Turn left at the hole in the tree!

Crafty Retreats in France

A couple of years back I received a most exciting email from Philippa & Fran of Crafty Retreats inviting me to join them in France in 2018 for a week’s teaching. Of course I absolutely jumped at the opportunity and planning began. Now, sadly, it’s all over except to reflect on a glorious week, lovely new friends and the satisfaction of seeing some beautifully thoughtful Patchwood Samplers coming to life over the time we spent together.

I got really excited when I started thinking about the actual programme for the week as I realised that we’d have time to make  one of my full size Patchwood Samplers. My problem was the amount of equipment and materials involved and the thought of packing everything onto Ryanair seemed a bit impossible. Husband Paul quickly came to the rescue and suggested we both go, pack everything into the back of my mini clubman and have ourselves a road trip. So with the help of Tom Tom and several stop-overs en route we drove from Edinburgh to the Limousin region of France until, finally, we ‘turned left at the hole in the tree’ and arrived in the tiny hamlet of Mallety.

Craafty Retreats the beauty and the pooches

Any ‘nerves’ left as we went through the gate and a smile hit my face that I don’t think left me for the entire week. Gorgeous welcomes from Phil & Fran , as well as the lovely Lee & Jackie, a couple of ‘early arrival’ participants, and introductions to ‘Tutu and Oscar’ the pooches followed by a  perfect cuppa outside in the courtyard.  We were then shown to our ‘home’ for the week and the all important studio. I have to tell you that this place is stunning – I really am still grinning!

Crafty retreats studio in france
The second farmhouse, Paul & my ‘home’ for the week and the gorgeous studio!

So time to get to work (still grinning). We got the car unpacked and everything into the studio. Phil, Jackie & Lee set to work hanging Patchwood Samplers onto every available wall space as I unpacked the boxes of vintage materials that I had brought from The Purple Thread Shed. I made up everyone’s ‘party bag’ and we were ready to go. Paul deserves a seat by the way having not only done all the driving but also having cut about 300 patches of wood before we left home!!

Studio at crafty retreats
A beautifully tidy and prepped studio, exciting ‘party bags’ and a smug looking husband

I always love unpacking the materials at the start of a course. I’d brought along everything needed to make ‘sewing box’ inspired samplers – vintage buttons & haberdashery, old floral French fabrics, handmade lace scraps that I’d found in the Textile Tent at Newark, old paper patterns and lots of other lovely treasures! Materials are really important – for me they have to be old and used, tatty and torn before they are of any interest, each tiny scrap embedded with its own hidden story.

materials from Ali ferguson's studio
Gorgeous vintage materials from my studio in Scotland

The rest of the day passed in a blur of sunshine, food and cups of tea until it was time for Phil to do the airport run and pick up the new arrivals for the week. Paul and I explored our farmhouse – yes it was actually big enough to ‘explore’, unpacked our bags and generally wandered about feeling pretty smug.

I was heard muttering ‘this place is completely stunning’ – a lot!!

Did I tell you that there is a hot tub outside next to the studio?? There is actually even a hot tub outside next to the studio!

Suddenly everyone was here and we were all meeting for the first time, glass of fizz in hand munching on delicious canapés made by Fran. Our furthest traveller was Trine who had come all the way from Newfoundland and not for the first time either, such is the lure of this place! Everyone was shown to their rooms and before we knew it, we were all sitting round the beautiful farmhouse table having our first meal together. Gorgeous food, wine and chat with the loveliest group of women that I could imagine. Mostly people travelled alone, two friends travelled together and one brought her camper van, her husband and her dog setting up camp outside our farmhouse! With only eight participants everyone gets to know each other pretty quickly and something I really did love about the week was sitting round the table at mealtimes, sharing stories.

Making patchwood samplers with Ali ferguson
Prepping our wooden ‘patches’ and starting to play with layout

On the first full day we woke up to gorgeous sunshine (as we did every day) and everyone made their way to the studio for an impressively early start. I explained about my Patchwood Samplers and the story behind them and also pointed out that it was not only a week of making but also a week of listening and telling stories, of reminiscing and thinking. I gave everyone a simple handmade ‘sketchbook’ to capture some of the thoughts and information that we would be gathering over the week ahead.

Explanations over, work started in earnest as people started sanding their 24 ‘patches’ of wood. I showed how to start playing around with layouts for their Patchwood Samplers and then all the patches had to be  painted and finished. This was a lovely social way to get the week started and this activity took up a good chunk of the day.

We planned an afternoon visit to ‘Marie-Helene’ the local Brocante and spent a lovely hour or so rummaging there for little bits & pieces that we could include in our samplers.

Yes I do realise that I have the best job ever!!

