Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A tutorial: A Shortcut for English Paper Piecing

In late Autumn, I designed something for an empty wall in our house that I fell utterly in love with. I often have a vociferous inner critic at my side, questioning: 'is this any good?', 'are the colours quite right?', 'should the shapes be tweaked?', but with this, every time I opened the file on my computer and looked at it, I just felt happy (in as much as you can when the piece also has a sentimental meaning that causes your eyes to spontaneously overflow whenever you think of it - more on that in another post). But despite my enthusiasm, I somehow couldn't bring myself to start cutting fabric for it; I felt so overwhelmed by the task ahead. My English paper piecing projects often seem to take up to a year to finish, often as much because I stall or lose interest because they're taking long, as because they are so labour-intensive. Although I love the process, I felt frustrated by how long it would take to get this up on the wall and how it would monopolise all my hand-sewing time to get it finished.

Feeling slightly traitorous to my beloved EPP, I explored whether it could be done using foundation paper piecing on my machine, which would have been much quicker. But, as I'd suspected, I found that this wasn't the right pattern for that method, involving sewing Y seam after Y seam and doing what felt distinctly like 'bodging' manoeuvres in order to piece them together.

I then tried hand-piecing with a running stitch, but found that I missed the crisp lines English paper piecing lends and that are intrinsic to how I wanted this piece to look. I'd pretty much decided to abandon the project entirely, which pained me as it felt a hard one to let go of, when I woke up in the night and realised that if I mixed machine piecing and English paper piecing, then I could speed up the making process substantially. I thought I might share the method I've been using here, in case anyone else might find it useful. It has the bonus of requiring all the machine piecing to be done first, so that the meditative and portable process of English paper piecing is left unaffected by this shortcut.

This is my basic block that I'm using - focus on the half-diamonds for this tutorial! For pieces like this, which are separated by a straight vertical line, I've found it's easy to piece the fabrics together on the machine and then wrap the shape as though it's one piece rather than two, meaning that instead of cutting, wrapping and hand-sewing 13 pieces for each block, I only have to sew together 9. Using the same method, I'll be able to reduce the pieces that will join these blocks together from 8 to 4. Over the course of an entire quilt or large wall-hanging, that economy actually makes a huge difference.

This method won't work for all projects - it's easiest when you're not fussy-cutting particular motifs (although you could always use fussy-cut prints on the surrounding pieces) and it will only work with certain shapes. I think it would work really well on my Perpetual Spring EPP pattern, which uses similarly divided shapes. Whatever, it opens up options for leapfrogging through at least part of an English paper pieced project.  Here's how:

Cut two pieces of fabric that are about 1/2" bigger on all sides than the half-piece you're hoping to cover. If you're using the same two colours throughout your project, you can cut a much longer length of each fabric to speed up the process further! Sew these together on the sewing machine along the long side, reducing the stitch length to 2 to give extra seam security once cut. No need to make securing stitches at the beginning and end if you'd like to chain piece them.

Trim the seam allowance down to reduce bulk. I've taken off a hefty 1/8" here as my piecing is headed for a wall, rather than a quilt. You may prefer to take off a little less if your piecing is going to have to withstand a life of being snuggled under and washed frequently.

Press open the seam with an iron (you can use a tailor's awl if you're keen to avoid singeing your fingers)!

Place your template on your pieced fabric (it doesn't really matter whether this is on the right side or the wrong side) and v e e e r r y carefully line up the point of your template with the seam line. (Nb. your template for cutting fabric should always include a seam allowance, so that the fabric shape is big enough to wrap around the corresponding paper piece).

Now cut around it with a rotary cutter.

You can see from the line on my paper piece that I'd normally cut this shape in two and wrap each half individually...but not now :) Take care to keep the points of your paper piece perfectly in line with the seam when wrapping it.

You now have a wrapped piece. This may seem like quite a few steps to get to this point - I know it would leave me questioning if it's actually quicker, but once you're working in bulk quantities, it's really quite speedy and I've torn through my hand-piecing as a result.

In the picture above, note the folded coral fabric at the bottom left. I've seen Kate mentioning how lovely Cloud 9's Cirrus Solid fabrics are and subconsciously wondered what made them so lovely, without ever actively trying to find out. To my shame, I only finally trialled them because I needed to fill a few gaps in my collection of solid fabrics, but it now appals me to think that I could have carried on bypassing them forever. They are ridiculously soft and drapey and I'm dreaming of making a whole quilt from them - if you're familiar with Kaffe Fassett's shot cottons, then they're like that, but softer, I think. They have a really subtle colour difference between the warp and weft, which doesn't show up so well in photos, but which gives them an appealing 'alive' look.

The piecing above uses a mixture of Free Spirit solids, Oakshotts, (unbranded) silks, Art Gallery Fabrics Pure Elements and Cloud 9 Cirrus solids. As it stands, I can see that this looks quite dull and certainly not worthy of hours of EPP, but there are many more blocks and colours to be added and I'm hoping that once it's viewed as a whole, it will justify the hours it's gobbling up.

My husband has now had flu for nearly two weeks, giving me much a milder version that left me feeling too unwell to do much, but well enough to have something akin to an EPP lock-in - I pieced these blocks and tore through four series of When Calls the Heart on Netflix! If you are ever in need of the televisual equivalent of a comforting bowl of macaroni cheese, this is it (if you're craving any other type of television food, realistically, it's probably not going to be quite right for you).

