Monday, 17 July 2017

From Brush to Needle

I'd said in my last post about my latest English paper piecing pattern, Eight Dials, that I'd show you some of the blocks for another version that I've been working on - as promised, they are completely different - it doesn't even look like the same pattern. I wanted to explain my thinking behind these blocks, so bear with me - there are lots more images later in the post!

A few months ago, I came downstairs to show my husband the latest block that I'd sewn. It's nice, he said. I think most students who travelled through the English education system will have had it drummed into them that 'nice' is a forbidden adjective, lacking in imagination and permissible only at times when one is totally unenthused by something. Despite, at that point, feeling like a rather reluctant and weary sort of fish, I took the bait and asked him what the problem was. He suggested that the thing I'd just made was similar in colour and style to most of what I'd made over the past year (for a Secret Project, yet to be shared here). But I LOVE those colours, I replied. I use them a lot because to my eyes they are the best of colours; when I open my fabric drawers, they're what I feel drawn to pull out.

My husband put down his laptop and lay back on the sofa - a signal that he was either about to fall asleep or give me his COMPLETE attention. On this occasion, it was the latter. He broke it to me that  the problem with always using similar colours, no matter how much you love them, is that you risk stagnating, becoming bored and eventually failing to move forward creatively. I saw his point, even though it was slightly painful to hear. But I found the idea of using a totally different colour palette uninspiring - why would I use colours that I don't truly love? And also, maybe, a little overwhelming.

Next, he said something wise and then something extremely practical and helpful. Together they made this one of our Favourite Conversations Ever, because it felt like I sat down with one mindset and left shortly after with one that was totally refreshed. He first told me that he thought people were often able to be more creative when they had constraints placed on their work. He explained that when he used to have clients (in a previous life, my husband was a web and games designer), having a brief to stick to was actually a springboard to coming up with an exciting design. Mmmm.

So how do I put constraints on my work, I asked (because why think for yourself when you have your own Wise Man suddenly lying on the sofa)? He suggested that I could base each block for a quilt on the colour palette of a painting that I really loved. The conversation had gone from uncomfortable, to thought-provoking, to finally a level of inspiration that saw me haring off upstairs hungry to wield a rotary cutter and leaving him perfectly positioned for an afternoon nap.

An afternoon looking at Matisse's paintings in The Hermitage, St Petersburg, while in Russia with my sister, planted a seed that has left him as one of my favourite artists and so moments later I was printing out one of his paintings and matching up fabrics. The dilemmas that would normally bring my work to a standstill disappeared, entrusting those decisions on Matisse's magical hands (it helps to pick someone's work who you really love, so that you trust them entirely on these matters). It was possibly one of the most invigorating afternoons of my sewing life to date. It made me look not only at the painting differently, but my whole fabric collection. My Eight Dials pattern allows for four fabrics to be used in each block and it was immensely satisfying to try and find fabrics that each contained a few specific colours so that all of the colours in the painting could be represented. It was also unusually speedy and free-flowing - I decided on my fabrics in less than 1.5 hours...something that has previously been known to take days!

This block is based on The Painting Lesson, 1919. Here, the pink roses and green vase are represented at the centre of the block; the grey of the girl's shirt appears in the next round; the yellow of the artist, canvas, lemons and mirror and the cream of the table cloth are represented in the penultimate round; while the black background, the girl's skin and the highlights in her hair are revealed in the final squares. They're not colours I would have chosen to put together - I have always avoided mixing pink and yellow - but I adore how this block turned out.

Next, Calla Lilies, Irises and Mimosas, 1913. The central blue print represents the backdrop of the painting and also the style of the design that appears both there and in the table cloth; the greens (light and dark) are represented in the next round (although the darkest green not in the qualities that I would have ideally liked); Next, some more blue to bolster the vibrancy of the earlier blues and also to give a smattering of white found in the calla lilies and the yellow found in the mimosa; finally the coral swathe of fabric that appears in the background is picked up in the outer squares.

It's interesting to take a photo that blurs both the block and the painting, as it's here that I can see whether I've achieved what I was hoping for.

I'll post some more blocks once I've had a chance to photograph them - these were taken shortly because the light started to fade this evening. I'll also show you the colours I'm intending to use to connect them together. 

If you'd like to join me in an artist-inspired version of Eight Dials, I'm using the hashtag #frombrushtoneedle over on Instagram. And if you missed it and are interested, you can find the pattern here

Over the summer, I'm visiting the area around Nice in France - Vence is home to some of Matisse's stained glass windows and there's also a new exhibition opening at Musée Matisse in the centre of Nice - super-excited would be an understatement! We stayed in England last summer and although we had some wonderful time away, I'm looking forward to being abroad again. 

I'm wondering if anyone is familiar with the area around Nice and knows of some good fabric shops? Dressmaking or quilt-making? And maybe some vegetarian restaurants? 

Florence x

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Eight Dials English Paper Piecing PDF Pattern

I've been tweaking the pattern for this on-and-off for months and it feels like a lovely thing to finally be at the point of sharing it here. I was going to stop at the size pictured above, but I'm finding making the blocks addictive and now have plans for something as big as the quantities of fabrics that I have will allow for. The design consists of three blocks (one large, two much smaller) that can be replaced in repeat over and over to create enough piecing for whatever project you'd like to make, whether that's a cushion, wall-hanging or full-sized quilt.

