Garments woven by loom then sewn by Anne-Claude Virchaux in her Carouge atelier.
The recent Journées des Métiers d’Art (JEMA) gave the public a unique opportunity to visit the ateliers of the talented artisans of the Swiss Romandy and to go behind the scenes to witness the skill and craftsmanship required to design, create and maintain articles of beauty, originality and longevity.
Shuttles rest on the loom in Anne-Claude Virchaux’s atelier.
The municipality of Carouge owes much of its present-day spirit of creativity and dynamism to its history as a home to artisans down the generations. That tradition continues today and the 20 artisan-members of the Parcours des Ateliers Carougeois (PAC) joined their fellow artisans in the region in opening their workshops to visitors during the Journées des Métiers d’Art.
PAC’s goal is to encourage greater appreciation for artisanal workmanship and to illustrate how cherised articles are conceived, made, assembled and maintained — whether they are handwoven pieces of clothing or handmade hats, clocks, jewellery, soap, handbags, string instruments, furniture or floral arrangements.
Colorful garments machine-woven and hand-cut by Mireille Donzé in her atelier/boutique.
Passion, persistance and passing it on
Given my love of fabric and with only limited time at my disposal, my focus over the JEMA weekend fell on a seamstress, weaver, knitter and hat maker on the Rue Saint-Joseph in Carouge. I also looked in on a crowded presentation at a leather goods shop on Rue Ancienne, where handbags are created that I’ve not seen the likes of anywhere else.
If there’s something to take from the experience, it’s that artisanal workmanship of the kind to be found in Carouge continues to exist thanks largely to the passion, dedication and persistence of its practitioners. They face stiff competition from department store chains and luxury goods houses. Some raw materials are not as readily available as they used to be and also, labor practices in some far off countries where materials are produced in large quantities at cheaper cost make using them unpalatable. The result can mean higher costs to produce and to purchase the eventual product.
There’s more than a hint of the heroic about their persistence, especially in the case of one artisan who is passing on her skills to a new generation of independent artisans.
Below you’ll see some photos of the artisans and ateliers I visited along with descriptions of their work and philosophy. I hope you enjoy getting to know them:
Weaver/Designer Anne-Claude Virchaux. For more than 40 years, Anne-Claude Virchaux’s passion for fabrics has never frayed. At her Carouge atelier she weaves from silk, linen, cotton, wool and other natural fibers fabrics that are soft to the touch and shimmery, lightweight yet structured. Once woven, she styles the garment to favor movement, comfort and lightness, like a second skin. “A house for the body”, Anne-Claude calls them, they are unique and personal. Having abandoned her studies in architecture for training by an expert weaver in Hermance, Anne-Claude still makes use of mathematics and geometry when creating her “houses”. She weaves patterns and colors to fall at specific places on the body. She cuts, irons, sews and even dyes the fabric to achieve the right effect.
It takes on average two weeks of weaving to create a dozen garments.
For some 30 years knitwear specialist Mireille Donzé has knitted reams and reams of silk flax and merino wool on her specialist-knitting machine. The fabric is then washed, and with the help of some very big scissors, pullovers, coats and other garments are fashioned in a multitude of seductively rich or subtle colors.
The atelier that Mireille Donzé shares with the fashion designer Djeihne who designs and sews original, comfortable and durable clothes from linen, hemp and microfibres.
Milliner Isabelle Hoffmann, alias Zabo of Zabo Hats. Isabelle Hoffmann trained in millinery at the Musée du Chapeau à Chazelles-sur-Lyon. She sold her hats at Geneva’s outdoor markets before opening Zabo in 1995. She sculpts her creations in straw, linen, cotton, leather, boiled wool and faux fur using a wood head form and four sewing machines, one almost a century old. It’s work that requires mastery over volume and some geometric calculations…but sometimes she creates instinctively, “by eye”. Isabelle favors creating hats that serve the everyday, that are playful and practical. Ideally, she believes that a hat should express the character of the wearer. She recently won the Prêt-à-Porter prize in a competition at the Musée du Chapeau.
A lemon-colored hat under construction at Zabo.
Two styles from Zabo’s winter 2011 collection.
Seamstress Evelyne Curty. “Less is More” is the philosophy that epitomises Evelyne Curty’s work, which embraces pure forms in noble fabrics together with a dash of glamor. A native of Carouge, she enjoys meeting with clients in her studio there to create a garment that suits their needs and wants.
A shimmery fabric about to be transformed on the cutting table in the EvelyneCurty atelier.
Leather worker Chris Murner, L’Antre-Peaux. Chris Murner was born in Carouge, where 13 tanneries and 33 shoemakers could be found at the turn of the 20th century. She discovered a passion for leather at age 15. She undertook training, produced articles for other designers, then struck out on her own at 21 to experiment with different techniques and a variety of materials. During six-months of study in Paris in the late 80s she forged her own personal style and returned to open her boutique in Carouge – her atelier is a few steps away in the attic of an old barn. She enjoys collaborating with other artists and craftspeople to create handbags and accessories of exceptional quality, originality and technical prowess. Inside and outside, she considers everything: aesthetics and comfort as well as practicality and security. A work of art that expresses the owner’s particular style. The only instructor of “maroquinerie” in the Swiss Romandy, Chris Murner has fought hard to preserve this demanding craft in the face of overwhelming competition from Italy, Morocco and Asia. To that end she has passed on her skills and expertise to two apprentices who are close to completing four years of training with her.
Chris Murner explaining her craft to visitors in her atelier during Les Journées des Métiers d’Art 2016.
“New York Canicule” (New York heatwave) from the 2016 collection entitled “La ville est dans le sac” (The city’s in the bag).
You can learn more about these and the other 15 artisans of PAC on their website Parcours des Ateliers Carougeois. But to get you started, here are the addresses for the artisans featured in this post.
TISSERANDE STYLISTE – ANNE-CLAUDE VIRCHAUX
Rue Saint-Joseph 13
022 342 35 26
SPÉCIALISTE DE LA MAILLE – ATELIER DJEIHNE
& MIREILLE DONZÉ
Rue Saint-Joseph 31
022 343 55 21
MODISTE – ZABO CHAPEAUX
Rue Saint-Joseph 31
079 241 39 19
COUTURIÈRE – EVELYNECURTY
31 rue Saint-Joseph
022 301 42 20
MAROQUINERIE D’ART – L’ANTRE-PEAUX
Rue Ancienne 43
022 342 72 25
Next time, I’ll be looking at the work of a few of the young artisans I met during Les Journées des Métiers d’Art.