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When I lived in Seattle, Washington, I used to drive to Vancouver, British Columbia once a year, before the holidays, to shop for gifts on Granville Island. Granville Island has a wonderful public market, artist’s studios and co-ops filled with imaginative, handmade crafts. I always saved the best store for last, Maiwa Handprints, a textile lover’s paradise specializing in embroidered, block printed, handwoven, naturally dyed textiles from India.
In November of 2009, while once again shopping at Maiwa, I discovered a brochure for a symposium given by Henri Lambert of the Bleu de Lectoure shop, another textile lover’s paradise. which uses blue pigment from the woad plant to create an array of deeply rich, indigo colored clothes and products. I was startlingly surprised because Bleu de Lectoure was a shop I frequented when visiting the Friday farmer’s market in the village of Lectoure, in the Gers départment in France where I was renovating a house. I was also startlingly disappointed, as I’d just missed his talk which was given in October. I researched Bleu de Lectoure online so I would know more about it for my return visit the following year.
I discovered some interesting facts – Woad is a plant in the mustard family native to parts of Asia and Europe, whose leaves have been used since antiquity to produce a “pastel” blue dye. It takes 1 ton of fresh leaves to produce 2 pounds of pigment. The Egyptians used woad dyed cloths to wrap their dead for burial, and the Greeks and Romans used it as a medicinal plant. Pastel dye was the only source of blue available until the late 16th century. During the middle ages and Renaissance, the three basic colors were white, red and black. Blue dyed fabrics became a luxury and many fortunes were made in its cultivation and production. Napoléon used pastel dye for his soldiers uniforms. When trade routes to the Indies opened up, indigo dye extracted from another species of plant, was imported and the use of pastel declined because Indigo dye lasts longer than pastel dye. King Henri IV of France, in an effort to stop the declining pastel industry, enforced the death penalty for anyone caught using indigo dye, but, both industries eventually declined with the invention of synthetic blue dye.
Denise and Henri were living in Brussels when they decided to buy an old farmhouse just outside of the village of Lectoure, in the Gers départment. Both Denise and Henri were drawn to the blue shutters that book-ended their windows. They researched the unusual color, but no one seemed to know where the color came from. In Provence, shutters turned blue after they were sprayed with a chemical derived from copper to keep the wood from rotting, but this was not a copper based color. They wound up at a lab in Toulouse and after a lot of trial, error and detective work, re-discovered the wonders of the woad plant. They found the color of the shutters dated to the 14th century. They started with seeds bought from a plant conservatory, then worked with the agricultural cooperative of the Ariège. Finally in 1994, they formed a company for the re-cultivation and re-development of the woad plant – Bleu de Lectoure.
Sadly, the following year when I returned to France, I learned that Henri had passed away unexpectedly, and his wife, Denise, closed the shop in Lectoure. Then two years ago, while heading to the farmer’s market I noticed a small sign just before old train tracks below the village. It read: Bleu de Lectoure – with a small arrow underneath that pointed left. I followed the sign and parked in front of a large, old farmhouse with blue shutters, Bleu de Lectoure colored shutters. After a few minutes a woman poked her head out the front door and said the store would be open in a few minutes, so I waited. Upon entering I discovered that the house, at least the part I could see, had been converted into a retail shop and somewhere towards the back there seemed to be a workshop. I was delighted and spent quite a bit of time wandering around looking at all of the incredibly beautiful, naturally dyed, blue clothes, accessories, cosmetics, jewelry and paints. At the time I was just beginning to research creating tours of the Gers départment and asked if Bleu de Lectoure ever gave tours – the answer was an emphatic, yes! The woman I spoke with gave me the phone number of another woman to call for information, her name – Annette Hardouin.
I telephone Annette earlier this year and we began an email correspondence, then I met her at her studio in Toulouse. She has been the clothes designer and tinter for Bleu de Lectoure since 2002. In 2010 she received the distinction of Maître – Artrisan Métier d’Art and Académicienne des Arts et des Sciences du Pastel. She works with her husband and an assistant most of the time in a a small studio called AHPY – Creations by Annette Hardouin. She told me that Bleu de Lectoure offers classes at Chateau Loubens east of Toulouse. It’s a full day of immersion in glorious pastel blue dye. Each attendee can bring up to 15 pieces of fabric or clothes to be dyed. They learn the history of woad, dye their fabrics, have lunch in the local village, then finish the process and take their pieces home. She said she would be delighted to work with my tour groups, giving one class each month from June to September.
I have always loved textiles, especially ones that have been naturally dyed and I have always been drawn to the pastel, indigo color. There’s something so pleasing about it and it’s myriad variations. I, myself, cannot wait to take one of her classes and look forward to a wonderful collaboration in the future.
The original Bleu de Lectoure is open Monday – Saturday, 9:30-12:30 & 2-6, Sunday, 2-5.
Guided tours are given 10-2 & 2-5
Guided tours for groups can be arranged by phone and cost 3 euros per person.
Chateau Loubens day class information is available online.
Castle Magrin – the only museum of Pastel in France.