Category: Patchwork

Jan 05

In with the old

 

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Floral scrap from a 1979 Sanderson furnishing cotton called ‘Border Incident’

 

Happy new year! You’ll find this a largely resolution-free, reflection-empty zone, which may come as some relief. It’s going to be a full-on 2016 for me, and I won’t have much time or opportunity for making. But I do need to carve out a little stitching in order to preserve my wellbeing. Rather than rushing headlong into something new, I’ve decided to finish some of the things I’ve already started. And this old hexagon patchwork quilt top is top of my list.

I started it, oh, twenty-something years ago, and can’t quite remember why the project lost steam – something to do with having children, perhaps…? Culled from 228 scraps (so far) of mostly vintage furnishing fabric (Sanderson etc) interspersed with rows of unbleached calico, it’s been packed away in three house-moves and lived deep inside a box for much of that time. I had it draped over one side of our sofa for a while (see below), the backing papers still basted in place around the edges, waiting patiently for the stalled process of precision tessellation to resume. And there it sat for another year or two. Well, enough’s enough; if this baby could talk, it would be crooning this little number at me.

 

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Slung for years over a sofa, unfinished

 

Those who’ve tried the very traditional method of English pieced patchwork (or EPP, also known as mosaic patchwork) can confirm that this kind of stitching is a slow and painstaking business. There’s no rushing it.  You have to take it just one piece at a time, cutting out your backing papers accurately, then covering each one with fabric, folding the edges over smartly to get those sharp, precise sides as you baste/tack them down in order to create the best possible fit between pieces. But joining each hexagon to its neighbour – seam by hand-stitched seam, two together with right sides facing – is simple and pleasantly mindless once you get going.

Or possibly mindful.

As more and more practitioners are pointing out, slow hand-sewing of seams brings its therapeutic rewards. Whipstitching hexagons together is a very absorbing, relaxing thing to do. For me, it works wonderfully to dispel anxiety and level my mood. And for those hung up on ‘wasting time’ (and who therefore might not go for a colouring book, say), EPP is ultimately a productive process too – if you ever get around to finishing whatever you’re making, that is…

It’s worth pointing out here that there is a certain leeway in the creative EPP process – it can be totally ‘hap’ and random: a pure product of the hand-stitched moment, joining piece to piece as you happen to pick them up. Or you can focus on a meticulous and fussy-cut result, carefully selecting fabric colour and design and pattern placement, forming your hexagons into clusters of rosettes etc – as I’ve tried to do here. 

Here’s the backstory. When I started this project, I wanted to create something that looked a couple of hundred years old – at a superficial glance, anyway. I was studying patchwork history at the time, and this kind of patchwork goes back to the earliest documented days of the English craft in the 18th century. This was also during IKEA’s ‘Chuck out your chintz’ period, so – because I’m perennially contrarian – I think I probably made this as a direct, defiant response. I don’t remember being influenced by any particular quilt, but by an amalgam of fabrics and 18th and 19th century styles. I wanted to convey something of that time when the new printed cottons were so treasured that your middle-class leisured lady patchworker would want to make the very most of every scrap and display each motif to optimum dazzling effect. And then I re-found my diary from 2011, with a distinctive V&A quilt on the cover which looks very, very similar to mine. But the diary was obviously produced many years after I’d started this quilt. It’s possible that I could have spotted the same one in a book somewhere and filed it away in my subconscious. Anyway, it was very spooky to note the similarity. There’s more about that particular quilt (which is dated 1797-1852) over on the V&A site.

Back to the business of finishing, as I said, I have 228 pieces joined together, including 19 seven-hexagon rosettes. I estimate that about 500 pieces will be needed in total (and another 20 or so rosettes) to create something close to a full-sized quilt top. I’m setting myself the goal of adding just one hexagon a day, which (at the moment) seems manageable. I’ll try to come back with periodic updates. There are more pictures of my quilt so far over on my Instagram feed.

What kind of unfinished craft business do you have lying around? What do you think prevents you from completing it? And what is stopping you from ditching it altogether? If you’d like to join me this year in completing something you started a while back, do leave a comment and, if relevant, a blog/social media link below. I’ll be happy to cheerlead and provide encouragement. 😀

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Floral motif (maker unknown) from my 25-year-old unfinished quilt top

 

 

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Apr 13

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched!

