Guest blog – Karine from French Guiana

posted in: Guest blog, SWAP | 14

I have known Karine, through the internet, for a couple of years. She joined in SWAP last year and she sews with Lutterloh patterns. She is also an interesting and funny woman, and has very kindly provided the blog post today.

Karine in Cayenne in a Burda dress
Karine in Cayenne in a Burda dress

I grew up in Normandy, France. My parents were farmers, so nothing fancy about clothing. I lived in a rural area, surrounded by more cows than fashionistas. My mother, who was keen on not wasting money, dressed me up with my cousin’s hand me down clothes. The problem was that my cousin was 9 years older, which is a big gap in terms of fashion. Until I was 13, much to my chagrin, I was wearing very out-of-fashion clothes. After that I was able to buy a few of my own garments which I literally wore to death.

I’ve always been interesting in clothes, but I don’t know why. It’s not about being inspired by women in my family. My mother never sewed. The only person who could use the old mechanic Singer we had at home was my father, who had spent evenings watching his mother sewing, when he was a child. Maybe the frustration of having to dress in someone else’s clothes for a relatively long period of time explains my interest in clothes and fashion.

I arrived in French Guiana 21 years ago. I came to take up a role, as a primary school teacher. I thought it could be fun to work in such an exotic place. The idea was to spend a couple of years and then return to France. But I’m still here, as I like working here, and it’s a nice place to raise children. I like the environment (we have forest, animals, sea, and interesting weather, usually a bright blue sky or torrential rain). These days I find it hard to spend more than a few days in a big city like Paris, grey and dirty. I remember I had a grey coat when I was a student in Paris, and I once realized, while walking on a grey pavement, under a grey sky, I was like a stick insect on a branch.

Grey Paree
Grey Paris

Everything here looks colourful, fresh and clean. This is a very multi-cultural place, with many different communities (Brazilians, Haitians, Surinamese, Hmongs, Creoles…) and as much as I wouldn’t say that they mix together, they live together pretty well. French Guiana is not famous for its beaches, as the water is not blue (because of the Amazon alluvium). It is mainly known for being the place where rockets (Ariane) are launched.

Ariane 5
Ariane 5

There are no seasons here, except dry and rainy, but temperatures are either very hot, or hot and it’s very humid. The main problem is sweating. Nothing wrong with my health, but working in a room plenty of pupils, with no AC and no wind, just a tired fan, you can imagine there are some visible consequences. This is why my first concern when I buy a fabric is, is it sweat-friendly ? It’s not only about being a breathable fabric. Polyester is obviously a very bad choice, but linen is not easy to wear either as it absorbs sweat and shows it off. Cotton or at least cotton lining is my favourite choice. Prints are really helpful to dissimulate sweat. Also I feel happier wearing colour and prints.  Nearly all my dresses are lined with cotton voile, which is a real treat in this climate. I essentially wear dresses because I’m not very good at coordinating separates, and I find dresses easier to wear.

Karine French Guiana
A selection of Karine’s tropical dresses

The traditional dresses here are made of layers of Madras cotton and Broderie Anglaise, and it’s clever because it is appropriate to the weather.

Traditional Madras and Broderie Anglaise at Carnival
Traditional Madras and Broderie Anglaise at Carnival

Some ladies working in AC offices do follow the Parisian trends. But it really depends on which community you belong to. Creole women like to look their best and usually wear nice clothes and shoes. For dressy occasions, such as a wedding, ladies will spend a lot of money on their outfit as well as accessories. But again, it’s hard to generalise because it depends on your cultural background. For example, Brazilian women do not wear the same type of clothes at all. The first time I went to a Brazilian town (we’re talking about the North of Brazil, far from Rio or San Paulo), I was in a shop looking for the women’s clothes. I couldn’t find where they were located. Eventually I realised that what I had taken for teenagers’ clothes were in fact ladies’! Think very tight and loud.

As for buying sewing supplies, there isn’t a wide choice of fabric. You mainly find various Madras cottons, Broderie Anglaise, some wax and a lot of bright fabrics used for costumes for Carnival.

During every Saturday of Carnival, which can go on for 11 weeks,  there are parties where women wear a fancy dress from toe to head. They mustn’t be recognised. During these parties, they invite men to dance. Men can’t invite them, don’t know who they are and can’t refuse to dance. You must even modify your voice if you talk to them. It’s a very peculiar and popular tradition here, and it does give work to seamstresses because the idea is to wear a different dress every Saturday , so that your partners don’t recognise you. You can exchange dresses with your friends. So it’s the sewing event of the year and it’s very spectacular.