The name is taken from a place in London's Covent Garden, called Seven Dials. It's a spot where seven cobbled streets converge at a tiny roundabout, on which a sundial towers. The roundabout makes an unlikely gathering place for people to sit, eat, drink or chat and, when I worked in Covent Garden myself, I'd sometimes take my own lunch there too. There's something relaxing about watching the black cabs and cars circling around and it's too small an area for them to go at any great speed. When I was naming this pattern, seeing how all the pieces seem to lead back to a central point reminded me of Seven Dials. My piecing actually has eight 'dials' though, hence the name change (which actually feels totally in keeping, as Thomas Neal, who designed the area in the 1600s, did similar when he increased the number of streets converging there from six to seven).

The pattern goes together quickly and easily and is suitable for beginners and old-hands alike. Included in the PDF are:

- Basic instructions for English paper piecing
- Easily printable paper pieces
- Fabric-cutting templates with seam allowances included
- A colouring sheet to plan out your design
- Step-by-step assembly diagrams

If you'd like to buy a copy of the PDF pattern, you can do so below. It costs £6 (that's around $7.80 USD/ €6.80 EUR) and is instantly downloadable.

Buy the Pattern!

NB. Be sure to print the pattern at 100% with no page scaling options set, so that the pattern pieces print at the correct size. 

My piecing here uses a very limited collection of fabrics and I'm really enjoying that; once I'd decided on my fabric there's been little to think about other than the repetition of wrapping and stitching, so it's a great project to quickly prep and take along in my handbag.

I've also been working away on an alternate version of Eight Dials though and that one features a riot of colour and print - I'll share that in another post. As each block is different, choosing fabrics takes a little longer, so it's my inbetweeny project that I'm tackling on days when I have more time to ponder. It's interesting to see how that profusion of different fabrics affects the appearance of the underlying pattern - it looks utterly different and the feeling of interlinking, connected blocks is lessened, but it feels quite joyful for its lack of structure.

I owe a a huge thank you to Annah, who generously saved me from days of replanning (and quite possibly weeping and other self-indulgences that may have involved lying in a crumpled heap listening to Morrisey songs), by sending me some of the Elizabeth Olwen fabric seen in the piecing below. It's an older fabric that I was having trouble finding online and not being able to get any more would have brought my piecing to a standstill. I'm so grateful that this was avoided - thank you so much, Annah! x

I'm using the hashtag #eightdials for this pattern over on Instagram, so do have a look if you want to see my other blocks as and when they appear (or if you want to share your own, which I would love!)

If you would like any extra information on English paper piecing, I've written posts about how to fussy-cut fabrics; shared my favourite thread for EPP; done a huge amount of geeky research to discover my favourite needles for EPP; discussed how to frame EPP; and written a beginners guide to EPP back when I was still a beginner myself (I must update that at some point!).

Florence x

Friday, 7 July 2017

Atelier Brunette Moonstone Top

I recently bought some of this beautiful viscose Moonstone Atelier Brunette fabric and it sparked a late-night sewing session the moment it appeared again in the clean pile of washing (approximately four hours after it had been posted through my letterbox - my haste to prewash it, if I'd thought about it, would have told me of the frenzied rush to make something that was likely to follow*). A wondrous thing is the fabric so lovely that it prompts you to push everything else aside to work on it RIGHT NOW!

I watched Miss Potter recently, a film about the life of Beatrix Potter - it's really lovely and currently free to watch on Amazon Video, if you're a Prime member. It's about how her work became published; her relationship with her parents; her female friendships; and the two men she loved during her lifetime - all magically portrayed and utterly captivating. There are a few moments where her illustrations seem to impishly leap off the page while she's doing other things and it's an imagining I recognise in fabric-form - certain fabrics just refuse to be quiet until they've been made into something (although thankfully, I don't hear any voices with this)! This fabric is no exception - it's currently sitting on my cutting table half-made and taking up much needed head-space with its pull to be finished while I'm trying to get on with other things.

Anyway, the fabric. It really has everything: the drapiest drape (I always find Atelier Brunette fabrics tend to wash to be much softer and drapier than when they first arrive and this was no exception); a very wearable print; easy and stable to work. The only thing it doesn't have is a willingness to keep its loose ends in tact - I confess to giving my half-made top a manicure with a pair of tiny scissors before taking this photo and even that has not hidden some of the wandering threads. That's not really a problem, but it does mean seams need to be finished nicely to avoid unravelling - so either french seams or overlocking.  On the colour, I don't have much pink in my wardrobe (it's predominantly navy, grey and black), but I get so much wear out of this top, which happens to be an identical shade, that it persuaded me to buy it.

When I'm craving instant gratification, the quickest route is to draft a pattern based on something I already own. In this case it was an old smock top from French Connection, bought about 13 years ago (I can only pin down a date for this because I remember wearing it almost constantly one summer when my daughter was little). I've realised it's funny how much less I analyse fit when the item is shop bought - it's a top that I've always really liked and felt comfortable in and yet it was only when I tried on my own version of the top that I realised it pulls very slightly along the seam that runs from shoulder to neck. Initially, I assumed that I'd made a mistake while drafting, but when I tried on the original top, I realised there is identical pulling and I'd just replicated the poor fit. Having worn and loved this top for so many years, I've decided to overlook this in my own version too. As I normally irritate myself with my quest for perfection, I'm choosing to celebrate that kind of slapdashery, rather than chastising myself for it!

