Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Rainbow Soup and Other Thoughts

The photos in this post may well give the impression that I'm merrily making rainbow soup, throwing all the colours into the pan willy-nilly, but it's not actually going to be a soup at all. Once the pieced blocks are all arranged, it will be more akin to a tart where the chef has spent quite some time carefully considering vegetable placement.

I'm colour-matching each piece to a plan that I drew up in Illustrator, which is somewhat time-consuming and constraining at times, as I only cut the pieces during daylight hours as it's hard to get a completely accurate colour match in synthetic light, but I love working in this way. It means that the creative part of the process takes place on my laptop, so the cutting and sewing part is an entirely meditative thing, free from stressful pondering, seam-ripping or fabric wastage. I know that playing with the actual fabric is meant to be the relaxing, artistic part, but for a long-term project, I like to cling onto the security blanket of knowing exactly how the final version will look. I also really love messing around with things on a computer screen, so this way it means the whole process is enjoyable for me.

This piece was partly inspired by my mother-in-law asking me a question about something that I was already feeling. She was standing in our hallway one day, admiring a piece that hangs on the wall there, and said 'Do you ever feel like doing anything freer and less structured?' I feel compelled to say, just in case anyone reads her question in the wrong way, as it's easy to misunderstand the tone of things when they're written down, that I'm lucky to have a mother-in-law who's both lovely and incredibly artistic, so this wasn't a criticism, just an open question as part of our on-going conversation about all things textile-related.

Her question tapped in to how I'd been feeling at that time though (it was several months ago now). I'm naturally drawn to order and structure, but I had started to experience a feeling that's similar to when I've been wearing the same shoes all day and my toes crave some room to stretch and wiggle and feel the ground (actually, make that a carpet. Nell has brought about many positive changes in me, but there's no need to sink one's trotters into the mud in midwinter, just because it sounds like the right thing to do). This project has really cured me of that tight-shoed feeling and also breathed fresh air into my love of English paper piecing.

It's amused me though that even when working on something that's visually far less structured than my usual style, I can't actually break away entirely from a love of order...from the way that I've drafted this pattern and am then using it as a map, to numbered storage systems. It seems to prove that no matter how you might try to run away from yourself, the fundamental essence will still be there!

To keep things in order, each set of pieces is numbered and stored carefully in its own compartment until they've been sewn together. I've tended to spend a day cutting enough pieces for several blocks and then pieced them together slowly over the following evenings. It's been an oddly enjoyable process for something that's so repetitive and I've looked forward to refilling the box with fresh pieces and then watching fully-formed blocks take over each compartment all over again.

When I come to piece a block together I lay out a block, referring to my plan to see what should go where...then it's just a case of slowly stitching them together while devouring endless episodes of Grey's Anatomy.

Once a new row has been completed, it's then pinned onto my design wall. The final thing will be made up of two different blocks - I decided to create the main blocks first and to only begin on the secondary blocks that will connect them once I'd finished. I'm excited to have now finally moved onto sewing these connecting blocks, although I do feel a little sad to have left behind this stage of the project - I've really enjoyed it. Without the interconnecting blocks in place, it's still not really apparent where I'm going with this, but it's all matching up to my plan, so we can rest easy! Phew.

I love this photo of the fabrics glowing in the late afternoon sun.

In other thoughts, yesterday morning brought what felt like quite shocking news about Freespirit/Westminster Fabrics being closed by its parent company, Coats. Freespirit is home to virtually every one of my favourite designers: Anna Maria Horner, Amy Butler, Kaffe Fassett, Tula Pink...the list goes on. There are many different types of print that make up a healthy fabric stash, but to me, these names represent the beautiful, painterly end of things and my stash would feel a less joyful place without them in it. They and their designs are all so well loved that I feel sure this will eventually be a catalyst for new adventures and that (so many fingers crossed) their fabrics designs will become available again through different sources. What a loss though, and so sad for the many people working behind the scenes who have lost their jobs. For now, it's taking considerable amounts of willpower not to panic purchase my favourite prints. The Craft Industry Alliance blog has shared a little more detail about Coats' decision - the comments are interesting to read too, although largely speculative.

It's half-term here this week. We've been on long country walks and, on rainier days, decamped to strange places with wall-to-wall trampolines (along with the tiny twins of the Twin Peaks quilt); met up with family and friends at various points to eat scrambled eggs in our favourite coffee shop; rewatched When Harry Met Sally with my mum, sister and the joyful creature that I mentioned in this post (yes, it seems there are babies everywhere in my life right now! Also, it's funny how much some films date visually - we were shocked by how overtly 1980s When Harry Met Sally now looked); spent a lovely evening looking at our friend's daughter's beautiful textiles coursework, fuelled by prosecco and pizza; and I've also sat stitching with my daughter at times. It's all been quite low-key, with lots of work fitted in around the edges, but I love these kinds of holidays where there's no real plan.

