Travels in France… Needlecrafts in Normandy

By Ruth-worldofxs, Fri, 2016-10-14 14:26
Needlecrafts in Normandy- the Bayeux Tapestry

Read an excerpt from the travel journal of Ruth, Editor of The World of Cross Stitching magazine...

Day 1 So today’s the day has come for my French stitching adventure, as I’ve been calling it! I’ve just arrived at the port in Portsmouth to take the overnight ferry to Caen. Luckily, my journey’s going smoothly so far, and the forecast is good so we are all ready for smooth sailing. The crossing’s due to take around six hours and I have a cabin booked, so hopefully I’ll be able to get some rest as tomorrow’s a big day of seeing various attractions in Bayeux, Normandy. Night, night!

Day 2 Awake bright and early… well, maybe I’m not so bright because of course it’s a very, very early start now we’ve landed in France. The Brittany Ferries team seem very efficient and everyone was off the ferry without any hitch, just a relatively few foot passengers, of which I’m one, but there are lots of cars and lorries and of course caravans and motor homes, so I guess I am not the only one whose here to enjoy a holiday! Even if strictly speaking I am here to work, I’m lucky that it feels like a holiday, and is a reminder to me of the last time I took a ferry to France and to Bayeux. When I was just around nine years old and on a family holiday… let’s see what this pretty old town has in store for me this time around…

First a coach to the main railway station in Caen, and a short journey – the train runs frequently so I don’t have to rush… Now arriving in Bayeux, what a tranquil and peaceful town it seems, especially knowing that it must be a tourist hotspot! I’ve walked from the station on the outskirts for just around 10minutes to the museum where I’m met by my tour guide, Fanny Garbe, who works at the museum of the Bayeux tapestry. I’m so excited to see this fantastic, ancient piece of textile art which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century. Fanny leaves me to enjoy the tapestry, with an audio guide in English (amazingly, they’re available in 14 languages and even with a special one for children in English or French.) It talks me thorough each panel of the 70m-long embroidery. I hadn’t realized, but Fanny tells me, “it’s not really a tapestry in the traditional sense that we think of tapestry. It’s not worked on canvas with half stitches, but is on linen and the stitches are in wool.” Ten shades, coloured with natural plant dyes were used, in a specific stitch, which is known as the Bayeux stitch. I’m excited to find out more about that tomorrow, when I’ll meet an embroidery expert. It’s fun to see the scenes pan out, with some captions in backstitch helping to explain things too (for those who can read any Latin!) and the history unfolds cleverly in 2D. The sense of movement and depth created by the stitchers certainly rivals any modern design, I think. Some favourite sections of mine include the famous depiction of Halley’s comet, plus there are horses being transported in the long boats. They seem to be smiling as they come over for the invasion! Also of course, the famous portrait of King Harold being shot in the eye by an arrow, as the Battle is lost by the English.

Afterwards, Fanny takes me to the rest of the museum – it’s interesting to see lots more exhibits about the tapestry, information behind it and the Norman conquest, and many artefacts and recreations, including a film presentation.