At some point I'll try and write a post sharing a little more of how I go about rubbing a pattern from a ready-to-wear garment - my methods are self-taught, so possibly quite idiosyncratic, but they seem to work for me. It's often very quick (the pattern for this blouse took about 1.5 hours) and the nice thing about it is that I rarely make a muslin when I've used this method as I usually feel confident that it will be an accurate replica of the original. Drafting pleats, gathers and darts can be tricky as the top I'm referencing obviously can't reveal those things in their original flat state, but there's usually a logical way to working out how much room those things should take up on the pattern piece and then adjusting everything accordingly. Armholes and sleeve caps tend to be the thing that take the most time. For this top, the original had slight gathering at the sleeve cap (it's actually more pronounced than it appears in this photo), which I'm less keen on as I feel it visually unbalances my frame (if you're interested, you can see a demonstration of that in this post where I talk about how to make a dressmaking croquis to draw designs on), so on that basis, I removed the sleeve gathering and will also finish the sleeve slightly differently to give a smoother line beneath a cardigan. But otherwise, having pinned where the buttons will go, the fit seems identical to the original, shoulder pulling and all! I'll hopefully show you the finished top in my next post.

I bought my fabric from M is for Make and when I went back to get some more for a strappy summer top, it was all gone (there is also a beautiful blue version, although Kate tells me that there was a printing error, so it's unlikely to arrive anywhere until September). I'm sure it was only 48 hours since the pink Moonstone arrived on Kate's site, so I think lots of us must be making things from the same fabric this week! I snaffled up this black tote bag - it would totally delight me to see someone else walking down the street with this and to know that at some level they were a kindred spirit. I actually spotted someone wearing an Atelier Brunette fabric in the town where I live a few weeks ago and although I didn't feel I could go and accost her (she looked like she was hurrying), it did make me smile inwardly.

Finally Friday - it's been a long week. I'm so pleased that tomorrow morning will allow for a lie in! What are you up to?

Florence x

* The arrival of fresh dressmaking fabric was an excellent incentive to do some much-needed washing - a daily delivery may just be the ideal way to establish a regular washing routine - I will discuss this later with Mr Teacakes to see if he thinks this may be a good strategy!

Ps. I've now panic-bought a little more of the pink moonstone from Guthrie & Ghani, so it can still be found if you like it. x

Monday, 15 May 2017

Random Things


This post is a bit of random collection of things, but I'll start with the photograph above: titanium sewing machine needles. Last week, I took my daughter's sewing machine in to be repaired (she has my old sewing machine, which I talk about more here, back in 2009 - I loved this machine so much that it's really lovely to now having it living on her desk (rather than in the cupboard) since she began her textiles GCSE last year. Anyway, when I took it in to be repaired, the engineers were horrified by the titanium-coated needle that was in the machine and I thought it might be worth discussing here as I was quite surprised by their reaction. 

The benefit of titanium-plated needles is that they tend to last much longer than regular needles - their coating means that the point stays sharp for eight times as long as a chrome-plated needle! I also don't feel they break nearly as often as regular needles. However, the engineers I was chatting with claimed that sewing machine needles have been developed to break the moment they run into trouble in order to avoid damaging the machine and causing expensive repairs - they felt that this wouldn't be the case with a harder titanium needle. 

In the course of writing this blog post, I've read up on these a bit more and found that the brand I use (Superior Threads) claim that the tensile strength isn't actually increased at all by the titanium now I'm torn. I wondered what other sewers feel about this? Do you use titanium needles in your machine? Would you?

In other thoughts: insanely beautiful Gertrude Made barkcloth fabric. I don't think this has landed in the UK shops yet, but if you've been impatiently stalking the virtual isles for it, then I have some in my Etsy shop from my own stash that I purchased from Australia a few months ago (yes, you can only imagine the import bill on that's always so much worse than I optimistically imagine it might be at the point of purchase). Either way, I think it's going to retail at £28 per metre in the UK, so these cuts offer a hefty saving if you'd like to make a quilt from them and I've set postage at a penny (for some reason, I can't offer it free), as I have no idea quite how much it will be, as the hefty stack of barkcloth is too heavy for my kitchen scales to calculate, so I'll cover the costs of that. You can find them here. And you can see inspiration for how they might work as a quilt here. I may destash some other fabric over the next month to carve some space in my sewing room drawers - I'll let you know when I do! 

I don't think I shared this top with you when I made it last year, but I put it on this morning and took a quick photo of it before going about my day and only realised later that I was clearly brushing an invisible hair out of my eyes at the time, although in reality it looks more like I'm enjoying revisiting a particularly delicious-smelling handwash. Either way, I seem to remember that when I made the top last year, there was something I didn't feel was quite perfect about it, but when I put it on this morning, I couldn't identify what that might have been, so have been happily wearing it, impervious to its flaws. It's made from a navy slub jersey, that I think came from either Guthrie & Ghani or The Village Haberdashery. Neither has it now, but they do have some other slub jerseys in stock. 

It's the same self-drafted pattern that I used for this and this top. I also made my sister one, identical to that of the second of the two 'this' links above. It's definitely my favourite pattern and I have another few versions planned for this summer...which may make for some dull blog posts ahead. Brace yourself! If only blog posts were scratch and sniff and then I could at least make sure to use a variety of delicious hand creams to enliven the accompanying photos (while we're on the subject - this one is currently in my handbag and smells amazing. Hand-cream-borrowing seems to be a regular activity whenever I'm out with friends/daughter/sister/mother-in-law and this one is loved by all who use it).

Finally, I'd like to introduce a new sponsor, ECT Travel, who organise quilting tours around the world, from the UK - I was really tempted to go on their tour to Nantes in April, but had deadlines to meet at the time, so couldn't. But if you're interested in future quilt-related travel (which makes it sound like they wrap customers in quilts and then propel them through the air in a quilty version of a flying carpet, but I think in reality it's probably a bit more conventional than that and involves planes and coaches), do go and take a look. 

