Tagged: Embroidery

Mar 08




Briswool’s version of Totterdown


The City of Briswool Project‘s improbable aim is to produce a giant model of the city of Bristol – in yarn. As a concept, it’s about as mad as a bag of chickens. Which is why I had to get involved.

For me, the lunacy-infused ingenuity of this project typifies Bristol at its very best. I have to declare an interest here as Bristol is my home city: I lived there from the late ’60s to the late ’80s. The place has a distinctive non-conformist confidence which I still find refreshing when I go back home for a visit. Somehow this attitude crystallises around an unconventional approach to materials. Back in the era of wooden sailing ships, Brunel launched the SS Great Britain, his crazy iron steam ship, from Bristol. Aardman founded its animated plastic empire there in the 1970s. And Banksy used the very fabric of the city’s buildings as his canvas in the ’90s and noughties. Given such a heritage, maybe it was inevitable that Bristol would eventually be recreated from leftover balls of yarn.

Over the last few months Bristol’s landmarks, large and small, have been materialising in knitted, crocheted and needle-felted forms, created by an army of volunteers. The vast majority of materials have been donated: all has been done on an absolute shoe-string budget, fuelled largely (as so many of the very best things are) by the unquenchable enthusiasm of its originator.

That originator is Vicky Harrison, of Paper Village Arts in Bedminster on the south side of the city. True to her positioning of Paper Village as a creative community hub, she wanted Briswool to be a genuine grass-roots project, with people offering to recreate landmarks that have held some personal resonance for them. And Bristolians have been coming forward in droves to do just that. Someone’s made a model of the Matthew, the ’90s replica of the craft in which John Cabot sailed from Bristol to ‘discover’ Newfoundland in the fifteenth century. There’s a Concorde, the supersonic plane which was famously developed in Bristol. And, of course, there’s an SS Great Britain. There are harbour boats, and bikes, and zoo animals. Remarkably, there have been little or no duplicates. The scale is a little elastic, but that gives the project even more charm.

I joined Vicky in late January at the M-Shed with a group of volunteers intent on knitting a landmark section of the city called Totterdown where rows of brightly painted terraces line a ridge on the city’s skyline. I didn’t have a direct connection to those houses, but everyone from Bristol knows them by sight. Brilliantly, one of the people attending had lived in one. We were given a knitting pattern, some yarn, and quickly set about casting on, fuelled by chocolate fingers. I’m not a natural knitter, but soon got to grips with the simple pattern devised by Paper Village’s knitting tutor, Elise Fraser.


My purple house takes shape


I love creating in a group environment, whether I’m the teacher or a teach-ee. In fact, I think it’s one of life’s profound pleasures. I’m sure we have always gathered to share the process of making (or mending), from our very earliest social days when we huddled around the cave fire joining pelts with gut-threaded thorn needles. The conversations (which are approached obliquely because you’re doing something else, after all) are often surprising frank and illuminating. And, whatever your level of skill, you always learn something new technically, if not from the teacher then from someone else in the group – for me this was was casting on in cable, which the knitter across from me demonstrated (though too late for my first house as I’d already cast on in my old way). I also got to grips with mattress stitch, at long last. I’d like to thank Vicky, Elise and my fellow house-knitters for all their helpfulness, generosity and sociability, and for creating a really enjoyable afternoon.



Ridged roof


Alas, the two hours of the workshop weren’t long enough for me to finish my house so I had to complete it at home. Here it is. Now I just have to mail it back to Vicky, along with a pink house I’ve made since, plus a little greenery.



Finished house


The pattern ended at the basic house structure, so it was up to us to complete the smaller features of the house as we saw fit. As a nod to my enthusiasm for mending, I worked mine in darning wool in Swiss darning (replica stitch). The thin black yarn didn’t cover the DK stitches fully on the windows, but I think that gives the impression of them glinting in the daylight. Maybe.



Still plenty of yarn left for a newbuild next door


If you’d like to contribute your own little woolly piece of Bristol to Briswool, there’s still time  to get involved. But hurry! Everything has to be complete and ready to assemble by the end of month. I gather that 6 cm green squares will come in handy at this point. There are making events through the rest of March. Or you can contact Vicky at Paper Village Arts (the number’s below) who’ll be very happy to hear from you. I wonder if anyone’s made  a little version of Bristol’s Olympic champion Jen Jones yet, complete with snowboard and bronze medal…?


Briswool’s Totterdown – WIP


Briswool will be on display at Paper Village Arts from April, and then at the M-Shed later in the year. 

