Category: Cross-stitch

Oct 08

The Napkin Project exhibition

Last month I attended The Napkin Project‘s exhibition of contributions for Saffron Gardens, a new dementia care facility in Bristol. The project embraced the theme of ‘home’, with volunteers across the UK embroidering napkins to reflect what the word means to them. The napkins are destined to be used by people with dementia, hopefully stimulating memories, inspiring interaction, etc. This comment from a contributor helps to explain the impetus behind the project:

My father has dementia and I have often noticed the urge for him, and other residents in the care home, to play with the edges of things – be it fabric or a table edge. In fact, I often leave a cotton hankie (brightly patterned Liberty squares) for him when my visit is over – a sort of textile reminder that I’ve been there. Something physical for him to hold.

It was touching to see the 120 napkins hanging, slightly mournfully, en masse. Their brown-paper hanging tags carried words like ‘comfort’, ‘security’, ‘safety’ and ‘love’. 250 napkins had been sent out to embroiderers of all ages, levels and abilities (no-one was excluded), and the organisers, Willis Newson, were gratified by the relatively high response rate, considering the heavy investment of effort and time required to complete one in the three-month timeframe.

 

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I had stitched one of the napkins, partly inspired to contribute by my own experiences of having close relatives in care. And it wasn’t surprising to me that affecting human stories hover behind many of the napkins. A fellow napkin-embellisher, viewing napkins beside me at the expo, revealed that she had just lost her own mother to dementia a few weeks before; in fact, she had hand-delivered her napkin to the organisers while visiting Bristol for her mother’s funeral. Amidst that turmoil, she valued the experience of embroidering her napkin, she said. It gave her something positive to focus her grieving energies on.

So, what did ‘home’ mean to the contributors? Here are some of the common themes.

Houses.

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Teapots, teacups and cakes.

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Plates, of course, to put them on.

Blue plate napkin

A good read.

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Gardens, trees and flowers.

Napkin for The Napkin Project

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Animals, birds and pets.

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Julia Laing’s contribution

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Creative spaces where much making is done.

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And places we have literally created ourselves.

Paintbrush napkin

Home is the place I have made

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A place of warmth.

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Home as a place we feel safe, where we are free to be ourselves. Ironically, it may be far from our actual home, under canvas, or under no roof at all.

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The Napkin Project has just uploaded an entire set of (much better) pictures of all napkins received to date over on Flickr, so do go and have a browse.

I was so pleased to be involved in this very practical creative project. It has been thought-provoking. In seeking to define an intangible – what creates a real home rather than just a place where we happen to be existing – it hints at crucial ingredients of care. I hope that it succeeds in providing amusement, comfort and stimulation to the residents of Saffron Gardens. And perhaps it will establish, in its small way, a new paradigm for working with dementia patients?

It was clear to me, attending the exhibition, that it has already provided comfort to a lot of relatives of people with dementia. So many contributed, and this appears to have been a positive means of channelling grief, sadness and loss. There’s so much intertwined in the fibres of those napkins.

If you haven’t completed your napkin yet, don’t worry. Finish it in your own time and return it because it will still be very happily and gratefully received, the organisers assure me. Most importantly, it will be used and handled by real people with dementia. If you would like to stitch a napkin but didn’t apply, Willis Newson allowed me to take a couple in the cream shade to give out,  so do get in touch – especially if you can pick one up from Bath. Thank you.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Maybe adding a suitable crown?

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

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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.

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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!

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Sep 07

Waxing lyrical

Welcome back to the new autumn term here at Scrapiana Towers! My pencils are freshly sharpened, my needles have become almost dangerously pointy (OK, I won’t mention strawberry needle emeries again for at least 24 hours, promise), and I’m wearing big pockets, eagerly anticipating a crop of shiny new conkers.

Having apparently spent so much time since my last post in the company of bees (I haven’t actually been sitting on that bench quite all this time), it seemed right to return with one of my favourite topics: beeswax.

