One of my goals for this year has been to take quilting classes from some of the best instructors in the industry so that I could learn from various experienced quilt artists and get exposed to diverse teaching styles and techniques. I was thrilled to discover Crafty Retreats in central France and a class with Sheena Norquay, one of the UK’s top free motion quilting instructors. What I did not expect was the absolutely perfect holiday guest experience.
At this point I need to make a confession – I am not really a quilter – I am a piecer. What I enjoy is piecing together the patchwork quilt top (and usually the back as well). But I am not very skilled at the quilting part of it – that is, taking the sandwich of quilt top, batting and quilt back, and beautifully sewing them together. For any project larger than a placemat, I have given my quilts to a professional quilter for quilting with a very large computerized machine (called long arm quilting). As a result, the quilts come back with perfect quilting – the quilting design is evenly spaced and the stitches are totally uniform, something I was never able to successfully achieve on my home sewing machine. I know why I wasn’t achieving the quilting results I was looking for – as with everything it requires practice. So, I thought that if I took a week-long class on free motion quilting, I would be forced to get the practice that I was not doing on my own and would also get the benefit of learning from a top industry professional. Of course it also did not hurt that the class location was in a part of France I had not visited before.
Crafty Retreats is the brainchild of two very lovely and talented British ladies, Philippa Adams and Frances Hamel. Philppa is the creative force of the business with degrees in Graphic Design and Fine Arts. Fran is an accomplished degreed musician and the chef and hospitality director for the business. Both of these ladies are an inspiration. They have an amazing entrepreneurial spirit – Crafty Retreats is their second successful business together. Independently, Philippa also established a graphic design business in Singapore where she lived for a number of years, and then after selling the business, sailed half way around the world with her father for six months. Fran is a fantastic cook and baker, not to mention providing exceptional musical entertainment in the evening. Fran and Philippa spend the summer months in France running Crafty Retreats, and the winter months in Cornwall, England where they just started a similar program called Proper Crafty. Between the two locations, they offer a variety of craft instruction: traditional and art quilting, felting, lino printing, embroidery and even a web design class.
Located in the hamlet of Mallety, Crafty Retreats is about a 30 minute drive from the city of Limoges, in the Limousin area of central France (more about Limoges in the next post). Limoges International airport is serviced by flights from various locations throughout the UK as well as Paris, and the Limoges train station has direct connections to Paris also. Mallety is a small and friendly community in a peaceful setting surrounded by woods and farmland for miles around.
With about a dozen buildings and 11 residents, the hamlet’s population has more animals than people: four dogs, 7 domestic cats, 7 wild cats, two tortoises, 6 chickens, 3 pigeons, and numerous Limousin cattle, for which the area is known. Most impressive though, was the strong sense of community shared by the residents.
Each evening after dinner, as desert was served (the deserts were phenomenal), a serving would be set aside for Grand Pere (grandfather). Grand Pere’s wife had recently passed away, and now the whole community was helping to look out for his welfare. On another occasion, on one of the days that was dedicated to sightseeing, two other residents, Brian and Ingrid, brought home made quiches for our lunch since Fran would not have as much time to prepare our meal after helping to drive us around all morning. And, throughout the week, the residents would curiously come by to see what we were making and to check on our progress, or even to join us for dinner. It was a privilege to experience and to be included in this tight knit community, even if only for a week.
I was looking forward to and expecting a great quilting class, but was not expecting the impeccable hospitably that was also provided by Philippa and Fran. First of all, absolutely everything was included in the cost of the class: 7 nights accommodations with included luxury toiletries, all delicious meals prepared with fresh local ingredients, all drinks with the meals which included wine and local alcoholic cider, fresh baked cookies for a snack each day with plenty of hot tea and coffee and of course, the class instruction.
In addition, all the necessary supplies for the class (sewing machines, thread, fabric, batting, needles, paints, cutting mats and rotary cutters,irons, etc.) were also included which is unusual, as were the transfers to and from the airport or train station and two sightseeing outings to nearby points of interest in Limoges and St. Leonard de Noblat, all of which were part of the program fee. When I expressed an interest in also visiting nearby Oradur-sur-Glane they went out of their way to take me there (another upcoming post), driving 30 min each way and spending the afternoon sightseeing with me and one other classmate.