Finally, Valentine's Day. There are so many things that I'd like to go back and tell my younger self (really, I think I could write a whole book on the subject), but one of them would be not to be quite so quick to pour scorn on Valentine's Day. As an 18 year old, I was quick to dismiss it and although my then-boyfriend-now-husband tried to circumvent my stance by arriving with goldfish (complete with awesome tank, gravel and interesting rocks), rather than roses, even that failed to thaw my cold anti-commercialist heart. As I sat chatting with friends today and Valentines plans cropped up in conversation it suddenly hit me that I'd really rather ruined the path to an extra annual day of fun all those years ago. In 2008, we briefly attempted to try Valentine's Day on for size, which was fun, but somehow didn't break down the years of anti-valentine that had accumulated. Damn that foolish young thing who inhabited my mind back then! How do you feel about Valentine's Day?

Florence x

Ps. Last year, someone I'd recently interviewed over the phone sent me a signed Valentine in the post (amazingly, it arrived on my doorstep on February 14th, even though it had come all the way from America - she's a magical woman, so I guess that's the kind of thing that would happen). There was something so lovely about receiving a non-romantic valentine from another woman. I've since discovered that the practice of celebrating girlfriends in this way is called Galentine's Day - such a sweet idea. I might do some Galentining next year.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Vintage Home BOM

You might remember that at the end of this post, I mentioned that Jo Avery would be doing a block of the month quilt pattern, called Vintage Home, which unfolds over the course of twelve issues of Today's Quilter, revealing a new piece of kitchen paraphernalia each month and that Jo had invited me and a handful of other bloggers to sew along with her. I claimed February, whose theme is storage caddies, mainly because I'd requested a month that wouldn't challenge my foundation paper piecing skills (which are minimal), but also because I am one of those curious people who loves decanting things into pots different from the ones they originally arrived in, so as a theme, it appealed.

I hadn't actually realised that decanting things into different pots and tins wasn't something that everyone did as a matter of course until a few years ago, when my mum was working in my kitchen and commented on it as being a trait I must have inherited from my grandmother. Since then, I've been scanning family and friends' houses for signs of decanting and found that it is indeed a rarer activity than I'd initially assumed, unless decantment is a guilty pleasure that they're hiding behind cupboard doors. I wonder if it's a thing more likely to be something that makers do though, as though we've subconsciously decided to replicate the joy of the button tin (even in a blind rush mid-dressmaking, opening a button tin still registers with me as feeling totally magical) in every area of our lives? I have a sense of this being a feature of photos I see posted online, at least in people's sewing rooms. 

Anyway, upon realising that decantment wasn't a universally-experienced habit akin to breathing/having a shower/wearing shoes, I began to wonder if what I was doing was just one step away from putting a knitted doll cover over loo rolls (for the uninitiated, Google images can enlighten you). Was it really pernickety to be putting everything into nice tins? I decided that if most people didn't do this, then maybe I should trial it to see what it was like. I packed away several tins and began to leave washing tabs, dishwasher powder and teabags in their branded packaging. My main conclusion: it was certainly quicker. 

Since that time, I've not really reinstated receptacles in those areas, although I miss them, so maybe I should. When I stopped to think while writing this post though, I realised that in the intervening years, I've transferred my obsession onto baskets, which I love and which, on analysis, maybe feel a bit more carefree for their lack of lid: Oh look, a basket that I can casually sling things into! I have water hyacinth baskets and coloured woven boxes for dog toys; laundry; electrical leads and camera paraphernalia; my hairdryer, brush and other hair-related things; table tennis rackets and balls. And then handmade rope bowls everywhere, which hold pairs of glasses, photos, pens, loose change (not mixed - each has a dedicated purpose...there is no need to go completely mad just because a basket doesn't have a lid).

Anyway, I think, wherever my experiments have led me over the last few years, I have a fundamental delight in storage tins and baskets, so onto Jo's lovely patterns for this month: storage caddies. There are actually two patterns (see Jo's blog for the sugar caddy) - here's my version of the tea caddy. 

Faced with a list of squares and rectangles to cut out, I find I often make mistakes while measuring, so before I began I quickly drew up and labelled little templates on my computer for all the pieces needed (just as easily done with paper and pencil though), so that I could relax and not have to think too much while cutting the fabrics.

