The name, fil au Chinois, dates back to a period in France when anything Oriental was fashionable. This interest for the Orient became very popular with the expedition to Egypt in 1798, by Bonaparte (the future Napoléon), Algeria’s conquest by France (1830) and twenty-five years later the opening up of China and Japan only reinforced this interest. The beginning of the brand Au Chinois was at the heart of this cultural movement. The idea was a success as it permitted the creation of a character easily identifiable and now legendary.
The brand, Fil Au Chinois was registered in 1847, by Francois-Philibert Vrau who founded his company in Lille twenty years beforehand. This was to protect an innovative method to present threads; spools surrounded with a label and placed in boxes.
But the brand Fil au Chinois really took off in the 1850’s with the arrival of Philibert Vrau, the director’s son. This remarkable person lead an unusual life. Single by choice, Philibert Vrau (1829-1905) never ceased to successfully run his company and donated all profits towards social causes. An important figure amongst Lillois businessmen, he was the main founder of ICAM, a Catholic Engineering School.
He directed Vrau with incredible business acumen. His success is an example, especially when we know he rarely worked at Vrau full time. One of the methods applied by Philibert Vrau is worth mentioning. Unlike his rivals and their illogical low prices, Philibert Vrau used an uncompromising pricing policy with a bonus system to encourage brand loyalty. A faultless organisation in the workshop and offices, employees well looked after and a good team of agents did the rest. Success was immediate; annual sales in 1864 of 282 000 boxes soared to 1 950 000 in 1875. One box contained 48 spools each 50 meters long which represeted at peak sales; 93 million spools, the equivalent of three spools per Frenchman per year!
In days gone by, threads from Fil Au Chinois were sold in a dozen thicknesses
which are indicated by a number on the labels. Most common were threads in white,
black and ecru. These cardboard boxes usually contained an assortment of 50 balls.
Then, like many other brands in Northern France, the Fil Au Chinois had a long period of decline mainly due to the first domestic sewing machines which were unsuitable for linen threads, industrial difficulties, inappropriate commercial policies...
While production numbers for the Fil Au Chinois didn’t stop decreasing, the interest for publicity objects and old products only increased for seasoned collectors.
The Fil Au Chinois thread could have been in danger of disappearing had it not been for two, determined industrialists, Olivier and Bruno Toulemonde.In charge of Ets Toulemonde, one of the last remaining French thread manufacturers, the two brothers realised the importance of reviving and prolonging the history of Fil Au Chinois.
In 2007, Olivier and Bruno Toulemonde, determined to revive Fil Au Chinois and bring it back to its former glory, bought the branded product having overcome various difficulties amongst them putting machines back into working order, some dating back to 1890.
Frédérique Crestin-Billet, a passionate collector and herself at the heart of the Sajou brand revival, is part of this joint venture to restore the quality packaging that was once the hallmark of Fil Au Chinois.
Now labels for the Fil Au Chinois linen thread capsules.