Paris: A Charming Knitting Cafe

It’s a long way from Olethe, Kansas to the vibrant, diverse 13th arrondissement of Paris… or more specifically, its village-like micro arrondissement of Butte-aux Cailles. The 13th is not even on the radar for most Parisian tourists, but for visiting and local knitters in the know, a pilgrimage there to visit Aimee Gille’s tea and yarn salon for a spot of tea and scones, hand-dyed yarns and some contemplative knitting is handicraft oasis in a city better known for its iconic museums, fashion and Michelin star restaurants.

Called L’OisiveThe’ (loosely translated as “Leisurely Tea”), the colourful first of its kind Paris knitting cafe was inspired by Gille’s Korean mother, herself an inveterate knitter. Gille’s parents met in Korea when her father served in the Peace Corps. Gille was born there before the family returned to the United States settling in Kansas. “It was completely normal to wear my mom’s  handknit mittens and sweaters when I was young,” said Gille. “I never really appreciated it when I was growing up, even when I took up knitting myself.”

Gille’s multi-cultural heritage is also a quarter French. Her first name, Aimee, comes from her great aunt. It was the familial French connection that inspired her to study the language. She did a year abroad as a student in Strasbourg, stayed and taught English and met her husband. When he got a job in Paris, the couple moved into the 13th arrondissement, embracing it as the place to live and send their children to school. At that point, opening a Paris knitting salon was just a nascent idea.

It was the passing of Gille’s mother in 2005, that caused a personal wake-up call. “After her death, knitting was my therapy and a link to her”, Gille admitted. “I used to take my own knitting to tea shops in Paris and because smoking was still allowed then, my knitting came home smelling like smoke. I told my friends I wanted to open a smoke-free tea shop – a place where people could create without inhaling smoke.”

Spotting a for sale sign on a neighborhood shop on the hilltop of Butte-aux Cailles eleven years ago, Gille and her husband realized they’d found the perfect location. On the Left Bank and at the second highest point in Paris, Butte-aux Cailles was a former 16th century vineyard owned by Pierre Caille. Later it became the industrial center for tapestry and leather. Today it is a warren of cobblestone lanes, charming French architecture (including an art deco nouveau swimming pool, one of two historic pools in Paris) tiny shops and street art. The knitting/tea salon sits at the crest of the cobblestone rue de la Butte de Cailles, the lane that winds its way around the village center.

“Eleven years ago, when I started,” said Gille,” there were no other knitting cafes in Paris. There still aren’t any dedicated knitting cafes like mine.”

The café is small, its interior seating only about twenty people and runs on limited hours, opening at noon (11 on weekends) and closing at 6PM. That’s intentional. “I wanted to keep the salon intimate and I’m a mom now who wants to take her children to school and be home in the evening with them”. Like much of small business Paris, the café is closed for the month of August.

L’OisiveThe’ promotes a community feel. Its walls are filled with shelves of colourful yarn skeins to purchase, knitting reference books to borrow and toys to occupy children. The artwork by Gille’s young son and daughter decorates the front counter. The menu offers up teas, pastries, wine and food attracting neighborhood regulars who drop by for lunch, tea or Sunday brunch, sitting inside the cozy café or outside on the sidewalk tables. On Wednesdays the café stays open extended hours for TricoThe’ (“knitting tea”), a group of regulars and newcomers who come to enjoy tea or a glass of wine and the conviviality of an old- fashioned knitting and crochet circle. Tourists and locals regularly show up to sit and knit. Occasionally a guest designer makes an appearance.

Knitting newbies are also accommodated. “Social media has made knitting more accessible,” said Gille. “Blogs, YouTube instructional videos and Instagram have popularized knitting.” On three Tuesdays each month the cafe offers a beginning knitting lesson series that includes needles and wool as well as tea and a cookie to promote the salon symbiosis of sipping and knitting.

