Every tourist season brings me a flurry of queries about things to do in Paris for textile people, beyond the usual fashion haunts. So, in an effort at efficiency, here are some of my favorite things, from museums to fabric stores. Assume everything is within a few blocks of a Metro station (get a 'Carte Orange'), and takes Visa ('Carte Bleue').
There are a couple of very complete weekly publications that come out every Wednesday, and which cover every possible arty event. Every news kiosk has them.
In the 13e, near metro place d'Italie (note: best pain au chocolat in Paris in front of the 21/27 south bus stop on place d'Italie itself) This is more properly a working manufacture with antiques lying around, that you are allowed a glimpse of while the workers do their thing. This includes the Gobelins proper, which do wool warp tapestries on huge vertical looms, Beauvais which does finer work with cotton warps on horizontal looms, and the Savonnerie which does knotted rugs. You hear about the dyeing section, the original part of the complex, but don't see them in action, and they do synthetic dyes offsite now, no more natural dyes.
Tours are scarce, offered only in groups, and arranged around the work schedule so times vary on a daily basis. You pretty much have to go look at what's posted at the door, and come back (on time!) for what's offered this week. No visiting is allowed outside of the tours. The times listed in printed publications are never accurate. Generally no allowance is made for English, and the talk has a historical orientation rather than a technical one, but if you ask technical questions they will get answered by the very erudite docents. And you'll get to see a lot of the output since the 17th century, not to mention observe the staff in action. A unique experience.
Furniture and smaller objects, a separate section of Musee de la Mode, with really great, very international bookstore. This is part of the Louvre, but with a separate entrance (and fee). Usually one large rotating exhibit among a solid permanent collection, and all the fashion ones I've seen were great.
Great medieval building in the Latin Quarter, 6e, amazing tapestries including the series of the famous dame a la licorne (unicorn). Excellent bookstore for medieval materials, including many needlework kits based on the licorne.
However the latter can also be obtained, cheaper and with even more variety, from La Boutique a Boutons, 110 rue de Rennes also in the 6e. They have quite an array of notions. You can order from catalogs too, and they ship internationally.
Library by appointment. Rotating exhibits, near the Eiffel tower in the 16e. Small and usually very specialized, but exquisite.
Asian art including much Japanese. Near Eiffel tower, and so the above.
Amazing chinese art collection. At an entrance to the Parc Monceau, the nicest park in Paris. Near the arc de Triomphe, aka l'Etoile, aka Charles de Gaulle metro, Champs Elysees etc., not too far from Montmartre (see below) and a direct shot on the Metro.
Items from the ndustrial revolution, including the first Jacquard loom and much early mill equipment. Conveniently in the Sentier area (see below).
Le sentier is the oldest textile neighborhood in Paris, north of the 3e near Reaumur-Sebastopol. le-sentier-paris.com Most of the stores do wholesale only ('vente en gros'), and aren't kidding about it. But a smattering indicate in the window that they do retail ('vente au detail'), and you'll get some of the most fashionable items on the planet, hot off the press. In any case, it's worth strolling through for both the historical value and the fashion preview combined. It's definitely one of the best places for shoe fetishists. It's also right next to the oldest Jewish neighborhood in Paris (rue des Rosiers), and the newest gay one (rue St Croix de la Bretonnerie), so you can roll several interests into one afternoon. We recommend the rue des Rosiers for the mandatory post-shopping pastry.
For upscale shopping, there is as anchor the venerable Bouchara, now at the corner of boulevard Haussman and rue Lafayette, between the original Printemps and Gallerie Lafayette department stores, just behind the old Opera (well worth a tour in and of itself). Expensive, but a good array of what's in right now, and what's available in good quality. Skip lightly over the cheesy household linens on the first floor, and go directly to the fabrics and vast array of notions and patterns upstairs. If you have money to burn and not much time in a busy tourist schedule, this will painlessly get you something for your friends to envy. And of course there are a few satellite smaller stores to tempt you in the streets behind.
My favorite is the out of the way neighborhood in Montmartre (18e), at the foot of the Sacre-Coeur gardens. Ignore if you can the hideous church towering on top of you, built to thank God for bourgeois victory and the death of 1/3 of the population of Paris (and most of the population of Montmartre) during the Commune anarchist revolution of 1870. You might though enjoy the view from its front door, one of the best in Paris, and have a restorative pastry in the shade after your shopping. At the foot of the gardens, you have a whole paradise of discount fabric stores, stretching all the way to boulevard Rochechouard and the Anvers metro.
The most famous spot is the big blue hulk of the Marche St Pierre, in operation for most of the 20th century at the Eastern corner of the park, and which has attracted a whole neighborhood of imitators and lesser followers. The Marche itself is an experience, a bustle that reminds one of the Halles when they were still in Paris, something straight out of a Balzac novel. If you're one of those crowd-challenged suburban types, in sore sneakered feet and SUV withdrawal, you probably won't enjoy the experience. New Yorkers with sharp elbows will come away with a treasure trove of excellent fabrics at unbelievable prices. For a more sedate experience with still a lot of choices, try Reine across the street, which is particularly good for a leisurely perusal of all the good European patterns. Be aware that these stores run entirely on fabric closeouts - what you see is the last of what anyone can get, so don't come back the next day having made up your mind and expect to find anything you saw before, half the stock can rotate in an afternoon.
The smaller stores that crowd the neighborhood also have great bargains, but come armed with matches and be prepared for extensive burn tests, because nobody will be held to any labeling, much less any oral description. Some bargaining might however be possible, depending on the circumstances.
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