Before Bridgerton, there was Mawmaw Margie's toile bathroom panelling.
Today, because of decorating magazines and Instagram, people take far more photos of their bathrooms than they did back when I was a kid. In fact, no one took photos of their bathrooms or in their bathrooms when I was a kid unless it was one of those pictures of a baby playing with plastic bath toys which you hoped would never be developed down at the drugstore, put into an album, and shown to your future partner.
So, my point is that we have no record of Mawmaw Margie’s bathroom decor, but I will ask you to imagine a house built in the 1970s in the white saltine cracker box style with an actual bathroom with running hot water and a bathtub. And someone decided that the walls, which were a press-wood panelling in faux maple throughout the rest of the house, should be distinctive in the bathroom. Apparently, a builder’s supply house at the time stocked panelling in sheets which depicted blue figures on a white ground. And in the middle of a coal-mining and railroad region of Southwest Virginia, you could go into Mawmaw Margie’s bathroom and pretend you were in England in a Regency ballgown being pushed on a swing by a handsome gentleman wearing a wig and tights.
Later in life, through reading the aforementioned decorating magazines, I came to learn that this kind of imagery is called toile or, more fully, toile du Jouy (there's a clever article about toile du Jouy here). You can find this distinctive imagery on plates, curtains, sofa cushions, wallpaper, and 1970s wood paneling in Mawmaw Margie’s bathroom. I’m tempted to stop by her old house the next time I’m in Richlands and ask if the panelling is still there. Or not, because asking to see other people’s bathrooms may still cross a line even in the Instagram era.
Actually, toile or imagery of rural or romantic scenes in a single color on a white background comes from France, but like many trends, toile moved across the sea to England and across the ocean to America. This past December, I stopped by my favorite sewing shop in London, Stag & Bow, and they had scraps of decorator fabric for sale. So, I picked out a purple toile depicting a rural couple walking though a farmyard. And now I’ve used the scene for the center of a pillow which I’ve added to my shop.
When I look at the couple in purple toile, I think they are very lucky to have shoes. They’re lucky to have clean shoes. Actually, they are very clean all around. But, of course, toile presents an idealized view of rural life. And it certainly seemed that way when I traced its outlines in Mawmaw’s bathroom. I liked to dream of other places and times where everything was different than pleather kitchen chairs, processed turkey sandwiches with Kool-Aid, and summers so hot that my sister and I tried to not to move from the living room carpet lest we drown in a pool of our own sweat.
Mawmaw Margie’s toile panelling was our Disney-Princess-time-travel-to-foreign-lands-where-people-never-wore-terrycloth-jumpsuits-panorama.
I’d love to see it just one more time.
When I look at the toile couple on my newly stitched pillow, I am still a bit jealous of them, even though I do realize that their lives were far from ideal. It’s just that I like to think they knew the local names for the birds they saw along the shore and they could identify plants which were good for dye or for eating. They knew when nettles were best for tea, for soup, for light green dye, and for stripping to make fibre. Now, I get that not all of these people of the imaginary past knew all of those things. But, they did have to know some of these things if they wanted to weave cloth, mark the seasons, plant at the correct time, doctor themselves and each other, or soothe a baby.
When I went out to the shore the other day and looked through my quirky vintage opera glasses ($3 at the boot fair!) at the birds on the sands at Morecambe Bay, I couldn’t tell if they were sandpipers or oystercatchers. I understand that there are apps which will tell me and I can look this up in books or online. And I do and I have – they were sandpipers. But I have come to appreciate what it means to be raised up in this knowledge – knowing this like knowing not to put your hand in a fire or step on a snake.
So, this past year, I have set about schooling myself in wild things (samples of my naturally dyed fibers above). I have collected plants along the hedgerows and sat down with books and tried to find out their names (Plant identification apps are not as good as everyone claims they are, I promise.) During a rare (between lockdowns) visit with my sister and brother in law and my niece who are all local to this area, we put all of the plants on the table and spent hours looking through books these plant names. Some of them, my English family knew from their long history in this place. This was one of my best days of 2020. I started poring over photos and illustrations of plants in natural dye reference books. And then I went out and found them and turned them into dye for fabric and wool. (Above you can see my dye pot of yellow onion skins, dandelions, hypericum, and red dahlias. They made an excellent electric yellow dye.)
