On a warm June morning, Elsa surveys the lavender patch in front of her childhood home. In a few weeks, when the iconic purple flowers are in full bloom, Elsa will create her fuseaux de lavande, rekindling the art of making lavender wands in Provence.
A long lost craft brought back to life
Inspired by a dusty book about French handiwork and by the abundance of lavender around the family property, 10-year-old Elsa and her mother decided to try their hand at creating lavender wands. Elsa immediately took to the process. Mentored by her grandmother, who had practiced the craft years before, Elsa spent summers perfecting her handiwork. The fuseaux became a popular holiday and birthday gift for family and friends.
Years later when Elsa was 17, an enterprising high school boyfriend, Romaric, suggested she expand her hobby and sell the wands at the local market. Armed with a basket of fuseaux, a couple of chairs and a table, the young couple set up their stand at the Saint Remy Wednesday market. To attract shoppers, Romaric suggested Elsa actually work on the fuseaux at the stand. Shoppers – locals and tourists alike – were charmed and intrigued to rediscover the long-lost craft. The fuseaux sold out in a matter of hours and a summer job was born. Elsa left Provence for university and a career in film production but returned home to practice her craft every summer. In 2009, she launched Fuseaux de Lavande and returned to Provence for good.
History of lavender in Provence
Lavender has a long history in Provence. As early as Roman times, the plant was known for its medicinal and restorative properties. Romans added lavender to their bath water for its pleasant scent and skin softening qualities. During the middle ages and Renaissance, washerwomen laid the laundry upon lavender bushes to scent the clothes. Bunches of dried lavender were placed in cupboards and chests of drawers to chase away insects and protect from moths. Lavender, sometimes in combination with other herbs, was believed to ward off the plague. In the 17th century, French women sought a more decorative way to utilize lavender. The ribbon wrapped fuseaux de lavande became a popular and attractive way to extend the herb’s healthful and odor-ridding benefits.
The mild climate, warm sun and loose soil give rise to vast fields of lavender throughout Provence but especially in the area around Sault. Almost every home garden in the region boasts a patch of lavender.
In spite of the abundance of the plant, the fuseaux de lavande fell out of use over time. They became nothing more than a quaint memory. Perhaps because replicating an old-fashioned fuseau de lavande is a time-consuming and painstaking effort, lavender sachets came into vogue. Filled with dried lavender blossoms and/or seeds, these inexpensive, colorful sachets are found in every market and souvenir store in Provence.
Making lavender wands
The creation of an authentic and artisanal fuseau de lavande is done completely by hand and can only be made with fresh lavender. In Provence, the lavender season is short, only about 3 months long. Elsa picks the lavender early in the morning and immediately sets to work. The stems must be pliable so that they may be bent to completely cover and enclose the lavender blossoms. In keeping with tradition, Elsa uses only silk ribbon from Satab, a century old French ribbon factory. The jewel-toned ribbons are woven through the lavender stems, further enclosing the blossoms. Unlike sachets, Elsa’s fuseaux retain their potency for 5-6 years, enhanced by the ribbons which maintain their vibrant color for the duration.
Elsa’s fuseaux come in two sizes. Each fuseau takes an hour or more to complete. The labor intensive process coupled with lavender’s short growing season limit production and the wands sell out quickly.
You can find Elsa and her fuseaux at weekly markets around Provence. Her stand is always busy as savvy 21st century shoppers seek to eschew mass produced trinkets in favor of authentic and unusual crafts for gifts or to gently scent their own homes.
By Martine Bertin-Peterson of Gout et Voyage, cultural and gourmet tours of Provence where you’ll make heart-warming memories and visit the most magical markets…