Aunt Marie-Françoise explains that “the time to pick the lavender is now, while it is fresh,” as I follow her over to the scented driveway, where purple flowers mingle with rosemary in one long line, like juilletistes convoying toward the sea. “We’ll take a bunch from the bottom of the bush,” she exclaims, “You won’t even know they’re missing!”
Following her example, I begin snapping lavender stems from the base of the plants near our mailbox. My husband’s aunt has a knack for wildcrafting and, before long, she’s collected enough spiked flowers for my lavender braiding lesson. I hand over the stems I’ve collected and our bouquet is now 34-strong. Next, she tosses out one of the flowers. “Eh, oui!” she says, noting my confusion. “We’ll need an odd number in order to weave them!” It’ll soon be no secret how the French make lavender wands.
First, we pluck off the leaves then gather the stems, tying a ribbon around the neck of the bouquet, just beneath the flowers. Wondering how to help, I reach over and put my finger on the ribbon, in time for her to knot it. Next, Marie-Françoise turns the bouquet upside down…
The only time I’ve ever woven ribbons before was through my own hair, when I was a child in Arizona. Back then, I used bright beads in turquoise, coral, and silver – colours that inspired the native Americans. I liked the ochre of Sedona, the blue of Navajo jewellery, and the silver in the lining of the Mojave Desert’s sky, which I would one day follow to France.
Far from the desert, Aunt Marie-Françoise tells me that what we’ve picked is actually lavandin, a cross between English and ‘spike’ lavender that’s very common in France. It smells just as good as lavender. “We will create une bouteille de lavande,” she says, explaining the shape is more like an amphore than a bottle. We’ll make the bottle by weaving ribbon through the stems that have been bent back over the flower bundle. Fishing out the longest ribbon and pulling it to the top, she begins to weave.
As Marie-Françoise passes the ribbon through the bars, she tells me that hand-woven lavender has been used from time immemorial to freshen drawers and armoires, and to deter moths. The making of these Provençal pest-busters is a family tradition. Not far from the Pont d’Avignon, Marie-Françoise and her sisters would get together and weave up a lavender storm. When out of ribbon, the sisters got creative, raiding their closets for the satiny loops found inside sweaters, which are normally used to keep garments from slipping off their hangers. “String all the colourful ends together and voilà!” she says. “Ribbon for weaving!”
Noticing the relaxed expression on my aunt-in-law’s face as she weaves, I wonder whether her thoughts are drifting off, like mine, to yesteryear – to giggling French sisters rifling through an armoire… for me, it’s back to the desert, with its coral landscapes and the warm breezes that caress my braided hair, which is with turquoise and silver linings from a French horizon.
Originally published in the August-September 2013 issue of France Today
Kristin Espinasse writes the French Word-A-Day blog, which she began in 2002. Author of the books Words in a French Life and Blossoming in Provence, she lives on an olive farm near Bandol.