Written by Janet Davies
Francoise Méchin Pellet and Thierry Méchin of L’Atelier du Presbytere design and make timelessly beautiful linen clothes, accessories and housewares. The couple came from France to Canada in 2006, and moved to The County this year, partly because, as Francoise told us, “Many things in The County made us think of France – starting with the wind!” Her English is excellent, although she speaks very quickly when she is excited, which is often because, it seems, a whole lot of things delight and excite her. “I know some people here don’t like when the wind comes, but it makes us think of the Mistral in Provence, and we love it. The County also has the wine and the lavender and the sunshine. People love to bicycle here. When we first came to the beaches we said Oh this is like the Camargue!” she nods decisively. “I think there is a little bit of Provence in The County.” With the arrival of Francoise and Thierry in the village of Milford, there is now a little bit more.
They settled first in Montreal. “But when we came to The County eight years ago on holiday with our small son, we knew it was a very special place. We said one day we would like to live here,” says Francoise. “When we began traveling a lot to craft shows in Ontario, we thought ‘Hey, maybe it is easier for us to be near to Toronto. So many of our customers are in Ontario.” She cheerfully confides that being from France seems to add to their mystique at craft shows. “And also people like that we chose to come to Canada, to Ontario and to The County.”
When they started looking at properties, “We liked Wellington, but Milford was more our budget,” she says with disarming candour. “Then we discovered our perfect house right here in the village. We wanted to live in the country, but we don’t want a remote life, we like the ambience of the village. We love that it is old. It suits us because we love old things, and our work is with old linens and old objects, in fact in France and Montreal we had an antique shop, too.” Here in The County they concentrate on designing and making their linen products, from dresses to pillowcases.
A big selling point of their 1850s home was the garage they could turn into a studio and perhaps a future retail shop, and Francoise was delighted, too, that St. Philips church is just down the road. It was a good sign. “Our business is called L’Atelier du Presbytere because our first studio in Provence was very near the church on a street called Presbytere,” she told us. “In fact it was the nuns who taught me how sew and work with linens.”
“We didn’t know anybody in the County when we came, but that was okay. Thierry and I have a special life, we live alone together and we are busy making our things. We meet many people when we do craft shows, and we discovered a lot of customers have cottages here in The County! Or they know it well because they come for holidays. Anyway, in Milford all you have to do is walk to the post office and you meet people. Now we know everybody!”
When they decided to sell at craft shows rather than run a retail shop, they started big – at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto – then followed it up with smaller shows. “There is a different mentality with people who go to craft shows,” says Francoise. “They are people who want to encourage the hand made in Canada, especially in Ontario. The show that we go to in Bracebridge has been going for 53 years!” She pondered this. “Perhaps it is because people have more money in cottage country? They want to buy things from the maker, from the ceramicist, the person who works with leather.”
“In France there are still more people who make things by hand, women sew and knit and crochet, men are handy, they work with the lumber,” she muses. “But even there, things are changing. So much is made in China now. Even some of the traditional brands that were known for quality. If you get too big you have to buy things in I suppose. But we don’t want to grow so big, because we are not so young, now,” she laughs. “We are happy to do the work ourselves, to design new things and make limited quantities, and we know there are a lot of people who look for that.”
Winter is coming and life will be quieter for Francoise and Thierry. “Some months are more difficult,” she says. “In winter, we don’t go to shows, we don’t travel, but we do new work, we make new designs, it’s production time. We think about the next year. We are busy all the way up to Christmas, after that it is a nice break to be full time in the studio and in our nice warm house. It is perfect. Nobody bothers you.” With English as her second language, Francoise is engagingly honest and to the point, checking often with Thierry to make sure she is covering all they want to say. “Next year we will be organized enough to have a showroom in our house. Not always open, but ready when someone contacts us to say they want to come.”
Their products include classic smocks and pinafores, kitchen and table linens, scarves and bags in pure linen and cotton and linen blends in beautiful muted colours: putty and taupe, blues and khakis. “Because we make everything ourself, we make limited numbers. The One of a Kind Show is a very big show, so people who know us and want something in particular, they know to come early. If they want, say, a little top in khaki, they know they must be quick, because we will make it in six colours, but only six of each colour, so that is 36 which is a lot for us, but not a lot for them.”
“We have a nice boutique online where people can see our products, and we list our shows so they know where to come to see us. We do some sales online but not too much, and that’s okay with us, because if we are too crazy doing things online we can’t concentrate on our shows and our shop. Anyway nothing is the same in a photograph, you have to touch the material and see the colours. Some people say, Okay they are in The County now, and we will be in The County soon, so they choose things online and phone us and make an appointment to come and visit us in Milford.”
They stay true to their concept of keeping things special and handmade, it is their little niche in a world of mass production. But they admit it can be hard to say no to interesting special orders. “Maybe we can do that later, when we have our barn ready, maybe we will have other people helping us. In France we had women working for us, helping us to fill big orders. In Paris we did the Maison&Objets, a very big trade show, and we worked with chef Alain Ducasse who has lots of restaurants and little boutiques, and professional people ordered from us because they knew we were not just original and crafty and handy but we could also produce on time. Things like custom linen aprons for many restaurants.”
Their signature products are created in vintage fabrics, but they use new linen, too, preparing it carefully to achieve that lovely, aged look. “We don’t just buy industrial rolls and cut them,” she says.”I cut what I need, 10 or 15 metres, and then I take it to the launderette in Picton! Our house is on a well and it is okay, but we have to wash the fabric, wash and wash, three times we wash new linen and put it in the dryer. We always give it a vintage touch, sometimes we add old embroidery, we work with all sorts of old fabric, even the old dresses of nuns.” The results are beautiful, characterful and highly desirable.
CANADA AND THE COUNTY
Francois is still filled with wonder at the sheer size of Canada. “Europe is many small countries, a lot of history, a lot of people and, of course, old ways. Canada is new, only 400 years! There is opportunity here. You can do things. We are seeing something interesting with the cheese. In Europe we have good cheese, but because of European rules we can’t make it the same way as before, unpasteurized. So we know French people who want to come to Canada where they can make cheese the way they want to!”
When asked what she would tell people about Prince Edward County she laughs. “Oh we have a lot we could say, but we don’t want to, because we want to keep this treasure for ourselves. We traveled to Haliburton, Muskoka, even Kingston, but The County is different. The County is special.” They have a scrapbook that tells the history of their fine old house in Milford, the history of the village and of The County, and they cherish it. “When you read The County history and learn that once they grew 40% of Canada’s tomatoes, you know it is special – and you maybe understand why there is wine here. Because the grapes feel good! And if the grapes feel good, the people feel good. It’s that simple.”
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