Our tête-à-tête this month is with the uber talented finisher, Maryse C Robbins, better known as @unchiffonfonfon. When I first came across her on Instagram, I was immediately hooked and blown away by her talent. Not only does she finish needlepoint pillows, ornaments and standups, but it's her work of cartonnage and other sewing items that show her true talent. Clearly what she does is a labor of love. I highly suggest you follow her to see her workmanship and attention to detail. I hope you will enjoy our tête-à-tête and getting to know a bit about her.
1. For some of our readers who don't follow you, could you please tell us a bit about your finishing background?
My start as a finisher is almost comical. Back to 2016, I was teaching my monthly Cartonnage class at our LNS The West Inc, here in Tucson, www.thewestinc.com. Here I am teaching that day, usually a long class 10 to 5 pm, my students sitting around the large table, working on their Cartonnage project, myself working with them and supervising, I remember all was quiet. And suddenly, a discussion raises from another room between 2 managers, and it was not possible to ignore it! It was about…finisher, finishing, time of return etc.…it seemed to me that they were not happy, but my first thought was, what is finishing, finisher, what does that mean, what they are talking about? It took me a while to understand what it was about. Eventually I asked my class and “Da” I saw the light. Of course a finisher is the person who finishes a project that somebody needlepointed on a painted canvas.
At the end of my class, and without thinking twice, I went to talk to those ladies and after I apologized for listening to their conversation, I was able to say; "You never thought of me for the job? If you would like to brief me on the subject a little bit, it seems like I could use my French Cartonnage techniques and expertise." At the same time a lady just shows up, she had her hands full of stitched canvases. It was Marcia, and she said, I will be happy to be your guinea pig. Show me what you can do for me, she became my first finishing customer. Since that time, I have never stopped. As of today, I have finished about 3.000 projects including ornaments, 3D stands up, pillows, stockings, banners, trays, lamp shades, totes/bags/pouches, hangs up, frame, picture frames, scissor cases, eyeglasses cases, 3D eggs, tree skirts, and of course boxes…etc. and I have re-finished numerous items that need some TLC...sometimes a lot of TLC, because of the doggy, child or time.
A few months ago, I had to make a drastic decision, as the pandemic brought us so many projects to finish, I had to give up on some finishing. I chose to remove pillows from my list of finishing which made me very sad.
2. I am so intrigued by the art of cartonnage. The examples I have seen on your Instagram feed are exquisite. Can you please explain exactly what it is and how you go about deciding how to finish them?
“Cartonnage” comes from the French word “Carton “(kartͻ) which means cardboard in French. It pronounces: (kartͻnaz), the definition in the French dictionary applies to any item made from cardboard and describes the industry of objects made from cardboard.
I always thought that “Cartonnage” is a perfect complement for needlework pieces, in a very different and attractive way, in case you do not have enough walls in your house to hang them!
It is very old art form from the 18th century in Europe that allows you to create beautiful pieces for daily use like jewelry boxes, sewing boxes, office desk sets, trays, lamp bases, little shelves, herb tea boxes, magazine racks, writing cases, picture frames, CD racks, recipes box, bookstands, miniature and dolls furniture, sewing kits, glass cases, needle cases, bookmarks, ornaments, 3D stands up, framing, game boards, tissue box, sandwich boards…round, square, oval, tall, small… well…you guessed it…the sky is the limit. You could build ten times the same exact “Cartonnage” and make it unique every time by choosing different fabrics associated with your cherished needlework and trim, lace, buttons, little charms, ribbon etc.
Almost everything is doable talking about “Cartonnage”. There are unlimited occasions to gift these unique creations: birthday, wedding, baby shower, Christmas present, graduation, Mother’s Day, or just to say I love you!
I like this beautiful example of how to create memories. Grandma Brenda asked her grandson to draw a little something on a piece of paper, she was able to translate it onto needlepoint canvas and stitched it. Now, this unique design sits on the top lid of a generous treasure box, what a wonderful idea and a great teamwork.
I truly believe that Needlepoint and “Cartonnage” were born at the same time.
My boxes are made from scratch using cardboard 2 or 3 ply, Watercolor paper 140 lb. (330g/m²) very strong, gummed paper, white glue … once it is assembled, it is indestructible.
And a few tools…The starting point of the entire process is the needlework itself; its size of course is a determinant element to create good proportions but not only the shape, the stitching etc. are very important too. Sometimes my customers have a precise idea of what they would like me to create for them and sometimes I am in front of a white canvas. In both cases my thoughts come first, followed by sketching and a lot of drawing. Each box is unique and when I am pleased with my notes, I move to the next step, the engineering, and the blue print. That is where I wish my mathematics teachers at school could see my work. It is also at this moment, that I am hunting in my stash for fabric, trim, cord, ribbon, padding, hardware etc.…I must confess, I am a fabric addict, I buy it anywhere when I find something I like, not that I necessarily need, but I know, one day, it will be THE one. Of course, customers are welcome to provide their own fabrics if it is natural material, synthetic are not really compatible with glue. Ok, now that all the ingredients are gathered, the construction can start. It takes an average of 5 to 20 hours to build a box based on the size, and specific features and requirements like hinge, ledge, insert, drawer, top lid framed etc. The construction of the top lid and structure includes a lot of cutting, sanding, gluing, sanding, consolidating, sanding, cleaning and… lastly sanding for a smooth and perfect result. Now the box and lid are ready to receive the fabric, again a lot of measuring, cutting, gluing etc.
