Category: Book review

Mar 20

Would the real Mrs Beeton please stand up?



I’ve been reading a biography of Mrs Beeton, arguably the nation’s first domestic goddess. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes was published by Harper Perennial in 2006.


Hughes’ biography of Mrs Beeton


As recent events have served to illustrate, the life lived behind the edifice of a lifestyle brand is rarely as it appears, and this book has been an eye-opener. Some interesting things I’ve discovered about Mrs B:

1. Isabella Beeton’s image was the first ever photographic portrait accepted by the National Portrait Gallery. Maull & Pollyblank’s 1857 plate, which the NPG accepted from her son Mayson in 1932, reveals a slim, striking 19-year-old Bella, not the stout, flour-dusted matriarch with a rolling pin that you might have imagined. Mrs Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs she definitely was not.

2. Her first baby died a few months after birth, very likely of syphilis: a disease which she appears to have contracted from her husband in the early days of their marriage.

3. Bella’s husband, Sam, originally a printer by trade, made a killing publishing an unauthorised British edition of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exploiting a time when there was no copyright agreement between America and Britain. He and Bella together proved cunning publishing entrepreneurs, successfully exploring the new markets, trends and opportunities created by an expanding middle-class in Victorian England.

4. Bella Beeton was far from an experienced cook when she took on writing the Book of Household Management.

5. Which is why she plagiarised widely yet skilfully for the book; all this is documented in fascinating detail by Hughes.

6. Elizabeth David was particularly galled by Bella’s light-fingered borrowings from Eliza Acton.

7. Bella liked her red wine.

8. She had a great eye for fashion and pioneered the popularising of dress patterns  in the ‘Practical Dress Instructor’, a regular feature in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, capitalising on the boost to sewing created by the recent invention of the sewing machine.

9. She died very early, age 28. But that didn’t stop the ‘Mrs Beeton’ brand marching on. And on. And on.

10. Without her able management, and with the encroaching symptoms of tertiary syphilis, Sam went to rack and ruin after Bella’s untimely death.

She certainly packed a lot into her short life. I’d recommend this biography: snappy, witty, sensitively written, and especially riveting if you’re interested in publishing and journalism (particularly the history of lifestyle publishing, cookery writing and fashion journalism), and if you want an insight into the burgeoning Victorian middle classes and what made them tick.





Jul 08

Crystallised rose petals


Everything’s coming up roses just now, so let me show you something magical to try with roses from your garden. Yes, more thrifty edible flowers! I’ll get back to textiles again soon, honestly, but you have to make hay when the sun shines.

I worked on Claire Kelsey‘s ice cream book Melt last year (more of that to come in another post) ensuring that all the recipes were put through their paces. My task was to assign them to a happy band of volunteer testers and collate feedback. Some recipes were harder to place than others, perhaps because they seemed time-consuming and/or fiddly, required expensive/hard-to-find ingredients, or the testers just didn’t fancy them.

In the time-consuming/fiddly group was a recipe for Raspberry and Rose Pavlova which involved making a meringue nest, and crystallising some rose petals. Time-pressed testers spotted a time-sink and declined, so I tried it myself. We were well into autumn, but I still had some late-blooming roses in the garden. I found a couple with good fragrance. If you’re trying this at home, just be wary of using roses which have been sprayed with anything noxious, or are growing close to a main road.

Garden roses

The process really wasn’t so hard, or that time-consuming. All I had to do was detach the petals from the roses…

Red and white rose petals

…dip them in lightly beaten egg white, then into caster sugar, then lay them on an oven tray lined with baking parchment…


…and bake them in a very low oven for less than an hour before allowing them to cool completely.


It was really surprising to see those bright orangey-red petals turn a deep rose in the oven — not what I expected at all.  Mine tasted of rose too and the final frozen pavlova won over my family completely. Crystallised roses will keep for about 3 months too if you pop them in an airtight tin, separating the layers with greaseproof paper or baking parchment. You can use them to decorate cakes, desserts and confectionary, or (might I humbly suggest) nibble them decadently during a long soak in the bath. Because you’re worth it.

I tested a handful of recipes but this frozen pavlova was definitely the crowd-pleaser of the bunch. It didn’t hang around long.


We all agreed that it would make the perfect summer wedding dessert; the final dish, topped with crystallized rose petals and ice-frosted raspberries was quite spectacular to look at: as if Titania herself had sprinkled it with fairy dust. And, best of all, it was heavenly to eat.


Melt by Claire Kelsey is published by Simon & Schuster, RRP £18. It may also be available in your local supermarket.


Jul 01

Book review: Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer


Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer

Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer published by David & Charles


The subject of Ruth Singer‘s third book, Fabric Manipulation, is something I first encountered twenty years ago on a City & Guilds Soft Furnishings course. We were assigned the task of making a cushion cover using a fabric manipulation technique. And from the tutor’s first mention of the term, I had to giggle. Would we be coercing cloth, getting heavy with hessian, maybe intimidating interlinings?