This is a sweet pattern, as there's room for some fussy cutting, as well as combining lots of patterns and prints. My main prints are Anna Bond for Cotton + Steel, with the plain fabrics being Cirrus Solids from Cloud 9 (they're shot with a different colour on the warp and weft, to add a bit more interest).

Piecing together the smaller squares and borders, my feed dogs kept attempting to eat the fabric and, for reasons which will be explained later in the post, I felt too muddy-headed to investigate or change over to my single stitch plate, so it was more easily solved by starting off each line of sewing with a small piece of tissue paper beneath the fabric, which could then be torn away - it's a quick fix if you ever find your sewing machine doing the same (mine doesn't usually). The pattern was fun to sew and it was easy to piece together just by following Jo's photo, although of course, there are full instructions. 

Returning to the muddy-headedness, I had been racing to finish this before the migraine, which I could feel hovering menacingly in the wings, crashed in. The moment I'd finished sewing, I went to bed, where I stayed until the next day.  I usually really struggle with migraines because I'm not very good at doing absolutely nothing, but I'd happened to read Kerry's post that morning, mentioning that she was listening to the audio book of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, so I downloaded it and then lay in the dark drinking it all up. Eleven and a half hours later it was finished. It is both incredibly funny and painfully sad and, having listened to it is an audio book, like Kerry, I felt the narration added a lot to it too. I now feel like I would have missed a whole layer of it I'd read it as a book - it must be such a nice feeling as an author when your book is narrated by someone capable of adding an extra dimension to your work. 

I think an audio book's strength is partly in the narration, but also on how easy the story is to follow when you can't flip back a few pages to check the name of someone or, horrors, if you zone out for a moment and realise that you've missed a paragraph or a whole page's worth of reading! 

Have you listened to any good ones lately? 

Florence x

Ps. Kerry did the previous month's Vintage Home BOM quilt along, which you can find here, if you'd like to see her lovely fabric choices. 

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Twin Peaks Quilt

I made this quilt last December over the course of a really joyful, if slightly frenzied, few days. Every now and then it feels refreshing to cast off the coat of my own self (my regular coat being cut for a person who is slow and purposeful, whether cutting fabrics or sewing pieces; ponderous and unhurried whether deciding upon a pattern, choosing prints and colours or laying out pieces) and try on somebody else's coat. I'm not sure who the coat belonged to, but while I wore it, I sewed like the wind and didn't stop to question anything, so I'm a little reluctant to give it back.

I think this wardrobe change was brought about by having just a few days in which to make this quilt. You might remember, back in this post, I talked about how helpful I found it to put parameters around a creative project (in that case, matching the colours of the project to favourite paintings), and here, I found the same goes for imposing a seemingly unrealistic deadline on myself (through circumstance, rather than choice).

So, December: a friend was expecting twins and I'd been aware that her baby shower was approaching (baby showers very suddenly seems to be a 'thing' in the UK - I don't think I'd ever been to one before last summer, even though I know they've had them in the US for years), but then suddenly it was on top of me and just a few days away. When I stopped to think about what I wanted to give her, it was (unsurprisingly) a quilt. Or ideally, two quilts, but for me that would have moved things into the 'potentially inducing a total breakdown' territory, rather than the  uncomfortable 'seemingly unrealistic' category. So, in lieu of two quilts, I decided that making sure both babies were represented in the quilt in some way was the next best thing, so I called this the 'Twin Peaks' quilt and every triangle of fabric is repeated in pairs.

I sewed it together using Thangles (they're foundation paper piecing in its simplest form - you just machine-sew on the lines and then tear the papers away, but you're never piecing more than two pieces together per strip, so it's really simple). They speed up the sewing and ensure all your points meet up perfectly. I bought a selection of Thangles in different sizes years ago from M is for Make and have used them several times (to clarify: they're not reusable, I've just used different packs from my selection a few times!), and when I've gone to link to them, I've seen that they're now in the sale and a few sizes are completely sold out. Cue some panic purchasing on my part before sharing the link; if you'd like some, proceed calmly to the emergency exit shoot, where many of the oxygen masks have already been taken.

Here are some of the pieced strips, hanging from my chair, with numbered Washi tape stuck to each row to keep them in order.

I think the only thing I had to order for this quilt was a little extra linen (I used Essex Linen, in Flax), but everything else came from my stash. When it came to wadding, I considered piecing some from offcuts, but when it's a shared quilt for two babies, I thought it may be nicer to make something that they could lie on rather than under, so I wanted to make it thick enough to provide adequate padding for their heads if it were placed on the floor. I've had a super-soft fleece blanket in my cupboard since my own children were small - for some reason, it never got used and I've saved it, thinking it would make a lovely gift for someone at some point. Well, it has, although they'll never actually get to see it as it's safely tucked away inside the quilt!