Wishing you a wonderful week,
Florence x

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Experiments in Weaving

For me, it feels like the old year was led out and the new one shepherded in by new craft activities. In December, I did a few courses - one, with a group of local friends, on Christmas wreath-making and another learning to lino-cut - and following the arrival of a small rigid heddle loom under the Christmas tree, I've spent the first days of the new year experimenting with weaving. Above, is my first piece of cloth.

The loom was a gift from my husband, although I'd done a bit of research before he bought it. In the end, I chose a little 15" Cricket loom, primarily because it's really small and you can sit and weave with it on your lap, which appealed to me, as when I think realistically about what craft-related things I end up investing a lot of time in, it tends to be those that can be done on a sofa, a bed or around the kitchen table, rather than ones that require me to sit tethered to a desk or be in a particular part of the house. The Cricket is made from nice, smooth bits of ply (I may be alone in this, but I find plywood oddly attractive and clean-looking, although I'm aware that the formaldehyde in the glue isn't a great thing) and it was relatively easy to put together - I did it one night as I sat up in my daughter's room and we discussed weekly goal intentions, inspired by a notepad that I'd bought her - we both liked that it required us to list how to make those things happen, rather than just what the end result should be. It's often easy to know where you want to be, but somehow harder to home toward that place if you haven't taken the time to think through the simple things you need to do to make it happen. I hadn't really been aware of wanting to set any weekly goal intentions prior to that evening, but I'm now thinking what a good thing it is and considering buying myself the same pad, as it feels akin to a weekly self-guided life-coaching session...I've never actually had a life-coaching session, but I imagine the end result is similar. I always feel wary of sharing the actual goals or things I'm attempting to do differently, as I've read that if you announce something before you've actually achieved it, you're far less likely to see it through, because just by vocalising it, the brain registers it as having already being done at some level. In my case, even sharing something that has become a fairly well-established habit - yoga lessons, spinning classes - seems to be the death of it for me, so I've learnt that I'm best keeping any positive changes in my pocket if I want to retain them!

So, back to looms. I'd done a lot of research into weaving over the last few months, as it had become something I was really desperate to try. I watched hours of tutorials about how to 'warp' up a loom, wondering whether I'd find that aspect too complicated or time-consuming, as before you can even start weaving (the weft), you have to thread all the warp strands onto the loom, keeping them under perfect tension throughout. In practice, warping is time-consuming, but it's also oddly enjoyable once you've got the hang of it. The first time, it took me a whole afternoon to do all the warp threads (partly because I was untangling a skein of yarn for every strand...more on that later in the post), but by my third time, it took less than an hour and the process of hooking yarn through the heddle slots is oddly absorbing.

That part of the process requires quite a large space, as the threads are all stretching from the loom, to a clamp placed a reasonable distance away - I took over our kitchen table with the leaves extended to warp my loom - as my husband was working on making a guitar at the breakfast bar, the whole thing felt quite sociable.

For both the warp and the weft, I used some really beautiful lace-weight yarn from Loop - it's (comparatively, at least) reasonably priced and seems soft, strong and not prone to shedding or fuzziness.

What I hadn't realised at first though, was that yarn in a skein needs turning into a ball before it's usable. My very first warping attempt was made much slower by being forced to untangle a little more of the skein each time I laid down a new strand. Much of subsequent days were then spent winding the wool into balls - my mum remembered her father moving the skein between his outstretched arms for my grandmother as she wound it into a ball, and so she did this for me, followed by my husband and then a friend who was visiting the following day. I also used two chairs placed back-to-back, as well as my knees at times. But it's quite physically exhausting when you have many skeins to work through, so eventually I ordered a yarn winder and swift (after googling how other people make balls of yarn) and the whole thing was done in under half an hour once they'd arrived. We'll call this No. 58 in a long list entitled Rookie Learning Curve in Working with Yarn and Learning to Weave, because it has felt like one long googling and YouTubing session, with everything from tying an overhand knot, to the right way to untwist a skein, requiring me to pause and consult a tutorial. It was an odd experience to be back at the beginning of something and out of my depth in nearly every way!

I've also realised that it takes a lot of experimentation to understand how colours will appear once woven. Whether you use a colour in the warp or weft, seems to have a sizeable impact on how dominant it will appear to be in the finished cloth. My husband also pointed out that once two individual colours are woven, they visually merge to create a third colour and it's often hard to predict whether it will look exactly as you were hoping for. I was also surprised by how difficult it is not to weave something that looks plaid...I'm not actually overly enamoured with linear-looking fabrics and I'm now experimenting with pick-up sticks (which can be placed behind the heddle to change which warp threads are being woven) to create a more textured, less linear pattern.

It's worth mentioning that although you can weave a piece of cloth as long as you like, the width of the fabric you produce is always determined by how wide the loom is (although you can weave pieces narrower than the width of your loom, just not wider). I'd thought that a 15" loom would allow me to make cushion covers, but actually, once the fabric has suffered from a little 'beginner's draw in' at the edges, it's not quite wide enough to make a standard square cushion cover....it's really more use for making one of these long thin cushions (pictured below), which I made a few years ago. If you're thinking of getting a loom, I'd suggest you buy one as wide as your space will allow to maximise the things you're able to make, although the Cricket offers a really nice entry to weaving and is a good way of trialling whether weaving is something you actually enjoy before committing to a larger loom.

