Don’t Be Crewel: Erica Wilson, William the Conqueror, and Me

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when everybody was “into” crafts and needlework, Erica Wilson’s crewel embroidery kits were all over the place. I remember that they were pricey and very attractive, bordering on cute—lots of bouquets of flowers, with some fauna thrown in. The finished products, which could be framed as wall art or made into pillows, differed from the cross-stitched sampler sort of embroidery by using woolen yarns rather than silk or cotton to produce a still life that was both highly textured and highly decorative. Erica Wilson was an Englishwoman who came to the United States to teach needlework technique; she intended to stay for only a year but soon turned herself into the Julia Child of the needle arts. She owned a house on Nantucket, and I believe her Nantucket boutique is still going strong. (Wilson died in 2011.)

During the needlework renaissance, I was living in San Francisco and not making very much money. I considered the Erica Wilson kits beyond my means, and anyway my crafts of choice were spinning and weaving, although I also experimented with tie-dye—who didn’t?—and sewing. Tie-dye required boxes of Rit, but in my spinning and weaving class I was learning how to use natural dyes like saffron, madder, and cochineal. I never attempted indigo, which was much more complicated and required large amounts of urine as, I think, a fixative, although I did admire the pretty color it produced. We did our spinning on drop spindles and learned how to make frame looms from pieces of lumber and wing nuts. It was fun, and while I never became a weaver I retained an appreciation for the techniques of the great tapestry workshops of the Middle Ages and for the beauty of the work they produced.

When I read that the Bayeux Tapestry was not technically a tapestry at all but instead a large piece of crewel embroidery, I was horrified. The Bayeux Tapestry was supposed to tell a story of many chapters, and the crewel embroidery I remembered was certainly appropriate only for stories of single paragraphs, sort of like flash fiction. But I learned that crewel embroidery is at least a thousand years old and had its heyday in 17th-century England, long before Erica Wilson was born. What makes it “crewel” is the wool embroidery yarn, whether thickly plied or single strand, and the embroidery stitches in the Bayeux Tapestry are very fine so that, for example, the stitch used to fill in the color of the horses doesn’t call attention to itself. The horses look like horses, not like woolen concoctions. The natural dyes that were used—madder, weld, and woad—are still vibrant. (Indigo had not yet been imported from the East.) The tapestry contains 626 people, 202 horses, and 41 ships. It is truly a book of many chapters.

How does any of this involve me? William the Conqueror, the hero of the Bayeux Tapestry, was, I believe, one of my ancestors. That’s not a big deal. The old kings and queens were fruitful and multiplied, and most of us are descended from at least one of them. It is unlikely that I have inherited so much as a micro-smidgeon of William’s DNA, but I feel that I have a stake in the tapestry. This is my great-grandpa we’re talking about, after all. In one panel, William’s army is clearing land to use as a battlefield. A house is in the way, so they burn it down. We see a woman and child escaping the flames. In another scene, William’s army attacks the enemy soldiers by hacking off the heads of their horses. I would like to think that no animals were harmed in the making of this tapestry, and no people, either. But this is history, crewel and cruel, and we can’t go back and change it.

Juliette Binoche, No. 43 (Moulin Rouge), and Me

Juliette Binoche is one of my favorite actresses, and definitely my favorite French actress. I think the first film I saw her in was The Horseman on the Roof, which had something to do with European history and something to do with cholera. She was great as the nurse in The English Patient, whether scrambling a precious egg for her patient or dangling from a rope high inside a church’s dome, ecstatic at the beauty of the Renaissance frescoes that had survived war’s destruction.