At the beginning of 2020, I’d barely heard of a sloe, by the end of the year, I could show my sister-in-law a piece of silk dyed with sloes and speak about how it made a purple grayer in tone than silk dyed with blackberries. In fact, I had a whole basket of textiles and I could tell the difference between a peach-colored fibre I had dyed with bay leaves and baking soda versus one dyed with birch bark. (Below you can see my sloe-dyed fabric mordanted with soy milk and modified with vinegar, baking soda, iron, copper.)
To what end? For me, there is something about knowing where I am. My life used to be ruled by constant movement, revolving doors, temporary homes, flying visits, and taking wing. I planned tours which took me on adventures for two weeks or three months. Generally, I tried to coordinate these tours with good weather to ensure gigs would be well attended and the Jeep with Airstream in tow wouldn’t have to brave ice or snow. I never saw the peonies bloom in my side yard in Nashville. I rarely caught the azaleas in bloom either. But, luckily I usually missed out on the hoards of Nashville summer mosquitos. I did see ocotillos blooming in New Mexico and I loved to see my friend Virginia’s irises blooming in Arlington, Virginia, and my friend Anet’s irises blooming in Atascadero, California. But these nature shows were chance happenings in my year.
Even when I was a kid, my sister and I spent the summer in Virginia rather than in Boston where we went to elementary school. Because of work, school, or my restless nature, I’ve rarely spent a whole year in one town. Apart from a couple of brief forays to London in 2020, by March 18th I will have spent an entire year in Carnforth, Lancashire, in the Northwest of England, along the Kent Estuary and Morecambe Bay (see photo above), the largest tidal plain in England.
I can tell you that the buddleja here make a more mustard yellow than the same plant in Sussex (Sussex yellow below). It’s hard to find alder trees along the River Keer, but easy to find elderberries and blackthorn. The animals eat all of the cobnuts before humans can get to them. I’ve seen the dangerous Morecambe high tide cover the road in minutes and I’ve spun the fleece of a marsh-grazing Texel sheep. Last year, I watched the daffodils come and go. This year, I will collect their fading blooms because I now know that they make yellow dye. I’ll harvest nettles in the fall and let them ret (rot) in the shade until I can pull the fiber from their stalks. And I will get to grips with the difference between these shore birds. Last night I dreamed of fantastical giant yellow flowers coming out of the ground beside balloon-sized tomatoes growing in trees. I have plants on the brain.
In a year when there is little chance of playing live shows, where I’m way down on the vaccination priority list, where international travel feels heavy with risk, I have plans. These plans look like balls of wool, recycled cotton and linen cloth, hand-me-down silk scraps, and a simmering pot of something foraged from the hedgerow. This year, I am a chemist, naturalist, and an alchemist. There have been several moments like when a flock of geese flew overhead or I actually saw the chalk stream where Britons once washed their nettle-dyed fabric, where I broke down in tears and said to the Englishman, “I am so grateful to have seen this. I’m so glad I made it this far.”
I am so grateful I made it this far. I am so glad you did too. Let’s keep going. Be safe. Be good.
With kindness from your friend,
P.S. Hey, you say, what about your music? Last year, I wrote dozens of songs! Yep, I sure did. And I’ve recorded bunches of them, too! I’ve been collaborating all year with my friend, Alfred John Hickling, from York, England. Last year, I also made videos to go with three of these songs and you can watch them here. I’ve come to realize during this unexpected enforced break from touring that, in the past, I released albums so that I could travel around and play the songs on the albums for people in real life! But since playing to rooms or festivals crowded with people seems like a faint dream right now, I’ll be bringing some of these albums out one way or another throughout 2021. Watch this space!
P.P.S. As I mentioned, I haven’t been touring for a year now because of Covid risks and travel restrictions. It would be incredibly wonderful if you would visit my shop for songs, pillows, prints, and cards, and keep my music going!