The fabric of life

Katie Elliott Armitage and her husband Michael took on a huge renovation project when they swapped London life for rural Dordogne, where they now run creative workshops, says Anna McKittrick

For some, it’s a house with land. For others, it’s a village location. But for Katie Elliott Armitage, it was a waterside property that topped the wish-list in her search for a French home. Katie more than fulfilled her criteria when she and her husband Michael discovered their future home in Dordogne back in 2002. And although the property the couple fell for was a complete ruin, it came with a babbling stream that runs through the five-acre plot.

Katie and Michael have long had an affinity with France and once their children had flown the nest, the couple decided there was no reason to stay in London.

“We thought it was time for a change,” says Katie. “My husband spent all his childhood in France and speaks fluent French. We wanted to be in the countryside and the French countryside offers so much more than the British countryside now.”

The couple got the rural location they yearned for with their move to France and their bucolic bolthole called Brian�on is located two kilometres from the village of Verteillac.

The properties, encompassing a maison de ma�tre and numerous outbuildings, are housed on the site of a former walnut mill, which dates from the 14th century, and was altered to its current layout in 1803. The buildings, which had been uninhabited for 40 years, needed considerable work and taking on the task of converting them was a substantial project but Katie and Michael saw the renovation potential. Initially the couple employed the services of an architect to assist with the build but things didn’t go to plan and they decided to go ahead and do the work themselves.

As the properties had been left to go to ruin, they were in need of a complete overhaul including new roofs and new floors. “Basically we had a shell and we had to rebuild inside. We reconfigured them completely because they didn’t have much light and now they’re absolutely perfused with light,” enthuses Katie.

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During the renovation process Katie and Michael were keen to retain the character of the properties and add to the period features by using reclaimed stone and timber. Once the couple had renovated the maison de ma�tre Katie set about designing the interiors which was something she throughly enjoyed: “I’ve got a degree in graphics and I’ve always been into interior decorating. I’m just very interested in my nest and making it look as nice as possible.”

Katie sums up the style of the property as a mix of old and new with pieces of art and sculptures the pair have collected over the years interspersed with new furniture and decorative items they have sourced from brocantes and vide greniers.

“I would say we brought about 50% of the furniture with us but we came from a much smaller house so we’ve got a lot of traditional French furniture here too as well as pieces from the Far East.” Sumptuous vintage textiles add texture and colour to the interiors and the curtains and loose covers were made by experienced seamstress Katie.

For Katie and Michael the outdoor space was just as important when renovating the property and Michael, who is an avid gardener, completely landscaped the garden which has now matured beautifully. “Michael brought over a lot of unusual plants with him from the UK because when we first got here it was impossible to get anything other than geraniums. It’s a very beautiful garden and Michael’s got a particular interest in peonies so we’ve got a wonderful selection of them,” says Katie.

With a flair for design and interiors, it’s no surprise that when the couple decided to set up a business in France, they chose to run creative workshops.

“I’ve always been very interested in textiles and go to various workshops myself and I suddenly thought that we were well situated ourselves and I had a good network so I asked a few well-known characters to come and lead workshops just to see if it would work, and it did.”

It’s now been five years since Katie set up Les Soeurs Anglaises and they host around six creative workshops every spring/summer at Brian�on. The courses, which attract a largely female audience, run for five days and six nights and the line-up for 2012 includes photography, knitting and mixed textile workshops among others. “We’re trying to concentrate on textile-related workshops but having said that for our own interest we do try others occasionally. We had a poetry workshop with Roger McGough and we’ve got a writing workshop next year with a well-known American novelist,” says Katie. While time constraints restrict Katie from taking part in the workshops, being surrounded by creative talent and people who are passionate about their hobby is extremely inspiring. “It’s hugely stimulating. You have the opportunity to talk to creative people and most women are really interested in learning about what’s going on and how we got here and then you can pick their brains, look at their work and learn about their inspiration.”

With its rural location and serene surroundings, Brian�on is a naturally inspirational place to be and Katie says it’s something which impacts on the women who come to do the workshops.

“It gives women an opportunity to just do nothing except the creative work as you’ve got no husband or children asking what’s for supper. It’s also quite liberating because there aren’t many men around, so they can relax.”

Katie is keen to point out that there isn’t a ban on men and there have been a few men who have attended workshops in the past. “It works fine because they are just another one of the girls at that stage.”

Les Soeurs Anglaises attracts an international audience with the largest percentage of visitcors coming from the UK and the United States. Language can be a barrier to some of the courses as most of the leaders are English but Katie says the textile courses can be taught without speaking the language, enabling French people to take part. “Textiles are universal really, knitting might be tricky, but embroidery or anything where you watch what people are doing is not difficult.”

The name for the business goes back a long way to when Katie and her sister Susie Bolton had a business selling vintage French linens sourced from frequent visits to France which they called Les Soeurs Anglaises. When Katie moved to France the linen business took a back seat and when she started the creative courses she decided to use the name Les Soeurs Anglaises for her new venture. Katie’s sister is still involved and comes over to help at the workshop, along with Katie’s best friend Carol Temple.

The workshops are held in one of the two huge barns which the couple restored and on-site accommodation is provided in the maison de ma�tre, where Katie and Michael live and where meals are served, or newly converted annexes.

Katie and Michael are very interested in cuisine and do all the cooking, getting their inspiration for the buffet-style meals they prepare from the likes of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Yotam Ottolenghi, while using the abundance of local produce, either from their potager or the market, to create the seasonal dishes. Naturally, delicious cheeses feature on the menus they serve, with the goat’s cheese coming from a farmer less than half a mile away.

Michael is something of a wine expert, having run the Interesting Wine Club in London for many years before retiring to France. He has an impressive collection in his cellar from which guests can purchase to accompany their meals.

After a decade in France, Katie and Michael feel perfectly at home in their corner of Dordogne and it’s no wonder they want to share it with like-minded creative people. With the summer season of workshops about to begin, the couple are busy preparing to welcome guests to their inspiring surroundings. LF