In other thoughts, I realised at the end of last year that I was spending relatively little time reading blogs, even though it's a medium I enjoy far more than Instagram or Twitter. When I eventually took half an hour to look through the blogs that I followed on Bloglovin', I realised that many had either disappeared or were no longer updated, which, with so few posts appearing in my feed, had given me the feeling that far fewer people were reading and writing blogs now. Although that may be true to some extent, when I went hunting for new ones to fill my feed with, I found all sorts of good things and it made me happy to think that blogging isn't the dying form I'd started to think it may be. If you have a moment, I'd love to hear what your current favourites are, as I'd still love to discover more (they don't have to be sewing related - one of my favourite blogs is still Cup of Jo, which is completely un-craft-related).

Like much of the rest of the country, my husband has spent the first days of 2018 (including his birthday) with an awful cold and flu bug that seems to involve sleeping all day and then being awake for most of the night struggling to breath. Even singing happy birthday wasn't permitted, due to its potential to hurt his head and many of his presents stayed wrapped. I seem to have finally caught it myself too now. Very early this morning, we went on a slightly surreal emergency mission for satsumas and Neurofen, before scuttling back home where I think we may stay for some time, although I am determined not to become as ill as he's been with it.

Finally, when I read Sonja's message recently, wishing people 'health, wholeness and hope' they felt like three perfect words for welcoming a new year, so I'm going to shamelessly steal her greeting and end this post by wishing you the very same thing. I hope it's a very good year for you.

Florence x

Sunday, 17 December 2017

On Birth and Lino-Cutting

Last Saturday, I took a one-day class on lino-cutting at The Village Haberdashery with Karen Lewis. I adore Karen's work and admire not only the way that she prints fabric, but also the way that she combines colour in the things that she makes with those prints, so the moment I discovered she was teaching in London, I signed up. I've also known Karen online for nearly a decade now, so the opportunity to finally meet her in person felt like a lovely prospect!

I have a fond memory of lino-cutting at school in an art lesson many years ago, although it was quite different to what we did on Saturday. At school, we used very hard-to-cut lino and employed several different colours, doing more cuts for each new layer of colour that was applied. I remember enjoying the process, but not being overly thrilled with the murky red and green leaf that I produced.

To tell you fully about how much I enjoyed Karen's workshop though, I feel I need to rewind the clock by twenty-four hours first, because it was a magical few days all round. At 7.30am the morning before, if you had zoomed in on my whereabouts, you would have found me scurrying through London under the weight of vast quantities of baggage, and leaping (as much as one can when fully laden) onto a bus alongside my sister, who was carrying her pillow and her gorgeous 38-week-old bump, all ready to give birth! (Just in case you're left wondering why she was carrying a pillow: London hospitals seem to ask you to bring your own when you're having a baby, probably due to them being in short supply).

My own children aside, I'd never imagined experiencing a birth firsthand, so it felt like such a privilege to be there as my beautiful little niece came into the world. Although I had known I would adore her, I was unprepared for being hit with such an instant rush of love, and feeling of relief, the moment I saw her face. I forgot everything on the list of things that I was meant to be tending to at that point (such as taking photos or cutting the umbilical cord), and instead my face was awash with tears of joy and general snottering over my sister, whose eyes were similarly dewy.

I'm not sure I have the words to express what an emotional day it felt or how much it affected me afterwards to have witnessed that moment where a child - one whose safe arrival I felt so invested in and such delight over - goes from being on the inside to suddenly being on the outside and a real known entity, breathing independently -  it felt unexpectedly vast and as though it has subtly shifted my sense of the world in a way that I don't entirely understand. I felt similarly when my own children were born, but more fleetingly, because there were so many other things - emotional, physical, hormonal, practical - fighting for a place when it was my own new baby. This has stayed with me and even a week later I find it drifting into my thoughts and leaving me feeling slightly awe-struck with wonder.

Doing anything other than either being with my sister or having a very, very long sleep the next day felt like a surreal prospect, but I'd booked onto Karen's lino course a few months earlier and I was keen to still go and our mum was enthusiastic to spend the day at the hospital, so we arranged to go into London together early the next morning (although when my alarm went off at 6am after only a few hour' sleep, I was horrified, which is totally unlike me as I'm a pretty good morning person. I have Sunday Morning by The Velvet Underground as my alarm and I'd always previously felt it would be impossible not to feel quite enthusiastic about getting up on hearing those sparkly opening chords...I've now realised that there is a tiredness that even that song will struggle to jolly one out of). But actually, pulling myself out of bed was so worth it and a day lino-cutting with Karen ended up being the perfect post-birth-partner activity and now feels like an integral part of the general magic that hung over that weekend for me.

In the sunny studio at The Village Haberdashery, we got to work using our new tools straight away and we found that the lino Karen uses is much softer than what we'd had at school, which had felt more akin to chipping away at a thin layer of concrete. We divided our lino into six small pieces experimented with what each of the different lino-cutting blades did by making lots of lines.

Karen encouraged us to print onto paper at first, rather than our cotton, so that we could experiment before committing to fabric - this was such a liberating idea and I think only two of us had ventured onto fabric by the end of the day (neither of those two being me).

I began by placing my block in orderly rotations to produce the same purposeful fussy-cutting effect that I'm often drawn to do with my sewing (above), but there's something about Karen's easy, confident approach to experimentation and her enjoyment in what emerges with a less intentional approach, that's infectious and I soon found myself breaking out of my usual way of working and liking the results of my experimentation all the more for it.

This photo, below, shows all of our work together at the end of the day - there are so many prints in here that I love - particularly the central black fireworks and the bottom of the purple sheets which has a beautiful flower motif.