The application of beeswax is a time-honoured thread-improving technique. I often wax lyrical about it (most recently when asked to list my sewing essentials for Cross Stitcher magazine – out soon, I think) because it’s such a beautifully simple and thrifty idea. Drawing cotton or linen thread along the edge of a block of beeswax before hand-sewing renders it stronger and more resilient, less inclined to twist, knot or fray, and more likely to run smoothly through the fabric. Sewing guru Ruth Singer recommends it in her excellent manual Sew It Up, mentioning its history as a traditional tailor’s aid, and that it’s particularly helpful with long hand-sewn seams; she suggests running over the thread with a warm iron to melt the wax into the fibres slightly before use, though I must admit I haven’t tried that. Dollmaker extraordinaire Mimi Kirchner says that beeswax turns an ordinary thread into super-thread, and is fantastic for the sturdy attachment of coat buttons. And so it is.

Cobblers and sail-makers of old would have routinely coated their thread with beeswax, its waterproof qualities an added advantage. Up the social scale among the leisured classes, Georgian ladies could obtain cakes of wax decorated with gold-paper stars and other motifs. A Georgian lady’s sewing box might also contain a natty little device aptlycalled a thread waxer, designed to hold a small cake of wax on a pin between two protective ends of ivory or mother-of-pearl: think of wafers round an ice-cream sandwich and you get the idea. These were sometimes incorporated into another device, such as a tape-measure. The Victorians favoured a wooden wax box, sometimes carved in the form of fruit. And presumably these were perfectly suited to house the balls of white and yellow beeswax mentioned in an 1869 domestic guide by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe and her less famous sister Catherine. The extra refinement of white (‘bleached’) beeswax was often preferred as it was less likely to stain the palest of fabrics.

But beeswax isn’t the only product that has been used for thread-conditioning. Once upon a time, especially if you didn’t happen to have access to a hive, it was de rigeur to use your own earwax for the job, harvested with the aid of a device called an ear-spoon. I’m guessing I just exceeded your “Eeuww!” threshold, and if you now have beverage-splatter all over your screen, I apologise. Our stitching forebears may have been resourceful, but I confidently predict no comeback any time soon for earwax-based sewing aids. Double-dip or no, the trusty Q-tip is here to stay. Though, on behalf of ENT specialists everywhere, I feel beholden to add that you really shouldn’t put anything in your ear that’s smaller than your elbow.

If you can overcome your squeamishness, the notion of the pre-cotton-bud era is intriguing. Ear-spoons – or ear-scoops as they were also known – were essentially just a tiny bowl on a disproportionately long handle. They were made from a variety of materials: silver or gold, ivory or bone. They cropped up in ancient Roman beauty-sets (presumably just for personal grooming, but who knows?) as well as Georgian sewing etuis. In the seventeenth century, they were often incorporated into the end of a silver bodkin, that indispensable status symbol required to lace a lady into her wardrobe; if there had been such a thing as a Stuart Swiss army knife, I like to think that it would have featured a flip-out ear-spoon among its crop of bespoke blades.

A silver bodkin-cum-ear-spoon makes a surprisingly attractive item, but happily you don’t have to acquaint yourself with one intimately (at least, not for sewing purposes) because beeswax isn’t hard to come by. It’s best to use 100% beeswax as paraffin wax can misbehave. I happen to offer prettily shaped and packaged morceaux of stitcher’s beeswax over here on Etsy. And, for the rest of September, I’m offering them on a BOGOF basis – buy one, get one free! They make great stocking fillers for keen needle-persons, I’m told. Here’s what someone said about them a little while back.

How do you feel about beeswax? I confess to being heavily biased. That honeyed tang just can’t be beaten, and I love it in almost any product, from lip-balm to soap to furniture polish. Do you use beeswax for sewing, or for other purposes? Perhaps you can’t abide the stuff. Whatever the case, do tell!

Scrapiana beeswax

Stitcher's beeswax

 

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Jun 16

Rooke Books

Last week I visited Rooke Books which is probably Bath’s best-kept bookaholic secret. Some sensible people would just quietly keep this biblio-paradise to themselves. I was tempted, but now feel compelled to share the experience with you; the bubble chairs alone are too good (and numerous) to enjoy all by myself.