Their property includes two buildings which can house up to ten students in either single or shared rooms. The original property was a family holiday home, and when the adjoining farm went up for sale, the ladies purchased that land and associated buildings and started Crafty Retreats.
Their website shows the run down condition of the farm buildings when they first purchased the property and the amazing transformation they implemented over the course of three years. They did much of the work themselves, so add architect, stone mason, plumber, electrician and interior designer to their list of accomplishments.
I requested a single room and was given what I think was the nicest room in the place – a large room in the original family holiday home. This house, also renovated and refurbished by Philippa, is about 400 years old, built of local stone with walls about two feet thick and beautifully decorated with regional antiques and some of Philippa’s original art pieces. My room was huge, outfitted with a very large and comfy bed with crisp French linens, and, best of all, bookshelves with a variety of crafting and quilting books in English. Since no one had the other bedroom on that floor, I had the bathroom all to myself – a totally modern space with a large soaking tub, multi spray separate shower, a heated towel rack and the best smelling soap, shampoo and lotion – a daily spa like experience. The other ladies in the class stayed in the farmhouse rooms, and all were also similarly pleased with their accommodations.
The original barn on the property was converted to a bright workshop that supplied everything we needed and then some. The natural light from the wall of windows provided ample, cheerful natural light that made it easy to see the details of what we were doing. There was a selection of sewing machines that we could choose from so that we could work with a brand we were familiar with-another unique and thoughtful feature of the workshop. The second floor of the barn provided additional work space for tasks other than sewing.
At various times we would also be visited in the workshop by the other family members: Oscar and TuTu the dogs, Bubbles, one of the cats, and occasionally on sunny days, the tortoise would also climb up the stairs and slowly wander around the room (had to watch where you walked so you would not step on her).
The quilting class with Sheena Norquay was everything I hoped for. Sheena is from Inverness, Scotland and spoke with the loveliest slight Scottish lilt. She has exhibited her unique quilting locally, nationally and internationally since 1981 and has won many awards in quilt shows.
Her profile says she is often inspired by the Orkney seascape where she lives and by other natural elements. Sheena’s 30 years’ experience as a primary school teacher came through as she patiently and methodically took us through her program of projects throughout the week.
Each of the four projects was clearly explained and demonstrated and many examples were provided for ideas and inspiration. She also provided ample encouragement and tips for improvement if we got discouraged and kept us moving forward on the projects so that by the end of the week I definitely felt much more confident with my quilting skills. I won’t be winning any awards with my quilting, but will not be as hesitant to quilt some of my smaller quilts going forward.
Besides Philippa’s and Fran’s hospitality, the other lovely ladies that participated in the class also added significantly to the experience. Quilting is very popular in the United Kingdom, so it was no surprise that 5 of the ladies were British and only one was French. They were educated, intelligent, well traveled and not shy about expressing opinions. We had very lively and convivial discussions, especially after dinner once the wine and cider had been consumed. I learned more about British culture than I ever had in my trips to London. I also learned quite a bit about France outside of Paris. The ladies were very well informed about global politics, not just European, and I was frequently asked to explain elements of current US policy – I did not always have an answer. We also exchanged stories about our families, friends, spouses, children and grandchildren, and here, found that the cultural differences were not that great. By the end of the week, any cultural barriers were gone and friendships had developed.
My week at Crafty Retreats turned out to be more than just a class to improve my quilting skills. It was a five star hospitality experience in a serene and peaceful setting, that provided lively conversations with a group of engaging women and daily entertainment by the in house menagerie.
Thank you Philippa and Fran for your gracious hospitality. Thank you Brigitte, Christine, Jane, Judith, Julia, Sharon for your camaraderie. Thank you Sheena for your excellent instruction. And of course, I can’t forget Oscar and TuTu – thank you for your constant source of amusement. It was a memorable week. Can’t wait to do it again.
Thanks for visiting.