Fabric manipulation is, of course, nothing to do with Machiavellian behaviour with textiles but about handling 2-D cloth with dexterity, arranging it into folds, tucks etc to achieve (usually) 3-D textural effects. You could call it sculpting with fabric. If you sew, you have fabric-manipulated without necessarily being aware of it: gathering a curtain heading, pleating a skirt, or creating a dart, for example. Fabric manipulation techniques crop up all the time in dressmaking, tailoring, millinery, soft furnishings, upholstery, dollmaking, soft sculpture, embroidery, quilting, and patchwork. And every area of sewing-related activity and design can benefit from further exploration of these dimensional techniques.

Singer’s books are always strong on both the design and the technical sides so I was really looking forward to seeing how she tackled this. And I wasn’t disappointed.  She had quite a hard act to follow. My fabric manipulation bible  for years has been The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff, published in 1996 by Krause. Wolff’s book is astonishingly comprehensive, if a little dry; it literally lacks colour, with all the pictures in black-and-white, and all the techniques worked in plain-vanilla calico. But everything is there. Ruth’s book, by contrast, is colourful, appealing, and much more approachable. The book is divided into three sections:-

  • Pleat & Fold
  • Stitch & Gather
  • Apply & Layer

Each technique is clearly explained with supporting colour drawings and photographs. You can really see what might be achieved with the method she’s showing you. This is particularly useful for the less advanced stitcher. American lattice smocking, for example, looks really sumptuous worked on velvet and not half as interesting in Wolff’s unbleached calico version. English smocking is shown with eye-popping pink stitching on grey linen. And box pleats really come into their own; I learned my box pleats in the traditional context of lined corner pleats on the skirts of loose covers (gah!), but by choosing bias-cut silk organza, Ruth takes them to another place as ethereal sculptural necklace (see below). I love her application for Suffolk puffs: an upcycled lampshade which looks like the puffs just happened to alight there, like a cluster of barnacles on a ship’s hull. 

Ruth is a natural tutor and encourages her reader to experiment. Certainly a little magic happens when you start to pleat, fold and gather. And one thing can lead to another. What if I made this bigger? Or cut here? Or made that square instead of round? Or used thicker fabric? Or thinner? Or pinked that edge first? Ruth encourages this process, coaxing the reader to broaden their horizons. Seeing a variety of colours, textures and weights of fabric used in the samples in this book seeds inspiration. There are nine projects included, but these present ideas rather than being fully instructional; they are jumping-off points. I find this refreshing when so many craft books are simply prescriptive and project-based.



Box pleat necklace


Informed by the beautiful textiles and historical methods encountered in her previous day-job as a V&A curator education officer*, Ruth clearly relishes her subject.  She collects antique and vintage examples of dresses, quilts etc and scours old sewing books for ideas. Re-using the old is literally encouraged too as Ruth is an environmentally conscious designer-maker who happily upcycles; one of her previous books, Sew Eco, explored the subject in some detail, and I’d highly recommend both these books to any self-respecting upcycler wanting to up their game. Try making the ripple brooch (shown below) which works wonderfully with felted sweaters. I can’t wait to have a go at the stuffed bobble technique using viscose velvet: the lightweight stuff, often with a little bit of stretch, which crops us as dresses and skirts in charity shops.



Rippled brooch


Fabric Manipulation offers unusual applications and delicious presentation. It will be valuable to anyone wanting to broaden their sewing repertoire, in whatever discipline.  What I’ve always appreciated about Ruth’s approach is that she is not ‘Sewing-lite’. Her offerings are well-written, beautifully illustrated, informed and intelligent. It’s a real irony that a book filled with so many stuffed techniques is so free of fluff and padding; she’s done her homework, alright, hasn’t cut corners, and knows her stuff (and stuffing) inside out. With 150 techniques included in the book, if you tried just one a week it would take you the better part of three years to begin to exhaust the possibilites. That’s real value for money. Please get hold of a copy and explore your manipulative side.


Ruth Singer’s third book, Fabric Manipulation: 150 Creative Sewing Techniques is published by David & Charles, price £19.99. You can obtain a signed copy here direct from the author. A second volume is in the pipeline.

You can meet Ruth in person at the Knitting & Stitching Show in October and the Selvedge Christmas Fair in November


*Sorry, Ruth! My reporting skills are rusty.


Feb 14

The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook


Shhh! Don’t tell anyone but this Valentine’s Day sees the publication of a book I’ve had a small hand in. Way back last summer I was asked to supply some props (table coverings, plates, cake platters, etc) and assist (including various episodes of cake/mug-holding to camera) on a couple of photo shoots for The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook by Lynn Hill, out today from Quercus Books. It was a brilliant, fascinating experience.