I started sewing in my 20s. I’ve always been attracted by fabric and the thinking about its transformation. I’ve been sewing most of my clothes for 10 years. I don’t like buying clothes. I find it rather disappointing as there is always something that annoys me. If it is not the fitting, it will be the polyester lining, the length…I don’t own a RTW skirt or dress anymore. I sometimes sew for my children; pyjamas for the boys, skirts, dresses for the girl. Sometimes, people ask me if I could sew a garment for them. I usually politely decline the offer. People who don’t sew do not know the value of work and time it takes to make something. Plus it’s my leisure, I don’t want it to become a burden.

Lutterloh patterns
Lutterloh Patterns

I discovered Lutterloh 5 years ago. I had never heard of it before and decided to have a go. I really like the fact that with this method, you have access to hundreds of vintage patterns. There are no instructions and it gives you a kind of freedom in interpreting the different steps you’ll have to follow. In comparison, I also use Burda patterns and the instructions are often painful to read. I love to look at my Lutterloh patterns. You’ve got decades of fashion in small books. Some illustrations are fabulous, other hideous, but so funny. My favourite garments are dresses. The fit is rather satisfying.
My influences come from the Internet, from all the blogs I follow. It’s an endless inspiration to look at what other sewers do. I don’t follow fashion blogs at all, only sewers’ ones! I used to knit a little (beginner level) when I lived in France. I had two aunts who had wool shops. Being surrounded by walls of wool was heaven! Sewing is my favourite and almost exclusive craft, followed by cooking but not very successfully according to my family!

14 Responses

  1. Linde

    What a wonderful piece of writing. It had me captivated and I agree 100% regarding ‘People who don’t sew do not know the value of work ‘ I couldn’t have put it better myself.

  2. Marie Noëlle

    Thanks Kate for introducing us to Karine. As a French sewing girl living in Normandie I would like to know more about her + I have many Lutterloh pattern but I’ve never used this system. Is she on IG or Facebook ?

  3. Sue

    Thank you for hosting this post, Kate, and to Karine for providing it, so interesting. I also have hundreds of Lutterloh patterns and I must get back to them!

  4. eimear

    that description of carnival sounds amazing, and I love the look of that two fabric blue dress with pockets (pocket always brilliant). love the description of all the different cultural approaches to dress

  5. Kim

    A fascinating post. Carnival sounds like a blast!
    It’s very interesting to read why (and what) other people sew. Like Karine I suffered from ‘hand me downs’ while growing up – nothing like it to make you appreciate new and individual clothes.

  6. Jay

    Fascinating post, a wonderful snapshot of sewing in a country with different traditions and climate. Thanks Karine for writing this, and thanks Kate for the introduction.

  7. Annieloveslinen

    Found myself nodding in agreement with much of what Karine wrote. The stick insect reference is quite insightful, sometimes we can be sheeplike in our habits and choices and moments like that are like epiphanies.

    I too have a binder of Lutterloh patterns that I haven’t tried, they are very dated (80s) but I think some could be adapted, Karine’s dresses fit her perfectly, I know that people who have mastered, the Lutterloh system make great fitting garments.

  8. Stephanie

    Wonderful post and lovely to know more about Karine. Her dresses fit beautifully. I agree with Annie that her insight into being a “stick insect” in grey Paris is interesting. Also interesting to hear about how different cultural groups dress. I think about this quite a bit in my own context. Great piece.

  9. mrsmole

    To be surrounded by so many different cultures and styles of dressing must be wonderful not to mention what the food choices must be!!! Always fascinating to read about other sewers who find their own voice and experiment with fabrics and styles. Thank you to Kate for bringing Karine to us and to Karine for sharing her life in a foreign land!

  10. ceci

    Wow, what an interesting and enjoyable “mini-vacation” – thanks to Karine for giving us a glimpse of her world. I would love to see the lace and madras dresses, must do a bit of research.


  11. Sam

    Thank you, an interesting part of the world which I now know something about. ( I had thought is was quite dangerous – insurgencies, medical issues, etc. but not so from what I read here.) Sewing is such a satisfying craft that has world wide devotees and so interesting to see you talk about new to me Lutterloh.
    Sam The Aussie

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