 

 

The American Museum

The American Museum wakes up for another season

 

‘Hatches, matches and dispatches’ is old newspaper slang for the births, marriages and deaths columns. You’ll also hear it used to refer to baptisms, weddings and funerals, the corresponding services offered by the Church. Now the American Museum in Britain, located idyllically on the southern outskirts of Bath, has tweaked the term for its latest exhibition, Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! This exhibition, which runs through the year until 1st November 2015, brings together textile artefacts interwoven with life’s great rites of passage. And, as plenty of those textile items have been created using patchwork (and the museum has a fine permanent quilt collection), that’s where the ‘patched’ comes in.

Some artefacts have also been borrowed from exhibition partners the Beamish Museum, Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, the Quilters’ Guild, and Jen Jones’ collection in Wales, and so the sourcing reflects a mixed provenance from both the United States and the British Isles. But it’s the cross-cultural universality of the human condition which draws them all together, and there are plenty of poignant human-interest stories behind these objects, as curator Kate Hebert explains: ‘the personal and sentimental connections, the stories of the individuals that are linked with these objects, are what I have found so moving.’

I went along for the press launch early last month when spring was still struggling to assert itself and the banks of daffodils were only just beginning to open outside in the beautiful grounds. But there was plenty of stitched brightness and vitality to view within the exhibition. Here’s a taste of what I saw.

 

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched - & Patched!

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! poster

Glad rags

Life’s big milestones are usually associated with looking your best,  so it makes sense that many of the textile objects featured in the exhibition are items of clothing (a subject I was possibly over-engaged with when I attended as I was in the middle of a ‘fashion fast’ – more of that in another post). Christening gowns, christening bonnets, baby slippers, bridal gowns and shoes, black clothes worn when an official period of mourning was enforced, even clothing worn by the dead to be buried in – modern day grave goods, you might call them – feature here.

The displays are subdivided into three grouped sections (‘Hatched’, ‘Matched’ and ‘Dispatched’), but I’ll dot back and forth between them for this post.

In the ‘Hatched’ section cascades of handmade broderie anglaise in a row of Christening gowns caught my eye. The christening gown took over when swaddling fell out of favour in the eighteenth century. Then gowns became longer and longer, an opportunity to display one’s wealth and status in the finest detail, all located at the front, of course, where it could be shown off. In a cabinet of baby bonnets, I spotted a cap with the tiniest imaginable white French knots – alas, my phone wasn’t up to capturing them. I was also drawn to a pair of 1930s silk baby slippers with padded soles worked very effectively in a hatched trapunto pattern of quilting, using coloured yarns which were just visible through the silk.

 

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

 

One of the wedding dresses on display was worn in 1887 by Agnes Lucy Hughes, the first mother-in-law of Wallis Simpson.  But most eye-catching is the daffodil dress (see below) embroidered by Henriette Leonard for inclusion in her bridal trousseau around 1892. Tragically, Henriette died before she was able to wear it; her brother persuaded her to take a tour of Europe shortly before her wedding, and during the trip she took ill with the flu allied with ‘nervous exhaustion’ and died. The pristine condition of the dress suggests that it was never worn and got packed away as a family memento.

Daffodil dress. Image c/o The American Museum

Daffodil dress. Photo credit: the American Museum

 

Sad rags

In the ‘Dispatched’ section there’s quite a bit of mourning garb, much of it nineteenth century and frequently featuring jet. As a Victorian female mourner observing a strict code of mourning etiquette, your yards of black crepe would be held together in part by ‘jet pins’ (actually ‘japanned’ or enamelled metal) so as not to allow the unseemly glint of frivolous silver caused by a regular steel pin.

Jet pins

Jet pins

 

Strict observance of an official mourning regime in Britain appears to have been relaxed during the Great War. Then the massive death toll in the trenches would have required so many to wear mourning garb that civilian morale would have been too sorely tested.

There’s a tradition in Wales of knitting stockings to be worn after death. Similarly, some women quilted skirts to be buried in. The late nineteenth century Welsh skirt below is a rare survival, made by two sisters who somehow left it behind when they moved house.

 

Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones

Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones

Quilts

Finely detailed items to adorn the home have often been made in response to a birth, stitched by a young woman in anticipation of her marriage, or by a mourning widow to mark the sorrowful departure of her life’s partner. The American Museum is justly famous for its quilt collection, and you get a chance to see a few of their gems showcased here in this exhibition.

