"In the evening at precisely 6pm, I would prepare a different pasta recipe from the one cookbook I had in New York and decant a decent bottle of red wine...Then I arranged a pleasing dinner tray and took it to my bedroom.
Once ensconced under my comfy duvet, wearing my favourite Victoria Secret jersey pajamas and Lands' End grey cashmere sweater robe and socks, I'd eat dinner in bed while watching old black and white films..." Sarah Ban Breathnach, Moving On
Why don't women live like this anymore? It sounds like a plan to me.
A tapestry of dreams... this is my frame all set up and ready to use.
Today I have been enjoying the very feminine pass-time of needle craft...tapestry to be exact. From the time I was a young girl I have loved sitting quietly with a piece of needle work, stitching the hours and minutes away. I can recall asking for my first embroidery hoop instead of a chocolate egg one Easter when I was about 11 - I received both a hoop and an egg from the Easter Bunny that year. It was the start of a lifelong hobby and I have done quite a few tapestries since then.
I'm not a fan of counted cross-stitch - it's too much like maths and plotting points for my taste - but I do love stitching tapestry. I tend to purchase the kits that are all inclusive, with all the yarns you need and the correct size tapestry needle for the canvas. I usually go for a colour printed canvas kit, with wool or silk threads. One of my favourite things to do when I was a kid was colouring-in and to me tapestry is just like colouring-in, but with threads instead of felt-tip pens!
I recently purchased a new floor standing tapestry frame (pictured above) with a bit of pin-money and I love it so much. I've had a couple of these before, but the first floor standing one was a Standard size and a little too tall for me to work at comfortably. The second one I got was a table top one, which I still have and use from time to time. This new one is a Petite size, as I'm only 5' 2" so it is just the right height for me. The frame itself is adjustable too so it can accommodate a range of different size needle work canvases, plus the tension is also adjustable, helping to keep the canvas nice and tight. You can find tapestry kits and frames on Amazon UK if it is something that interests you.
Working on a tapestry is one of the ways I like to relax. I can stitch away while watching a DVD or listening to soft music. I tend to listen to Enya while I stitch and that is what I have been doing today, as the spring sunshine dappled the room. Needle craft is a great form of meditation. Like knitting and crochet, it is one of the feminine arts and can bring groups of women together in a circle of industry and craft work. It can alleviate boredom without being taxing, so it is the ideal occupation for a lazy day, keeping idle hands busy while allowing the mind a chance to switch off.
There is a romantic feel to sitting behind a tapestry frame, or holding an embroidery hoop in your hands. It is reminiscent of medieval ladies creating a decorative arras to adorn cold castle walls; of Jane Austen heroines bent over their hoops or the Little Women enjoying sister-time together as they stitch and sew. Needlework connects modern women to the greater sisterhood of the past. On a practical level we should all be capable of sewing on a button or doing a quick sartorial repair so working tapestry can help you to keep up with essential mending skills. And you might be surprised at how handy a few sewing skills can be in various situations - I've used this skill for sewing show ring plaits into a horse's mane and for stitching ribbons on ballet shoes, so it is not just confined to the house.
I do believe that the older we get the more skills we acquire and the more we learn. Sewing should be viewed as an accomplishment, as it used to be. Thankfully modern women are reclaiming it, snapping up Cath Kidston sewing sets and being inspired by the great fashion designers, as well as the weavers and tapestry workers of the past. I am by no means a great seamstress and my mother is far more accomplished than me, but I still enjoy the sound of the needle snapping through the canvas and the pull of the thread, creating a tiny stitch that in time builds a bigger picture. It may take me some time to complete the Daffodil Woods tapestry that is currently on my frame, but you can be sure that when it is finished, it will quickly be replaced with another. In fact, I already have my eye on a new kit, so watch this space.
In the meantime I plan to sit at my frame with a glass of wine or cup of tea to hand, carefully stitching the image into being, creating a colourful tapestry from a rainbow of threads, content to play a small part in the greater tapestry of feminine art.
"What is it that impresses me about this rich world? I think of the many things aristocrats enjoy; music, books, painting and photography. I'm drawn to them too, but not just as the furnishings of a rich person's house. Culture is the path to knowledge and the key to an examined life. At least, that's what the bohemians say.
...Am I truly attracted to the trappings of the gilded life, or have I tricked myself? I'm in a muddle and all I can see it what the rich possess - their winner's spoils, their aristocratic bounty. Confronted with these things I think, That is the life I desire. But is it the box at the opera I want or the music itself?"
For the past few days I have been immersed in this wonderful novel Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross. Set in nineteenth century Paris in winter, just as the Eiffel Tower is being built, it is an imaginative dance with a more elegant era and it has successfully transported me back in time. It tells the tale of a young runaway who finds herself destitute and without friends, all alone in Paris. After a menial job as a laundress falls through she is offered a position with an agency as a repoussoir - a plain Jane, hired out to the aristocratic families to make their debutante daughters look more beautiful by comparison. It is degrading and dis-spiriting work but plain Maude Pichon is considered to be perfect for the job, much to her humiliation.
In need of funds, Maude accepts the offer reluctantly and is soon hired by one of the first families in Paris to be a companion to their daughter Isabelle in her debutante season. From this moment Maude's life changes and she is drawn into the very heart of aristocratic Parisian high society, where she is dazzled by a swirl of velvet, satin and tulle gowns, silk slippers, fur mantels, balls, carriages and banquets. Here she is introduced to the delights of the opera, photography, classical music and dancing with dukes, while on her days off she befriends a penniless young musician and his bohemian friends.
This double life soon begins to get confusing for Maude and brings out the darker aspects of her gentle personality. The rule at the Agency is that she must not covet or envy her wealthy clients, yet how can she help it when faced which such decadence and opulence on a daily basis? Kitted out in her borrowed plumes Maude starts to pretend to herself that she too is a debutante and before long she comes to believe in her own pretense. She grows haughty with the other agency girls and ashamed of her bohemian circle of associates. At the same time, her client Isabelle, ignorant of Maude's true role as a repoussoir, asks Maude to help her study so she can secretly take an exam and apply to the most prestigious university in France, the Sorbonne, rather than marry as she is expected to do. Maude becomes increasingly conflicted and inevitably gets caught up in her web of deceit. She begins to question exactly what she wants from life and what it is about Isabelle's world that she is truly drawn to...is it the opulence of a box at the opera, or is it the music that stirs her soul? As Maude's world unravels she has bridges to burn and mend on both sides of Paris.
I like this book for several reasons. Firstly because it questions how we look at beauty in women and how we value them according to how pretty they are. Also because it delves deeper into the bohemian concept of beauty in all things, to be found everywhere for those who have eyes to see it. The author touches on two difficult aspects of female relationships - envy between friends and a mother's jealousy of her daughter - things we know exist but which are rarely addressed.
As we move out of the UK recession Belle Epoque is a piece of pure escapism into a world of the wealthy and privileged, yet it makes the reader question their own envious leanings. We all covet things every now and then, but what is the source of that envy - is it the trappings of the opera house, or is it the music? This simple question leads one to examine what one truly yearns for and to discover a way to obtain the deep essence of that yearning without needing to rack up a credit card bill! It is a book which will make you wonder what exactly it is that you are buying into. For that reason alone it's a must-read novel.