The team of independent creatives and editors working on the book was wonderful: funny, fabulously talented, really welcoming, but also incredibly hard-working. I can offer you an illicit glimpse behind the scenes: some clandestine shots of a clandestine cookbook. How meta-secret is that?

Here’s Jane styling one of the more surreal images featuring a giant lemon fondant fancy. It’s sitting in a mini table-top set backed by the front of a doll’s house (supplied by moi) and accompanied by tiny chair place-markers (also supplied by you-know-who). The tablecloth was mine too.



prepping Giant Lemon Fondant Fancy shot


Here’s Emily, checking her shots. The little cloth with the lace mouse pattern hanging over the box is one of mine.



Checking if we nailed it


And here’s Anita, peering through one of my dodgier props (crocheted lace minus the linen tablecloth insert – aherm).


Prop linens


This may sound incredible, but arranging and shooting so much cake caused the whole team to suffer from a serious case of cake fatigue; by the end of each day, we  couldn’t bring ourselves to consume any more of the spongey stuff. Can you believe it? I know! Tragic.

Here’s some of the massed ranks of prop crockery, waiting to be pressed into service.



Prop crockery


And here’s a prop I was asked to rig on the spot: a vintage linen tablecloth* with transfer embroidery marks which I whisked up into an impromptu notice board. It may look finished but was actually entirely held together at the back with straight pins. It was destined to hold pictures from local Clandestine Cake Club groups, but didn’t make it into the final book. I thought I’d show it to you anyway.



Prop notice board


The base was two thicknesses of card cut from a chunky cardboard box. I padded it out with wadding cut from an old sleeping bag, then stretched the old linen over that. The ribbon (scraps, of course) is pinned to the cardboard with some drawing pins onto which I’d hot-glued plain plastic shirt buttons. I was rather pleased with the finished item’s Scandi styling. And, yes, that tiny wooden coffee pot hanging from a string is one of mine too.



Scandi notice board, created on set


I had the good fortune to meet Lynn Hill, the book’s indefatigable** author, who came down from Yorkshire to Bath for one of the shoots. She established the Clandestine Cake Club a couple of years ago, and its amazing success story is told over here. You can check out the CCC site to find a local club; if there isn’t one, you’re welcome to set up your own. Consult the website for details.

I’ve had a chance to look over the finished volume, playing ‘Spot My Prop’ with childish glee. But what really struck me is how dense this book is, packed to the endpapers with intriguing recipes, filled with the combined cakey know-how of the nation’s enthusiastic amateur bakers. You can view an extract from the book over here: that’s me holding the Strawberry Butterfly Bundt on page 223. A couple of my personal favourites (as tasted on shoot) were Lime & Coconut (wonderfully zingy) and Green Tea with Orange Icing (subtle and delicate); here’s a slice I took home and just managed to find room for.



Green Tea & Orange


The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook launch events are happening across the nation. Take a peek over here for details of one in your neck of the woods.



*actually, I think it was a sofa antimacassar, but we wanted it to look like an old tablecloth

**I have to use this adjective periodically, just to remind myself how to spell it



Dec 31

Scrap of the week #27


This little heart is made from a small scrap of window-cleaner’s scrim, a leftover from a waistcoat I made twenty-something years ago. Yes, a waistcoat; I really, really like utility fabrics: ticking, scrim, hessian, calico, cambric: plain, simple, honest, serviceable (that wonderfully old-fashioned word) fabrics, and I have a habit of trying to use them in unusual ways. I think I pushed the envelope a bit with that waistcoast which sagged and bagged enough to test the sartorial patience of a hobbit. But it’s good to experiment. Anyway, if evidence were needed that I really do cherish all scraps, this little piece of insignificant scrim is it. Remember: there are no worthless scraps, just scraps waiting for the right project to come along.

Love heart

Scrim is a loosely woven light canvas cloth made of cotton, hessian or linen. The only version I’m familiar with is the linen window-cleaning type, held in high esteem by glass cleaners because of its absorbent, lint-free and and non-smearing properties. I bought this way back whenever in John Lewis, but you can also find it sold by the metre at upholstery suppliers or in packets from purveyors of old-fashioned cleaning supplies, and very good value it is too. The handle improves as it is washed and worked. Scrim of a slightly different variety is also used much in the theatre as something onto which or through which to project light for various effects; there seems to be a wonderful product called sharktooth scrim which I’ve yet to encounter, but when I do I’ll count my fingers and toes afterwards.

A word full of chewily onomatopoeic potential, ‘scrim’ sounds like it should be anglo-saxon or medieval but is actually late eighteenth century, and of unknown origin. If there hasn’t been a Dickensian character named Scrim (of spare physique and mean as mustard) there really should have been. Please put me right if there’s a literary creature out there bearing the name and you’ll really make my day.