 

Ellen Bryant's 1863 log cabin quilt

Ellen Bryant’s 1863 log cabin quilt

 

One of my favourites is the stunning log cabin top shown above, pieced around 1863 by Ellen Bryant in  preparation for her marriage in Londonderry, Vermont.  Over three hundred log cabin blocks (each 4 and a half inches square) have been arranged in a variation known as ‘barn raising’ or ‘sunshine and shadow’. This eye-popping quilt has an even more intricately pieced backing created by Ellen’s sister, not finished until 1886. Evidently the resulting quilt – a sororal labour of love – took over two decades to complete.

And another favourite from the permanent collection is the Christmas bride. The appliqued holly leaves have faded over the years, as greens tend to do, but the red berries and festoons remain surprisingly bright. Insider tip: you may still be able to find a tea towel bearing this design in the museum shop.

 

Christmas Bridge appliqued quilt

Christmas Bride appliqued quilt

 

With my interest in mending, I was glad to see Bertha Mitchell’s quilt, made from dress and furnishing fabrics to celebrate her sister’s wedding in 1899. Bertha worked as a seamstress, repairing clothes in Keswick Boarding School.  You’ll find a close-up picture of that quilt over on my Instagram feed.

A very special cot quilt is featured here, on loan from the Quilters’ Guild, but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it. It’s the earliest piece on display (1700-10) and is a white, whole-cloth quilt, densely quilted by hand.

There are also a few mourning or memorial quilts on display, a couple dating from the American Civil War era (see ‘Darts of Death’ on my Instagram feed).

 

Poignant needle

And then there was possibly the most moving item of all, a simple embroidered tablecloth – its very ordinariness adding to its poignancy. The signatures of female friends and American servicemen stationed at Cheltenham during the months leading up to D-Day are partly embroidered. But some remain in the pencil. Helen Slater, the embroiderer, was working them in a variety of bright colours, but she stopped part way through one signature, and her needle remains lodged in the fabric. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the project after she heard that her fiancé, Jack Carpenter (his name embroidered in red) had been killed in action. She put the cloth away with a book (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) that he’d given her just before he left for the D-Day landings, and she cherished them both for 70 years until her own death.

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Postpartum pincushions

I like a nice pin or several and so made a beeline for a couple of exhibits featuring pins. For the diehard haberdashery enthusiast, besides the jet pins mentioned above there’s the museum’s own 1821 baby-welcoming pincushion made of silk and steel pins. This pincushion, which has just been restored (the silk had shredded and the stuffing been lost), reminded me of a couple in the 2010 V&A exhibition of quilts, though those were dated a little earlier. Pincushions with elaborate patterns and phrases marked out with pinheads were popular gifts for new mothers. However, it was considered bad luck to gift such a pincushion before the birth, as that might sharpen the pains of labour. The museum notes explain that in colonial New York, births were announced by hanging pincushions on door knockers – a practice which apparently fell out of favour after the safety pin was invented in 1878.

Welcome little stranger pin cushion

‘Welcome little stranger’ pin cushion

 

Tonsorial textiles

Grim though they might sound to us today, mourning rings made from the deceased’s hair were popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century. The eagle-eyed visitor to this exhibition will spot fascinatingly intricate rings and brooches delicately woven from human hair. I didn’t get a good shot of them, sadly, as that part of the exhibition was dark, but do look out for the rings ingeniously formed to resemble tiny buckled belts.

There’s a lot more to see than I can show you here, but you can find a few more images over on my Instagram feed. And let’s not forget the person who put it all together: Kate Hebert, new in post as the American Museum’s curator. Congratulations, Kate!

Curator Kate Hebert

Curator Kate Hebert

 

Finally, a quick update on last year’s immensely popular Kaffe Fassett exhibition. I’m reliably informed that there is now a permanent Kaffe boutique at the museum, so whenever you time your visit you can always get your fix.

 

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! runs till 1st November 2015 at the American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor.  There will be a talk by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Fashion & Textiles at  the Victoria & Albert Museum, this Thursday 16th April 2015. Check out the museum’s website for other associated events.

Running alongside this exhibition is Spirit Hawk Eye, a celebration of American native culture through the portraits of Heidi Laughton.