It was a very hands-on day, with little time where we were sitting down just listening, but I learnt so much and we were all naturally drawn to frequently gather around each other's work as Karen discussed how something was done or the different effects that we might consider to experiment further. All of us had very different styles, which meant that it was easy to be influenced by what others were doing, with little chance of producing something that looked the same.

It was a lovely group of women and there was plenty of time for quiet chatter as we sat carving our lino and I really enjoyed that aspect of the day too (it's a different kind of conversation that you have when your hands are busy, isn't it, somehow more relaxing). By the time we began to pack away our supplies, I can only compare how I felt to how someone may feel at the end of a day at a spa - totally refreshed and invigorated, but with that warm fuzzy feeling of also being utterly relaxed (I don't really enjoy spas, but clearly I've found my alternate version of one).

Above are the lino squares that we cut during our class. If you get the opportunity to be taught by Karen, I'd recommend you waste no time in snaffling up a place - it was such an inspiring day. She is a warm, knowledgeable and hugely enabling teacher.

After the class, I went back to the hospital for a quick cuddle with my sister, niece and mum and then raced home to meet up with a group of our friends for a celebration Christmas dinner...I can't remember much of it as I felt an underlying tiredness by that point that manifested itself as feeling akin to being on a boat where I had the sensation of gently swaying, even before having anything to drink, but it's represented in my head by a warm glow of smiley faces and a vague awareness that I was fresh off the train wearing jeans and the odd fleck of paint, while everyone else had beautiful dresses on (not the men), but that it didn't really matter.

This week, finding I needed a specific fabric but had nothing in my stash with the right background colour, I suddenly realised that I could just make some. I know that's the obvious outcome of learning to lino-cut, but it hadn't occurred to me that I'd actually use it in practice (sometimes I don't think all the dots in my brain automatically link up in the way that they should...I imagine my brain is like a giant dot-to-dot, where it frequently dashes from number 5 to number 21, missing out a whole rabbit's foot or flower petal as it does)! In my chicken-no-egg scenario, I'd thought that I might print some fabric and then try and find a purpose for it, but not that I'd need some fabric and so just print some! Viewed from that way around, it feels like a truly exciting prospect. I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to think about the design, perfect the prints or trial quite how much paint is really needed when printing on cotton rather than paper, so there's much room for improvement, but I'm looking forward to showing you what I did in a few months' time, as it's part of something that I can't share just yet.

How are you plans for Christmas coming along? We finally put our Christmas tree up this evening and I'm only a few people away from having bought all the presents (so in reality, probably still quite a lot to do, but I'm hoping I might solve some of that tomorrow).

Florence x

Ps. My sister and her baby are doing wonderfully and are now safely back at home :)

Monday, 4 December 2017

A Liberty Print Map of the UK

I talked a bit about the quilt that I used as the inspiration behind the blocks that I contributed to the V&A's new book here, but what I didn't mention was that I'd become completely obsessed with the maps that lay at the outer corners of the quilt. The photo below shows one of these maps - the maker had chain-stitched around each county and then embroidered its name on in almost impossibly tiny cross-stitches. I fell in love with all the small snippets of colour pieced together like a jigsaw, although I also loved what the presence of these maps represented: that the maker was outward-looking; that she brought her education and her sense of her place in the world to her quilting...that feels no small thing bearing in mind that she was living in 1797, when women's access to travel and education would have been relatively limited. I've talked about it in the post I linked to above, but the structure of this quilt was interesting, with symbols of the maker's own world and domesticity placed at the centre - such as needles, scissors, a pin cushion; then moving out, the garden was depicted with flowers, ducks and birds; finally two globes, Scotland, England and Wales in the far corners of the quilt.

Since I first studied the details of the quilt last year, making a similar kind of map had been mentally added to my 'one day' project list, but it was an idea that bobbed back up to the top, even as the list became fuller - a sure sign of something that wants to be made, as it's so easy for ideas to disappear from sight entirely.

Then, one night at a quiz - take from that, that I was sitting at a table with other people who were answering questions, while I ate the cheese they'd thought to bring along - someone said that their husband often spent time in the evening studying maps, looking at river names, mountain ranges and the myriad of tiny details that filled the page, trying to memorise it all specifically for boosting his quiz knowledge. You know when you first hear about a hobby and think: Wow! I had no idea that people did that. Well, that was what I was thinking as I cut a little more stilton to tide me over for the next round. When I lay in bed that night and thought back to it, I suddenly linked it up with the 1797 quilter, who'd wanted to appliqué maps on her quilt...and in fabric-form, the desire to know and name and label made more sense to me. Deadline-based work recently cleared off my desk, I got up the next morning and started making a map.

My initial idea was to fill each county with some kind of embroidered or woven fill, mixed in with the odd Liberty print, but it started to look slightly chaotic and I couldn't work out how the county names would show up over the stitched areas (I hadn't thought of printing them at that point, as I did in my final version, but that totally would have worked). The image you see below is where I got up to with that idea.

In the end, I decided to use solely Liberty Tana Lawns (it's probably predictable that I'd decide that, but it came as a revelation to me at the time...Oh, I could just use Liberty prints! What a novel idea. But really, the scale of them works so well for tiny pieces like this, so it's predictable, but also really sensible)! I divided the groups of counties into their regional areas (South East, Midlands, East Anglia etc) and assigned each a colour, and then tackled the map region by region to avoid missing out any counties. I was amazed, delighted...and also slightly appalled, that to complete a map that required so many different Liberty prints, I only had to send away for two pieces. Luckily, Duck Egg Threads sells Liberty prints in fat sixteenths, for just £1.38 a piece! It's a really economical way of stocking up on a good range of prints for a project that uses tiny pieces like this.