Wishing you a happy week, 
Florence x

Friday, 21 April 2017

Kaffe Fassett at Standen

My blog posts are currently like buses...none for an interminably long time and then suddenly a great rush of them, but all with the same destination - that is, sharing news of exhibitions that are soon to end. This one is particularly late in arriving with you, as the exhibition in question closes this Sunday (23rd April), so if you're interested it may be a case of read-and-run.

We missed the two talks that Kaffe Fassett gave at Standen to run alongside the exhibition as the tickets sold out so quickly, but in mid-March, my daughter, mum and I went along to look at the quilts and tapestries on display. These two red quilts in the image above were lit beautifully and really glowed.

This sweetly-coloured Pickle Dish quilt was my favourite. In researching the origin of the pickle dish design, I discovered some alternative names, one being Gypsy Kisses and the other being 'an eyelash quilt'! The latter leaves a pickle dish (which only shares the basic oblong shape that appears within the quilt) feeling a rather tenuous link, when a set of eyelashes is such a perfect literal translation of this design. Albeit rather jauntily-coloured eyelashes.

Because Standen is a popular location in its own right, many of the visitors hadn't come to specifically view the exhibition. It was really lovely hearing how surprised and delighted people were to stumble across this beautiful body of work.

We enjoyed the National Trust's tactful approach to asking visitors to refrain from sitting on the chairs. Such a simple gesture, but it seemed to convey a whole conversation without any need for any ugly signage. Just in case you're wondering, our thought was that the conversation would go something like this: Would you like this fir cone up your bottom? No? Don't sit on the chair then (all said in quite a friendly, smiley voice). Someone on Instagram mentioned that they've seen holly used at some National Trust properties...that seems like a slightly more aggressive conversation.

We were lucky to go on a day when everything was bathed in beautiful Spring light.

Once we'd finished admiring all the quilts, we wandered around the grounds chatting. My mum and I saw the chance to star in our own Rob Ryan paper cut and leapt upon it, captured by my daughter. I am wearing a poncho...not actual bat wings.

We saw this final quilt in the coffee shop. I was quite captivated by it, in part because I wasn't enamoured by the colours overall, but felt the whole thing was transformed by the very small amounts of blue splashed about and it felt really fascinating to see how it worked to lift all the other colours.

There's a lovely video of Kaffe decorating the Standen Christmas tree last year, at the bottom of this page, if you'd like to see.

Over on my Facebook page, I've also listed some podcasts that I've enjoyed over the last week while sewing, if you have some spare listening time. I always love hearing people's recommendations, as I'm always looking out for new things. One thing that I hadn't mentioned on Facebook, that I've been enjoying recently is The Conversation on BBC World Service. In each episode, they get two women together who share the same interest/job/life experience have a conversation and it's invariably fascinating as they discuss the similarities and differences in their experiences.

Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Josef Frank, Celebrating 40 and Mixtapes

I always miss this space horribly when I don't get a chance to post, but it tends to be the first thing to go when I'm busy. However, I wanted to write before the closing date of a particular exhibition that I'd like to tell you about. More on that later though.

A few weeks ago I celebrated my fortieth birthday. I hadn't really planned anything, but then a friend made me an amazing cake that was three tiers deep and it prompted me to arrange to see people to help me make my way through it. It ended up being a really lovely, relaxed time full of friends and family that went on for five days until the cake was finished. I would have missed out on so much had it been regular-sized (thank you, Emma).

My husband surprised me by having arranged for my sister, daughter and mum and I to spend the following weekend together in London.

We went to the Josef Frank exhibition that's currently on at London's Fashion & Textile Museum. Josef Frank was an Austrian architect, better known for the textile designs he created after moving to Sweden to escape Nazi discrimination. His prints are breathtakingly lovely. I am always drawn to designs that have lots of tiny, delicate dots surrounding a bolder design, because it seems to lend a welcome softness - this is something that features in many of Josef Frank's designs.

It was a real treat that along with large lengths of fabric, the original design was often also shown. Especially interesting to see how he had planned out the repeat. I really love photos of people engrossed in looking at things in museums - you can almost feel the quiet stillness. It's my sister in the photo above.

As always, the way that the FTM lay things out was a complete delight. They have a very small space, but the thoughtful displays always feel visually exciting. For this exhibition, the way that they had hung the panels meant that everywhere you turned a new sight line of different fabric combinations was created.

They had also upholstered several sofas and chairs in Frank's fabrics, that they generously invited visitors to sit on. That feels such a rarity, as so often the fabrics are too old and precious to cope with an endless stream of visitors.

The colours in this design made it by far our favourite. The exhibition is on until 7th May and if you're anywhere near London, I'd implore you to go. You can book tickets here, although I've never been turned away when I've bought them on the door.

A friend alerted me to the fact that you can actually import Josef Frank fabric and accessories from this site. They are outrageously expensive, but incredibly beautiful.

Oddly, our hotel had a very Josef Frank feel to it in places. This is one of the sitting rooms.

We also loved these displays created by tiny pebbles. Although it's set back from Trafalgar Square in a very quiet street, its still a large central London hotel, but it has lots of creative touches like this that soften its edges and make it feel really cosy. My sister and I stayed a few years earlier and fell in love with it. They do lovely hot chocolate in the bar if you're ever in the area during the day. After cocktails, we scurried upstairs to pile into bed to watch a film. My sister and I saw about five minutes of it before falling asleep, leaving my mum and daughter to finish it together.