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Nov 09

Kaffe Fassett at the American Museum

 

My blog is still on life support, but I couldn’t resist popping back to take you on a brief tour of the Kaffe Fassett exhibition at the American Museum, Claverton Manor, Bath.

I squeaked in at the tail end of October, just before it closed. Perhaps it’s cruel of me to tantalise you with images of the King of Colour’s show that you now have no hope of seeing, but maybe you’re far away and had no chance to visit anyway. Or maybe you got there and are happy to be reminded of your grand day out. Whatever the case, I hope you can enjoy these images. Did you catch the exhibition? What was your favourite area or thing on display?

This huge tree hung with pompoms and lampshades was really stunning. It was a magnet for small children: delightedly scurrying about beneath it, batting at the yarn balls.

Bececked tree at the Kaffe expo, the American Museum, Claverton Manor, Bath

Bedecked tree at the Kaffe expo, the American Museum, Claverton Manor, Bath

 

The pictures don’t do the original concept justice as the fabric on the shades had faded considerably over the 6 months of the exhibition. You have to wonder how long it took the team to set this up last March; I assume it was a cherry-picker job. It makes me want to do something similar (though on a much smaller scale) with this year’s Christmas tree, possibly even decorating a tree outside, for a change. How about you?

Pompoms and lampshades

Pompoms and lampshades

 

Here was a rendition of Kaffe’s studio, complete with painting area on the left.

Studio area

Kaffe’s studio

 

A blazing yellow area.

Cushions, cats and cardigans

Cushions, cats and cardigans

 

A tactile section.

Please touch! I appreciated this.

Please touch! I really appreciated this touch.

 

Glorious needlepoint.

Kaffe cabinet

Needlepoint cushions

 

Plenty of vegetation.

Kaffe veg

Vegetables and flowers

 

Some nods to items in the museum’s collection.

Early American portraits

Early American portraits

 

Beautiful neutrals.

Tumbling blocks

Tumbling blocks

 

And a wall of Kaffe quips and wisdom.

Kaffe quotation wall

Kaffe quotation wall

 

Meanwhile, back in the main house (Claverton Manor proper, rather than the modern exhibition building), there were a few Kaffe touches on display for the determined visitor. It was fascinating to see the spreads and colourway varieties for a selection of printed textile patterns – apologies for the quality of the image.

 

Design sheet

Design sheet

 

But I was really smitten by these quiet inked line drawings of the museum’s room sets. Kaffe is an old friend to the museum and worked these in the 1960s, when the museum was brand new. Astonishingly little has changed in those room sets (which illustrate America from its early colonial days). As a Penn Dutch girl by ancestry, I loved his rendition of the decorative tinware, particuarly that perky coffee pot. And how fascinatingly un-Kaffe is this absence of colour? – not to mention un-Penn Dutch.

 

Kaffe's early work for the American Work, 1960s.

Kaffe’s early work for the American Work, 1960s.

 

In the museum’s Penn Dutch room, the mass of highly decorated stuff can be riotously hard to swallow, but the beautiful folk-art lines of those plain tinware cookie cutters are delicious in their simplicity and always draw me back.

 

Penn Dutch artefacts from the American Museum

Penn Dutch artefacts from the American Museum

 

And then home

And then home

 

That’s all for now, though I’m hoping to be back here more regularly soon. Meanwhile, I’m now signed  up on Instagram and find that an interesting place to post. Please join me. 

 

 

 

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Nov 06

Scrap of the week #34

 

Is there such a thing as a scrap too far?

I finally began to deconstruct Scrap of the Week #19 in order to re-use the ’70s* hexagon patchwork portions which were desperately ill-served by the backing fabric.

The border of the quilt was odd. It looked like some kind of trim had been cut off, because all that was left was an unattractive wadge of frayed edges in a shade of beigey-pink that you’ll recognise if your cat has ever reintroduced you to his/her dry breakfast. Somebody had already attacked this edging with scissors, it seemed, so I felt less bad about doing the same to the entire quilt.

 

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Odd edge

 

But when I began to unpick it, I had a surprise. The edging was actually constructed of multiple folded square ‘frames’ of fabric.