When you use an iron-on fusible for appliqué, you have to use a mirror-image of the shape, so that it will be orientated the right way on the front side. For this, I printed out a mirror image of the map I'd chosen to use and then traced all the counties from that map. I also kept a regular copy for reference and marking things off as I did them.

Once all the counties were cut out and ironed on (I love it when what felt like nine million hours of cutting and sticking, is later reduced to ten words), I then appliquéd it all into place on my machine. I decided to use the same thread colour all over to give some cohesion, and also to use a really narrow satin stitch, so that the lines defining the counties didn't feel too heavy.

While I'd been appliquéing, I'd come up with the idea that I could print out county names and then appliqué those on too. I wrote up the names using a lovely old typewriter font and printed them onto creamy-coloured plain cotton backed with fusible web, cut perfectly to an A4 size. My printer only objected a little to this pseudo-paper and eventually agreed to print out a full sheet of names without any smudges at all. 

You can see them being appliquéd in place above.

I wanted to tell you quickly at this point about this awesome seam ripper that I've had for a while now. It has a magnifying glass attached to it, along with a very powerful light, and together it makes light work of unpicking even the tiniest of misplaced late-night stitches. Particularly in low light, my eyes are really starting to struggle, so this is invaluable. 

One day, when my father popped in, I took him up to my sewing room to see what I was working on and he broke it me that some of my counties seemed to be missing! He was pained by telling me this, so I felt awful for him, but when I looked, I realised that Rutland was indeed missing and several other mapping crimes had been committed. It was then that I started reading up about county divisions and discovered that counties have been redefined regularly throughout history and that those on the map I was working from were only correct between 1974 - 1995.  I did mention earlier that I'm better at eating cheese than answering quiz questions, so you can see how this oversight might happen.

But either way, it was most unwelcome news. But do you know, when I checked around (obsessively), I found that half the country isn't aware of this and that there are all sorts of places where incorrect maps are still being shown on official websites...quite something when the internet wasn't really in full swing until well after this map became outdated. Some things I decided to leave as they were, but I knew that it would really bother me not to include Rutland, our smallest county, so I did some surgery and I think it was fairly successful. Also, I felt traumatised not to have all the Yorkshires labelled correctly, because my maternal grandmother had grown up in South Yorkshire (although she would have found it really funny), so that too was updated. I then typed up a little note that read 'Map of the United Kingdom, based on county divisions between 1974-1995. Some areas updated to include Hereford & Worcester as separate counties; Rutland being recognised as a county; Humberside becoming West Riding of Yorkshire.' I appliquéd this on and felt quite relieved that I'd catalogued all the inaccuracies...although my husband thought that my need to do this was absolutely curious and that it should be taken off. It was. 

UPDATE: It seems this is a map that's going to need a larger frame, just to hold the correction notices that could be placed beneath it...it's come to my attention that I meant EAST Riding of Yorkshire...not West Riding. Looking at it now, I have no idea how I didn't notice my mistake or then pick it up when very carefully [incorrectly] notating the first fault. I'm going to bury my sorrows in a large piece of White Cropwell Bishop Stilton and then sort it out at a later date, once I've relocated a modicum of trust in my own mental faculties. I could be some time. (My father introduced me to white Cropwell Bishop when we visited a cheese counter together last weekend. If you see it, get a piece - it tastes like a cross between Stilton and Wensleydale...tangy, creamy but crumbly at the same time. Perfection). UPDATE part II: Although I'm going to change the issue mentioned above, I'm not going to attempt anything else as it would probably ruin the map to do so - it's tricky to successfully unpick dense satin stitch and remove fabric that's been heat-fused without everything falling apart. Although I appreciate from the comments section that there are people who feel passionately that accuracy in these matters is important, I'm going to bury my head in the sand and enjoy my map simply as something that I loved making, which happened to be based on an outdated map, with a few of my own inaccuracies thrown in for good measure.  

It makes me really happy that Scotland (also underrepresented in counties back in 1974...it's now divided into many more pieces) is depicted in beautiful icy shades of grey, which feel like they capture the temperature of Britain's most northerly point...I later wished I'd graduated the colour on this basis across the whole map.

It's now being framed and should hopefully be on a wall soon. It's really hard to photograph because it's so tall and thin...it just seems to disappear in pictures, but I think if you click on them you'll get a bigger version, if you'd like to see any close up.

It was an odd project to work on - my mind wandered all over the place, cutting out the squiggles of rugged coastlines. It was so funny to think at each point of the lives the space might contain. More often, I imagined lovely old ladies pegging up washing in remote clifftop houses, a bit like Hannah Hauxwell in demeanour - does anyone remember the documentaries about this incredible woman, who lived alone on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales? If you're interested in doing something similar (appliqué that is, rather than lone farming), my e-book guide goes into great detail about the whole process from using fusible web to achieving a nice satin stitch (although obviously not specifically related to this map). You can find it here. It was written when I had a very basic machine, so no high-tech equipment is needed :)

Wishing you a lovely week,
Florence x

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Woven Orbs

Despite the fact that I've dropped off the edge of the internet for a month, sewing has continued behind the scenes and I've made all sorts of things that I'm hoping to share with you over the coming weeks: a dress, an appliquéd map, a quilt sewn at high-speed for a baby shower, some more Eight Dials piecing, as well as some more Matisse inspired Eight Dials blocks...the list goes on, but most of it is yet to be photographed (although randomly, I do have a picture of me standing in the middle of a field wearing the new dress accessorised with wellingtons, while on a dog walk. I am a big fan of dresses for muddy walks as it means that my favourite jeans aren't faded by constant washing...tights somehow never seem to attract mud).