As the popularity of her tea/knitting salon grew, Gille discovered she couldn’t find many of the yarns she or her customers wanted so she began experimenting with her own hand-dyed skeins. She wanted more subtle colours, colours overlaid with textured colours and seasonal palates.  “I never took any dyeing classes. I began at home with Kool-Aide and learned from the internet, “ she laughed.

As more customers asked for yarns originating in Paris, she leased a small workshop to test out dyeing techniques and then needed more space to meet the demand. In May, 2015 she opened a second neighborhood shop, called La Bien Aimee. The new venture provides the workshop space to dye her yarns and brick and mortar retail space to sell her yarn brand and knitting notions as well as other variegated, semi-solid and solid brands such as Sweet Georgia, ShiBui Knits and Dream in Color. La Bien Aimee also has an online store.

The back of the shop houses the magic of a small- scale yarn dying operation. The space has allowed her to venture into the wholesale market with outlets in Iceland, Spain and the US. “We can produce up to 2000 skeins a week,” said Gille.

Gille remains hands-on about the dyeing process. Serving as the creative director for her yarn brand, La Bien Aimee, she researches fashion world’s upcoming the seasonal colors, finds inspiration in her travels and then works with her team of three other employees to produce the acid dye formulas to create the exact colors she wants. Hand painted and speckled colorway yarns require a second step. The dye testing process can take weeks. Once small batch has been produced to Gille’s satisfaction, she and others knit up samples to see what the yarn looks like in a finished product.

La Bien Aimee produces two yarn collections annually – a fall/winter and a spring summer collection, all in merino wool. “I like how merino feels and it captures the dye better,” she said.

With the success of the La Bien Aimee retail operation, Gille’s husband now runs the knitting/tea salon though Gille works the Wednesday night shift when the knitting group convenes. Customers often drop by the shop or café to show off their handiwork, an effort Gille appreciates because it continues customer relationships and she can see how they use the yarns.

Kansas is never far from Gille’s mind. Her favorite colour is yellow found in the state’s sunflower fields, the La Bien Aimee storefront and branded knitting notions. Her first commercial dyed yarn was labeled Yellow Brick Road after the Wizard of Oz movie set in Kansas. And the shop’s name La Bien Aimee (translated as “beloved thing”) celebrates her heritage and creative passions.

If a physical trip to Paris isn’t in your future, Gille makes a virtual trip to L’OisiveThe’ and La Bien Aimee possible on her website, Instagram account, Facebook page and YouTube.

Instagram: @labienaimee

Oaxaca’s Colorful Christmas Traditions

Oaxaca, Mexico with its vibrant indigenous art is colorful any time of year, but Christmas in this southeastern Mexico town and its surrounding pueblos brings an extra dose of exuberance, religious tradition and family celebration.

The Posadas begin on December 16th, parades of families who wind through the streets making their way to a neighborhood church. The largest posada happens on Christmas Eve when neighborhood posadas converge in the zocalo to circle it before parading to their neighborhood church for midnight mass. Arrive at the zocala by 7pm for a good seat to the festivities.

December 23rd is the Night of the Radishes celebration, a 120 year old tradition of local artists carving extra large radishes into scenes depicting traditional Oaxaca (the Nativity, churches, people in traditional clothing) or contemporary scenes (the 2018 displays included a memorial to Stephen Hawking and another of fantastical dragons entitled the Apocolypse). The night is accompanied by music and fireworks. The displays are set up on the morning of December 23rd and draw crowds all day so to avoid the extra long lines at night, arrive early to see the artwork.

In the week leading up to Christmas local markets, street vendors and stores overflow with colorful textiles, wooden creatures called alebrijes, pottery, handmade tin Christmas decorations, nativity scenes and food delicacies like tamales and bunuelos, a fried dough covered with cinnamon and sugar. While you can purchase from the stores, a trip to one of more of the surrounding pueblos is far more interesting. There you can visit family workshops, meet the artists and know that the money from your purchase is going directly to the craftspeople who made them.

