The Breton Stripe and French Onion Sellers

I’ve long been fascinated by the history of the Breton stripe with its multitude connotations. I was delighted to find this image of a “French Onion Seller” taken by Olive Edis in the early part of the 20th Century (courtesy of Norfolk Museums Service). The stripes worn by the Breton onion sellers tended to be narrower than the stripe on my Chibbles knit. They look closer to the stripes on Coco Chanel’s classic Breton jersey seen in the image above, which feels like a natural progression towards springtime and lighter days.

Meet “Johnny” the new Charl Breton stripe which has been inspired by this piece of history. With a pretty, open crew neck, parallel sleeves and a narrower stripe, this is the new springtime version of my best selling Chibbles Breton knit.

“Johnny” has the same body shape as the Chibbles, because this is such a flattering silhouette for so many women and can be worn tucked in or left loose. It comes in 3 sizes: XS/S, M and L so that XS/S fits a UK size 8-10, the M fits a 10-12 and the L fits a 12-14 with the option to size up if you prefer a slouchy fit.

“Johnny” is knitted in the same certified British Wool as the other wool pieces in my collection (it’s always a good idea to have a wool jumper to hand until at least the end of April in the UK). A blend of the bouncy Masham and lustrous Bluefaced Leicester fleeces which are both British breeds of sheep. This mix creates a lovely light silhouette in my bespoke True Navy Blue colour and the natural undyed Cream, whilst remaining soft to the touch,

I’ve been trying to find out more about the enigmatic character of the “Onion Seller” in this picture by Olive Edis as he doesn’t feature in any of the books on her work. At last, I discovered that “French Onion Johnnies” as the onion sellers were known, were French farmers and agricultural workers crossed the channel from Brittany on small boats and travelled round the country on bicycles selling their distinctly coloured “pink” onions. Dressed in a striped Breton shirt and beret, and riding a bicycle strung with onions, they became the stereotypical image of a Frenchman. In many cases he was probably the only French man most British people would meet.

The trade is said to have begin in 1828 where the sellers first made the crossing from Roscoff in Brittany. The British market was said to be more profitable than selling in France and actually, the journey was easier than travelling by road to Paris at that time. It would’ve been a hard life with the onion sellers staying in the UK from July until January.

By the end of the Second World War, the industry fell into decline due to heavy importation taxes on many goods being transported from Europe into the UK.

In Roscoff there is still an annual Fête de l’Oignon (Onion Festival) every summer and an “Onion Johnny museum”.