Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Back when women sewed their own clothes

Drawings by Dominique Corbasson
When I was in junior high (we didn't call it middle school then, and it ran from 7th through 9th grades), girls were forced to take home economics every year.  Boys had to take one semester of it, and girls got to have that semester in the woodshop, where we purported learned how to run a jigsaw.  That's all I remember.  Lord only knows what the boys were taught to do.  Not much, judging by their results as husbands (or so their wives tell me).
     But we girls were taught how to be Perfect Little Homemakers, the term already preferred over Housewives. We were taught to cook, although all I can remember of those two and a half years, one hour a day, five days a week, is White Sauce 1, 2 and 3. Mine were always lumpy. It was my weak point and still, after years in France (where I’m known as a passable chef, even among friends who are chefs), I still pause in trepidation if any recipe calls for a béchamel sauce, which is basically a White Sauce with a bit of nutmeg and a French accent thrown in.
     We also were taught to sew our own clothes, right down to how to adjust a store-bought pattern if you, as a flawed female specimen, had too much junk in the trunk or your "girls" weren’t Hugh Hefner-worthy.... or both. (I still remember a friend, Irene, with a 19" waist, but mine was only 21" then, so...) I did better in that, even though I once sewed the sleeves into a dress the wrong way twice in a row - left with right and right with left - but the third time was a charm.

All this came in handy when I found myself in France, and - after three moves - in Montmartre. Once upon a time it was a tiny village on top of the butte, the hill, with windmills running down the slopes. At its foot, a few more small villages grew up, including one on the south-east side called the Village d’Orsel. In time, an expanding Paris spilled over into Montmartre and the Village d’Orsel got a covered market, the Marché St. Pierre*. And that market in turn lent its name to what has become the fabric district of Paris.
     Take the métro to the Anvers station and walk up the rue de Steinkerque, where fabric shops still alternate with ever-encroaching souvenir shops. After crossing the rue d’Orsel - the main road of the village of the same name - you’ll arrive at the park at the foot of the Sacré-Coeur. Turn right and you’ll see that old covered market built in 1868 by a disciple of Baltard, architect of the famous Les Halles markets. Just beyond that is a large blue building which many people know as Le Marché St. Pierre and others just as Chez Dreyfus.
Bed linen section
     The building’s real name is Dreyfus, Déballage du Marché St. Pierre, so all of them are right. There’s been a Chez Dreyfus for over a century, but the building is only about 60 years old. I’ve heard about a huge fire that once broke out, killing many shoppers and staff, but I couldn’t find a record of it anywhere. If fire ever broke out today, the results might be the same. The floors are bare wood - which I’ve never seen waxed - and all the counters and racks are also made of wood. For kindling, it would be hard to do better than the store’s 50,000 bolts of fabric, stacked one on top of another.
     And it would be quite a fire, because this Temple du Tissu (temple of fabric) covers a total of 2,500 m2 (27,000 sq ft) over five floors. The cheapest fabrics are on the ground floor level - both inside and out - to draw shoppers in with prices from 99 centimes to 3 euros per meter... that’s $1.30 - $4 per yard. "We promote the atmosphere of a warehouse. We want shoppers to feel like they’re at the market," explained manager David Bord. "We even have products by famous designers, at a fraction of the price."
     The store advertises itself as handicapped accessible, and it does have an elevator, which was run by Monsieur Paul for over 30 years, and maybe still is... I always take the stairs. (Luckily for me, the bed linen is only on the second floor.) But I don’t see how a wheelchair could ever make it between the stands of fabric. It’s always overcrowded and hectic. The salesclerks, yardstick in one hand and a sharp pair of scissors in the other, pivot and swerve their way through customer after customer, sending them off to pay at the central register, where they risk being insulted by a series of grumpy cashiers.
     You can find pretty much anything at Dreyfus: wide fabrics that I’ve personally used to sew my own sheets, others that were perfect for curtains for my windows, terrycloth if you feel like making your own towels, fun fabrics for creating disguises or costumes, even oilcloth for baby-proof tablecloths... as well as any other kind of fabric you might need to become a Paris fashion plate. If somehow they don’t have what you want, you can go next door to Moline, founded in 1879, or across the street to Reine, whose queenly name may have something to do with the higher quality of goods available. But Dreyfus remains the legend.
     With the rise of ready-to-wear fashion in the 1960s, sewing fell out of favor somewhat. But now interest in sewing-your-own is staging a come-back. Dreyfus, Moline and Reine probably have a long life ahead of them.
     If you’re at all interested in what real life in France is like and you’re up visiting the Sacré-Coeur and the artists on the Place du Tertre, drop by Dreyfus on your way back to the métro. It’s a short detour, and you’ll get a colorful eyeful of everyday French living that most tourists don’t see.

Dreyfus Déballage du Marché Saint Pierre
2 rue Charles Nodier
75018 Paris

Tissue Reine
3-5 place Saint-Pierre
75018 Paris

Tissus Moline
1-3-5-7 et 2-4-6 rue Livingstone
75018 Paris

Gymnase Ronsard
in old Marché St. Pierre covered market

*Half of the old covered market
has been a public gymnasium
since the market closed.
The other half provided
parking for garbage trucks
when I moved into the neighborhood.
But in 1986 the garbage trucks drove off
and the premises were turned into the
 Musée d’Art Naïf Max Fourny,
also known as the Halle St. Pierre.


  1. My mother would LOVE it. She sewed many of our clothes and they looked "professional." She still has her own *mini warehouse* of fabric and yarn.

  2. I don't think anyone who is a fabric addict could just "stop by on your way to the Metro." I spent hours in there and on the adjoining streets and had to buy an extra bag in which to haul fabric home. Sandy, you've seen it on the chairs in the TV room, and I'll show you the jacket that the vendor on the street swore was Chanel fabric. I, too, still have a mini warehouse of fabric even after giving a lot to my daughter.Love this post.