Paper Village Arts is at 200 North Street, Bedminster, BS3 1JF, telephone 0117 963 9452. They hold a drop-in knitting session every Wednesday afternoon, 2-5pm. You can keep track of workshops, classes and community activities via Paper Village’s Facebook page





Mar 06

Freudian coats



Freudian coat by Anna Gahlin


I was approached last year by fine artist Anna Gahlin for some technical help with a couple of pieces she was preparing for an exhibition.

Anna had set herself the challenge of embroidering significant words onto the linings of two old fur coats. She wanted to work them in purple embroidery threads, but wasn’t sure how to begin.

We discussed how best to transfer the letters onto the fabric, and how best to handle the slippery and uncooperative lining fabric, how best to work within the confines of an existing coat lining, what thread and stitch to use to achieve the desired effect.

Anna embroidered two coat linings: one with words reflecting the content of dreams, the other with the emotions stimulated by those dreams.



Embroidered coat by Anna Gahlin


It was such a pleasure to help Anna, and this is a very good moment to mention that I’m more than happy to be approached for creative collaborations or private sewing lessons. Do get in touch: eirlysATscrapianaDOTcom.

You can see Anna’s coats exhibited as part of artist collective Studio XYZ ‘s Freud’s House exhibition at Burgh House, Hampstead until 30th March 2014.



Sep 10




Micro-patching is my current obsession. I’ve made up the term – at least, I think I have. It could already be some kind of hack in the world of software engineering (is it?) but here it succinctly describes using the teeniest textile scraps, usually of Liberty Tana lawn, to cover holes and other faults in a garment etc. Sometimes I apply them as reinforcements: around pocket edges, for example (see my purple granny cardi below). And sometimes I apply them just for the heck of it. To be honest, I need very little excuse to use Liberty fabric, so sometimes I don’t wait for a repair.

This week, my patch of choice has been circular, and my mission has been to cover genuine holes. Moth holes, to be precise.




If you have a similar woollen garment to repair, be sure to treat it first for moths; I hand-wash with an appropriate wool wash, air-dry flat thoroughly, then freeze for a week or two inside a zip-lock plastic bag. That usually shows the little blighters what for.

To make the tiny round patches, I’ve applied scraps of the lightest iron-on interfacing to my lawn scraps first, just to ensure that my patches are stable. This is my preference and isn’t absolutely essential as lawn is such a closely woven fabric that it won’t fray much (if at all) nor stretch out of shape, though it will get softer and collapse with wash and wear. So, I use interfacing to make them just a little more robust and shape-holding. Then I’ve cut out circles, using whatever round thing happened to be close to hand for a template: cotton-reels, buttons, money, thimbles, etc.

I had a lot of holes to cover, so arranging the patches was my next task. I tried not to draw attention to certain areas by using fabrics which toned with my flamey orange Brora cashmere tank top – a charity shop buy, incidentally, and cheap as chips because of its parlous moth-holed state. Other areas could carry more of a punchy contrast. You might feel a bit like a tattoo artist doing this, trying to figure where best to position a patch to enhance the wearer’s physique. Or not. If you have a really awkward hole (right over a sensitive part of the bosom, for example) you need to think very carefully about your repair. This might not be the right place for a micro-patch.


Positioning patches


Once pinned into position, it’s a question of  tacking (even if you never usually baste or tack, I’d advise not skipping this stage for this type of work – it doesn’t take long and you can try on your garment more easily to decide if you’re happy with the result). Then it’s time for stitching over the patch by hand, getting decorative as the mood takes: spirals, concentric circles, radiating lines etc. I rather like a plain, simple back-stitch a few millimetres from the edge of the patch. Blanket stitch will cover the edges, if raw edges bug you, but it yields a slightly raised effect – fine, if that’s what you want. You could free-machine embroider, if you prefer; a few overlapping freehand circles would look really good. But this is hard (OK, impossible) to do on restricted areas such as sleeves etc.


Back-stitched micro-patch


How small can you go with these micro-patches? Well, if you’re just covering a mark or soiled area, you can go very itsy-bitsy as there’s no repair to effect; so as long as you can secure it well to the background fabric, you can go wild with your teenies. If you’re covering a hole, however, I’d ensure there’s at least a half-inch margin of sound fabric all around the edge of the repair. Now, if you stitch well over your patch, it should hold up well. To be extra secure, you could even try sandwiching it, with one patch on the outside, another of the same size on the inside; this could be done without any interfacing for a softer, more yielding repair. And then you’re spared seeing the raw edges of your repair on the wrong side of the garment. 