We also visited St Dustan in the East (do look at the photos - it's a lesser-known London landmark, but really beautiful), where the four of us sat in the sunshine, having a long and meandering conversation so bizarre and laughter-filled that I think I will remember it always.

In entirely other matters; through a strange electronic quirk, I'm only able to listen to my iPod docked in my car if I begin my journey by going forwards (forgive me for giving no lead in to alert you to where this story is going - I'll deliver you to the destination in the next paragraph). Reversing out of a driveway or a space in a car park is seemingly so objectionable that seconds after I've committed the crime and begun moving forward, the music is confiscated and will only be reinstated if I can find somewhere to pull over to go through a long process of persuasion. Generally, a journey is best if I can just start by going immediately forwards. Some days, it also finds a particular bend in a country road disagreeable and casts the car into sudden silence, leaving only the eerie sound of tyres on tarmac. I think it's a car that craves straight, Roman roads. The men at the repair garage tell us it's all working perfectly, looking askance when I speak of long, musicless journeys.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that there's still very much a place for CDs in my life, which seem solid and reliable by comparison and can be played irrespective of the direction of travel. For my birthday, my husband made me three compilation CDs, containing a song that was released in each of my 40 years - it feels so odd to listen to them in order and work my way through my lifetime track by track. It was a really lovely gift and has been on rotation in the car ever since. I usually have on the CDs that my sister has made me for birthdays and Christmases - I wonder if we are the last generation who will make mix tapes that can be given to others. iTunes allows you to share a playlist with others, but I think it then relies on them to purchase the songs, rather than allowing you to buy them as a gift.

My husband and I listened to a two-part series on Radio 4 about the demise of the music industry as we once knew it, reflecting on the time when things shifted from CDs to digital and the impact of services like Napster. Here's part 1 and part 2, if you'd like to listen. We found it really interesting, if quite sad.

It's been a surreal time as I've been totally absorbed in a project that I began at the end of last summer and the only days that I've really surfaced from it have been to race off to do something extraordinarily lovely, before diving straight back into it. I have really enjoyed the balance of intense work (which is mostly energising, rather than draining) and intense relaxation. A few weeks after our birthday weekend in London, I found myself popping over to Spain for a few days to spend some more time with my sister, only booking flights the day before I left.

We ate fennel and lemon salads; and also nuts (my sister's, always unadulterated 'woodland snacks'; mine, shameful salted peanuts, which we compromised on calling 'safari snacks' after I'd vetoed her derogatory suggestion of 'circus snacks'. It says that they are 'a natural source of protein and fibre' on the pack - she maintains that this is negated by roasting and salting. I'd welcome your own thoughts about salted peanuts); warmed our skin by the sea; rode carousel horses, just as we had done in Paris seven years ago (although that time, my hair had not blown across my face to give a curious monobrow); sat talking for hours while I sewed; and watched films before falling asleep each night. It was a truly magical time.

London felt cold and wintry by comparison on the evening we arrived home, but the next day there was glorious sunshine and we launched straight into my son's birthday who has joined the ranks of teenager (thankfully not of the Kevin variety, although I did show him the clip a few years ago and he was enamoured with Kevin's almost instant transformation), meaning that I now have not even a slightly small child left in the house. It's odd to think that he was only three when I started writing this blog. Speaking of teenagers, we watched The Edge of Seventeen with our older daughter a few evenings ago. It's such a lovely film that's incredibly funny - it has had universally good reviews. Probably only suitable for slightly older teenagers as it's rated 15 and the content is quite adult at times.

In other thoughts: Easter. I hope you have a really lovely break. We are planning to see family and potter close to home. I hope whatever your plans are, they involve good things.

Florence x

Saturday, 28 January 2017

On Knitting (+ a few questions)

Anyone who has followed this blog over the last decade may recall that my knitting forays have never actually resulted in a finished garment (at least working on the basis that, unless trying to emulate Michael Jackson's one-handed glove wearing, one really requires two gloves to avoid looking like curious creature). It's come as a source of delight and surprise to have not only finished something, but to have commenced a second project!

When my daughter visited the Christmas markets in Germany the year before last, she brought back a beautiful snood for just a few euros. Every time she's put it on since, she's chastised herself for not buying another one in a different colour, so when I was pondering her Christmas gifts this year I decided to buy a kit from Wool and the Gang so that she could make one for herself. Wool and the Gang's branding is so youthful and stylish that I felt confident that one of their kits may be enough to lure her woolwards. (And in a fit of self-gifting, I bought a navy kit for myself, so that we might sit and knit companionably. What a wonderful rabbit hole that proved to be). We both used this kit - her kit used Margaux Red, while mine contained Midnight Navy yarn.

One day over Christmas we pulled out our large balls of wool and began. The wool was vast and our friend, Ben, enquired whether we were using special 'training needles', such was their girth. I guess we were, although I think they're standard for any kind of 'big wool' knitting perhaps. We followed the WATG slip knot tutorial; long-tail cast-on video; then the moss-stitch instructions and then we were actually moss-stitching. The first few rows looked unimpressive and odd, but several rows in, the bumps began to look like a recognisably repeating textural pattern. The pattern included in the kit contained little helpful information for a beginner, so I think the intention is that you supplement it with their videos, which are are wonderfully clear and the way that they're shot makes them feel oddly calming to watch.

We later also discovered the Top 10 Knitting Tips video, which I wish I'd watched first as it's really useful.

