Category Archives: vacations

Hitting the Woad

Around the city of Toulouse in France, there are a lot of (now faded) blue shutters and architectural details. That’s because during the Middle Ages, Toulouse was a famous European woad dying center.

I’d never heard of it before I became interested in eco dying, but woad (isatis tinctoria) is a flowering plant that was used to dye textiles a radiant blue color in Europe long before indigo was introduced there. In France it’s called “bleu pastel” because the flowers that rose to the surface of the dye vats were once used to make pastel sticks. Though it was also farmed in Asia and some parts of Europe, woad grew especially well in the abundant sunshine of southwestern France.


Woad blue was the color of the French monarchy (“King’s Blue”/Royal Blue), and also the Catholic Church. In fact, at one time there were thirteen official shades of woad sanctioned by the French government. Because of their value, French woad producers were protected by both Church and King.

They needed it. The alchemical nature of woad dying was so mysterious, that some people considered the woad dyers witches. It didn’t help that the woad dyers stood over large, cauldron-like vats with long sticks that they used to submerge and retrieve fabrics. Or that, in order to achieve just the right PH balance for the dye in the vats, men would sometimes have to urinate in them.

After being replaced by indigo and later chemical blues in the late 1800s, woad was no longer farmed and the complicated process for extracting its pigment –  which had never been formally documented but rather passed on through word of mouth – was virtually forgotten.

That is, until French/American couple Henri and Denise Lambert took it upon themselves to bring woad back. I mean, they literally brought woad back because when they set out to rekindle the practice of woad dying, no one could tell them how it was done and there weren’t any seeds available to grow it. The Lamberts eventually purchased some from a museum and it took them five years to learn how to farm it, extract its pigment, and ferment it. Eventually they refined and modernized the process and began dying fabric commercially under the Bleu de Lectoure label. Denise came to Chateau Dumas during the week I was there to talk about woad and give us the opportunity to dye with it.


Denise Lambert

It turns out that even the process of dying with woad is complicated. After you have grown several tons of woad, reaped it at just the right moment, made woad balls from the leaves, waited a year, extracted its pigment and fermented it to just the right PH level in your vat, you can’t just dunk a piece of cloth in that vat and swish it around. In fact, if Denise Lambert saw you doing that you would be in big trouble and I won’t tell you how I know that.

No. You have to lower the fabric gently into the dye vat, then pull it down and toward you with your giant stick to make sure it hasn’t trapped any bubbles. And as soon as you pull it (GENTLY) out of the vat, it begins to oxidize and change from yellow to green to blue so if you accidentally pull a corner of somebody else’s fabric out of the vat, you better pull it all the way out and hang it on the line or you could also get seriously busted and I won’t tell you how I know that, either. Plus, you have to repeat this process at least two, often three times, in order to get a good blue.



But when you do it’s almost magical, and very addictive. That’s  because depending on the thickness, weave, and type of fabric you are trying to dye, varying shades of blue can be achieved. Also, you can make a lot of bad puns with it.

Particularly if you are a novice woad dyer, you never know what you’re going to get. You approach woad dying thinking that you’re only going to dye a scarf or two, and before you know it, all of your clothing is in the dye vat and you are running around the south of France in just your knickers.


I have to say, the woad blue is just gorgeous. It doesn’t come across nearly as well in pictures, but it’s almost luminescent. I ended up dying a blouse, a scarf, a vintage linen nightdress (that I bought at the vide grenier), a few antique linens, and some lace. But I also saw a dress, a jacket, several pairs of pants, part of a quilt, a couple of wooden spoons, book pages, and one doll go into the dye vat.

Some people think that woad has antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties and may also fight cancer. I wouldn’t doubt it.

You can follow woad whisperer Denise Lambert on Facebook.

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La Vie En Rose

During the last week of August, I had the incredible opportunity to spend a week at Chateau Dumas in southern France, attending a textile art workshop taught by Mandy Pattullo. The class was centered around Mandy’s “thread and thrift” approach to textile art, where vintage and often threadbare quilts and fabrics are sourced to create collages embellished with embroidery and appliqué. Chateaus, France, sewing, and vintage fabrics are among my favorite things, so it was as close to the perfect vacation as I could ever hope for.

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Chateau Dumas, front view. We closed the shutters during the day to keep out the heat and opened them at night, old school style

I’d brought some fabrics from home, but I also had the opportunity to purchase some locally because on the very first full day of my séjour, there was a flea market a mere five minutes walk from the château! A French Flea Market!


The vendor at this stall is a victim of Brexit

In point of fact, French people sell a lot of the same junk that Americans do at their flea markets. But I did find some quintessentially french linens (damaged) that I’m looking forward to hacking up and sewing into something new. And it was heartening to learn that my French is still good enough to negotiate a bargain.

Later that afternoon my classmates, a few stray husbands, and I went to the Sunday market in the village of Saint Antonin Noble Val, where fresh produce, cheeses, antiques, and little dogs carried in arms or stuffed into handbags abounded.