3. Can you describe the finishing process for us, once you receive a canvas, how long does it take to finish and what insider tips can you give to those who wish to self-finish on their own?
Once I receive a canvas, I first take a picture and send it to the customer, I imagine that it is good to know that our babies are home safely. I file my order form with any instructions, any detail, requirement etc. and the date of the day to take place in the backlog. Usually, the return time is about 4 to 6 weeks, with the pandemic I am more around 15 weeks.
The finishing process really starts when I have the needlepoint piece on my bench in front of me. It is the time of creation, imagination, visualization, time to choose all the components, fabric, trim, make cording as needed, time to try, try and try again until the perfect harmony, until my little inner voice tells me: this is it! Sometimes it takes me a while before I fall in love! But it is so important to fall in love! I am the last person working with the cherished needlepoint, it is my responsibility to bring the piece to life. And to make it perfect, beautiful and why not magic. There is no small project, because they all come from heart.
My big tip for those who wish to self-finish on their own would be to go slowly, very slowly. Take your time to gather all your components, take your time at every step, a wrong cut could be irreversible, if you have doubts, do not hesitate to first try on a piece of blank canvas to familiarize yourself with the material, size, thickness etc. Give yourself a try but not on the final piece.
Use pins, clips, cloth pins etc. to visualize your work, be minimalist on gluing. Take pictures. The eye of the camera has no pity and will tell you the truth, even what you would not like to see. Like, round shape…that is not round or cording not aligned, or gluing showing etc. Always secure your work, spend time to baste your needlepoint, use invisible thread…And you will make it at your entire satisfaction, all is love!
4. What are some of the popular trends in finishing at the moment, what do most stitchers want? Also, what has been some of your more challenging requests?
There is certainly an increased demands for Cartonnage especially boxes and 3D stand up, hangs up followed by the continuous flow of ornaments, stockings etc. It makes me feel very happy again, as I truly believe that Cartonnage is such a beautiful complement for needlepoint. I call it practical art… just for you, as each of them is customized to fit the customer desires.
Also, what has been some of your more challenging requests?
I guess these days because of the pandemic, we all spend more time at home, re-discovering heirloom treasures in drawers or damaged but cherished ones that we would like to bring back to life.
Those restauration projects are always challenging, it is a total unknown when I receive it. Because I never know what I am going to discover. First I take a close look, and I like to take pictures too during the processes of unsewing, ungluing, cleaning, washing etc. to inform the customer of what I can possibly do or not to do. In most of the cases it is possible to bring back the original beauty with some precautions, but possible. Sometimes it is not possible as the canvas has been cut flush or the edges are extremely used, desintegretad etc., in those cases I manage to make some adjustments in order to reconstruct the piece as close as possible to the original.
The worst case is when the stitched part is damaged by a dog bite etc. or desintegreted by time or bad quality threads. The only possibility is to salvage what is usable. It is a tough decision. Even if the customer is aware of the damage and I get the green light to proceed, it is still a tough decision. The cleaning and blocking are challenging as well because of the fragility of the old threads and canvas, running colors etc.
In the meantime I truly think that each piece is a challenge as it is unique and deserves a very close and loving attention . Definitely, finishing is a slow process .
5. I know that you do not needlepoint but that you do cross stitch. After finishing so many beautiful needlepoint canvases, do you have any desire to take up needlepoint?
I love needlepoint… if only my days could count 48 hours. I guess I would be so happy to join the club. Life is full of difficult choices. In the meantime, I am so in love with my finishing job!
6. Last but not least, give us the scoop on your Instagram name, Un Chiffon fon fon.
Ok, literally it means a rag rag rag…
But not only, it is a play on words around the tittle of a French nursery rhymes.
The song is about puppets, finger puppets moving, dancing…and disappearing….
In French the song says : Ainsi font font font les petites marionnettes
Ainsi font font font…3 petits tours et puis s’en vont.
Let try this in English:
That’s how they go, go, go
The small puppets,
That's how they go, go, go
Tree laps around and then they leave
Un Chiffon, fon, fon…the happy melting pot for my unconditional love of anything ancient fabric, linen, childhood…
Maryse, I can't begin to thank you enough. I am so humbled by your love and enthusiasm for your craft. I have immensely enjoyed learning about you.