DID YOU KNOW - the Bayeux Tapestry…?
  • The tapestry was commissioned by Odon, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy. They’d both fought in the Battle of Hastings, 14 October 1066.
  • Odon used this pictorial representation of what happened as a piece of propaganda to decorate his new cathedral, consecrated in 1077. He was Bishop of Bayeux, a very important town of the region, religiously.
  • It’s believed that the tapestry was actually made in southern England, due to the way some of the lettering in the tapestry is formed and likewise by the slightly poor Latin grammar, which Anglo-Saxons would not be so familiar with using.
  • The huge tapestry is made just using nine single pieces of linen, though it’s thought it was initially longer, as the story seems to end somewhat abruptly. Maybe there were scenes of William’s coronation in England which were destroyed…
  • Some areas have been restored over the years, including 19th centrury renovations. Now any restoration is carried out with the help of careful and scientific analysis. When on display, glass protection and low light levels help preserve it.
  • The tapestry been almost touched by danger many times in its history. Over the years, it’s been rolled and unrolled for display during religious festivals in medieval times, escaped fires in the middle ages, been displayed in the Louvre in Paris during Napoleonic times, and during the French Revolution, it only just was saved from being cut into pieces for the canvas to be used to cover wagons!
  • In 2007 the Bayeux tapestry was given a special registration on the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ programme, which is awarded for documents of historic interest and value. Others on the list include the Gütenberg Bible and the Magna Carta, but it’s rare that such safeguarded documents are on show to the public.
  • The Bayeux tapestry welcomed it’s 12-millionth visitor back in March 2012, since this museum opened in 1983. Now visitors come from all over the world, a great number of whom are children on school visits.
  • With 2016 being the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, there have been special events going on all year and currently the museum is hosting a special comic strip-inspired display on the life of William the Conqueror.


I’ve had a wonderful morning at the museum, and learn that it’s not the only museum in this small town, so we’ll be taking a look there too. The Museum of Art and History Baron Gérad, MAHB, is included in my ticket (12€). So many interesting things to see here, and well-translated information on the rich history of this area! Fanny explains, “We have displays which span the ages, and a rich selection of exhibits, including famous porcelain of the town, and of course handmade lace for which Bayeux and the region became most famous in the 18th century.” I’ve had a great time looking around with her, especially at the lace (‘la dentelle’) the examples of which are exquisitely delicate! It’s almost unbelievable to think that they were made with no electric light and would have taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours for the largest pieces. We’ve earned a lovely lunch in one of the many local restaurants… After our delicious meal, Fanny introduces me to Claire Beaurel who’ll be one of my companions for the afternoon. From the town tourist office, she’s keen to tell me more about the lace-making history of Bayeux, so we go to Le Conservatoire de La Dentelle, the Lace Conservatory. The industry was once nationally celebrated, employing over 5000 lacemakers in the town and region, since a royal decree demanded the finest home-produced lace for the fashionable clothing of the French court. If King Louis XIV said this region’s was the best, then I can’t disagree! I think the lace examples here, by today’s lacemakers of the association keeping alive this tradition, are breath-taking.

They’re producing two types of lace, needlelace – which Véronique Tomazo at the Conservatory tells me is made with a kind of buttonhole stitch, to stitch up the threads into the lace. And the second type of lace and for which Bayeux was most highly regarded, is bobbin lace. Fine thread is wound onto slender bobbins and the pattern is followed as the lacemaker criss-crosses her bobbins, weaving them around each other, adding pins to pierce the pattern and create the design. She’s so experienced and skilled, my eyes can hardly keep up with the speed of her creation! Claire and I are transfixed…

   But after a while, and having seeing many of the exhibits in the beautiful timber-framed building with original Adam and Eve carvings, all of which dates from the 15th century, we move on as I join a guided walking tour of Bayeux, hosted by another lady, also called Claire.

We’re just a small group, of English and French speakers, but Claire Queré so easily switches between the languages as she takes her time to guide us through this lovely old town. Her detailed, thorough and often funny explanations were appreciated by everyone. We enjoyed her explaining the history of the cathedral, the medieval buildings, old ‘mansions’ once owned by rich nobles, even details of the more recent wartime occupation and liberation… It brought a lump to my throat to hear how this lovely town which I am visiting in person, and of course it’s people, had been through so much during that time. Thanks to the bravery of the allies, on 6 June 1944, Bayeux was the first town to be liberated and I could tell how much this still means to those I’ve met here, over 70 years on.


Now my tour’s over so, a little time for myself and to freshen up at the hotel… It’s very comfortable and like everything in the town, it’s very handy and easy to access. I’ll meet Claire (the first Claire!) again for some delicious French cuisine, a glass of cider – the regional specialty.


Click to read more about my wonderful visit to France……… A bientot! …>


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