Sewing in Paradise? Sign me up!

If you were to dream up a sewing business, would it be along the lines of sewing the summer away at the seashore in France, then cruising through the winter selling your wares on a Caribbean island? I’ve seen for myself that it can be done.

Let’s start this story at the spring break way-station that separates the hoi polli from the high cotton, Princess Juliana airport on the Caribbean island of St. Martin.

princess juliana airport st maarten

Here plane loads of Americans, Canadians and French coming off the big jets get sorted into the commuter puddle-jumpers going to the “All-Inclusive” islands (like Antigua), the “Do We Know You?” expensive islands (like Anguilla), and the “We Don’t Care If We Know You or Not, We’re French” island of St. Barthelemy, (or St. Barts to Americans and St. Barth to Euros).

We were on our way to St. Barts, so we got culled from the waiting area filled with Americans sprawled around in day-glo tank tops and white cutoffs, to enter a stairwell holding upscale families leaving for spring vacation, where the reigning multitasking travel/beach bag is apparently the Louis Vuitton tote.

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Scanning the Americans waiting, I noted style statements ranging from the willowy Upper East Side blonde in a wispy white Calypso St. Barth tunic, high-maintance long cashmere cardi and some boot/sandal contraptions; the “Seven Sisters” gal from the D.C. suburbs with “honest” salt and pepper unkempt hair, mid-calf black skirt, comfort Mary Janes and a Vuitton Speedy bag (you’re not fooling anyone, honey); the 70-something woman whose face was both pulled back and puffed out, with orange hair, white pants and lots of gold on the neck, wrist and ears; and finally me, trying to be the karma chameleon in my default camel jeans, Saint James tee, bag from the Cole Haan outlet near Legoland, and the canvas Toms shoes I knew I’d need to get the Suzuki into first gear on a 45 degree incline in hilly St. Barts.

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My one retro style statement was a favorite early 40s Mexican silver cuff, known as the “River of Life” design by William Spratling.

William Spratling "River of Life" cuffimage

Oh, how I love that thing.

As we were all sitting on the steps, bags and behinds on the gritty floor, one of the commuter airline workers came in to take a roll-call of people getting on the plane, because even if you have a seat on a specific flight, it’s still pretty much first-come, first-served.  He called out a few names and then said, “Jagger?” Pause. “Jagger, party of four?”

Well, the Jagger party never did arrive, but as we boarded the bus to the plane I caught a glimpse of the most chic woman in the place; a 70-something old-school French grand-mere, a little round in the middle and face unworked, in a classic navy linen shirt-waist dress, Hermes scarf folded expertly at the neck, Frey Wille enamel bracelet on her wrist, and ivory linen beach hat on her head. There was no room left on the bus for her and her party, so the bus driver called out that he’d come back to get them, and soon after the plane left with four empty seats.

I don’t take anything fancy when I go to St. Barts. Despite what you may have seen in the U.S. tabloids about celebrities boat-hopping and partying, that’s pretty much just during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, though here’s a picture of a famous corporate raider’s yacht that pulled up near the Grande Saline beach one morning while we were there:

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It anchored there for an hour or so with only staff in white polos running around, and I pictured the kingpin owner sitting his cabin on a satellite phone yelling at minions in New York, while his yacht’s guests remained trapped off-shore waiting for him to decide if he wanted to do anything.

After the holidays, most of the celebrities just come here to hide (like the talk show host who looked away as he jogged by us), so the rest of the time it’s boho-casual and (God forbid) not gaudy. A few simple bathing suits, tunics, tops and casual pants or skirts, maybe a dress to go out, and you’re good.

Unlike most of the Caribbean, St. Barts is officially part of mainland France, so when you go in the Super U grocery (or Super Ooo as we refer to it) the place is all French products: great wine, stinky cheese, fermier chicken, chevre-flavored cheese balls, Badoit bubbly water etc. When I went in there looking for the European sewing magazine Burda, I found the crafting journaux intermingled with the nudie magazines.

