Denise and Mariam Lambert, pastel blue alchemists

In the greenish liquid of the plastic tub, Mariam used a broom handle to dip and immerse the cotton fabric, making sure to expel all the air bubbles, and only two minutes later she pulled it out. The fabric came out colored a light acid yellow, and then, very quickly, it turned pale green, then dark green, and finally took on a blue color.

The young woman wrung out and hung a piece of cloth on horizontal bars placed along the wall above a row of sinks. She then continued with a demonstration of pastel dyeing of different fabrics. In the humble and rudimentary “degreening” workshop, the magic of pigment oxidation in natural fibers works every time.

old tannery

Mariam and her mother Denise settled here in Roumens, a small village in Lauragais in the heart of the blue triangle of Albi, Toulouse and Carcassonne. This land of abundance saw a great boom thanks to the pastel trade, at its peak in the 16th century.e century, until, in declining quality, it was supplanted by indigo, then synthetic dyes. But the love affair of the Lambert family withIsatis tinctoria started in the mid-1990s.

Denise is American, Henri is Belgian, together they set up a contemporary art gallery in the village of Red, with almost 400 inhabitants in the Ardennes. They then headed south with their two children towards the milder Gascony and settled in Lectoure, a town in the Gers that is marked by art and history, in a former tannery from the 15th century.e century. While renovating an old house, their curiosity will be piqued by the discovery of four shutters painted blue.

From left to right, raw pastel pigment.  To prepare the mother tank, Denise adds a little powder of natural indigo pigment to the pastel, which gives a darker color.  The contents are then poured into a beaker placed on a heated magnetic stirrer.

“Later we realized that the blue color, with which peasants at that time dyed the horns of cows and oxen, plows and carts, came from the bottom of the dyeing barrels, which smelled very bad, like tannery barrels, but attracted far fewer insects.” explains Denise. “People associated these repellent properties with the color, but in fact it was due to the uric acid that was once inherent in the preparation. »

“Recipes” kept secret

Since then, the duo has never stopped digging into the fascinating pastel history of Occitania’s colorists. In partnership with farmers and the Cooperative of the Plain of Ariège, they will grow a tinctorial plant with small yellow flowers, looking in old books for “recipes” to extract the pigment that were most often jealously kept secret and passed on orally.

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