One day, we took our knitting over to my parents house and while my sister and mum cooked lunch, my grandmother and I sat and took it in turns to knit a row each on my snood. My grandmother was always a wonderful knitter, but it's a few years since she's picked up some needles and she'd forgotten some of what she once knew. Despite the intense concentration, her face looked so relaxed and happy when knitting again. She mostly always looks happy (she is one of the most sparkly and vivacious people I know) but this was a different kind of happiness; I imagine it's exactly the way I'd look if I was handed some English paper piecing in my late 80s. Whenever it was my turn, she made such genuinely delighted comments of admiration and encouragement that I was cast back to how it felt to be taught something by her as a child - she always had an amazing capacity to teach in a way that never made me feel stupid or aware of her impatience, if she actually felt any.

Every time my daughter and I dropped a stitch, we pulled back all of our knitting and would start again, as neither of us had any idea of how to remedy our mistakes. We didn't really mind this as we were both enjoying the process of perfecting our stitches. Each time we started afresh we made less and less mistakes and on my fifth attempt I had nearly finished my snood, when I realised that I'd done my knit and purls in the wrong order. So close to having a wearable garment, I suddenly did feel quite distressed by this.  I took to the internet and posted the above photo...and later the below photo...and found out bit by bit how to fix it. It's been a while since I was dabbling in an area of craft where I'm a complete beginner, and it was lovely to be reminded anew of just how generous and warm people are in sharing their knowledge - me and my ailing knitting were so kindly shepherded back to a place of hole-free rows of moss stitch!

In the situation above, the piece of advice that seemed to ring clearest to me, was to lay all the stitches flat like 'n's and then to make sure the right hand side of the stitch was on my side of the needle, rotating the stitches 45 degrees. And also that the tail of yarn should end up at the top of the needle.

We've worn our snoods almost constantly and they are deliciously warm and cosy - thicker and warmer than anything else I own. Sadly, my daughter lost hers on a school trip to the Tate Modern last week, so I've ordered some more wool for her so that she can remake it.

I think what worked for us about these kits was that the huge wool meant that it was very quick to knit quite a large area, giving us a sense of instant gratification. Also, mentally, the fact that my kit came with everything I needed in it, made me feel more confident that I had the right size needles for my wool.

I'm doing a lot of sewing for various deadlines at the moment, but I so enjoyed making my snood over Christmas that I didn't feel quite ready to put knitting on hold entirely, so I bought a Joni Kit and I'm limiting myself to just doing ten minutes early in the morning or last thing at night. My husband thinks that taking a break from my sewing by doing more handiwork is a very curious thing indeed, but somehow this time feels like a complete break and is both reviving and relaxing.

And it grows so quickly! I chose the Joni scarf, because it uses the same moss stitch that I was already used to, but with much finer wool and narrower needles, so it felt like a fresh challenge. I also hadn't bothered to find out what 'slipping a stitch' at the start of each row involved for my snood, but decided that I'd learn how to do that (so incredibly simple that it barely warrants the word 'learn'!) and so this time I have a lovely smooth edge to my knitting. The wool for my Joni scarf is wonderfully soft and this bluey-grey is one of my favourite colours to wear, so I'm looking forward to finishing it.

When I ran into problems on my last project, several people suggested using a 'lifeline' so that if I wasn't able to correct a mistake, I'd only ever have to pull my knitting back to the lifeline. This was such good advice. I've repositioned the lifeline every ten rows or so and I've now made use of it once and can affirm that it works like a dream! For the uninitiated, just use a big embroidery needle to run a line of thick thread (or in my case, slim ribbon) through the stitches currently on the needle. This then saves those stitches from unravelling if you need to pull it back later. It's not always the easiest of things knitting the first line of stitches following inserting the lifeline as it's a job to avoid it becoming entangled in the stitches, but other than that it's very simple and works wonderfully (there's a clearer photo at the top of this post).

I have a few questions that I wondered if knitters might be able to help me with. The WATG video tutorials are amazing, but I also always really love having a book to refer to. Maddeningly, I was sent this beautiful book several years ago, but despite having looked on every shelf, I can't find it anywhere. I'm wondering whether to re-buy it, although I think what I'd also really like a book that contains a big library of stitches, as I feel quite fascinated by all the different textures that can be created. As the book is likely to be more for inspiration, rather than practical use (if I find a stitch I like, I'd possibly look for a video on how to do it), I'd really like a book where the emphasis is on it being gorgeous (which Erika Knight's books do seem to be). My local bookshop seems to stock far more sewing than knitting books and I'm finding it difficult to pick on online - do you have any recommendations?

Also, I have become quite obsessed by the idea of creating mittens that look a bit like these thrummed mittens - I love those tiny little 'v' shapes. I wonder though, is there a way of getting the same finish with less bulk inside? And if so, what's it called? I often keep gloves in my handbag and so prefer slimline ones. And would this be running, when one can barely walk?

Thank you in advance if you're able to give any advice.

Wishing you a happy weekend,
Florence x

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

On Wonderful Creatures and Other Things

Looking up at the date on the top corner of my laptop today and finding myself already on 17th January makes me feel that the year has got off to a galloping start. I hope the first days of 2017 have been good ones for you!

Over the last few weeks I've been struggling to find quite the right background fabric for the central medallion of a quilt that I've been working on recently. My husband was stumped by it too so, following an SOS call (in which I dramatically doubted the rightness of every single thing about the entire quilt), my parents came over to help me. They both have a brilliant eye for colour and seem to have a natural understanding of how quilts come together - my father commenting at one point: 'the background fabric here is really a transitional area that needs to create a link between the medallion and the outer parts of the quilt'. At which point we stopped briefly to commend him on his brilliant likeness to a Quilt God. They then went on to assess each option I'd laid out, carefully rummaged through my fabric drawers looking for alternatives and together we narrowed things down to come up with an idea of the kinds of fabrics that could potentially work and even came up with some extra details that I could add in. And gradually I felt my equilibrium being restored. Even though I was frustrated by my own inability to initially see what was needed, it was a really lovely morning and one that left me feeling acutely aware of how incredibly lucky I am to have these two wonderful creatures in my life.