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Little Dog in a Cheese Shop

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Antiques Store in Saint Antonin Noble Val


Frankly, I was kind of overwhelmed by everything that was on offer and left with very little in my shopping bag. “Thread and Thrift”, I reminded myself, was the name of the workshop I was there for. Had I come to France just to return home with a suitcase full of even more dusty vintage rags I’d have to hide in places where my husband wouldn’t find them?

Sort of.

Even though I was staying at a château overlooking the rolling hills of the southern French countryside and even though all of my meals were prepared for me using only the freshest locally sourced ingredients, I worked very diligently all week. In fact, I sewed with such intensity (by hand, mind you), that one day I got a sewing headache which forced me to temporarily retreat to the patio sitting area for a cuppa. (The château is owned by an Englishwoman and the workshop was sponsored by the London-based Selvedge magazine, so there were many friendly English people there and we drank lots of cuppas.)

Mandy Pattullo cites Louise Bourgeois as one of the artists by which she has been inspired, but in fact Mandy is like a Louise Bourgeois to me. I’ve been impressed and inspired by her work for so long, I still can’t believe I had the chance to meet her and work alongside of her all week. I’ve participated in a few “continuing adult education” type courses where no one ever gives you constructive criticism and your assignments are kind of a joke. Not so Mandy Pattullo. She challenged me, kept me very busy, and was as liberal with her knowledge as she was with her constructive criticism.

Here are a few photos of work-in-progress by students in the class:



And here’s a little peek at some things I made:


Detail from a textile collage made using scraps of vintage fabric and embellished with bits of embroidery.


Appliqué fish on an antique quilt fragment, backed with indigo dyed linen


Page one of a cloth book bound inside an old leather wallet

The cloth book is supposed to be a kind of memento of my trip, so each page depicts something of significance to me.


There are so many memorials for the fallen of World War I in France. The photo on the right is from a gravestone in a little cometary just a few minutes walk from the château.


My tribe

It was an amazing trip. To be able to do something I love so much in a beautiful setting, surrounded by generous, like minded people, was an incredible gift. l hope to blog a bit more about this trip later, if I can tear myself away from the sewing.

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A friend of mine who was born and raised in communist Lithuania has a trendy tee-shirt with a hammer and sickle on it.

“How can you of all people wear that thing?” I once asked him. But he didn’t see a problem with it.

“Soviet Union is place where I grew up.”

“But what about the atrocities?” I demanded. “What about all the people who were tortured and exiled? And what about the poor Lithuanian children who could not attend Holy Mass?”

“Those things didn’t happen to me,” my friend responded. “I was just regular kid.”

But what about the mystery meat? Or the suppression of your native culture? Or the fact that you weren’t allowed to leave?”


Just outside the town of Druskininkai in Lithuania, on a pretty plot of fields and forest, is a sculpture park full of old Soviet statues collected after the fall of communism by one Viliumas Malinauskas, a guy who made his fortune in the mushroom canning business. The entrance is lined with a few of the original cattle cars that Stalin used to transport people to exile in Siberia, and when we visit it’s as far as my Uncle R, our host for the day, will accompany us.

vagonai grutas

Uncle R and P-Dawg

“Why do you want to see this place?” he asks me. “It makes me sick.”

My Uncle R was born in Lithuania but spent most of his life in America and returned to his homeland as an adult. He remembers the war “like it was yesterday,” remembers fleeing the approaching front and riding in those cattle cars. He’d have been happy if all the Soviet-era relics had been destroyed, because they represent what invaded his happy childhood and turned the country he remembered with such nostalgia into a totally different place.

But I hadn’t lived through that history, had only learned about it from my grandparents’ generation and the Lithuanian Saturday school I attended as a child. For me, a park full of communist statues was more a novelty than anything else.

lenin grutas

proletariat grutas

gruto parkas grupe

The park’s website states that its aim is “To provide an opportunity for Lithuanian people, visitors coming to our country as well as future generations to see the naked Soviet ideology which suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation for many decades.” But walking through, it’s not altogether clear whether the place is condemning communism, or gently extolling an era that, some would tell you, wasn’t all that bad.

Many of the statues are enormous and displayed individually in manicured enclaves. There is a room full of Soviet literature and art depicting famous comrades. In the restaurant, you can eat anything from escargot to a Soviet-style meal of borscht and mystery meat. You can buy kitchy souvenirs in the gift shop, wander through a room full of devil sculptures, or take a break as your children amuse themselves on the quaint playground.

Zaidimu Aikste Grutas

And among the larger-than-life statues of Soviet bigwigs, there is a mini zoo where boars and gerbils live side by side.



gruto souvenirs

Gerbils. I mean . . . shot glasses with commies on ’em.


There are people in Lithuania who feel that, on balance, life was better under the Soviets.

“Was not top quality,” explains my aunt Ona’s husband, Kostas, “But least you always have job.”

