Tagged: Julia Laing

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.



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.




Teapots, teacups and cakes.





Plates, of course, to put them on.

Blue plate napkin

A good read.



Gardens, trees and flowers.

Napkin for The Napkin Project




Animals, birds and pets.





Julia Laing’s contribution


Creative spaces where much making is done.





And places we have literally created ourselves.

Paintbrush napkin

Home is the place I have made


A place of warmth.




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.


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.


May 14

My first sewing machine #4: Abby Harris

Abby Harris of Bubs Bears

Abby Harris of Bubs Bears

I’m delighted to be able to present the story of Abby Harris‘s first sewing machine, another interview in my continuing series. Do check out my previously posted interviews with Ruth Singer and Julia Laing.

I met Abby when we were both running stalls at the It’s Darling! Spring Fair here in Bath. She was selling her lovingly hand-crafted Bubs Bears, which are often upcycled or contain vintage elements (such as some lovely buttons which she bought from yours truly). Leaving a small ecological footprint is clearly important to her. Abby also makes bespoke keepsake teddies, crafted from a customer’s personally significant textiles, such as baby clothes, wedding dress, or the garments of a lost loved-one. Some are patchworked from several special garments. She creates lots of other charming items including peg bags, lavender hearts, bags, cushions, button pins, magnets, hair clips and cards. Abby blogs, can be found on Facebook here and sells on Folksy.

More of Abby's makingsSome of Abby’s charming makings
Recycled sweater bear

Upcycled sweater bear

ScrapianaTell me about your first sewing machine, Abby. Can you remember its make, model and colour?

Abby: My first sewing machine was a Toyota, I don’t remember the model but it was a fairly basic one.

Abby's first sewing machine

Abby's first sewing machine: a Toyota

Scrapiana: Was it gifted or borrowed?

Abby: It was a joint birthday present for my 21st (I think) birthday from my then boyfriend and my parents.

Scrapiana: Nice gift! Do you still have it? If you got rid of it, where did it go?

Abby: I do still have my first machine as I only stopped using it last year after 15 years. At the moment it is on loan to my mother-in-law as hers is broken, but soon I hope to get it back so my eldest daughter can use it as she is showing a keen interest in sewing.

Scrapiana: How lovely that your daughter will be able to use it too! So, what’s your earliest memory of sewing? What did you make, and who taught you?

Abby: I remember doing a bit of sewing at school. I think we made and printed our own t-shirts; mine had yellow footprints on it. Other than that I learned mostly from watching my mum. She studied fashion at college and used to make all our clothes, as well as doing dressmaking and alterations for other people.

Scrapiana: At that time it was quite unusual to have your mother making all your clothes. I imagine she made a great sewing teacher, then. What was your first big sewing project?

Funky floral bear

Abby: My first big project was a dress for my daughter to wear to a wedding. It was a real challenge as it was a silky fabric and had two layers. But it fit her, and she got lots of compliments. I’ve never tried making another though!

Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well, or particularly badly?

Abby: It was terrible at keeping the correct tension, and kept jamming the fabric up under the foot. In hindsight I should have had it serviced regularly – when it finally got so bad last year that I had to take it in to be looked at, they gave me a good telling off when I admitted it hadn’t even been oiled in 15 years! While it was being serviced they loaned me an old Bernina. When I saw it my first thoughts were “oh my God, I am not going to be able to do my work on that!” It was ancient and I thought it would be awful. But I soon learned that it was the quietest smoothest machine I had ever used. I didn’t want to take it back!

Abby's borrowed Bernina

Abby's borrowed Bernina

Scrapiana: What machine do you have now? Is it your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if  money were no object?

Abby: I bought my new machine last year. My local shop gave me a great discount due to it being the old colour; the new machine with the new colour was about £200 more! It’s a Husqvarna Sapphire 850 and I love it! It has many functions which I’m still yet to learn how to use, but the fact that all I have to do is move my foot up and down and it almost does the rest for me is wonderful.It’s not a beautiful machine to look at, so if I could morph it with a pretty old black antique machine then I’d never want anything different!

