Well that was a good trip. Actually, it was a brilliant trip. There wasn’t anything about it that I didn’t like, and lots and lots of things that I liked very much indeed.
First part: Paris. Stuart and I like to specialise when on holiday, so we concentrated on walking around and eating. Our hotel was in the XIIIe arrondissement (more on that in a minute) which is not far from the Latin Quarter, so we did quite a bit of our walking around literary ‘landmarks’ – the George-Orwell-Was-Here sort of thing. We also walked along the river, around the Jardin du Luxembourg and umpteen times around the Pompidou Centre trying to find our way. With all the miles of walking, we needed to stop and rest from time to time, and isn’t it handy how they have all those cafés? For our eating endeavours we focused on the bread and cheese food groups, with a bit of charcuterie and patisserie for balance.
We had picked the hotel for its proximity to the Manufacture des Gobelins, the tapestry weaving workshop. This Manufacture is now part of the Manufactures nationales, and the whole enterprise has a complicated history. The site in the XIIIe is based around the original Enclos des Gobelins from the seventeenth century, and now includes not just the Manufacture des Gobelins, but the Manufacture de Beauvais (another tapestry workshop, but using horizontal looms) and the Manufacture de la Savonnerie (knotted pile carpets, on vertical looms). There is also a gallery which hosts temporary exhibitions.
You can visit the workshops on a guided tour, and what a fantastic tour it is. I had booked it weeks in advance and wasn’t at all sure what to expect, but my post-tour evaluation is that you should all rush there and do it. You will love it. It helps if you speak French, but even if you don’t you will adore those workshops.
It just so happens that the current exhibition, L’Esprit et La Main, makes it even more worth visiting. The theme of the exhibition is the conservation techniques used in the workshops of the Mobiler National, which is yet another part of the complex. As well as exhibiting pieces from the national collection, they have set up a whole series of mini-workshops in the gallery where conservateurs demonstrate and talk about their crafts. These are such a treat. There are the textiles – tapestries, rugs and upholstery are all represented – but there is also furniture, chandeliers and all the other things you’d expect to find in a well-maintained palace.
There is also an interesting modern element, the Atelier de Recherche et Création, where they research new materials and work with designers to create prototypes of new designs. I thought this was a very interesting use of public funds. It appears to be essentially taking on some of the risk of a new enterprise, which an individual designer would be unlikely to be able to afford and which a manufacturer would probably be reluctant to commit to until the design were ‘proven’. There wasn’t a whole lot of detail available about this activity, but it made perfect sense to me – so if this isn’t exactly what they do, then I reckon it should be!
The exhibition is temporary but it is on all year so you still have plenty of time to get yourself there. Photographs are not allowed in the workshops, but they are allowed in the gallery. Of course, I didn’t have the big camera, as 90% of my luggage was a loom, but I managed a few with the phone.
The outside of the Gobelins tapestry workshop
The first director of the enterprise, Charles Le Brun, lived right in the middle of the site. He had hooks on the outside wall of his house so that they could hang up tapestries for royal visits – and they used pulleys to quickly change the display while the King wasn’t looking.
The weavers use wraps to plan their colours for tapestry, but for the tapis (the pile carpets) they use little pompoms, which show the cut ends of the yarn.
Colour palettes for rugs, or little houses for pet pompoms…
A conservateur rebuilding the linen structure of an Aubusson rug. It wasn’t really that dark, but the spotlight on her hands confused my phone.
An upholsterer at work and (below) a touchy-feely sample box of different fabrics with various kinds of fillings. Yes, of course I prodded them all.