After they'd left, I quickly trawled some online quilt shops looking for things that met the criteria we'd laid out, before dashing out with my husband to walk Nell and buy a celebratory brownie from our local cafe. I so often only buy prints that I've either fallen in love with or which will work well for fussy-cutting, that I'm frequently lacking in essential blender prints, so this little stack that arrived today has left me feeling better-stocked with options. Most of the ones above are either from Sew Hot Fabrics or The Fabric Fox, both of which are quite regular haunts for me.

In other news, yesterday, Fiona (of The Sewing Directory), launched a new website and it's one that I've been silently wishing for, for a long time. Several years ago, there was an amazing site that used to share many of the latest fabric launches - I can't remember what it was called now, but I always loved it and found it a really useful resource whenever I was planning a quilt. Sadly, the woman who wrote it passed it on to someone else when she had a career change and I think the site's focus changed at that point and it eventually petered out - does anyone remember it? Anyway, Fiona's new site, Forever Fabric, is basically just like that original site, but with the added advantage of also telling you where each fabric range is being stocked in the UK and the US. There seem to be a lot more modern fabric collections than there were a decade ago, so it will be lovely to find them all in one place as I often find that if I'm late in discovering a line that I love, by that point many of the prints have already sold out (and by late, I mean about 18 months late, causing me to wonder if I've been wearing a blindfold).

Regular readers may find the brevity of this post alarming. I have to admit that at this point I am wondering if it is actually even possible to press 'Publish' without having written at least 3,000 words, so rarely have I done such a thing. I shall press it and we'll find out...

Wishing you a lovely week,
Florence x

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Gift Ideas

Do you remember the Frances books about a characterful young badger*? They were written by Russell Hoban, a kind and generous observer in the telling of stories that often encompassed Frances' own inner turmoil as she struggled to do the right thing in life. In one story, A Birthday for Frances, Frances bought a Chompo bar and two gum balls for her sister's birthday and then faced much anguish over the idea of parting with them. She wondered if Gloria was too young to eat a whole Chompo bar by herself and while she was pondering this, she absent-mindedly ate the gum balls herself. Discussing her desire to keep the Chompo bar for herself with her friend Albert, he confessed that he bought his younger sister a yoyo, knowing that she would be too short to use it! Frances did eventually manage to graciously present Gloria with the Chompo bar and it's a story that instilled in me the idea that the best gifts are often the ones that you'd really love to keep for yourself. So when putting together a post of gift ideas, many are really just based on things that I regularly use and love myself or which, like Frances, I'd like to keep for myself.

(A note to the mothers on both sides of my family, my husband and also my children: if you are reading, stop right here and press the back button - there is nothing for you to see in this blog post! xxx)

Let's begin with something for stationery obsessives while the lovelies mentioned above remove themselves from the area. I use these pens and propelling pencils every single day and they live in a rope bowl on the corner of my desk. I've accumulated quite a collection over the last few years and this week when my LiveWork propelling pencil broke, I realised that I felt absolutely lost without it and invested in three more in a fit of terror-buying, propelled (oh yes) by the worry that at some point they may be discontinued. They're beautiful to look at, but also practical: the pencils are fine, hard and give a perfect line, so I always use them when I'm drawing on template plastic for my English paper piecing.

As I store my pens and pencils in rope baskets, it's worth saying that they too make wonderful gifts - you can find my free tutorial here. I have them all over the house. I think it would be quite nice just to fill one with sweets for a Christmas gift!

Above is a peek of what I've bought for my mum, who always wears beautiful scarves and shawls in winter. Like Frances, with her a Chompo bar held tightly in her warm little paw, I'm as excited to give this as I am torn by wanting to keep it all for myself! It's made by Hilary Grant, a small business who makes delicious knitwear up in Scotland, you can find the full range, here.

Several years ago, my husband surprised me with some Liberty print covered magnets for my white magnet board (which my daughter has since appropriated). They were one of my favourite gifts that year - it's often the small but perfectly-chosen gifts that bring the most delight. You can find some similar ones, pictured above, here, if there's anyone in your life who might like them too.

I mentioned these earlier in the week on Facebook (thank you to everyone who has followed/liked my new page - I have surprised myself and found that I actually LOVE being able to quickly post about little things that I've seen or noticed, as well as following other people's pages), but I recently came across these Binding Babies handmade by Doohikey, in Australia. I don't actually have any bias binding that needs holding, but I will make some especially to dress these dolls if they appear in my stocking. They went straight on my own wishlist...everyone has an inner Frances want-monster.

Also, this lamp, which is basically my dream lamp. It doesn't need plugging in, so can be moved around the house; it folds up to be completely flat for travel; can be extended or contracted to be used at any height or angle; is rechargeable with a USB; has an LED bulbs that don't get hot, which means it can be balanced precariously on the sofa without risking starting a fire (yes, I'm the person who you'd want to watch a film beside); has two different strengths of light; is beautifully made. I love it with my whole heart and it has made my eyes feel sprightly and much more youthful in the evenings. I can't recommend it highly enough. I've bought one in black as a gift to my mother-in-law, as she sews in the evenings too, but I think it would be wonderful more generally for late-night readers, woodworkers, crafty sorts and those who don't like to sit in the dark. My daughter wants one purely because of the colour.