Abby's new Husqvarna

Abby's beloved Husqvarna

Scrapiana: I have a strange confession, Abby, which is that I give each of my sewing machines a name (Josephine, Winifred etc), making them almost animate to me. Have you given any of your machines a name? And would you ever speak to your machine? – to encourage or to upbraid it, for example?

Abby: I haven’t named my machine. No, I don’t really speak to my machine. I might declare my love for it… though only when no-one else could hear me!

Scrapiana: Ah, just as I feared… it’s only me, then. Abby, thanks so much for taking the time to answer all my questions! It’s been lovely to hear the sewing-machine journey behind Bub’s Bears. Your business certainly has its heart (lavender-stuffed, of course) in the right place.

Stack of hearts, mid-construction

Stack of hearts await lavender stuffing


Apr 04

My first sewing machine #3: Julia Laing

I’m delighted to introduce another of my favourite makers to reminisce about her early sewing experiences in My First Sewing Machine. This time, Scottish artist Julia Laing of Materialised.

Julia Laing of Materialised

Julia Laing of Materialised

I first became aware of Julia’s exquisite embroidered brooches via Twitter (I think); her hearts with sometimes startling, emotionally charged adjectives and nouns caught my eye (see image below).  I was soon charmed by the rest of her delightful, tenderly embellished pieces: purses, pouches and textile art created from recycled and vintage textiles.

Julia’s sells via Etsy and will be selling in person at Glasgow’s monthly makers’ market, Byres Road, on 30th April. You can also keep up with her via her Facebook page.

OK, I’m settling myself into my interviewer’s chair, propped (if only in my imagination) against one of Julia’s adorable cushions (which you can still nab from her Etsy store, if you’re quick).

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

Julia: The first sewing machine I ever used was a black hand operated Singer. Unfortunately, I don’t have an image of it, but that one on Flickr looks just like it. It was old but had been well looked after and the wooden case had a lovely patina. I remember the distinctive smell, as soon as the case was opened: a musty mixture of wax polish, oil, and dusty old threads. The key which locked the case had a piece of string threaded though it, which was always kept wound through the carrying handle for safe keeping. The string was worn through in places, which added to the well used and loved aura that surrounded the machine.

Scrapiana: Was it gifted to you or borrowed? Do you know its history?

Julia: The Singer had belonged to my gran, and after that my mum used it. I know some of it’s history. Mum told me stories of how, during the war her mother had taken suits apart, turned them inside out and painstakingly put them back together again – to get the maximum wear from the fabric!  I’ve seen faded photos of Mum as a teenager, wearing beautiful 1950s party dresses her mother had sewn with it. My mum was also a great dressmaker. She made loads of clothes for me when I was young, and dolls too. Eventually Mum upgraded to an electric model, which left the old one available for me to use.

Embroidered cat

Embroidered cat

Scrapiana: Do you still have it? If/when you got rid of it, did you give it  away to someone you knew? Do you know where it is now? Do you regret  parting with it?

JuliaI inherited another machine, from my other granny, so then my  sister used the old Singer, and I’m glad to say she still has it, although she’s now upgraded to an electric machine too. I wanted to take a picture of it, but it’s packed away, while her house is up for sale. I don’t regret parting company with it, because it served me well, but compared to a modern machine it’s capabilities are limited.

Scrapiana:So what’s your earliest memory of using it? What did you make?

Julia: My memory is hazy, but I remember using it to make sage green cord trousers for my favourite doll, and then I had a go at altering my own trousers. It was 1979, and I thought it was about time I had some new ‘drainpipes’ as my flares were so last Tuesday!  I was 11 and was experimenting really. I don’t even know if I’d asked permission to use the machine (probably not) but I was happy enough with the results to want to keep on sewing.

Scrapiana: Oh my! I have matching flare-altering memories, Julia! Who taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?