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The currency is the Euro and the locals are mostly French nationals. As soon as I get there, I put that French look on my face: pursed lips and raised eyebrows.

The beaches are open and unspoiled, the restaurants and take-out are great, and there’s not much to do, so for the most part we sit on the beach and then eat a lot.

But you can’t sit around looking at this view forever:

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So I decided to do some shopping. Most things in the shops tend to be French beach boho, with a lot of tunics cut for someone “tall and tan and young and lovely,” and apart from occasionally pulling off “lovely,” that doesn’t describe me anymore. Here are a few by French designer Isabel Marant:

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Unfortunately, my return to sewing has ruined shopping for me, because now I walk around thinking, “I’m not paying $250 for something that easy to make.” And I knew my husband would not be happy if I spent $300 on a Vanessa Bruno “Cabas” bag, which is basically an L.L. Bean canvas “Boat and Tote Bag” with sequins.

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Wandering around the port town of Gustavia, which is duty-free and therefore has an Hermes, Cartier and a number of other high-end stores (though how much you “save” in taxes is relative, considering that luxury accessories can have a mark-up as high as 90%), I stumbled upon this charming shop:

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And when you spot a shop full of clothes made from Liberty of London and French toile de Jouy fabrics, you need to check it out.

The warm, soft-spoken Popie was sitting outside, and as I looked around at the hundreds of items made of tana lawn cotton, silk prints and French linen, she politely explained that she made them all herself.

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I have to admit that I did a double-take on that, because the place was jammed with flowy silk tops like this:

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Liberty cotton tunics and dresses:

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men’s and boys button-down shirts, and old-fashioned little girl’s dresses. There were bathing suits, big beach bags, hats, hair scrunchies, even thin bracelets made from the scraps. It was pretty impressive.

My photos don’t do justice to how cute these things were, but you can see more on her website: (Popie’s Mode website)

She told me that she lived on the beach in Bordeaux, France, where her house was also her workshop and shop. She has four children, and they live in France from April through October, during which she makes this massive amount of stuff, and then they all decamp for St. Barts to ride out the winter and sell her wares in her shop.

She also sells her items in Cap Ferret on the Mediterranean, which led to more jealous qvelling on my part as that’s the setting of one of my favorite novels about Jazz-Age ex-pats, Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is The Night.” (“Tender Is The Night”) The main characters in that book were loosely based on Sarah and Gerald Murphy, wealthy Americans whose house on the Riviera became party central for the the lost generation in the 1920s. (Sarah and Gerald Murphy biography)

gerald-murphy-genevieve-carpenter-cole-porter-and-sara-murphy-in-venice-1923

If the internet is to be believed, this is a picture of Gerald Murphy, Genevieve Carpenter, Cole Porter, and Sarah Murphy, back in the day. I really want to make that striped outfit, second from the left.

Popie explained that in the spring and summer, she spends the first month developing and making patterns for that year, in all sizes, creating simple styles that are easy to sew. She orders most of her fabrics directly from Liberty of London, using either their silk (which is machine washable) or their tana lawn cotton. She also make items for the Toile de Jouy museum (out of the classic French fabric) which is in the town of Jouy en Josas near Versaille. (Toile de Jouy Museum website)

Toile de jouy bag

After she’s finished making the patterns, she spends the next month cutting out all of the pieces using a laser-cutter, which she said works fast, but if you make a mistake, the thing you’re cutting is trashed.

Then she gets going on putting them together using her industrial sewing machine, and during that period she can make up to 50 garments a day. Having looked at the garments inside and out, I’d say that apart from a few threads needing to be clipped, they’re very nicely made, with even top stitching and serged seam finishes. Here’s a look at the interior of a little girl’s dress, which has a contrasting lining on the placket:

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Popie told me that though she doesn’t have formal design and patternmaking training, her mother was seamstress who taught her eight children to sew, knit and embroider, so she learned her craft there. This whole story reinforced my observation that French women, whom Americans tend to think of as sort of laconic, are actually extremely energetic and productive with domestic arts.