Radiating lines of split stitch


I get a real buzz from using up even the smallest jewel-like scraps of Liberty fabric. Do you? Seems almost criminal to throw them away. If you have a go, please show me how you get on. There’s a place to share your repairs, by the way, over here at The Big Mend group pool. Jump on in! The water’s lovely. 

I also love the satisfaction of working old-school tradition patching techniques which leave strong, finished edges; I will be teaching these (plus creative ways to repair jeans) in my half-day patching class, Patch-ologyPlease visit my classes page for details: forthcoming dates are Wednesday 18th September, Monday 7th October, and Friday 8th November. But I like to play it dangerously with my lawn, risking raw edges (which aren’t going to fray a whole lot anyway) and going smaller and smaller and smaller. Edgy stuff!


Send reinforcements!




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!


Nov 11

Selvedge Winter Fair


Yesterday I had a really magical day in London at the Selvedge Winter Fair.

It was my first time at a Selvedge event though I’ve been hoping to get to one for years. Selvedge magazine — in case you haven’t encountered its square format, matt paper, and distinctive print scent — has to be the read of choice for the textile cognoscenti. It’s always creatively stimulating and often delightfully obscure. The visuals are exemplary, and the tone of the text is knowledgeable, direct and unpatronising. Published six times a year, Selvedge is available infrequently enough for you to work up an appetite for the next issue, and to make the £9.95 cover price just about affordable (though, of course, you get a better deal if you subscribe).

So eager was I to be at the head of the queue for the Winter Fair’s 10am start that, blearily clutching my Earl Grey, I caught the 7.13 train from Bath Spa. The fair, by reputation, fills up fast, so getting in early to a relatively uncrowded hall is worth making the effort for. It wasn’t just the fair; I was looking forward to meeting up with a handful of friends there too. And, according to plan, there were just a couple of people ahead of me when the doors opened.

The Chelsea Town Hall location was a new one for Selvedge, much bigger than those previously used. It is grand and capacious and did the job, though the lighting in some areas left something to be desired.

As I wandered around I was a little starstruck by some of the craftspeople and their beautiful wares, many  familiar from the pages of the magazine. Ellie Evans pincushions, for instance. They are marvellously weighty in the hand, being full to the brim with emery.


And I have long been drawn to these felt clogs, spotted on the Selvedge Drygoods stall…

Selvedge Winter Fair 2012

Julie Arkell had a stall. I didn’t speak to her, but one of the joys of an event like this is being able to deal directly with the designer/maker, to hear unmediated how they have created an item you are interested in buying. That is a really charming experience. As was getting to spend so much time with talented and delightful fellow visitors Ruth, Alison, Jo and Jo’s sister-in-law. Thanks to all for hanging out  — I really had the best time.

Having resolved not to buy anything, quite predictably all of my good intentions went out the window in the face of such extreme textile temptation. Most of my purchases were gifts and I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but here are some of the things I enjoyed seeing:

Abigail Brown‘s birds

Dyed blankets from Sasha Gibb

Knitwear by Di Gilpin

Knitwear with scrap textile strips by Mary Davis

Welsh loveliness from Damson & Slate

Upcycled blanket wares from Matilda Rose

Painted textiles from Emma Bradbury

The redwork embroidery of Stitch by Stitch

However, rest assured that I’ll be able to show you some more Selvedge Winter Fair delights in tomorrow’s Scrap of the Week.








Sep 18

Scrap of the week #23


London Fashion Week is just ending. It’s not something I pay close attention to at all as I’m obviously not a dedicated follower of fashion; if you’ve met me you’ll know that the way I dress is almost 100% sale or second-hand, frequently with a subtle got-dressed-in-the-dark twist. But on Saturday I met someone who made me think hard about fashion and how little we, the end consumers, know about our clothes and how they are made.

I was running a mending event in Wiltshire when a man wandered over and picked up this piece of denim from my heap of scraps.


Sandblasted denim scrap


The scrap came from a pair of my youngest son’s cast-off Gap jeans. He’d successively holed, ripped, then outgrown those jeans, and I eventually cut them up for patchwork. This scrap now sits in a small cardboard suitcase of denim pieces which I lug to the Big Mend and back every month, just in case anyone wants a worn, soft denim patch to repair their jeans with.

The man looked closely at the scrap and, after a moment of scrutiny, said in a thick Middle-Eastern accent: “Yes. Sandblasted.”

