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.

www.loisivethe.com

www.labienaimee.com

Instagram: @labienaimee

Paris: Two Guidebooks; Two Times

I had never been until last year. I wanted to save it until I had the time to savor the city. I wasn’t sure if I would love it (sigh….all those charming Paris movie and novel scenes) or be hugely disappointed it wouldn’t live up to my decades of pent-up expectations. The first time I went in May (ahhh, Paris in the springtime) and ended up staying an extra week. I returned five months later (mmmm, Paris in the fall). Clearly I am enamored. Since all of my time in the City of Light was an independent exploration (no tour buses and guided walking tours for me) and most of it was solo, I was intent on experiencing it my way. On the other hand, I did need a bit of guidance to travel the lesser experienced sights of the city but wanted to avoid the Fodor/Frommer/Rick Steves/Rough Guide/Lonely Planet tourist paths. Ultimately I found two small guidebooks and used one for each trip.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go In France by Marcia DeSantis, a former Parisian expat, was chock full of suggestions for Paris. It was my springtime guide to the city. I began with her suggestion that I overcome my acrophobia: don’t just snap the iconic exterior photo, but climb the Eiffel Tower steps to the second floor cafe (670 stairs of beating heart and sweaty palms) to toast my accomplishment with an overly priced glass of champagne and gaze at Paris’ rooftops and towers.

It was also her recommendation that took me to the department store Galeries Lafayette, not to shop but to gaze in awe at it’s magnificent stained glass dome and to Sainte-Chappelle, a medieval Catholic chapel where I listened to a concert while the setting sun played off its stained glass windows.

I would have never spent Paris temps precieux at a movie theatre, but her description of La Pagode art house cinema (a reconstructed Japanese pagoda used originally as a ballroom complete with tearoom garden and more stained glass) inspired me. I saw Still Life, a thoughtful English movie but could have seen their weekly screening of Breakfast at Tiffanys. 

Paris Sketching

It was her enthusiastic description of Merci, a concept store opened in an old wallpaper factory that found me there sketching over a cappuccino on a rainy day resulting in one of my favorite Parisian photos.

Bocce Ball Paris

In Luxembourg Garden, I searched for the bocce ball courts (as per her suggestion) and spent the better part of an afternoon cheering for very serious Frenchmen, while trying to figure out the games’ rules.

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And I braved the terrifying prospect of getting a haircut in a hip Parisian salon with my minimal French – made all the more fun when the stylist eased my concerns with champagne.

When I returned in the fall, I took with me City Secrets: Paris, the Essential Insiders’ Guide by Robert Kahn. This compact guidebook is filled with insider personal recommendations of 150 artists, writers, architects, historians and gourmet chefs who live in or regularly visit Paris.

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It was the keen eye of an artist contributor that made me take notice of the public art Metro stops and actually sit to listen to the street musicians.

 

I would never have found La Belle Hortense, a tiny wine bar/bookshop/tapas restaurant/literary and art gallery had it not been mentioned by both a food features writer and landscape architect in the guidebook.

As a travel sketcher, I appreciated the recommendation of a painter contributor to browse and augment my watercolor pencils at Magasin Sennelier, the historic artist supply store that invented oil pastels for Picasso.

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In a Paris guidebook seen through the keen eyes of artists there were a multitude of recommendations about looking in through shop windows and doorways and looking up at murals, lighting, ceiling motifs.

 

 

Paris: A Nose by Any Other Name Is A Perfumer

In Paris one’s olfactory senses are on pleasant overload. Boulangeries emit the scent of buttery croissants and fresh bread. Clothing boutiques smell like violets and inside the Metro train a veritable fusion of floral, woodsy, citrus scented Parisians go about their daily transit.

It was my nose that led me to the newly opened Paris Musee de Parfum when I asked a shopkeeper what perfume she was wearing. I’m not a perfume wearer but 20151019_175342_LLSthe violet scent was so…well, Parisian. She pointed to the Frangonard store across the street and encouraged me to visit its museum. Frangonard is a classic French perfumery house with its factory and expanded museum located in Grasse, France, the center of the French perfume world. Historically perfume was created to mask the body odor of the French nobility who bathed only twice a year. The Frangonard Paris museum showcases both the historic and contemporary art 20151019_175324_LLSand science of creating “la parfum” in a series of displays but its factory tour in Grasse lets you watch the bottles being filled, soaps packaged and the workers going about their jobs. Before any of that occurs, though, comes the creative genius of the Nose (“le Nez”) or more technically, the Perfumer who creates the scent.

Becoming a Nose requires training and/or a pedigreed history of family Noses. In France there are three schools that teach the art. Often students enter the school with a degree in chemistry or botany and spend six more years studying and fine tuning their sense of smell. A single vial of perfume can have between 20 and 250 scents contained in the three notes of a perfume – the top note that can be immediately smelled, the middle note which comes slightly later and is the strongest (the French say the “most voluptuous”) and the base note also called the trailer note.

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There are at any one time, about 50 highly regarded and sought after Noses. They command a salary of $50,000 a month and work only three days a week to keep their olfactory senses highly tuned. Typically they only work 20 years.

It is possible to have a scent created just for you or to create one yourself with the assistance of a Nose at any number of perfumeries in Paris or Grasse.