And if you knew the right people, you could secure a comfortable two bedroom apartment, a decent car, or quality meat and cigarettes from the black market. Now you can buy everything under the sun in Lithuania, but, according to Kostas, despite nascent government assistance programs, there’s no guarantee you won’t die destitute or be able to feed your family from one minute to the next.

“Lithuanians no help each other,” says Kostas. “Plus, everyone leaving to work somewhere else.”

Communism’s ironic legacy is that instead of creating cultures where citizens band together for the good of the whole, it has raised a generation that feels every man must fend for himself. And of course, it must be a difficult transition to go from a place where life was “not top quality” but provided a certain amount of security, to a free and beautiful land of non-guaranteed plenty.

But Kostas is obviously proud of his country, and during our trip he often asks me, “What you think now of our Lithuania? Is very different country from last time you visit? Better, no?”

I tell him “Yes.”

Because it is.

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Yes, Virginia. There is a Spiritual Vortex in Lithuania

At the end of our stay in Vilnius, my aunt Ona’s husband arrived to drive us to our next destination, the spa town of Druskininkai in southern Lithuania. Ona and Kostas don’t even live in Vilnius, but they insisted on chauffeuring us so we wouldn’t have to rent a car.

How generous are the Lithuanians? Very generous.

We were hoping to stop and pick some mushrooms on the way (there is very good ‘shrooming in the area around Druskininkai) but the weather had been dry and there was no fungi in sight. Instead, Kostas asked if we’d like to make a short side trip to a place called “Merkin?s Piramid?” (the Pyramid of Merkin?), which was very close to our final destination.

“A pyramid? There’s a pyramid in Lithuania?” My attention was immediately piqued.

“Not big pyramid, like Egypt. Smoll pyramid,” Kostas explained. “Is spiritual place.”

“Like a church?” I asked.

“Not church, but spiritual energija, yes? Is guy, Paulius, very good guy, he built own two hands this pyramid. God told. Very special energy, people come all over Lithuania for healing.”

“You mean, it’s like a SPIRITUAL VORTEX?”

I have always wanted to visit a spiritual vortex.

“We stop, you see,” Kostas said.

So we turned off the main road and drove down a little towpath through a pine forest to the homestead of a man named Paulius. (A sidenote concerning Lithuanian towpaths: you think there is no way under God’s blue sky that your Audi sedan and the oncoming truck could both make it out of the towpath alive. But, nine times out of ten, you’d be wrong!)

So this guy, Paulius, received a message from heaven as a child telling him that a particular spot on his parents’ property was exceptional, and that he should build a pyramid over it where the special healing energy could be harnessed. It took him years, but he finally built the structure and the dome around it was completed just a few years ago.

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Merkin?s Piramid?

I especially love the juxtaposition of the traditional wooden homestead with the futuristic glass dome. It’s a good metaphor for the state of Lithuania today – a country clinging to its ancient roots while striving to be as modern a contender as possible.

There is no charge to get in (the structure was built with the help of private donations) and the holy well water available inside the dome is free, too.

Which is a good thing, because it was hotter than blazes inside that pyramid.



under the pyramid

Kostas and Some Ladies Under the Pyramid.

So did I feel the energy, you ask?

Well, yes and no. Because it was easily one hundred degrees inside the dome, I found it hard to differentiate between feelings of unity with all of creation and plain old climate induced light-headedness. But there was very peaceful, new age type of music playing and the acoustics inside the dome are phenomenal, which definitely added to the ambiance. I sent up some prayers for all the people who come here to be healed.

Maybe that’s how it works?

Afterwards, I walked a bit around the grounds, which are beautiful, while the children played on one of the wooden play structures ubiquitous to the country of Lithuania (playgrounds are everywhere – it’s great.) I saw Paulius himself working in a field and began to make my way over. After reading the history of the pyramid that’s posted on the grounds, I was still unclear as to how, exactly, he received his mandate and what, exactly, God told him.

I really wanted to know.

I patiently waited to talk to him while a couple of other tourists monopolized his time, but after awhile I got bored just standing there waiting, plus there were a lot of bees who liked my scent in that field. So I left without getting the answer to the meaning of life, which I regret.

merkines kryziai

Crosses Near the Pyramid

These crosses near the pyramid are another example of the mingling of old and new in Lithuania. (Paulius is Catholic, but for some reason the Church has not sanctioned his activities with regards to the Pyramid.)

Whether there’s something going on here or not, it’s definitely a beautiful, serene place to visit.


This is the seventh (but far from last) post in my series “Tessmans do the Fatherland,” about my family’s recent trip to Lithuania. Here, in chronological order, are the links to the first six posts:
  1. Lithuania, Day One
  2. City Building 101: The Founding of Vilnius (Gediminas Castle)
  3. Lithuanian Vacation: What We Ate
  4. Artists Sleep on Mondays (Užupis)
  5. Blood and Sunshine (The Vilnius TV Tower Memorial Site)
  6. Zip Line Trumps Castle (Trakai Castle and Tony Resort Park)
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