 

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Mystery squares

 

The burning question is why? The end result was, at best, underwhelming. So what was going on here? Did some other craft project create all these little frames as a by-product which the quilter then felt compelled to re-use? If so, what on earth…? The most probable explanation is that the border began life as a series of folded-square triangles which someone thought better of and hacked off. Got any other ideas? Anyway, I leave you with the thought that not all reuse projects are worth the effort. Perhaps this one hasn’t been – I wonder how many unpicking hours have I dedicated to it thus far?

I’ll be putting some of the liberated patchwork pieces up in my Etsy shop shortly. Some pieces are small 7-hex rosettes (as shown in Scrap of the week #19) and would  make great pincushions, some are bigger, cushion-ready segments. The patchwork has been carefully hand-pieced, then machine-zigzagged onto the ground fabric.  Some of the pattern placement is really nicely done. And if you should have a use for hundreds of little frames of pinky-beige fabric, please do get in touch. They’re yours.

 

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Blue hex blocks

 

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Orange hex blocks

 

* This could conceivably date from the early ’80s, but my hunch is late ’70s. What do you think? Do you recognise any of the fabrics shown?

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Aug 23

Laura Ashley stories

 

Laura Ashley fans, this week’s your last chance to catch the exhibition at the Fashion Museum. But there’s good news for anyone owning a vintage ’60 or ’70s Laura Ashley dress: you can get into the expo FREE this weekend if you wear that dress along! 

I must mention the retrospective just one more time to share with you some of the background stories of the dress loans. One of my favourite elements of the exhibition was the stories behind the dresses: who owned what, when, and why. I’m a sucker for social history, so this aspect really floated my boat. Many of these stories were shared in the display cards, and in the accompanying booklet (see below). I’ll retell a few here to whet your appetite.

 

Joan Gould and Ruzi Buchanan, LA launch

Joan Gould and Ruzi Buchanan with their dresses at the Laura Ashley expo launch

 

The pinafore-over-maxi was a key Laura Ashley look in the 1970s. Joan Gould (left) bought hers when working as a copy-editor on scientific journals in London. She tells a great story, recounted in the exhibition booklet:

‘I wore the red dress with green Anello and Davide button shoes with flesh coloured tights, no jewellery. This was my “party dress” in the early 1970s when I was in my early 20s. I bought it from the Fulham Road shop where the changing room was downstairs. There were a few cubicles, but on Saturdays it was so busy everyone just removed clothes in the area outside the cubicles in a seething, hot and bothered mass of partially clothed young women and piles of billowing clothes. Anyone seeing an item on someone else would grab it to try on themselves when they saw it had been rejected. A few boyfriends would sit upstairs on a sofa in the window, glassy-eyed and exhausted, saying “looks lovely” to the stream of young women staggering from this underworld.’

 

Beverley Peach, a former landscape architect and now volunteer at The Bowes Museum (where the exhibition will relocate from September), made this skirt from patchwork pieces bought in the Bath store in 1975 for the outlay of 50p. Here’s some of her story, again taken from the exhibition booklet:

 

‘The skirt is made entirely from remnants that were all different shapes and sizes. From the age of about 15, I made most of my own clothes. Fabric was cheap and my mum taught me how to dressmake. For a teenager in the 70s there were few shops with acceptable, affordable clothes. Chelsea Girl was a revelation! …

I remember the skirt taking a long time to make. I spent evenings sewing when I worked as a nanny in Spain during the summer of 1975, between school and university. The skirt went with me to university in Newcastle. Everything travelled in a large blue trunk, which still holds all the clothes I can’t bear to part with, including the patchwork skirt.

I wore the skirt with a white cheesecloth shirt and a long blue corduroy jacket, both of which my daughter now wears.’

 

Patchwork skirt

Beverley Peach’s patchwork skirt, 1975

 

Patchwork Laura Ashley skirt

Beverley Peach’s patchwork skirt

 

 

Rose Gollop, whose picture is on this Fashion Museum press release, wore Laura Ashley on her wedding day, and her dress stands prominently at the entrance to the exhibition.