Taking a small thought-detour: this great beast of a sofa takes up nearly a whole wall in our back room and it's perfect for afternoon naps (ever since I've known him, my husband has had a twenty minute sleep in the middle of the day, even when he used to work in an office). We don't currently have a dedicated quilt for it, although my husband's favourite is the red Charlotte Bartlett quilt and he often leaves this sprawled over the sofa once he's got up. It's an upsetting sight. Not because of the sprawling - which I actually like seeing, because it means that my quilts are in use - but because the colours, which in the garden feel vibrant and joyful, suddenly feel jarring and shouty in this plain room. It's impossible to convey quite how horrible it looks when not surrounded by other similarly bright things and while it isn't ideal to compare oneself to a bull, its redness does make me feel like going on the rampage. 

About once a week, we have the following conversation:

Me: Do you have to use the red quilt inside?
Husband: Yes, no other quilt is as comfortable. It's one of my favourite things. I have no idea why you don't like it.
Me: I do like it, but only in the garden. It wasn't meant to be used indoors.
Husband: Why do we have to have different quilts for different areas? Why can't I just use my favourite?
Me: Because it makes me feel cringe when I see it inside, because it makes my quilt look ugly. I'm going to make another one that you can use in here.
Husband: I won't use it. You'll never make another one that I love as much as this one. It's softer and nicer to lie under than all the other quilts.

Anyway, when I went to photograph the Twin Peaks quilt, I suddenly realised that linen will make everything right - it seems to temper down any colour or pattern that it mingles with...meaning that I could still use lots of vivid, colourful prints...but they'd be less...violent. Although there's a niggling voice at the back of my head presenting the following concerns:

1. My husband will almost certainly say that it's not as comfortable and may continue to use the red quilt.
2. He may use the new quilt, but will never love it as much as he loves the red quilt. And then there will be a subtle, but fundamental shift where he stops loving the things I've made because I've been so bossy about the hows and wheres of using them and wrenched away his favourite.

The whole idea of No.2 reminds me of a poem by Brian Patten, Angels Wings, which had been one of our favourites when we were teenagers. When I reread it just now, I think I've changed my mind slightly about what I think the poem is saying, but then we felt it was about wanting to change all the little bits of someone that annoy you, only to realise that you've lost the very essence of them in doing so. Either way, it's a beautiful poem. Although to clarify, it's not actually that my husband annoys me by using the red's that the red quilt annoys me by being so red when it's inside the house. There could be a case for a chameleon quilt that changes to its surroundings.

Anyway, back to the Twin Peaks. I sat on the sofa hand-stitching the binding down with a racing heart - I don't think I've ever sewn in such a rush before and it made it clear to me (if it wasn't already) what an unfit candidate I'd be for any kind of sewing race, because I just kept telling myself: the time doesn't matter, you just need to make a quilt that will last for years, while accidentally stabbing at my fingertips over and over and trying not to hyperventilate. I considered going on time, but empty-handed, but in the end  texted to let my friends know that I'd be half an hour late. Although I then added a few minutes on to take some photos and package it up, because obviously, it doesn't exist if it hasn't been photographed. In seriousness though, I sometimes feel so attached to quilts, that I'm not sure I could go through with parting from them if I hadn't photographed them first, so while this may seem a loopy thing to spend time doing when already late, to me, it was the only way I could let it go! I say this as someone who is rarely late.

My friend's reaction on opening it was possibly one of the sweetest I've ever had when giving someone a quilt. Her lovely face was instantly flooded with tears and another one of our friends took a really beautiful photo of her at just that moment and I feel so pleased to have that as a reminder. I was really blown away by her reaction - it's feels a privilege to make something that means a lot to someone.

Her two babies have now arrived safely in the world and I'm so excited to meet them!

One of my favourite parts of this quilt is its binding - despite the stress of its application - Liberty Betsy is one of my very favourite prints.

The next day, when I was tidying up from making this quilt, I posted this little bird's nest of scraps on Instagram and someone unexpectedly told me that she could use them for her appliqué, even though they are barely any size at all, so they were posted off (minus the bits of paper from the Thangles) and it's made me happy to think that nothing went to waste with this quilt.

I'm off to bed now with a new book that my mum chose for me. What are you reading at the moment?

Sleep tight,
Florence x

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'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'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'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 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
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