To create this little heart, I wanted to use counted cross stitch technique, something I’ve only done in small amounts but which I’ve long admired, particularly in the form of classic marking stitches, the day-to-day needlework which would have eaten women’s time a century of two ago. Time for me to have a go. I first embroidered my motif, following an old DMC handbook of marking stitches, carefully counting my threads. Note that I left my small square of scrim intact for the embroidering – didn’t cut out my heart until I’d completed the embroidery part, because I needed all the fabric I could muster to hold well within my tiny embroidery hoop. When cross-stitching, it’s good to place your work in an embroidery hoop to keep it stable and supported, particularly on something as flexible (for that read ‘wayward’) as scrim, or these soft linen scraps featured as my previous Scrap of the Week. It’s also worth lining your hoop in white cotton seam binding or strips of cotton if you’d prefer (as shown below – you can see towards the bottom how it’s been stitched to secure it) to minimise creasing of your work caused by the hard edges of the hoop. It will also help your hoop grip the work securely.


For the stitching, I used regular skeins of embroidery cotton. And you know what? It was fun. There’s something very satisfying in simply following a chart. All you have to do is crunch the data.

Amongst my most treasured sewing books are copies of these old DMC needlework books: The Embroiderer’s Alphabet is one of my favourites. Just look at this beautiful page picked at random.


Issues of the books are undated but the first was published around 1910. It was reissued time and again in English, German, French and Italian. Most of the book is cross-stitch charts, running to some 90 pages. The designs are eye-wateringly elaborate.

Imagine monogramming your sheets, towels or hankies like this?


Maybe adding a suitable crown?


Or just embroidering a seasonal scene on a cushion, or nightgown case?



I am listing some DMC cross-stitch books on Etsy. This 8th edition of The Embroiderer’s Alphabet is sadly missing its back cover, but the pages are clean and tight in their binding still. And, wonderfully, all of the glassine transfers are intact.



Back to my scrim heart, once finished with the embroidering (it didn’t take long), I cut out two heart-shaped pieces (my template was a large cookie-cutter) allowing a small quarter-inch seam allowance. I seamed the two together, remembering to leave a biggish hole down one side of the heart for turning and filling. I clipped the curved edges at the top of the heart to ensure that they would sit nicely, trimmed the point at the bottom of the heart (same reason), then turned my heart right side out and filled it with wadding (but it would have been lovely with lavender). A quick slip-stitch of the opening and it was complete.

Sending you love and cross-stitchy blessings this New Year’s Eve! Roll on 2013!


Mar 22

Mend It Better review and giveaway!

My! We are Giveaway Central at the moment! And this isn’t even the last one, so do stay tuned.

It’s an exciting day when the book you’ve contributed to arrives. You open it at your page to feel a surge of recognition followed by mingled joy and disbelief. Small wonder that authors often refer to books as their children; the parallels with gazing at your own baby for the first time are obvious. Though I’m not really the parent here. More of a distant cousin. Anyway, that happy day came a few weeks ago when my contributor’s copy of Mend it Better (subtitled Creative Patching, Darning, and Stitching) by Kristin M. Roach plopped onto the doormat.

I was delighted to be picked for inclusion in Mend it Better back in the spring of 2011 because mending is a subject very close to my heart. There are issues on which the world divides cleanly into two mutually exclusive halves. We have the lovers and the haters of marmite, the watchers and the non-watchers of The Apprentice, and then we have the menders and the non-menders. It seems that you either get the concept of mending, thrift, recycling, conservation etc or you don’t.  Long ago I had a very interesting discussion with a friend who didn’t get it at all; in fact, she found people who upturn their washing-detergent bottles (in order to extract that last little drop) positively repugnant: “cheese-paringly mean” was, I think, the term she used.  As a fairly compulsive bottle-drainer myself, I felt a little jarred by the strength of her feelings on this point. I can’t quite remember how the conversation progressed from there, but there was probably a tumble-weed moment.

The rift between the two camps can be explained (at least partially) by the moral high-ground implicitly adopted by the thrifty, possibly imagined by the non-thrifty and felt by them as an unspoken rebuke. Most of us really don’t like shoulds and musts and uncomfortable being-told- what- to- dos, even if they are not actually uttered. Sometimes the mere presence of people doing-the-right-thing is enough to set off the won’t-do-it-and-you-cant-make-mes. Back in the old days, we used to call this ‘conscience’. Me, I quite like conscience. I think it can be telling us something useful. But I digress.

Into the gaping chasm between the thrifty and resolutely non-thrifty ( I see it rather like the Grand Canyon!) Kristin M. Roach rides, cheerfully a-whistlin’ a tune. Her panniers are full of  jaunty calico iron-on patches, prettily painted darning eggs, shiny skeins of embroidery silk and boundless enthusiasm. With these she can charm the birds from the trees (or do I mean cacti?) and persuade even the most militant non-mender that mending might be OK. Fun even.