Julia: Again, my memories aren’t crystal clear. I don’t remember being sat down and taught to sew, but because I was surrounded by a culture of making and doing at home (Mum was always knitting, baking, gardening and painting) it seemed natural for me to experiment. I’ve always been introverted, and was happy to spend hours on my own, drawing or sewing. If I had a problem with whatever I was making, Mum was on hand to help, but I’ve always had a stubborn streak so usually I’d just try to work it out for myself. We had compulsory Home Economics at High School, which included some sewing. I remember making a cushion cover, and then a cornflower blue, wool pencil skirt, which I teamed up with fuzzy purple knee high socks my gran had knitted for me…What was I thinking?!  At school the emphasis was very much on doing it ‘right’ and exactly by the instructions, which has always been a struggle; even now I find the instructions on commercial patterns pretty hard to fathom!

In 2002 my passion for sewing was rekindled when I began a City and Guilds course in Creative Embroidery at Telford College in Edinburgh. It was so liberating! there was a strong emphasis on design and I learned loads of new techniques, including free motion machine embroidery. Although I didn’t manage to finish the course because of the cost and time involved, the teaching I got there was top class. I can honestly say I learned more there, in several months, than I did in the four years I spent at art college. That’s when I became very enthusiastic about working with textiles, and I started my own crafts business in 2005.

Silk word-hearts

Heart brooches: to wear on your sleeve, perhaps

Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well or especially badly? Did you like or loathe it?

Julia: My old Singer machine was great to learn on. Because it was operated by hand you could sew at your own pace, so there was never any danger of it getting out of control and stitching through your finger! I liked how basic it was: it only did a straight stitch. If you needed to adjust the tension, it was just a case of twiddling a screw to tighten it, and because it was mechanical it wasn’t hard to figure out how it all worked. It was a wonderful design, which was hugely popular in it’s day. The only drawback was because you were using one hand to turn the handle it made it difficult to guide the fabric through the machine with much accuracy.

Dress brooches

Scrapiana: What machine do you have now? Is it your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if  money were no object? Here you can be fanciful: bespoke colour, extra fantasy features such as tea-making… OK, maybe not the tea-making.

Julia: The machine I use now is a Brother PS-31, which I’ve had for 9 years. I didn’t do a lot of research before I got it; if I had done, this probably wouldn’t have been the model I’d have bought! I was in a hurry when I went shopping because the machine I had been using at the time had an electrical fault. It was going to be expensive to fix, so I thought I might as well buy a new one. I went to John Lewis and the Brother was within my budget and available to take home on the day.

Julia's Brother PS-31

I’ve read reviews since which all agree with my experience – it copes badly with thick fabrics, in fact it often point blank refuses to sew. The tension is very temperamental, and it’s quite noisy. Having said that, it’s had a LOT of use, and is still going strong, more’s the pity! If it would just give up on me I’d feel justified in buying something better. I make a ritual of cleaning and oiling it regularly so that’s probably got something to do with it’s longevity. Reliability is the most important consideration because sewing is my livelihood. I don’t use most of the built-in stitches, mainly just the straight stitch and zig-zag. I often change the presser foot to a clear perspex hoop for free motion embroidery, but that’s quite straight forward. One thing that I’d like in a new machine is automatic bobbin winding, because with my Brother machine I have to take the bobbin out it’s casing, fiddle about with the thread, put it on a holder on top of the machine, turn a knob and then fill it up, which is tiresome if I’m sewing at full pelt! I’ll probably look for the best reconditioned machine I can afford next time around. I don’t have a lot of experience of sewing with other machines so it would be interesting to hear which brands other people would recommend for quietness and reliability.

Bunny brooches

Exquisite bunny brooches, sniffing the April air

Scrapiana: Thank you so much, Julia, for taking the time to share those evocative memories. I haven’t managed to winkle out precise model details for your original hand-cranked Singer, but maybe someone reading this will have one just like it and be able to tell us more about it. Guessing at the age of that machine, I’m assuming it’s possible that your grandmother had it from new? If so, how lovely that it’s remained in your family as a treasured possession! Thanks again.

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