Anyway, first up are these little orbs. This year, I've kept being struck with the desire to do some weaving. I've intermittently researched looms, but ultimately decided that it may require a whole new room to accommodate it (or at the very least a cupboard to store a table-top one) and also wondered if I would have the patience to thread up the warp on the loom, which seems a necessary, but somewhat complicated-looking, precursor to weaving. But either way, I have totally fallen in love with this particular piece of weaving and the thought of it continues to make me want to learn. Do you weave? I'd love to hear more about it and what the learning curve is, if you do.

For now, at least, these tiny woven orbs have dampened the insistent voice of the marauding maker-beast within, who seemed to be pulling at my sleeve and grumbling BUT I JUST WANT TO WEAVE whenever my attention was turned to any other craft! I posted a photo of the first few orbs I made on Instagram near the beginning of October and then lost myself in a flurry of undocumented orbing, which resulted in a further two dozen being created. The original inspiration for these came from an image I spotted on Pinterest and it was one of those lovely things where you then search up a name hoping they've written a book and then find that they actually have written a book...AND with the point of inspiration dotted all over the front cover, which you can see in the photo above. I was so pleased!

The book is by Karen Barbe and you can find it on Amazon, here. The content was a surprise, as it doesn't actually give any hints on how to make them, rather it's actually all about combining colour successfully. However, the book is a visual feast of orby inspiration and it wasn't hard to imagine how one goes about making them. I used Aurifil Lana wool (this shop has a really good range of colours) - I love how natural and textured it looks. I also used a wash-away marker and the base of the Lana wool reel to mark out the circles. For the weaving, I used a thick, blunt needle to avoid splitting the wool and I interfaced the pale base fabric, so that any stray threads wouldn't be visible on the front.

I've ordered some tiny picture frames from Ikea and will be putting these up on a wall in my kitchen that's always felt curiously empty. This is clearly what it's been waiting for.

In other matters, I'll be venturing out from behind my screen to go to The Village Haberdashery this Saturday to chat about the V&A book I contributed to. I'll be talking for a bit (if I can remember how to speak) about the project I offered up and I'm also looking forward to hearing about the inspiration for the other pieces in the book and hopefully time just spent chatting with other makers - it would be really lovely to meet any readers in real life, if you happen to find yourself in London on Saturday afternoon. It's from 2-5pm at The Village Haberdashery in West Hampstead - it may be worth checking with the shop to see if tickets, which are free, are still available.

Finally, the gorgeous teapot, above, is made by Jo Avery, who has just begun a block of the month quilt-along with Today's Quilter. You can find out more on Jo's blog, here, and follow along as she unveils a full kitchen's worth of crockery over the coming year. Jo invited me to post about one of the blocks, so in the new year I'll be sharing the one that I've made when it gets to the relevant month.

It's now feeling horribly close to the end of November and, unusually for me, I've done very little in the way of buying or making any Christmas presents. Have you started making anything? Or do you have any wonderful ideas for shop-bought gifts?

Have a lovely weekend,
Florence x

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Tracy Chevalier and The Sleep Quilt

As teenagers, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I used to watch two hospital dramas if we happened to be in when they were on (although 'happening to be in' may understate how much we enjoyed those programmes at that point in our lives...ensuring that we had a family-sized bag of chocolate Minstrels for viewing and both leaping onto the sofa in time to hear the theme music is probably a more accurate description). One was a drama set in a casualty department and the other set on the wards of the same hospital. I tell you all this because, very occasionally, a character from one show would make a fleeting appearance in the other and we would feel curiously delighted to find the two worlds colliding!

Anyway, that's kind of what happened to me a few weeks ago (minus hospitals and chocolate, although with the addition of things that appeal to me far more twenty years later...), when I met with one of my favourite novelists, Tracy Chevalier, to talk about her forthcoming book with Fine Cell Work. The colliding being that I'd interviewed both Tracy and Fine Cell Work separately about different things last year and suddenly found myself with Tracy chatting about their joint project. (Those initial interviews are yet to be published and I don't want to duplicate anything here, so what follows is, to me, only half the story, but I'm not sure the page would be long enough to accommodate the whole story anyway)!

For those who haven't come across Fine Cell Work already, they're a wonderful charity whose volunteers teach prisoners to stitch and sew, enabling them to earn money by making things based on the charity's commercially-viable designs, which they collaborate on with interior designers, such as Kit Kemp and John Stefanidis. The finished hand-made cushions and quilts are of incredible quality and are sold by FCW to an appreciative (often high-profile) customer base. There are countless benefits from this scheme: prisoners who stitch are statistically calmer and less likely to get into fights; the long solitary prison hours are passed doing something productive; positive feedback from customers builds self-esteem; it allows them to offer some financial support to their family while they're inside and often when the stitcher emerges from prison they have the skills, enthusiasm and small nest-egg necessary to begin a new life, rather than returning to old habits.