The first thing that strikes you about Kristin’s book is how neat and tidy it is. The small scale — just 18.5cms x 21cms — is genuinely handy, perfect to slip into the mending bag. It’s purse-friendly too at just $18.95/£12.99. The book is laid out very appealingly; check out the perky appliqué fabric-letter graphics and the vintage sewing effects peppered throughout. This pretty book functions beautifully as a call-to-mend, with joy and creativity the main flavour and just the subtlest hint of virtue as an after-taste. As Kristin’s site says, ‘With Mend It Better, every garment and fabric repair is a chance for self-expression and fabulous creations.’  Yeah, the creativity card might just win it!

Title page

And now for the nitty gritty:

Who is the author? Kristin M. Roach lives in Ames Iowa, is a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Northern Illinois University) and she started writing her blog Craft Leftovers in 2006 as a way of keeping on top of her craft supplies — using up what she had rather than buying new. It’s a great source of inspiration for making the best of what’s already to hand.

What’s in the book? After a sweet introduction (in which Kristin pays homage to the significant sewing females in her family) there’s a brief foray through the evolution of sewing (which is possibly extra to requirements but enjoyable all the same) before Kristin tackles the basics. How do you assess if a piece is worth saving? What do you need in your essential mending tool kit? This includes instructions for a mending bag and upcycled tool clutch (see below). What basic stitches will you need? – both hand and machine. These can then be practised to make a cute needle book.

Mend it Better contents page

Next come all sorts of inspirational projects, each setting out a particular method or type of repair. As well as showing her own makeovers, Kristin has curated often bold and inspirational mends from other crafters, including Susan Beal, Rachel Beyer, Deb Cory, Carina Envoldsen-Harris, Crispina ffrench, Jennifer Forest, Diane Gilleland, Pam Harris, Marisa Lynch, Francesca Mueller, Cal Patch, Stacie Wick and Sherri Lynn Wood. Additional contributors are Caitlin Stevens Andrews, Maja Blomqvist, Cathie Jo, Ágnes Palkó, Megan PedersonLeah Peterson, Jamie Smith, and Yours Truly. Areas covered include: patchwork (including Leah Peterson’s  gorgeous reverse applique shown below),  seam fixes,  secret pockets, clever ways to adjust hems, waistband repairs, darning (by hand and machine, and an ingenious way to make your own darning egg using a wooden egg and a Shaker-style peg), fasteners, zip replacements, handling fancy fabrics, and decorative embellishments (including applying beads round a moth hole to create a flower motif).

Who will the book work best for? Kristin has clearly worked hard to make this an inclusive book, and I think it will work both for the absolute sewing newbie (who needs guidance through even basic stitches) and the more seasoned sewist (who can flip past that). Because it’s aiming to appeal to a wide audience, it crosses into the territory of some broader sewing manuals (such as this excellent one from Ruth Singer), but mostly includes what is relevant. I fear that it would frustrate someone expecting to find a lot of fancy hand-stitches as the ones included are fairly basic. I love the first few sewing projects which include a bag to hold your mending (upcycled from a damaged tablecloth) and a mending kit to hold your scissors, needles, marking gauges etc (upcycled from a felted sweater). Kristin conceived it as a book you can dip in and out of as necessary, whether you want to sew on a button or fit a hidden pocket.

Most inspiring mends? For me, it’s the reverse appliqué patching. I also liked the machine-darned jeans on the opposite page. Both are beautiful. There are a few other mends featured which go well beyond the purely practical and are aptly described as devotional. I also loved the crocheted sock darning done with oddments of yarn. It looks stunning, appears to be very robust, and I can’t wait to give it a try.

Mends by Leah Peterson and Jamie Smith

I must mention in passing that though I really loved Kristin’s make-your-own darning egg project (using a wooden egg and that Shaker peg) which she includes because she says they’re hard to find in the US, darning mushrooms etc are fairly commonplace  over here in the UK. You can also buy vintage ones at a certain Etsy store.

My contribution to the book was a mended apron (which you can see over on my In Print page). It wasn’t done for the book  – can’t you tell? – but was a favourite of mine I’d fixed. It’s not what I’d call exciting but its mother loves it.  And that’s one of the points Kristin makes; unless very ragged, something is worthy of fixing if you happen to cherish it, for whatever reason.

We may be stuck with a pretty dodgy economy for some time, and I doubt that spending our way out of it will be the answer — wasn’t that what got us all into this mess in the first place? Most of us will have to tighten our belts and take our dose of thrift as palatably as possible. Happily,  Mend it Better helps the medicine slide down.

OK, I’m convinced. Where can I buy it? Look for it at your local bookshop, and please ask, if you can’t find it. If you’re within spitting distance of me, I have a few copies available so email me. If you’re a bookstore or making establishment in the UK and would like to stock copies, get in touch with Melia Publishing Servcies. You can also get a signed copy direct from Kristin.