So of course I had to pick up a few things, including this adorable little girl’s dress with fabric-covered buttons (which Popie makes using a press that creates fabric-covered pins):

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and a man’s shirt for my own beach attire, made from this pretty William Morris Liberty Print:

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(A note to all of those style-challenged and shlumpy American men, European men will wear a fitted shirt with flowers on it, and not worry that someone will think they’re gay! And they look hot!)

No doubt it’s easier for a mother to start and maintain an entrepreneurial business like this when backed by a social system with easily available healthcare, child care and education. I hope as things go that direction in the U.S., there will be more women like Popie earning a living at their sewing machines on U.S. shores.

When we landed back in Boston, it was freezing cold with more snow in the forecast. I’ve decided that  the only way to bring on spring is to start sewing for it.  If Popie can sew 50 garments a day, I can certainly get a cotton dress done by May, don’t you think?

How’s the sewing going in your part of the world?

11 thoughts on “Sewing in Paradise? Sign me up!

  1. 50 garments a day?! All styles drafted herself? That is impressive to say the least. Her stuff looks adorable, I would most certainly be tempted to buy if I were there. This may sounds small-minded, but I sometimes forget that the main client for Liberty fabrics (and other manufacturers) is probably the commercial sewing sector and not us home sewers. It’s really cool to see the same fabrics offered to us being used in shops (and worn) all over the world!

    • I know, it’s pretty unbelievable, though she did tell me that her kids help her during the summer.
      I’d like to get my hands on some of that Liberty silk now that I know it’s machine washable. She said it doesn’t need ironing, either. That will come when I’m over my self-imposed fabric buying moratorium (which has been broken a number of times already…).

  2. FIFTY A DAY? Wow. I’m going to need a moment to pick myself up off the floor.
    I do rather love the sight of a well dressed man in a fitted shirt that isn’t in a solid shade of blue…. sadly it’s not a sight I get to see very often either! You just can’t go wrong with Liberty fabrics. I actually sat next to the CEO of liberty of london (she was a lovely lady) on a flight between paris and new york… I was a little star struck!! There is the fabulous liberty website, but there’s also shaukat.co.uk. I’ve bought from both before and they’re equally excellent. I would recommend having a look 🙂
    Loved reading this post – thanks!

    • I was a little surprised by the 50 a day number myself, although we were speaking two languages so something could have gotten lost in translation. I’m going to check out that other website. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Fifty sounds like a lot, but I’m sure she has a system where she sews all of one kind and does it like an assembly line. Still, pretty incredible!

    Gosh, but O love those buttons and how they fasten in the trim. Great stuff!

    • I think having everything designed for efficiency and cut in advance helps speed things up. I wish I had taken more pictures, but you can see her other designs on her website, modeled by her cute children.

  4. I love following your links and seeing where they go, Julie. The information on William Spratling is so interesting: I’m going to keep an eye out now for his designs in silver. And I’m definitely a Liberty fan, with a small stash, mostly bought from Shaukat. The problem is that I usually buy one meter at a time, which limits the possibilities. I’m inspired by Popie to just find a simple woven top pattern and make it up repeatedly.

    • Thanks Patricia! I’ve been collecting Mexican silver jewelry from the 30s – 50s, and there are some wonderful designs out there. Spratling has been discovered in recent years, but other designers were equally talented, including Hector Aguilar, Los Castillos, Victoria, etc. I’ll have to blog about that as most of them have identifying watermarks so you can tell who designed and made the piece. My mom used to wear Mexican silver the 60s, and it’s really timeless. I never get tired of the pieces I’ve collected.
      You know, I think the Liberty fabric would work well with Japanese pattern book designs, don’t you? The print would jazz them up a little bit. I’ll be interested to see what you cook up with that fabric!

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