Tracy's first meeting with Fine Cell Work was when they invited her to talk to some of their stitchers at Wandsworth Prison about a novel she'd written, where the central character is a quilt-maker. She said that on that first visit, despite her initial apprehension about entering a male prison, she actually felt relatively safe. Although most of the FCW stitchers are category A prisoners (high security), they value their time sewing so greatly that they are at pains not to jeopardise the privilege and tend to be respectful and eager to please. Tracy said that conversation with the assembled prisoners quickly felt curiously akin to that of any quilting group, where people are united by a shared enthusiasm for needle and thread. She said that the FCW stitchers were eager to share their own work with her and hungry for positive feedback. It was an experience that left her feeling she wanted to continue her connection with Fine Cell Work.

Around the same time as her visit to Wandsworth, Tracy was also invited to curate an exhibition of quilts at Danson House in Bexley Heath. She called that exhibition 'Things We Do in Bed' and chose to give each of the five rooms a theme - birth, sleep, sex, illness and death - to be explored through the medium of quilts. After her prison visit, she felt inspired to invite the Fine Cell Work stitchers to create a quilt for her show; she decided that the least controversial theme for that may be 'sleep'. What she discovered, was that sleep isn't as neutral a topic in prisons as she'd first imagined and the resulting quilt is as heavy with emotion as it is with stitches.

Through Fine Cell Work, prison stitchers were invited to create a patchwork square for the quilt, depicting what sleep meant to them. In eight prisons, a total of sixty-five prisoners brainstormed ideas and, if anyone lacked the artistic ability, collaborated on artwork to help each person successfully convey their feelings around sleep. The resulting quilt is a richly tapestried piece of wakefulness, dreams, insomnia, escapism, counted sheep, guilt, regret, sadness, vulnerability and, at times, hope.

Photo credit: Fine Cell Work
To give the Sleep Quilt a feeling of cohesion, dark blue sashing was placed between the blocks and the predominant colours used were white and blue. Additionally, Fine Cell Work decided that just one stitcher should do the hand-quilting to bind the layers of the quilt together - a 'burly Polish inmate in London's Brixton Prison who worked 10 hours a day for six weeks on it, in between bouts of weight-lifting' was chosen. When I saw the quilt, for all the beautiful blocks it contains, I found this hand-quilting equally captivating. The stitches are exquisitely even and consistent...it puts my own hand-quilting to shame. As a quilt-maker, I think we're always left wanting to know the exact techniques used - in one place I could see the faintest blue line beneath the stitching, which I recognised as the distinctive ink of a wash-away quilt marker. I don't usually rule out my lines of stitching, tending to 'eyeball' it, so I may try this next time. Tracy pointed out the decisions the quilter had made: where to quilt around a picture or where to stop; whether to use navy or white thread. It's not until you begin to analyse it that you can see the sensitivity of the quilting decisions and appreciate that he somehow called it exactly right every time. It's a huge responsibility to make stitches on a block that someone else has pieced.

The blocks themselves are at times humorous and, at others, tear-inducing. Some tell a literal story of sleeping in prison - in one block, a vast torch light looms over a prison bed and the words 'Turn that bloody torch off' and 'I only get two hours' are written on the intricately thread-drawn brick wall above.

Some blocks convey dreams of home, a camper van, family or a partner. The quilt block below is the only one created by a female prisoner.

Here, a block shows a sleeping man, tears on his cheek and his face heavy with sadness, depicted in delicate blue floral fabric...it's a surprising fabric choice that feels both brave and vulnerable.

Another densely-stitched block tells an autobiographical story, described in the accompanying words with startlingly frank self-awareness: 'The lower right figure represents past relationships, where a candle of enlightenment belatedly reveals my true nature' and 'the most prominent design on the left symbolises my daughter. I have never met her and she subsequently displays my burden of shame.' It is not an easy read.

The projects that the stitchers usually work on are patterns provided by FCW, so Tracy and some of the volunteers had felt apprehensive about whether working on such an emotive project may unleash feelings that were difficult for the prisoners to deal with, but she said that ultimately, the prisoners seemed to find it a positive experience. I wonder if exploring feelings through stitches may be easier than talking, as the soothing repetition of the work simultaneously offers its own balm to any turmoil the actual work may stir up.

The men collaborated on layout and Tracy pointed out to me how the four outer corners are weighted with darker-coloured blocks; the sheep blocks are evenly spaced to avoid ending up with a field's-worth clustered in one area; and the nine central squares have also been carefully placed in terms of colour value. Once the layout had been agreed, one prisoner was then tasked with sewing it all together, a privilege as well as a responsibility. Assigning duties like this was handled by Caroline Wilkinson, one of Fine Cell Works most active volunteers, who oversaw much of the quilt-making.

I asked Tracy whether she feels apprehensive when she commissions a quilt - it's something she's done several times, also commissioning quilts for her subsequent show celebrating Charlotte Bronte's bicentenary. She told me that in this case, when the initial squares were shared with her, she worried about whether the final piece would have enough impact, but like any quilt, it's often only once it's viewed as a whole that the individual components feel 'right' and she was delighted with the finished quilt. I also asked her about the experience of curating an exhibition. She said that she's learnt something each time she's done it - one thing being an acceptance that she won't always get viewers to do what she wants them to do! She explained that at the Things We Do in Bed exhibition, there was a brief and unmissable piece of writing, which, if read, would make sense of the whole exhibition for the visitor...and she watched as person after person walked straight past it. When I went to visit the Matisse in the Studio exhibition at the RA recently, I caught myself hungrily striding towards the paintings, only forcing myself to return to the introductory writing when Tracy's words rang in my ears and I imagined some poor curator watching on in horror. Although it was like a bit like sucking a sweet to appreciate it's flavour, when my instinct is to chew it briefly and then devour it almost whole, I feel I will probably always stop to read the introduction from now on!