And finally to the giveaway! I’m really thrilled that the nice people at Storey Publishing (here’s their Facebook page, by the way) have offered to send a FREE copy of Mend it Better to one of my fortunate readers. The offer applies to readers in the US and UK only so if you’re hoping to learn to mend elsewhere, I’m sorry to disappoint. To enter, please leave a comment below. You can tell me what you have that needs mending, if you wish. A detached button? A tear to a precious dress? The knees of your favourite jeans? I’d also love to hear about any encounters you’ve had with the non-mending, thrift-intolerant portion of the population. But there’s no right answer, and a winner will be picked entirely at random. Entries close at midnight on Sunday 1st April, and the winner announced here on the blog on Monday 2nd April. Good luck!





Dec 08

More Rag Rugs

Jenni Stuart-Anderson has written a sequel to her first book Rag Rug Making. More Rag Rugs is hot off the press this very week (it’s published today, in fact), and if you hurry you can get a signed copy just in time for Christmas.

More Rag Rugs

Jenni Stuart-Anderson's new book is published today

Jenni really knows her rag rug techniques and was taught by one of the last-and-best traditional exponents of the craft of progging, a method of pulling small pieces of scrap textile through a hessian backing, for which you need a splendid little tool called a bodger (the sprung device featured above which Jenni also happens to sell, by the way). Well, Jenni’s first book has been selling like proverbial hotcakes over the years. I haven’t seen this new one yet but am delighted to tell you that one of my own earliest efforts (see below) is featured in the gallery section.

If you get the chance to see Jenni at work (she’s a fixture at most of the big UK textiles shows) do seek her out and watch her closely. Better still, attend one of her workshops. I went along to one earlier this year, and there’s no substitute for seeing an expert manipulating the materials in front of your eyes, and having the luxury of a whole day to pursue a project and begin to really turn your own hand to it. 

I took along some yellow & blue shirting – mostly my husband’s worn-out work shirts and PJs – which I hoped to plait into a rug, inspired by a doll’s house mat made by my Pennsylvanian grandmother some time around the early-to-mid-20th century (you can see it in that earlier post of mine). It was exciting seeing how first the plaiting and then the coiling and lacing (sewing the long plait together) altered the look of the shirtings. I don’t know if you can see, but I used both vertical and horizontal stripes to varying effect. It’s rather hard to predict how the plait will look, but I found the final peppered result pleasing.  Apologies for the dull picture quality, by the way. Can’t you tell that this was taken in a typical British summer? Only the UK in July will do this for you! [Note to self: you really must get on top of those Photoshop image-brightening tools.] Incidentally, plaiting as a rug technique appears to have originated in New England (known there as braiding), really taking off in the nineteenth century, the happy offspring of a boom in straw-bonnet-making. You learn something new every day.

2011 Jly Minolta 210

Plaited rug made from striped and chequered shirtings


Jul 01


Scissors of my dreams

Scissors detail from FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith

I’ve just heard the delightful news that Grahame Baker-Smith has won the CILIP* Kate Greenaway Medal 2011 for his book, FArTHER, which he both wrote and illustrated. The award was established in 1955 and represents the UK’s most distinguished award for children’s book illustration; previous winners include Janet Ahlberg, Edward Ardizzone, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Anthony Browne, John Burningham, Lauren Child, Michael Foreman, Shirley Hughes, Helen Oxenbury, Jan Pienkowski, Chris Riddell and Brian Wildsmith. Having known Grahame for several years, I can tell you that he is a total delight. I had the pleasure of commissioning artwork from him in a not-for-profit context, and he was extremely generous with his time and talents. I would even lay a bet that whoever first coined the expression ‘it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy’ had precisely Grahame in mind.

FArTHER is about a man’s dream of attaining flight, the tenacity of that dream, and how the dream is passed down from father to a son. It’s a wistful book, suffused with loss, disappointment, but also hope. Grahame’s illustrations are immensely detailed (the images shown are just small sections of a much bigger spread) and manage at once to capture both the substantial and the ethereal. Grahame’s writing is lyrical too, with lines that Emily Dickinson would have been proud of:

Day and night, he sewed and stitched, and sawed and hammered, and trimmed the feathers of a thousand hopeful wings.


Paper bird

Paper bird detail from FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith

FArTHER also functions as an investigation of the creative drive: the faraway look the son sees in his father’s distracted face (‘I would sit on his lap until he remembered me’ ).  The book begs all kinds of questions. How long do you pursue your creative dream? As a parent, do you feel concern when you see that your child is absorbed by the same dream? Do we exercise any meaningful choice over these matters?

FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith is published by Templar Publishing. It’s temporarily out of print, but you can read more about it here. Grahame tells me that it will be reissued (with a slightly more elaborate jacket and emblazoned with the Kate Greenaway medal, of course) in September.  If that’s farther than you can wait, please borrow it from your local library.


*CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals















Feb 03

The Year of the Rabbit

We have a rabbit in our household. I don’t mean a genuine fluffy bunny but someone born in the last year of the rabbit. I anticipate that he’ll make giant leaps forward this year.

Mention rabbits and I always think of the lovely 1922 book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. We have a beautiful 2005 hardback edition by Egmont which includes William Nicholson‘s original artwork.

The Velveteen Rabbit cover artwork by Nicholson

The Velveteen Rabbit

I love the way the rabbit’s feet are set over to one side in that picture, the result of innumerable huggings and sleepings-on by his owner. Such beautiful observation to accompany a very tender story. I have to admit that I can seldom read the scene between the Rabbit and the Skin Horse [Margery Williams’ capitals] without shedding a tear. For me, it really nails the fundamentally transformative qualities of love and motherhood, with the inevitability of aging thrown in for good measure:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.”Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse.”You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Despite feeling as if most of my hair has been loved off, especially in recent weeks, my mood is surprisingly perky and optimistic today. I have a decided spring in my stride and am really looking forward to what the Year of the Rabbit has to show for itself – if only my eyes will stay secured long enough for me to see properly.

I’ve been wanting to make a traditional soft toy bunny – in velveteen, velvet or even corduroy – for ages. I’ve found some rabbity inspiration here in this curiously aged and lugubrious bunny by Northfield Primitives (Oh, scoop him up and love him someone, please!) and by Betz White‘s gorgeous cashmere bunnies: who would not want to love those button-eyes off? Now, they don’t look hard to make. And with Easter late this year, time is definitely on our side.


Jan 23

My first sewing machine #2: Ruth Singer

I had such a good time writing up my first sewing machine experiences that I felt emboldened to ask some of the sewsters* I most admire to join me and reminisce about theirs. This should become a regular feature here on the Scrapiana blog. First up is, I’m delighted to say, Ruth Singer.

Ruth is a textiles designer and maker, and the author of a couple of sewing books (full details below) plus quite a few projects within other craft books and publications, including this one. A former museum curator (one-time medievalist at the V&A), Ruth’s historical costume interest is revealed by her choice of blog title: Mantua Maker. She now teaches workshops for all ages on everything from beginner’s sewing to advanced fabric manipulation, as well as taking commissions for one-off installations such as the African-inspired headdress pictured towards the end of this post. Do consult Ruth’s website for further details. I should just preface all by saying that Ruth is not related to the Singers of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which is a pity as that would have made a fine story. OK, take it away, Ruth!

Ruth Singer with trusty Husky {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

Most of my teenage sewing was done under the guidance of my step-mum. My dad’s partner was (and still is) a champion dressmaker who taught me dressmaking as a 12-year-old, and I soon graduated to a borrowed family Singer machine [below] on which I did most of my outlandish clothes construction. Once I had got the hang of the basics, I went straight to sewing patterns and whipped up some truly awful garments, gradually moving on to some rather nicer and more flattering things – but still with a few awful things thrown in. With me, it’s the actual clothes that stick in my mind more than the sewing of them. The machine hasn’t been used for years, but is lovingly oiled and cared for, and now back in my possession on long-term loan. I did love it’s little carry box and the test piece of fabric which has probably been with the machine for 40+ years.

singer 221K - 1

My step-mum's Singer {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

The little machine was a real workhorse, small but sturdy. I remember having it set up on my bedroom desk, which was really a large shelf attached to the wall with brackets – fine for writing but not ideal for a sewing machine as it bounced up and down a lot. When I could get away with it, I used the dining table which was much more suitable, although the lighting in that room was not set up for sewing. At least I had young eyes, I suppose. Cutting out was done on my bedroom floor, usually with the ‘assistance’ of at least one cat. Our big cat liked to lie on the fabrics as I was cutting, usually with his tail just where I needed to snip, and he would steal the tape measure.

singer 221K - 2

Small but sturdy {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

I got my own machine after my auntie died when I was 17, so it is tinged with sadness as well as excitement. It was a Singer, probably from the ’70s or early ’80s, and not one repair shop could ever find out anything about it – the model was very obscure and no manual could ever be obtained. A curiosity indeed.  It was a totally utilitarian beige plastic type, not awfully memorable, I have to say. But it worked, reasonably well. I used it for seven or eight years, making masses of clothes. I took it to university with me which caused consternation among my peers. Making your own clothes was seriously eccentric then.

I kept the Singer until I bought a fancier one with the aim of (eventually) becoming a professional stitcher (the machine preceeded the change of career by several years). I made masses of things with that machine, not least many medieval living history costumes, until I moved onto hand stitching for authenticity. So that machine saw miles of heavy wool and fine linen, as well as the fancier things I stitched for parties from hand-painted silk and velvet.  I have almost none of my teenage sewing, mostly because I lost or gained weight and cleared out my wardrobe regularly, disposing of the handmade as well as some amazing vintage stuff I wish I had kept (Horrockses dresses, anyone? I had dozens).