He then went on to tell me that he had worked in a Turkish jeans factory in the 1990s, sandblasting garments to fade them fashionably. The work had damaged his lungs. Permanently. Living and sleeping in the sandblasting part of the factory (not unusual for migrant workers) hadn’t helped. He only retains about half his original lung function. It is not a reversible condition. Many of his co-workers and family members have died of the lung disease silicosis. Sandblasting is such a pernicious process that it was eventually banned in Turkey a few years ago. But the fashion for the worn jean continues, and so does sandblasting – but in other less regulated places, such as Bangladesh.

The fashion in the West for the pre-worn is curious. Why, when we can’t bear to allow our bodies to show any vestiges of age, do we want our clothes to look prematurely old? I can remember the time when all jeans were as stiff and unyielding as they were deep blue. You had to work at wearing them in, like a stout pair of leather boots or a Brooks bike saddle. Fading, similarly, was achieved only with time, wear and washing. But on the upside, in contrast to most of the ones you get today,  your jeans lasted intact for years. I wondered if I’d imagined the former ruggedness of jeans (a kind of false denim-memory syndrome) until I found an old scrap of a pair I’d owned as a teenager. I’ve kept it, absurdly, in the materials lugged from home to home over the years – retained because it still bears my embroidery stitches (a bit of belated Flower Power). That denim is truly rugged. They really do not make them like that anymore.

That said, a few companies (like the Hiut Denim Company) now specialise in making robust denim jeans once again, jeans with a conscientious provenance too, but at a price. Perhaps this is the right price, the price free of needless exploitation and pointless disease. Very nice if you happen to have £130+ available to spend on jeans. But what about those who can’t afford it? What to do?

One thing is to learn to detect the sandblasted finish and simply not buy it. Should you even buy sandblasted jeans second-hand? A moot point. The charity shop can seem for clothes what the money-launderer is for immoral earnings, displacing the context, cleansing the sins of production. But, of course, it doesn’t really.

Another thing you can do is ask your favourite jeans manufacturer/s whether they still use sandblasted denim. If so, where has it come from?

And finally, you can consult one of the organisations working to eradicate sandblasting.

I felt rather humbled to learn so belatedly about the distress caused by those distressed jeans, to hear first-hand from a sufferer about the perils of sandblasted denim. It’s not the price I wanted anyone to pay, not for a pair of jeans.




Jun 15

Carlyle’s clip

Giant clothes peg

Big peg on '40s linen


I found an outsized wooden clothes peg this week in a charity shop, alongside various old linens marked with blue embroidery transfers. One of the latter also carried a World War II utility mark which is always exciting to see. Both of these methods of marking were designed to wash out so their survival is a time-capsule treat.


Utility mark on linen tablecloth

Utility mark


I’m collecting references to the humble clothes peg, and happening across this very big peg reminded me of one of my favourites. It’s a recollection about historian and political philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) taken from Conversations with Carlyle (1892) by Charles Gavan Duffy:

Speaking of his method of work, he said he found the little wooden pegs, which washerwomen employ to fasten their clothes to a line, highly convenient for keeping together bits of notes and agenda on the same special point.

The sprung clothes peg was invented in the US in 1853, so it’s possible that this was what was being referred to, but don’t quote me.




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Jun 13

Curiously Enough


Textile artists’ group Brunel Broderers has an exhibition entitled Curiously Enough running at Ruskin Mill, 1 Mill Bottom, Old Bristol Road, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, GL6 0LA. It finishes tomorrow, Thursday 14th (note: closes 1pm on final day, otherwise 5pm). If there’s any way you can nip along to it, I’d recommend it. Here’s a glimpse from my visit yesterday.

Susi Bancroft patchwork artSusi Bancroft piece from Curiously EnoughFrom Curiously Enough exhibition, Ruskin Mill




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!





Jul 14

My first sewing machine #6: Faith Caton-Barber


Faith Caton-Barber of Something Fabulous

I’m truly delighted to introduce bespoke dress designer Faith Caton-Barber to my regular sewing-machine-memoir feature, My First Sewing Machine. Faith and I have had adjoining stalls at each and every It’s Darling! fair in Bath to date (the first one was a year ago), which has been a very great pleasure — for me, at least. I’ve coveted her rich, jewel-coloured silk slips, purses, capelets and corsages. She’s been so tolerant when my clutter has encroached onto her territory, and very generously offered me many a gem of sewing wisdom too (there’s always, but always more to learn) and I’ve been able to watch her painstakingly hand-sewing corsets etc during the occasional afternoon lull between visitors. If you haven’t been to an It’s Darling! yet, you’re in for a treat. The next one’s all set for Saturday 16th July from 9.30am-5pm in Bath’s Guildhall (head for the Brunswick Room off the entrance hall). The room is beautiful, and the event is relaxed, friendly, full of lovely stuff, and (even better) FREE to get into. Without further ado, on with the interview!

