At trip to Brittany and Breton Lace

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This year my family and I had our first holiday in Brittany in France. Lots of people had told us it was like Cornwall but warmer and quieter. We took the ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff and by the time we disembarked, we were peeling layers off desperately trying to adjust to the sudden rise in temperature. Who knew that a few small miles could result in such a large fluctuation in weather conditions.

We drove 2 hours down to our lovely cottage in Loc Tudy which is sited on the coast about 20 minutes from Quimper. We'd taken our bikes and Littlest Daughter was happy too as we could cycle to the beach and managed to swim, dig in the sand and collect shells in roaring temperatures. She even got a little sunburn and we were glad of the Calamine lotion DB had packed (along with half a pharmacy although we had failed to pack shorts or flip flops but had plenty of coats and wellies).

Meanwhile, I headed to the Musee Bigouden in nearby Pont L'Abbe anxious to find out more about the wonderful Breton Coiffe ie: the tall lace head dress which is part of the traditional national costume of the region. I didn't have to go far to find it. Even the walls are covered in lace at Pont L'Abbe


The museum is an old castle and perfectly suited as a backdrop to all the fantastic costumes on display there. It's full of twisty stone staircases and flagstone floors. I recommend it most highly.


There were many beautiful Coiffes on display- all hand stitched Broderie Anglaise. This is a method of embroided white work on cotton which is later snipped with sharp scissors to create the lace. I think it is then starched so that it stands up stiffly to form the lovely tall cone shapes. There was a fascinating video playing on a loop that showed an elderly Breton lady arranging her hair into a tight bun on top of her head on which the Coiffe sits. The back of the hair is swept up tidily whilst the front has two ringlets which hang down to frame the face. Everything is held in place with copious pins and hair spray


There were also beautiful men's tunic's all hand embroidered with brocade swirls in the distinctive Breton Orange colour which is seen everywhere. I was priviledged to visit Le Minor which is an atelier opposite the museum, famous for the owner's personal collection of traditional Breton Costume. It also sells Broderie Anglais and exquisite needle work produced by local artisans. Again, if you ever visit, I urge you to pop in.


We visited Penmarch to see the iconic lighthouse, Pharle d'Eckmuhl. Whilst there I happened across a stall with a Breton lady Filet Crocheting and selling her wares. She tells me she is one of a dying breed of artisans. Much of the lace is created by machine now. She also told me the traditional colour of Brittany is the ecruc colour seen here and not white as you might expect.

Filet crochet is entwined with the region's social history as much as the contract knitters are in ours. Around the same period in history, Breton women were married to fishermen, involved in preparing the herring whilst creating and selling their filet crochet to subsidise their family income. So, there are many parallels and, as ever, it is the social history of these women that fascinates me.


Filet lace initially was exactly that, needle lace created on filet or net. Women were employed in net making for the fishing industry and soon they began embellishing the net with intricate embroidery. The net was stretched over a frame as in this photo.


However, when the Irish emigrated to France around the time of the Potato Famine, they brought their own Filet crochet with them alongside iconic motifs like the Rose which is immediately recognisable to those of us who are nerds about these things. The Breton women liked this new technique so much that they immediately adopted it. One assumes that it was far more portable than the frame and thus easy to employ whilst on the go, rather like our contract knitters. Far more profitable if one could keep working on something throughout the day when time allowed. 


Here is a Breton girl working on a filet lace edging which could be rolled up and popped in her pocket if she needed to be employed in other more mundane tasks. 

Obviously, I was very inspired and hot footed it to the local Magasin de laine (wool shop) where I parled a petit peu of mangled Franglais to the owner who immediately got the gist of what I was after and was delightful. She sorted me out with a 1.25 mm needle and number 20 crochet cotton, declaring number 30 'trop fine!'. I wiggled off to the local Presse and bought a copy of Le Monde de Crochet and settled down for the night. The result was not good!


My clog and coiffe wearing days were numbered. My tension was awful! I put it on the shelf until I returned home where my good friend Sioux who is a Filet whizz gave me a fantastic one to one lesson in our scrummy local cafe. She declared my hook and cotton too fine for a beginner and swapped my hook for a 1.5mm and my cotton for number 10 and Voila! What do you think?


It's a start isn't it! All I can say is the change in weight made all the difference and I have since made a cushion cover and hanging heart and am well chuffed. As ever with needlecrafts, there is always something we can learn from our ancestors. The women of our past continue to teach me something new every day!

Au revoir until next time. 

Tina B xxxx