I finally gave that Singer away 10 years or so ago, once I had the new one – as moving house every year with two machines was getting a bit silly. I actually can’t remember who had it. My memory says it was my friend Robin who later moved back to New Zealand. I doubt it went with her, but I am sure it went to a good home and is probably still being used today.

I now have a Husqvarna Viking Lily which I bought second-hand from my local craft shop. It was a huge investment at the time, but I do love it. I’ve got a few others, used more for work, but this Husky is all I really need. It’s not pretty, it’s not fancy but it works really well, and hardly ever breaks down. Here’s a quick run-through of the features I love. Adjustable presser foot pressure, allowing easy sewing of thick & thin fabrics. Movable needle which makes zips super easy. I also like the machine blanket or overcast stitch a lot (good for dressmaking) and the 3-step zigzag and stretch stitch settings. I don’t use many of the decorative stitches but it does a satin stitch which I like to use sometimes, and the blind hemming stitch is WONDERFUL. I’m a big fan of feet too – blind hemming foot, rolled hem foot both good, I use the clear foot all the time instead of the solid metal, which makes life so much easier. The Teflon foot is great for leather. I wish I had a walking foot for this one, but I have one for the Berninas instead, which may have to change. I also like the foot with a gap underneath to enable top stitching. I’ve got a ruffler foot which I used a lot when ruffles were a key feature in my designs. There are so many amazingly useful feet; once you start to explore it’s like a whole new world of sewing excitement!

I also have an industrial Bernina which I don’t actually use any more. If I had the space I might because it goes like the clappers and whizzes through miles of straight seams in moments. Maybe that’s my dream machine – a domestic size but that goes fast! And maybe looks like an old black and gold Singer but works like a modern one. I think the key differences I noticed when I upgraded was the silence – the old one was noisy, so my dream machine would be stylish, fast and have a quiet motor.

Ruth's workshop Bernina

My workshop Bernina {Photo Credit: Ruth Singer}

I’m very fond of the old Bernina I use for teaching. It came originally from a London college, but I got it third-hand from an ex-colleague. It’s battered and basic but tough. I like that it is solid metal, like the little one I used as a teenager – not just the solidity but also the curves. Plastic ones are never so attractive.

The last sewing machine in my collection is Little Betty. She featured in my book Sew Eco, though in a purely decorative way. I bought her for 50p in a junk shop, just as a prop, and must admit that I haven’t actually tried sewing on her.

little betty sewing machine - 5.jpg

Little Betty {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

Thank you, Ruth! That’s been a wonderfully comprehensive tour of your sewing-machine experiences. Before I forget, Ruth’s books deserve a particular mention.

Sew It Up, published by Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2008

I have and really love  Sew It Up (published by Kyle Cathie) which can be purchased here. The fabric manipulation and Ruth’s sense of colour really hooked me. I could tell that Ruth really knew what she was talking about too; this wasn’t just a lot of pretty pictures which told you little as a crafter. Far from it. The book was given a different cover and title in the US ( The Sewing Bible ) and can be bought here. Ruth also has another book out, Sew Eco (published by A&C Black in 2010), which focuses more directly on sustainable approaches to sewing.

Sew Eco, published by A&C Black, 2010

Late last year I asked Ruth to be my first guinea-pig for My First Sewing Machine, and was thrilled when she agreed. I was even more excited when she said she could probably dig out her first machine from the family attic and take a photo. A few weeks later, when Ruth showed me a picture of the little 1967 celery-white featherweight 221k Singer, I almost fell off my chair. I was delighted to discover that it was one of my absolute favourite sewing machines of all time, and amused that Ruth hadn’t twigged the significance of the model: the 221ks have almost cult status. They are particularly prized by patchwork-quilters because of their reliable straight stitch and their petite size and minimal weight (cast aluminium) – all perfect qualities for toting along to quilting groups. And the celery-white ones are especially sought after over in the US where they are harder to find (they were all produced in Scotland). What a cool first machine!

It just so happens that Ruth is selling her industrial Bernina machine. If you’d like to check out details, zoom over to her blog now. You’ll have to arrange collection, probably by robust vehicle or van, and it will require two strong people to lift it.

Some of Ruth’s most recent work (including the machine-stitched head-dress shown below) can be seen now at the Figures of Africa exhibition showing at Pickford’s House, Derby – until 13 February 2011.


Headstrong at Pickford's House, Derby {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

If you still have your first sewing machine to hand, do feel free to post a picture of it over on the My First Sewing Machine group page on Flickr.

[*sewster is a long obsolete late medieval Scottish word for a seamstress. If you happen to write limericks, it carries the added charm of rhyming with  ‘boaster’, ‘coaster’ ‘poster’ ‘roaster’ and ‘toaster’ – or even ‘Towcester’. I’ve adopted it in preference to the written ‘sewer’ which can so easily be confused for the liquid waste conduit.]

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