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.