 

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Rose Gollop’s wedding dress

 

‘I was married on 11 August 1973, two days after my 21st birthday. I spent very little time looking for the dress. I didn’t want anything traditional and knew that I was likely to find what I wanted at Laura Ashley. I was lucky to live near the Bath branch, which is where I bought it…

In keeping with the non-traditional theme, I wore nothing in my hair, a simple “daisy chain” bead necklace, and Greek strappy open-toed sandals that I bought in a hippy-type shop at the top of Park Street in Bristol. Unfortunately, the formal flowers that my parents persuaded me to to have did not really complement the overall look! I would have preferred to go out into the fields and gather up natural flowers. I had no bridesmaids, and was slightly dismayed to find that my new mother-in-law had made matching lime green frilly dresses for her three little grand-daughters, so that when they stood together – and near me – they did indeed look like bridesmaids.’

 

Do you have a Laura Ashley story to tell? The exhibition may be leaving Bath, but the Fashion Museum would still love to hear it. Take a moment and share.

 

Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at The Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.

The booklet accompanying the exhibition features an introduction by Rosemary Harden and Joanna Hashagen, and contains several of the dress-owners’ personal stories. It is still available at the Fashion Museum shop price £5.99, while stocks last. 

Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine - exhibition booklet

 

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Aug 13

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine

 

 

With apologies to Jane Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a girl who grew up in the 1970s must have been in want of a Laura Ashley dress. Last month I went to the opening of a stunning new landmark exhibition marking 60 years of this major fashion label: Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine. And it helpfully confirmed my theory.

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine - image c/o Fashion Museum

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine – image c/o Fashion Museum

 

I never actually owned a genuine Laura Ashley dress* but I’ve rarely felt so personally invested in an exhibition.  Laura Ashley was the designer who dominated my formative years. I blogged about that unbearably brown-Draloned decade and some Laura Ashley fabric scraps last time, in case you missed it. It’s really the early ’70s that I’m talking about, when Laura Ashley was in her creative prime. This was when I was developing my sense of what being a woman was about, and Laura Ashley’s designs grew to dominate my internal landscape, her patterns virtually etched on the inside of my eyelids. 

So my heart was seriously aflutter when I arrived at the Fashion Museum  last month for the exhibition launch. Despite the heat (Britain was still in the grip of an atypical heatwave) there were quite a few others who appeared to share my enthusiasm. The high-ceilinged Assembly Rooms – the Georgian setting of so many dances and assemblies and home to the museum since 1969 – were packed. I gratefully accepted a glass of something cool and sparkling. Looking around, the crowd was largely female and of-a-certain-age. As we awaited the speakers, we fanned ourselves with our invitations, like so many Jane Austen heroines. 

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After an introduction by a council official, legendary Fleet Street fashion journalist Felicity Green rose to recount her Laura Ashley memories. Now in her eighties, Green explained how Laura Ashley dresses gave British women just what they wanted in the early ’70s: a non-threatening response to Quant’s ’60s Youthquake mini. The mini had forced the wearer to be somewhat confrontational and angular, whereas Laura Ashley’s layered, pleated, gathered and ruffled styles wrapped women up in what Green described at the time as ‘soft-core femininity’ (Daily Mirror, 1st January 1970).  What did women want? They wanted an escapist, wholesome Romantic idyll. Most of all, to feel comfortable and unashamedly feminine. Laura Ashley happily supplied all that.

Green explained that one special thing which set Laura apart was her husband, Bernard Ashley. Green was not easily intimidated, but had she been rather frightened of Bernard, she confessed. He did not suffer fools and was very sharp-witted on the business side. Green also knew Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki (the designer behind Biba) and their husbands, who, by contrast, were totally charming but lacked Bernard’s business orientation. Both Quant and Hulanicki subsequently lost their trademarks, and this was the crucial difference between them and Ashley.  Thanks to Bernard’s nous, Laura Ashley became the first truly international label.

Turning to the exhibition itself, Green bestowed the strongest praise: “Unparalleled,” she said. ‘Truly a combination of fashion and style and presentation. Outstrips the V&A.” High praise indeed for curators Rosemary Harden and Ian R .Webb.

As we listened to Felicity’s fascinating memories, I spotted this young woman in a gorgeous floor-sweeping vintage Laura Ashley swan-print strappy summer dress. She told me later that it had been her mother’s.

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Guest wearing her mum’s original ’70s dress

Then we filed into the exhibition itself. The first sight to greet us was that distinctive lower-case logo, plus a row of simple, serene cream and white dresses.

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Entrance to the exhibition

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Serene white

 

We turned the corner to face the breathtaking spectacle of almost 100 dresses.