In preparation for our trip to France, Joe and I decided to watch only French films, whatever we could get from Netflix, with English subtitles of course. Juliette Binoche starred in at least two of these, including the beautiful but enigmatic Certified Copy, in which a couple who may or may not have once been married go on a day-long drive through the Italian countryside. She is French, a gallery owner living in Italy with a young son. He is English, an art historian on a book and lecture tour. In one scene Binoche’s character goes into the ladies’ room at a restaurant and applies lipstick. We see this from the perspective of the mirror. The lipstick is an intense shade of red, and Binoche applies it generously, at one point smoothing it with her finger. I had forgotten that women do this. I wear lipstick, of course, but I tend to favor colors with names like Saint Nude and Nude Blush, colors that don’t need to be applied carefully because mistakes won’t show. Possibly it was the mirror’s eye view that made the lipstick scene the high point of the film for me. I made a point of watching the credits at the end and learned that Binoche’s makeup was from Make Up For Ever.

So Joe and I were walking down a shopping street in the Marais a few days ago, and we came upon a Make Up For Ever store. I just had to go inside. The nice sales clerk, who was fluent in English, didn’t know which color lipstick Juliette Binoche had worn in Certified Copy and hadn’t seen the film, but she suggested a couple of shades that fit my description, including Make Up For Ever’s classic red, No. 43 (Moulin Rouge). I asked her if she thought I could carry it off, and she said I could—well she had to say that, I guess—and I bought it.

We are on our way to Normandy and Brittany, planning to see the Bayeux Tapestry and Mont Saint-Michel and then possibly the Loire Valley before heading back to Paris. In Paris we will have a treat. We have tickets to see Juliette Binoche in Antigone at the Theatre de Ville. The play is in English with French surtitles; the script was written by Anne Carson, based on her translation from the ancient Greek. I’m sure I will enjoy Binoche’s performance regardless of her lip color. As for me, I will be wearing No. 43. When I started this trip, I said I wanted it to change my life. I think it already has.

How To Be Sorry In French

Last Christmas, when our trip to Paris was still in the planning stages, my brother, Edward, and his girlfriend, Susan, gave Joe and me a French language map, a laminated collection of all the phrases a traveler would need to know when meeting people, changing money, eating out, shopping, or dealing with emergencies. We already knew how to say “good morning” and “thank you,” but the French phrase for “I’m sorry” was unfamiliar to us. Je suis désolé sounded like something we might write on a sympathy card, not something we’d toss off after accidentally stepping on a stranger’s foot.

Last Friday was the big day in all the Apple Stores, including those in Paris, and we were there early. I wanted to see the Apple Watch in person, compare the various models, and try on a couple of the bands. It was great fun! But as I was taking a last look at one of the watch tables, an Apple employee took a step backward and accidentally stepped on my foot. Je suis désole, he said, and he really, truly did look désolé. In fact, he looked so désolé that I forgot all about my foot, which really didn’t hurt at all, and tried to console him in his desolation. 

Now I think I understand a few things about how Parisians interact with one another. Je suis désolée that we will be leaving this city of surprising courtesies just as we are beginning to feel at home.

Being In Two Places At One Time

I am well into a virtual walking tour from Le Puy, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, with a further trip to Finisterre. I reached Léon, Spain, on April 1, during a long layover at Heathrow Airport on my actual trip from Ithaca to Paris. Right now I’m virtually between Léon and Santiago but actually in Paris. I’m thinking this is sort of like being stuck inside of Mobile while wanting to be in Memphis, which was pretty much the pattern of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, as I think I remember one reviewer saying, but that was a long time ago.

Neither virtually nor actually, but truly, madly, deeply, I am not stuck anywhere. I am where I want to be–in Paris and in Léon–and there are a few other places I would also like visit all at the same time. I think that’s what life is like, and while living in the moment has its benefits it also has its limitations. Why should geography deter us when the mind can fly faster than a speeding bullet or a powerful locomotive?

Three days ago we took a day trip from Paris to Chartres, toured the Cathedral, saw the sights. One sight I didn’t expect to see, although perhaps I should have, was a marker in the sidewalk indicating that Chartres is on the route to Santiago de Compostela–not my route, which began much closer to the Spanish border, but the one that starts in Paris. Pilgrims can begin anywhere they want. Where you are is always the starting point, and the journey radiates outward.