Scrapiana: Tell me about your first sewing machine, Faith. What was its make, model and colour? Did it have any distinguishing features?

Faith: My first sewing machine was an old black cast iron Singer, remarkably similar to many on display in the windows of All Saints. It had (and still does have) the lovely gold writing familiar to many.  The main distinguishing feature on that machine is that it had been converted and modernised at some point in the 1960s or ’70s with an electric motor and placed in a mildly unattractive bluey-grey plastic case.  It only does straight stitch, doesn’t reverse, but boy can it go at a rate of knots!  Long seams were a doddle and pretty much every pair of curtains in every home I lived in up to age 19 were made on that machine.

A very similar machine to Faith's old family Singer

Scrapiana: Was it gifted to you or borrowed? If you learned to sew on another machine, but then got your own, feel free to describe both.

Faith: My machine belonged to my mother who very generously shared it with me.  It was a friend to both of us, producing so many things from duvet covers to pretty party dresses.  It was such a familiar part of the furniture that no-one seems to quite remember when it arrived and where it came from.  There were so many women with sewing machines (and some men too) in my mother’s family and we have always been a swapping and sharing kind of clan, with various bits of furniture and sewing machines getting used and passed around, some losing their provenance and some gaining an almost mythical status.  For example, my maternal great-grandmother May had a big old cabinet treadle machine which she had upgraded in the 1930s with an industrial motor so that she could do even more sewing in her spare time to earn extra money.  This meant she was able to supplement her factory earnings enough to buy her own home, something almost unheard of in her class and generation.  It also meant that my grandfather and great-aunts and great-uncle had to lend a hand with hems and alterations too… you could say the sewing is in our blood!  That almost revolutionary sewing machine seems to have disappeared and yet my little anonymous Singer is still around, waiting patiently to be used again.

ScrapianaWho taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?

Faith: My mother Helen taught me to sew although I don’t recall her sitting me down to teach me, I just remember us sewing together and her giving me tips as I went along.  Clearly she did a good job as she got me interested and it all felt perfectly normal to stitch.  I particularly remember her reminding me to leave a seam allowance, and to measure twice and cut once when I was trying to make doll dresses. I’d completely failed to do either.  The thought of the wasted fabric still makes me feel uncomfortable now, even though it must only have been small scraps from Mum’s sewing projects.  Mum often sewed my dresses and knitted all sorts of things so there was always a textile stash to rummage through.

When we did a sewing and embroidery project at school, aged 8 (I appliqued and embroidered a sailing boat which my mother still has in a frame), I was pretty confident and didn’t need much ‘teaching’ except when it came to French knots (who doesn’t need reminding about those from time to time?).  When I stayed with my grandparents in the holidays I do also remember sewing with Irene, my grandmother, although that was always by hand as I didn’t learn how to use her beautiful 1920s treadle powered machine (something I mean to change next time I visit).  Grandma used to have a cupboard full of fabric that I’d go through again and again imagining what I would make with each piece.  I still do that with my own fabrics, although I’ve got a lot more than a cupboard’s worth!

Faith's silk purses

Scrapiana: Oh, yes, I think I’d need a quick how-to reminder before embarking on French knots.What’s your earliest memory of using that first machine? What did you make? Do you still have any of your early creations?

Faith: I don’t really remember my first machined creations although I do remember making some summer dresses and a recreation of an 18th century bodice from one of Janet Arnold‘s books, complete with a patchwork diamond stomacher of my own design.  My textiles teacher didn’t think much of it, she seemed to want me to make cushions.  I find it difficult to part with anything that I make so I have all sorts of odd bits and pieces knocking around both in my flat and at my mum’s secreted amongst her sewing things.

Scrapiana: I’m pleased that you persevered, in spite of your teacher. Do you still have your first machine? If you got rid of it, did you give it away to someone you knew? Do you know where it is now?

Faith:  The old Singer is currently somewhere in the depths of Mum’s garage as it hasn’t really been needed since the advent of the Janome XC33 Special Edition with fancy computer beeps and 30 odd stitches and many interchangeable feet.  The Janome was such a good machine that in 2002 when I was in my final year at University, I got another one all to myself.