I stumbled across Rooke’s on my way through pedestrian thoroughfare Northumberland Place, blearily seeking caffeine at one of several coffee-serving establishments nearby. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Guildhall and couldn’t be more central: head for Neal’s Yard up the alley past Cafe Nero and you’ll be pretty much opposite. The then window arrangement of mid-twentieth century crime and science fiction was what first caught my eye; I used to work in the publicity department for Victor Gollancz, and was the press officer in charge of the crime output, as well as opening the twiglets for many a science fiction launch (no expense spared).

But I finally stepped through the door of this bookshop just a couple of weeks ago. I’m so glad I did, because Isha, the manageress, greeted me with a lovely smile, and what looked from the outside like a cosy little second-hand/antiquarian bookshop suddenly opened up like an 18th century tardis: four floors, at last count. If you climb up one floor, you get to sit in this bubble-chair and ogle the glorious eighteenth-century-style wallpaper.

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The first floor bubble chair

If you climb up two floors you get to browse the textile and fashion sections and sit in one of two bubble chairs.  [This could be the plot of an Eric Carle book, right? The Very Erudite Caterpillar, perhaps.] Then there’s the glam black-and-white flocked wallpaper. Wow!

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Top floor bubble chair

Here’s a page from an embroidery book which I dutifully browsed (I had to test the chairs, you see). Isn’t it exuberant?

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From Swedish Embroidery by Eivor Fisher

The shop’s only stated speciality is first editions so you can find just about everything from needlework to Noddy to Nabokov (Isha once had a first edition of Lolita in the shop). Rooke ‘s online sister establishment handles the rarer titles, so everything you’ll see in Rooke’s is under the £50 benchmark.

The bricks-and-mortar shop is looking to host several book groups, so if you think you’d be interested in, say, in a specialist crime reading group, or a Jane Austen group, or any other area, do get in touch with them.  Tell them what you’d be interested in, and whether a day or evening meet-up would suit you best. I can’t promise they’ll give you exactly what you want, but I’m sure they’ll attempt to be accommodating. They will also be hosting a group for aspiring writers; Isha has an MA in Creative Writing.

I think the only thing that could improve the place would be a coffee machine. Then I might not need to stop elsewhere nearby. And (as Topping Books‘ example amply proves) the free coffee trick invariably results in a reciprocal grateful purchase or several, especially when a few moments’ relaxation in a bubble chair is involved.

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Embroidery booklet on wide attic windowsill

Rook Books, 16 Northumberland Place, Bath, BA1 6QD

Telephone: +44 (0)1225 448831     Email: sales@rookbooks.com

PS You’ll find a few more pictures here on my Flickr photostream. I didn’t buy any of those embroidery books so if you hurry you may still find them there on the top floor!

PPS Northumberland Place is a bit of a gem in itself, completed by 1749 and housing Bath’s smallest pub, the Coeur de Lion. I’m wondering what was here in Jane Austen’s day but haven’t researched it, so if you can cast any light on that, please do get in touch.


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Jun 03

A Rose in the Hand

This week saw rather a big wedding anniversary; nothing with a round number, but sobering all the same: my husband and I met when we were just 19 and have now been married as long (with a few extra years packed in between).

I have little or no wisdom to impart on the longevity of relationships, but with the substantial benefit of hindsight I’d heartily recommend this time of year for a wedding. You can guarantee that the garden/window-box/local park will be at its most bountiful and optimistic for each subsequent anniversary, and you may even be lucky enough to give/receive a home-grown rose as a gift. This might seem cheap (I’d say “thrifty”) but life is messy and cluttered; someone or other is bound to forget now and again, and a rose in the hand is worth two in the filling station.

This sampler was stitched by my mother, probably in the 1940s, most certainly in Pennsylvania. Alas, she’s no longer with us, so I can’t verify precisely when she put needle to fabric. The cheery spirit of it always brings her happily to mind and makes me smile. I love the perky attitudes of the characters, conveyed with wonderful economy in the restrictive cross-stitch format.  I’m guessing that it was designed to look rather older, judging by the nineteenth century dress of the couple (his hat and stick/sword, her coy fan). This was, after all, the era of Gone with the Wind‘s Civil War nostalgia; imagine an older Scarlett & Rhett who still do give a damn. Do click onto my Flickr photostream to see the rest of the sampler with its quaint and cheery message.

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A charming detail from my mother's sampler

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