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Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine

 

What strikes you immediately is the pastiches of various periods: this Regency style, that Victorian governess outfit. You could see how Laura was influenced by what must then have been on TV at the time, which historical serial was capturing her (and the nation’s) imagination. Laura had such an uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist. And her interpretation of the styles is so interesting: she wasn’t copying those earlier styles, but borrowing elements to make very wearable dresses.

 

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High necks, pleats and lace frills

Some of the high collars looked a little uncomfortable, at least from the vantage point of a very hot summer’s day.

Beccy and I at LA launch, July 2013

Beccy (right) and I, thoroughly engrossed

 

There is no glass between the visitor and the exhibits, and it’s very tempting touch; all that cotton certainly screams “FEEL ME!” It’s quite special to be able to get so close to exhibits like this.

Early on in the exhibition are Laura’s first dresses dating from the ’60s. Recognisably of the period, but distinctive Laura Ashley tones and prints.

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A row of 1960s dresses

 

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Regency-style ruching

 

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The Governess look

 

I persuaded my friend and neighour, Beccy, to join me at the exhibition. She has just established re-be, a business selling upcycled clothes for children, and an early Laura Ashley dress had featured as the makeover target in her range, so I hoped that she’d find the exhibition both useful and interesting.

She brought the little outfit along, and how fabulous to find a sister-dress to the one she’d upcycled! Before you get upset, the purple object of her upcycling had been her business partner’s mother’s dress (following?) and had been ruined before Beccy’s scissors took to it.

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High necks and frills

re-be reinterpretation of vintage Laura Ashley dress

re-be reincarnation next to identical dress in different colourway

I was drawn to this grass-green pinafore, partly because I recognised that pansy fabric, partly because I made something very similar (but with long sleeves) from a commercial Laura Ashley pattern about 10 years later. This one had a great story attached. It was chosen by Alpen to use in their advert when they launched the breakfast cereal in Britain. At the time, all things continental were in favour (I remember the ‘continental quilt’ or duvet arriving in the ’70s, ousting the tradition British two-sheets-and-a-blanket combination). The slogan for the advert reflected how well Laura Ashley’s wholesome image dovetailed with the new breakfast cereal’s image: ‘more natural goodness every morning’.

Alpen dress

The Alpen dress

And then there were some extraordinary offerings, much more on the psychedelic end of the spectrum than I would have thought possible. My photos don’t quite capture their shock value. In real life, those checked fabrics really zing.

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Psychedelic checks

My only disappointment was wandering a little later up to the Bath shop, the first Laura Ashley shop to be opened outside of London. They had a lovely window display; note the same fabric used here as in that Alpen pinny.

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Current display in the Bond Street branch of Laura Ashley in Bath

But there were no nostalgic Laura Ashley goods to be found inside. What a pity.For those itching to get their purses out, there is a really nice little exhibition booklet available which can be purchased at both the Fashion Museum and The Bowes Museum for about £5.

This compelling exhibition set Laura Ashley much more firmly in context for me. She plugged right into the early ’70s hunger for the wholesome. I can see now how much she drew on historical styles, but without slavishly copying them; the dresses are not made in a historical way, but are her interpretations. But I was surprised to see how many of the fabrics were much brighter, the designs more eye-popping than I’d remembered. I can’t wait to visit it again and really hope that you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself. 

 

Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at The Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.

In my next post… some personal Laura Ashley stories from women who loaned their dresses to the exhibition.

 

*though I did make myself a couple from a purchased Laura Ashley pattern

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Mar 11

Scrap of the week #29

 

After a relative dearth of scraps, here’s a whole slew to make up for it. I hope you can handle  all the excitement!

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Rail fence quilt top

This exuberant patchwork quilt-top was made by my Pennsylvanian grandmother. It’s a simple machine-pieced single quilt top which was not completed.

It isn’t fancy: a thrown-together-fast strip pattern called ‘rail fence’. Each little strip measures about three inches by one.

To make rail fence, three strips are joined to make one square block. The blocks are then arranged (one vertical, one horizontal, etc) and joined into strips, the strips then joined to build up the entire quilt top. Simple, but lively. It seems to me that the  placing and piecing haven’t been sweated over too much: this is a hap quilt, the pieces falling pretty much where they will. The lines of stitching are a little rough-and-ready too. But Nana had plenty of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and didn’t have time to spare on perfectionism.