Visit to local brocante
A visit to the local Brocante

Back to the studio and to the really exciting bit of starting to design our ‘patches’. I love when everyone starts to produce their own little collections of ‘treasures’ that they have brought along with them. I always, always get ‘the envy’ at some of the beautiful bits and pieces. Boxes, tins and bags started to emerge with everything from real collectable pieces to the plastic top of a beer keg – memories of entertaining 70s (I think) style!

Lots of playing around. Lots of arranging and rearranging and rearranging all over again. Great progress made on the first day and by the time dinner was ready around 7.00pm, I think it’s safe to say that everyone was addicted! Another gorgeous dinner by Fran accompanied by lovely conversations left me feeling that Day 1 had been a good day.

Turns out that it wasn’t to end there though as just about everyone piled back into the studio after dinner. Entirely voluntary I hasten to add – there were no thumb screws used or even any threats (my favoured method of coercion). I left them to it and wandered off back to our farmhouse to fall straight into bed.

This pretty much formed our pattern for the week! Up early – delicious food – studio time – coffee & cake – studio time – delicious food – studio time – coffee & cake – studio time – delicious three course dinner & wine – back to studio for most but home to bed for me!!

making patchwood samplers
The long process of planning and layout

The second day started with a catch up and then a lesson in planning and marking our patches for stitching and a lesson in using the drills including a health & safety warning about using drills after dinner and accompanying wine! I have to say that A LOT of drill bits were harmed in the making of these pieces, so much so that we enrolled Paul as official ‘drill tec’ and it’s fair to say that it was a role that kept him on his toes throughout the week.

I think people are amazed at how long these Patchwood Samplers actually take to make – so many hours of work go into them. I think they’re also amazed at  just how addictive it all becomes. And all the more enjoyable for being able to wander in and out to work in the glorious sunshine.

Whenever things start to seem difficult my advice is always ‘put it down, step away and then come back with fresh eyes’.

The hamlet of Mallety, france
Exploring the gorgeous hamlet of Mallety

A little wander round the hamlet of Mallety is just the remedy and Paul and I snuck off for a wee explore with Oscar the pooch as a willing companion.

The hamlet of Mallety, France
A sobering reminder of times gone by. The symbol of the resistance and a V for Victory painted on a barn door.

The upshot of people choosing to spend so much of their time in the studio meant that some really intricate pieces started to emerge in the first few days and develop throughout the week. There is ‘thoughtfulness’ behind each and every patch and once confidence starts to grow, so does ambition. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for these – we’re continually problem solving and working out how best to go about things. I have no idea how best to attach a ‘plastic beer keg top thingy’ but if you give me a minute I’ll come up with ideas!

The lovely thing is that everyone soon starts to come up with their own ideas  – most work, others not so much but the trick is to work out which it’s going to be before holes are drilled!

Making patchwood samplers with Ali ferguson
Text added with a 1960s typewriter and ransom notes cut from vintage magazines.

A bit of instruction on the writing of ‘ransom notes’ ( I let slip my ‘day job’ with that one) and Paul’s mum’s old typewriter allowed us to add text onto the patches. ‘No soggy bottoms’ accompanied a rather lovely pastry tin found at the brocante and those of us of a certain age may know the phrase ‘sides to middle’ – Lee tells the story:

‘Bed sheets tend to wear thin in the middle of the bed – sometimes an unwary foot can go right through! Instead of buying new ones, women would cut them down the middle then re-sew them back together with the worn parts at the sides and the less worn parts in the middle – hence, “sides to middle”. I can remember my mum doing this by hand – with a French seam! All this after a full day at work and with three kids to take care of!’

Making patchwood samplers with Ali Ferguson
Personal stories start to emerge on each and every ‘patch’

The gorgeous coloured stitching in the above picture is a pattern in bell ringing – seriously! The white plastic tube thingy and little bicycle charm is a reminder of a story that unfolded on the first day involving a husband (who is an expert cyclist), a bike ride on the scale of no normal person, a sat nav with no signal, phones with no signal and a random ‘don’t worry about me but if you could work out where I am that would be splendid ’email.  This led to discovering he is over 60k away absolutely in the middle of no-where and trying to get directions to him (with barely any phone signal remember), darkness falling and finally a rescue mission. The white plastic thingy – a breathalyser from Paul & my ‘RAC driving in France kit’ was to check that Phil could drive after having wine with dinner. Luckily she could and the rescue was made and husband was grateful having already cycled around 80k and was at the point of looking for a barn without a dog in it that he could bed down for the night!

I told you there were stories a plenty and you couldn’t make them up!

Part Two of this blog with tales of our excursions and our final finished Patchwood Samplers to follow.

 

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