Faith's workspace: sketches & pictures of gowns, and her Janome machines

My mother and I may have matching machines of a similar vintage, but mine has been much more heavily used, and it shows, with scuffs and dents from being carried about for jobs as well as the many costumes, corsets, wedding dresses and whatnots being sewn together. I hate to think how many miles of sewing it has done in only 9 years!  I am very happy with it and there are only one or two points that mark it down for me.  I am going to reclaim the Singer as soon as it can be excavated from the garage so that I can get those long seams done in half the time.  The Janome is a great machine but the top speed is not great when, for example, making 1950s style ruffled petticoats with around 80 linear metres of seams to stitch and bind with ribbon.  It takes an absolute age.  Still, it’s faster than handsewing…

Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well, or especially badly? Did you like it or loathe it then? What do you make of it now, with hindsight?

Faith: The Singer didn’t have an arm which meant I could take fewer short cuts when making things (no machine finished cuffs on sleeves for me) so I learned from an early age about proper hand finishing of garments. I still stuggle to do what I call mass production finishes although I am learning that there is always a time and a place! I liked the Singer but it was pretty limiting only doing straights stitch. When the Janome arrived with the zig zag, blind hem stitch and automatic buttonhole (I could go on), life became a lot easier.

Scrapiana: What machine did you get next? And can you run us through your subsequent machines and their merits?

Faith: I have a Janome 9200D overlocker that I bought in 2009 which turned out to be one of those ‘why didn’t I do this YEARS ago?’ moments.  It’s easy to use and thread, it doesn’t take up much space, and has made working with both lycra and duchess satin, to name but two fabrics, much easier.  When I’m in a hurry or tired, it starts to play up and that’s when the threads continually snap and the tension won’t do what I want, but then all machines are like that aren’t they?

Over the years I have used many different machines both domestic and Industrial whilst studying and working in various theatres.  1970s and 1980s Berninas pop up a lot because they seem to be pretty good work horses but I’ve never had the urge to get one as I’ve heard the quality isn’t as good as it was and they are generally just plain ugly.  One machine I have used that is both pretty AND performs well is my dad Mike’s Brother machine.  He got it from some friends of his that clearly had barely used it since they bought it back in the late ’50s or ’60s.  It is baby blue, with lots of different useful stitches and still has it’s proper carry case and instructions.  It’s a dream machine and raced through the sewing I did on it whilst still maintaining a feeling of control.

One of Faith's bespoke dresses

One of Faith's bespoke evening gowns

Scrapiana: Do you have your dream machine? If not,what would that be, if you could wave a magic wand and money were no object?

Faith: In Warwick there is a fantastic sewing machine shop that has loads of beautiful old cast iron machines that I yearn to own. The man who runs the place said his collection had got so big he couldn’t justify not selling them although I imagine he is like a book seller who does everything he can to avoid making sales of his treasures!  He also had some amazing modern machines, that while not looking as beautiful as the machines that drew me in in the first place, could do some amazing things. I would love to have a machine that can do programmable embroidery although the four figure prices means I can’t justify it just yet. If money were no object I would like to say I’d get a fancy bespoke machine built for me but to be honest, I’m happy with a good old sturdy machine that can be relied upon.  If a fairy godmother gave me a sewing wish, to be honest, I might wish for a magic wand like hers because sometimes I really get tired of the back ache and eye strain that often come with sewing for hours.

Scrapiana: And finally, I have to ask this…have you named any of your sewing machines? Do you talk to them – or even swear at them if they’re behaving badly?

Faith:  I haven’t named my sewing machines and yet the close relationship between woman and machine suggests maybe I should, after all I’ve named my musical instruments whose ‘voices’ I hear less often. I wouldn’t want my trusty machines given names that associate with or suggest unpleasantness, weakness, tragedy or failure, that might be tempting fate when it comes to my sewing. Sewing rooms are often where I’ve heard the worst language and most awful abuse hurled at the poor machines. A poor workman blames his tools but bad days happen to us all sometimes.  Well, my self imposed anti potty-mouth rule really does become more of a flexible guideline. What’s the point of having a rich Anglo-Saxon based language if you can’t fully make use of it from time to time, when under extreme duress?

Scrapiana: Thank you, Faith, for sharing your sewing-machine stories! It’s wonderful that sewing has played such an important role in your family history; I can see it’s definitely in the blood. See you at It’s Darling!

Faith Caton-Barber can be found on Facebook here at her Something Fabulous page and over here on Twitter.


Faith and her glorious capelets at the Christmas It's Darling!




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