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Rail fence patchwork

The workmanship and provenance may not be grand, but these scraps are like little jewels to me. I know that some of them came from humble feedsacks. Others were cut from plain fabrics bought by the yard. I’m sure Nana would have kept precious scraps a long while. She grew up on a farm, one of fourteen children, and resources were scarce. I think she’d have been conservative, therefore, so maybe some of these fabrics date to way back whenever. She worked in a shirt factory for a while (in the 1910s, I think) so I wonder if any of these could be shirt offcuts.

My mother used to tell me that some of these prints featured in her childhood clothes from the late 1920s and 1930s. Other scraps are a little later. I don’t know exactly when Nana made it; it could possibly date any time up to the late ’70s. I’m not sure precisely when she stopped sewing; she had bad arthritis in her hands and I think she’d stopped for a while before she died in the 1980s.

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Rail fence close-up

A few people have suggested I complete this quilt. But I’m reluctant to. I feel that the WIP tells its own special story and has its own value; I’m reluctant to meddle with this time-capsule. But I’d love to ask you: if it were your grandmother’s handiwork, what would you do? Finish? Or leave it as is? And why? Have you finished off your own grandmother’s (or your mother’s) quilt? Did you feel you owed that to her? All valid points! Please do take just a moment to share your thoughts. I love to hear them. Thank you!

 

 

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Jun 18

Scrap of the week #22

Vintage scraps

Green and yellow floral scraps

 

Here’s a trio of zesty vintage cotton florals found in a scraps bin in a charity shop last week for just 40p a pop. Happy days!

The ’60s one on the right is my favourite. Sorry not to have supplied anything for scale; the dinky little sunlike flower heads measure just 7mm across.

They’re now washed, line-dried and pressed. I have hexagon patchwork in mind. What would you do with them?

 

 

 

 

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Apr 11

The big mend

You’ll have noticed that I’m a bit of a fan of mending – in theory, if not always in practice. Like everyone else, I seem to have an ever-growing pile of things with holes or without buttons, waiting to be rescued from the clothing version of limbo.

Well, I’m thrilled to announce a new project happening very close to home which will help to redress that problem. It’s called the Big Mend and it aims to get Bath (or the small corner of it in which I live) mending its ways. Imagine a great big sociable gaggle of people sewing on buttons, darning, nibbling snacks and gossiping. That should be it. There will be sewing tools on hand to use, free of charge, and other helpful items to purchase, should you wish. Or you are welcome to bring along your own bits and pieces. If your problem is carving out the time and space, hopefully we can give you that. If your problem is trepidation or insufficient skills, we aim to be able to help you with that too; if there isn’t someone there who will know how to fix your beloved vintage dress, we will know where to look to find out.

Our first meeting of the Big Mend will be on Wednesday 24th April at Crockadoodledo, Larkhall from 7-9pm. You’re very welcome to drop in any time you like (though it would be advisable not to arrive at quarter to 9 if you have a long hem to repair). Entry is free.

Huge thanks are due to Caroline Harris, local author on matters thrifty (amongst many other talents) who encouraged me to pursue this idea. Curiously enough, she provided the  inspirational spark for the project when she wrote an article for Bath Life back in May 2009.

Caroline 's Bath Life article

 

In her article, Caroline rued the parlous state of her three pairs of jeans, and wished for what she called a ‘mending amnesty… an occasion where you can bring along all that forlorn forgotten sewing and do it in company, with a chat and a drink’. I read that and thought: That’s me! I can do that! And here it is, three years later, after a few false starts;  I  actually conjured up the artwork way back then (see it propped against this antique sewing machine?) but have managed to sit on it ever since. I just hope that Caroline’s favourite jeans are still salvageable.

The Big Mend takes place on the last Wednesday of the month from 7-9pm. May’s event (30th May) takes place at the Museum of Bath at Work in Julian Road. Entry is free, so just turn up!

 

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Apr 09

Scrap of the week #21

French horn and dancing rabbitsDancing bunnies fabric

Bunnies dancing. What’s not to like about that? Especially during Easter. And with random letters and the odd French horn too! This fabric isn’t vintage but reminded me of the feedsack fabrics my grandmother used in her quilts. I’m currently working it into a patchwork project – to be revealed soon. Happy Easter!

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