Boise’s Birds of Prey Conservation Area

Founded in 1993, the 484,000 acres of Southwest Idaho public land known as the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area hosts the single largest concentration of nesting raptors in North America and, perhaps, the world. Located near Boise along 82 miles of the Snake River, the habit’s flat topography is cut by a deep swath of river canyon lined with 700-foot cliffs. The conditions are raptor nirvana. There are high ledges and crevices for nest-building and currents from the river bottom providing the lift needed for birds of prey to hunt the area’s thriving ground squirrel and rabbit population. To learn more click here.

Chico Hot Springs: Montana’s Ultimate Destination Resort

Located between Livingston, Montana and Yellowstone Park, charming Chico Hot Springs Resort has been a getaway for locals and Montana bound tourists for generations. Its scenic Paradise Valley location surrounded by mountains, the complex’s unique history and its commitment to preserving its past has landed Chico Hot Springs Resort a designation on the National Register of Historic Places. To read more click here.

EuroVelo 13: The Epic Iron Curtain Bike Trail

The Iron Curtain boundary that divided the occupied former Soviet countries from the rest of the world can now be traveled from north to south by intrepid cyclists on the newly developed Iron Curtain bicycle route known as EuroVelo 13.  6462.26 miles long, the journey through twenty countries past fourteen UNESCO World Heritage sites is a tour through a bleak period of history, rolling hills, urban landscapes and the varying climates of Nordic and temperate countries from Norway to Greece.

Read more about it here.

Winter Holidays In Iceland: Lights, Trolls and Traditions

Iceland likely doesn’t rise to the top of your list when considering possibilities for Christmas and New Years. It’s winter. It’s cold and often plagued with winds and blizzards during its deep winter months. And it only has about four hours of daylight that feels more like early twilight that time of year. And yet, it’s precisely those conditions as well as its exuberant, unique and quirky holiday traditions based on Icelandic folklore that make the winter holidays in Iceland an unforgettable holiday experience.

via Winter Holidays in Iceland: Lights, Trolls and Traditions – Wander With Wonder

Estonian Handicrafts: Surviving the Soviet Occupation

The small shops in Estonia are filled with colorful handmade textile art – colorful, knitted mittens, fine lacy shawls, vibrant striped skirts and bolts of woven cloth and fanciful, felted hats. Wandering the artists’ guilds, studios and shops in 2017, it’s hard to imagine the conditions its craftspeople endured during the country’s fifty-year Soviet occupation when all art had to be produced and sold in Soviet collectives under the restrictions of Soviet censored themes. That Estonian handicraft tradition survived the occupation is due in no small part to the persistence of its craftswomen. Check out my Global Comment story here.

Tallinn Music Week

Music in Estonia isn’t limited to celebrations of its strong tradition of choral music. The capitol city of Tallinn puts on Tallinn Music Week, a weeklong festival in March/April showcasing all forms of contemporary music, the arts, theatre, food and architecture using the city’s bookstores, bike shops, art galleries, bakeries, tech incubators, home decoration stores and shopping centers as venues. It’s a full-on sensory experience, an opportunity to explore Tallinn’s nooks and crannies and much of it is free to the public. Read about my experience here.

Latvia’s Resistance Movement

During its fifty year history of Soviet occupation, three percent of Latvia’s population was deported, imprisoned or worse. It’s a history today’s Russia denies, but Latvia wants you to know and viscerally experience what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. When in Riga, you can go inside the nearly untouched, terrifying KGB building and prison, tour its occupation history and visit the building that housed the culmination of the fifty-year Latvian resistance movement that contributed to the county’s freedom. See the story here.


Latvian Saunas: Beer, Sauna Masters and Slotas

In my last post I wrote about Estonian spa/sauna culture. When in the Baltic countries in March, I also spent time in neighboring Latvia who has its own version of a sauna experience. It involves old pagan rituals, sauna masters and, in one case, a full immersion into the curative properties of beer. Beer + sweat = health and a better state of mind. Read about it here.