK with row upon row of bolts of fabric, much of it familiar to us in the UK but some that was specifically French. However, the shops do not have baskets of fat quarters and there isnít even a direct translation Ė I was hoping for quatre gros morcaux or something similar but they just have a sign with the dimensions 50 x 55cm, which isnít quite the same somehow.
Pippa and Julia, who run Studio France, are focused on making sure everyone has a good time and goes home refreshed. The days started with breakfast served in the large farmhouse-style kitchen, where we were welcomed by the smell of oven-warm croissants, fresh coffee, tea and seasonal fruits. It was the perfect way to start the day. Lunch, a bountiful spread of bread, cheese and simple dishes, was eaten inside or as a buffet in the Château gardens. After formal lessons had finished students could either sit and carry on sewing or go for a short stroll; they were blackberrying and picking sloes from the hedgerows whilst I was there. The evening meals use local produce and fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, much of it home grown. As vegetarians we were very well catered for with for example gazpacho soup followed by pancakes layered with mushrooms and courgettes and finally meringue nests with fresh fruit and coulis, fabulous. You may also get the opportunity one evening to enjoy a dinner at the Château with Madame et Monsieur Chatelus, which is a grand affair starting with aperitifs in the garden. In the hotter summer weather students swim in the Château pool after the sewing session has finished but none were brave enough in the slightly cooler temperatures of late September.
The course timetable also allows time to visit the town of Albi with the Toulouse Lautrec museum and imposing cathedral. We also managed to visit two markets, one in Cordes and one in St Antonin.
There are usually two different courses running at a time so you could be sharing a table with a poet or painter, which adds interest to the conversation. Art quilters would find the art course very inspiring. Although you end up with a finished acrylic canvas, the tutor Elizabeth approaches the course in such a way that it would easily translate back to working with fabric on your return. Accompanying spouses can find plenty to do, with the historic hill top town of Cordes-sur-Ciel only 5km away and many basitide towns and villages to visit. For those who enjoy more active pursuits the Aveyron River nearby is ideal for swimming and kayaking and sailing is available on many lakes. Paul who accompanied me to take the photographs managed to spend a morning walking and saw deer in the woods as well as enjoying wine tasting at the local vineyard later in the day.
If you are the type of person who wants to make a double bed quilt in a week, fully quilted, then this gentle approach may not be the one for you. If on the other hand you are happy to sit in the sun sewing, taking your time, eating and drinking, well this might be just up your street.
For more information about workshops at Studio France in 2008 and beyond, visit www.studiofrance.co.uk
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