The sleep quilt ended up being displayed alongside works by the likes of Grayson Perry and Sara Impey. It's yet another facet of Fine Cell Work's genius that through their relationship with Tracy, prisoners have been offered an opportunity like this. Although, in order to protect their privacy, their names aren't shared, the positive effects on one's self-esteem in taking part in such a high-profile project, when one's life to date may have lacked any kind of praise or affirmation, seem inestimable.

And now, a book, reincarnating the sleep quilt in paper-form - something I'm so delighted by, having missed the exhibition when it was on originally. It's a small, perfectly-formed book, ideal for gifting, self-gifting or coffee-tabling. The quilt blocks have been beautifully photographed and fill the pages, sometimes with a short explanation alongside elaborating on the meaning it holds for the maker. There's an introduction by Tracy, as well as Katy Emck, Fine Cell Work's Director. And at the end of the book, several pages of quotes from prison governors, FCW volunteers, and the inmates themselves, sharing the difference that Fine Cell Work and needlework has made to their lives.

If you'd like to support the production of the book, you can purchase it through the KickStarter, where you can also choose a handmade purse or cushion to go with it, if you'd like. Any surplus money raised will help finance Fine Cell Work's new hub, where ex-inmates will be able to find work and learn to re-integrate in society. If you'd prefer, there's also the more conventional Amazon route (although I think the charity would love it if you'd consider being part of their Kickstarter). It's a really beautiful book - I think anyone would love it and I'd wholeheartedly recommend buying a copy!

Tracy's actually holding two of the aforementioned prisoner-made cushions in this photo (she also showed me the loveliest side table, which was covered in the same colourful needlepoint, also made by FCW stitchers). Tracy explained that these cushions are often one of the first things prisoners will make when they finally reach the point of being skilled enough for Fine Cell Work to sell their stitching. Each little square in the cushion contains only two colours, so the stitchers are able to be fairly creative with less chance of a demoralising failure, because the duos of colour just always seem to work well together.

If subtle cushions are more your thing though, I am also swooning over these and have one of them on my Christmas wishlist (I wrote about a beautiful hotel where I'd stayed for my 40th birthday and it's owner and designer, Kit Kemp, has collaborated with Fine Cell Work to create this range of hand-finished cushions).

In the days before I met Tracy and was thinking about The Sleep Quilt, several things bobbled up in my mind. One was a book about sleep by Matthew Walker that I'd heard being discussed on Start the Week and read various articles about (do listen here, if you have the time and inclination). His book suggests that sleep deprivation impacts on virtually every aspect of our mental and physical health. An extreme example of this is that when the clocks go forward and we lose an hour's sleep, the rate of heart attacks increases by a staggering 24% in the days that follow. By contrast, when the clocks go back and we gain an hour of sleep, the rate of heart attack decreases by a similar amount (I share this news from the relative safety of the clocks having gone back just three days ago...)! Matthew's book sounds fascinating from a personal point of view, but I then started thinking about it in the context of the Sleep Quilt: for those who are potentially most in need of an environment that fosters mental stability, level emotions and resilience of spirit in order to make positive life changes, prisoners are thrown into a place that couldn't be more hostile to facilitating the kind of sleep that could make those things more attainable, with clanging doors, bright torch lights, pacing guards and potentially intimidating room mates. It seems just another of the many ways in which our current prison system seems set up solely to punish, eschewing the need to also rehabilitate. On the subject of room mates, I listened to a podcast a few months ago called Ear Hustle, which is recorded, under supervision, by prisoners in an American state prison. The first one, Cellies, gives a really interesting insight into how sharing a cell impacts on one's day-to-day experience of prison.

Finally, last year, I read about a government-led system in Brazilian prisons where inmates can reduce their sentences by up to 48 days per year, by reading books and then writing reports on them to demonstrate their comprehension of the text. The carefully curated reading list offers a range of literature, philosophy and Brazilian classics for different reading abilities and is labelled Redemption through Reading. When I think about how life-changing certain books have been in my own relatively sheltered life, it's not hard to imagine the possible impact they may have on a life that's gone awry, where exposure to thought-provoking literature may be an entirely new experience. Although the Brazilian prison environment is almost certainly more gruelling than our own, implementing systems like this seem a relatively low-cost way of bringing about small, positive changes. One of the teachers who works in a Brazilian prison says 'We hope to create a new perspective on life for them. This is about acquiring knowledge and culture and being able to join another universe.'

Just before I left, Tracy indulged me with a show-and-tell of her work. You can see her beautiful baby quilt in the photo above on the left - all the squares were fussy-cut to create a whirligig of pattern. I also saw some glorious patchworks and even some of her very first piecing, all hand-sewn. This initial piecing actually set off an idea in my head that I'm hoping to try out at some point, so more on that when I eventually do!

Finally, because I know some long-time readers may be thinking it: how did I meet one of my favourite authors and retain the power of speech? As I stood on her doorstep, it did suddenly occur to me that I may indeed lose all my words and have to gather them up from the pavement. But talking about quilts together somehow very quickly made her seem more Kindred Spirit than Author God.

Florence x

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