Next, scissors. For you or someone else. I am completely obsessed with scissors. Just the sight of them makes me happy: they feel like one of those objects that hasn't changed greatly since their invention and they also carry a delicious sense of familiarity, perhaps because they don't often need replacing, so it's likely that many of us will have grown up with the same pair in the house throughout our childhood. I can still remember the feel of the button on my mother's dressmaking shears that could be pressed in and out to change between blades - so satisfying! And they were so incredibly weighty and shiny enough to see my own reflection in - I often requested to be entrusted with them as a small child - while they were far too big to actually wield properly myself, they were perfect for some early years scissor appreciation. As an adult, I still notice and appreciate lovely scissors every time I pick them up - it is never an absent-minded action - so they feel worth investing in.

I have some Dovo embroidery scissors myself (above) and have bought a similar pair to give to my mother-in-law this Christmas (she sews a lot, so I hope she will love them). They're made in Germany and seem very hard to come by in the UK, but this shop stocks them and they offer wonderful, friendly service. I bought a pair of much larger Ginghers for my mother-in-law a few years ago and also have a pair myself - I'd say that I rate the Dovo scissors more highly, but I think it's probably quite a subjective thing and they're also different types of scissor (my Gingers are dressmaking scissors), so aren't directly comparable.

I shamelessly mention my Three Bears Sleeping Bag pattern every Christmas, just because it makes such a wonderful gift for small children. You can find the PDF pattern here and a guide to stuffing more peculiarly-shaped animals inside it, here. And if you make one, I'd really love to see, so please do email or tag me with it.

Continuing with gift ideas for small children, one of the hardest things about my own children growing older has been leaving behind the books that we used to read together. I am sometimes struck with an unexpected physical pain in my chest when I see a wonderful children's book and realise that I have no-one to read it with. But for those who do, A Tower of Giraffes features Anna Wright's beautiful illustrations (I bought one of her Dancing Penguins mugs for my father a few years ago). This book combines all my favourite things: collective nouns, illustrations that feature swatches of Liberty print and fascinating little details about how the real creatures live. And I've also learnt, courtesy of Anna, that the collective noun for robins is A Bobbin of Robins...isn't that lovely?

Which reminds me of a book that my sister sent to me, which you may like. We'd been to the V&A museum and finished with some time in their shop, where they've curated the most amazing selection of children's books. I was particularly taken with Stina and I think my sister could see that I was having one of those heart-pangy moments over it. It arrived in the post a few days later with some chocolates - I was so surprised and delighted. 

It's a children's story about a girl who doesn't like the cold; she knits warm things and has retreated somewhat from the world, but the story ends as she finds a way to brave the outdoors. It's a delicious book of knitty images, bonkers plans and thoughts about the cold that I can identify with. Knitters will undoubtedly love it, but as I don't knit myself, maybe it will appeal to anyone. 

Persephone books, with their matt grey covers always feel extra special. My favourite has been The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

If you're already a fan of Persephone books and like traditional diaries, their 2017 version has the first sentence from one of their books on each page, as well as the beautiful end papers that Persephone are known for throughout. I really wish I kept a traditional diary so that I could make use of this - it's beautiful!

Also, my sister's clothbound poetry anthologies that she has created for Penguin - they are so beautiful and make such lovely gifts (if you're keen for it to be clothbound, make sure you're buying the version labelled 'hardback', as they're also out in paperback).

My family have a small mountain of lovely presents accumulating on top of my wardrobe, but when 2016 has been a year filled with humanitarian crisis, I've felt drawn to try and incorporate a few gifts under the tree that acknowledge this in some small way. I tried to choose charity gifts that would reflect my children's own passions, because I think they'll be really delighted by it that way, so through Save the Children, I've donated money to pay for a football to be given to a child on my son's behalf and an art set for a child in a refugee camp on my daughter's behalf. And I've also bought my husband a goat, not because of a secret goat fetish, but because I know he'll love to think of it at the other side of the world providing a family with milk and goaty cuddles (and possibly all manner of entertaining goat mischief). The goat in question was half-price, which is a slightly curious idea for a charitable gift, but I was able to make an additional donation at the checkout to negate that.

I'd really recommend Save the Children (certificates left and right of the photo above) if you're donating a gift on behalf of a child or grandchild, as while ultimately it's about how the money is being spent, the presentation is perfect and is likely to appeal far more in terms of looking thoroughly gift-like. It also came with a second print out that contains a really engaging image of a child receiving an art set/football and a little information about what their lives are like and how the gift will make a difference to them. For putting charity gifts under the tree to work well, rather than feeling overly wholesome and self-righteous (I think it's a horribly thin line), I really think it needs to make the donating recipient's heart leap almost as much as the actual recipient's. I feel happy that I believe these really will.

Note that the certificates don't come with Liberty print post-it notes embossed on them - they were just placed there temporarily to cover my children's names.

If you have any of your own recommendations for interesting things that you're buying for others or enjoying yourself, I'd love to hear, as I still have a few gifts left to buy.

Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x

* After going to the cinema one night, a friend and I sat chatting in my car when, around midnight, we suddenly saw a badger appear from the passageway between two houses and then waddle off down the pavement. I haven't actually seen a live badger before (just many dead ones on the road) and so wasn't quite prepared for how adorably they walk, how wonderfully vast their bottoms are, or for their propensity to use pavements in a human way. It was a wonderful sighting. I'd always thought Frances was a bear and hadn't noticed her badgery stripes until revisiting the images just now, but being able to now tie that in to my recent sighting, I don't feel too distressed by her change of fur.
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