On a cold, crisp April morning, with numb fingers, and an almost feverish determination I searched for buttons. Muscling locals aside I pounced on another matching set. My fingers became blue, nose snuffly, but the button search went on and on, till every button had been turned and either discarded or bagged as a treasure found.
The assistant in the shop took the bulging bags and pointed me to the heater unit to thaw out whilst she weighed and tagged the buttons. I shivered and dripped but felt elated. Over 100 buttons – 10 buttons per euro, what a bargain. Never mind what I would do with 100 buttons, it was the elation of finding such a shop in the first place. Mes Folles De Soeurs (which translates as My crazy sisters”), is on a corner and easy to miss. The boxes are outside, full of buttons, notions and zips. When the rain comes, you get wet, but who cares when you are a button seeker, fabric fan or love material things.
The Paris fabric area Montmartre
The Paris fabric area in Montmartre, just below Sacre Coeur is a revelation. A whole district devoted to fabric, tassels, ribbons, bias-binding and buttons. And it’s been this way for many years. In 1882 Emile Zola published Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Paradise) telling the tale of the rise of a fabric empire in this part of Paris.
For me it’s like a candy store, the choice is endless. My pulse raced taking it all in. Boxes on the pavement and on the first floor were labelled “Coupons”, remnants at 1-3 euros. For patch-workers there are packs of little squares at discounts and buttons are sold by weight.
Don’t be shy, roll up your sleeves, rummage and dig deep for those bargains and savour the fabrics. Lawns, toiles, wools, jersey, cashmere, silk, gabardine, leather, they are all here and more. And where best to start than Marché Saint Pierre, six floors devoted to inspiring sew-ers, old-hands and those new to the craft.
Here you can compare textures, weights, colour, prices and come home with bolt upon bolt of fabrics or just a few remnants to make a cushion to remind you of Paris.
The ancient textile stores of Paris
In the late 1800s the store Marché Saint Pierre became the byword for fabric. Today, broad beamed wood floors and old cash registers in cubicles where you go to pay are historic throw-backs that make this place magical. I hovered by the assistant who measured and cut, metre rule in hand and large haberdashery scissors to the ready.
In the 1930’s Tissus Reine, a more up-market shop came on the scene. Again, six floors, the fabrics are more designer and more organized. Here your fabric is cut and held for you. A small hand-written ticket is issued and you queue to pay at an old-fashioned cashier desk. If you buy notions [all those little bits n bobs you need for sewing but can’t recall their name), you are given a basket that you fill, leaving it with an assistant, who tots up the whole on a tab, like adding beers to the menu. The cashiers still use the “air” system to send notes to the accounting office, an overhead (and several decades ago, pioneering) transporting system that sends pods of notes across the ceiling and into the offices for counting.
Women on a mission for fabrics in Paris
On the ground floor, little mannequins are draped in exquisite miniature outfits made from the fabrics available. The store is packed with women who it seems have the same enthusiasm as me and the shop does a roaring trade. On the upper floor is a bigger pattern section – Vogue and Butterick included.
I love the old-fashioned terrazzo floors here, made from multiple chips of marbles and tile. You could be in the 1950’s with all the hands-on measuring, wooden cabinetry and the bump-bump sound of fabric bolts being turned and measured on cutting tables. Tables are piled high, shelves are stuffed with pins, bobbins, tape measures, pin cushions, embroidery thread and dedicated button sections – neatly labelled and tubed and not sold in silly packets of four.
Next MBF Decoration – where I bought an ornate jacquard Belgian fabric. It was too expensive to buy a meter, so I asked for a small sample that included most of the repeat design. This piece cost me 60 euros, but I felt I would faint if I had to leave it behind!
For embellished and heavy-weighted upholstery fabrics, Ronsard Decors – Les Meruelles De St Pierre – covered all my bias-binding and notions needs.
This place is paradise for a seamstress – Zola was quite right!
Judi Castille is a freelance writer, illustrator and landscape/farm photographer with a passion for gardening and cheese. She lives in Creuse, Limousine in the heart of cow country and blogs at: judicastille.com