Step into Ellen Walde’s bright, sunlit studio in North Vancouver, and the first thing that envelops you is the pleasantly crisp, grassy smell of fresh linen. The textile artist is surrounded by neatly folded piles of striped tea towels, blankets that hang over banisters, and oversized pillows with vibrant screen prints.
It all feels a little like being suddenly teleported from the West Coast rainforest to the south of France, something the artist is definitely playing on with the name of her line, Le fil rouge (“The Red Thread”) Textiles. There is something about the clean, classic look of real linens that can bring an instant European simplicity to a room. And for Walde, the durable, sustainable, 10,000-year-old fabric represents much more than a style statement: it is a way of life.
“There are so many textiles out there that end up in the landfill,” she says, standing at the worktable where she carefully hems, folds, and sometimes artfully silk-screens the linen she sources in Europe. “I love the quote from William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ If you make life simpler, it becomes less stressful. It’s a healthier lifestyle. We don’t need a lot of things.
“Good material has always attracted me. This can make me happy: to have one nice tea towel,” she continues, holding up a rectangle of raw linen with sky-blue stripes along one end. “We don’t need 100 of them. We need fewer things that last longer. It’s a different way of living.”
Although real linen has been a standby for centuries in Europe, it’s only starting to make a real entrée into Canadian culture. It requires far fewer chemicals to grow the fibres (from the flax plant) than cotton does and is two to three times more durable than that fabric. (Look no further than highly prized antique French linens, which have lasted for decades and decades.) It can also dry much more quickly, meaning you can hang it up instead of throwing it into the dryer and wasting energy. One of linen’s other qualities is that it’s highly absorbent, the fibres sucking up 20 percent of their own weight without really feeling wet. As towels, they can take up far less space on the shelves of our ever-shrinking, storage-starved urban dwellings.
For Walde, her relationship to natural fabrics, and working with them, goes back to her years growing up in Bavaria.
“I was always doing things with my hands. I was always knitting and, during my teen years, going to flea markets, where I was always attracted to fabrics,” she says, and then adds with a laugh: “I don’t know why; no one else in the family did it.”
In Germany, she went to art school, studying art therapy but also learning weaving and sculpting. Later, on a visit to her beloved France, she met her French-Canadian husband-to-be, and after she moved here, she studied textile arts and honed her silk-screening skills at Capilano University (a program that is now, controversially, being cut).
Her foray into full-on linen work came more recently, when she found a good supplier for the natural, rustic fabric during a trip to Europe. She would love to source it here, but, as yet, Canada has no real linen industry to speak of. That may come.
There’s no reason why it can’t be farmed here, she says. “In an ideal world I would grow linen,” she says, but the investment would be big. “It would take some years to get a return.”
Instead, for now, she’s bringing us high-quality, natural linen in the form of tea towels that come with stripes in blue, red, or neutral ($25 each or two for $45). There are also multipurpose bath sheets that she says can work as everything from a travel or yoga towel to a picnic sheet ($65, or $85 in a linen tote bag). “You can have four linen bath towels in a house and you don’t need any more. And you just hang them to dry in the daytime and they’re dry by evening.”
Walde lets loose her artistic skills on other one-of-a-kind pieces, from festively printed table runners with scrolling silvery designs to large statement pillows with deconstructed patterns across the front panel of silk organza. (As a sideline, she also brings in luxurious natural alpaca for scarves from Peru.)
You can find her classic linen pieces at Portobello West, which is appearing at the B.C. Home + Garden Show from Wednesday to Sunday (February 19 to 23) at B.C. Place and next month at its home location, the Creekside Community Centre, on March 22 and 23. Her work is also available via the Le Fil Rouge Textiles website.
Walde is convinced that after people try using linen towels, they’ll be converts like her. And that brings us back to her collection’s name, Le fil rouge, which has another meaning that speaks to her creations as well.
“In German, die roten faden means when you follow your main theme in life,” she explains. “And textiles have always been my red thread in life.”