Tagged: 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 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 06

Scrap of the week #31

 

These mid-1970s Laura Ashley scraps were the first materials I handled, shaped and stitched when learning to sew as a girl. I pulled them out of the Scrapiana archive after seeing the wonderful Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath recently. The exhibition made me feel deeply nostalgic for 1970s Laura Ashley fabrics and dress designs, which is ironic because Laura Ashley traded heavily on nostalgia herself, so I effectively entered a state of meta-nostalgia (nostalgia for nostalgia) from which I fear I may never emerge back into the 21st century.

I seem to specialise in unlikely survivals, and these Laura Ashley scraps really shouldn’t be hanging about intact still, 40 years on. There is no decent explanation for it. I may as well tell you that Peter Capaldi swung by in the tardis and dropped them off. But, for whatever unlikely reason, they remain with me still. Mostly unused. And I’m very happy to be able to show them to you.

Early 1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts

1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts

 

They were probably bought in the Bath shop which opened its doors in 1971. This was the first Laura Ashley shop outside of London, and it soon acquired a legendary status.

Bath was a fairly frequent destination for family outings when I was a girl; sometimes we’d go to the American Museum or the Museum of Costume, the previous incarnation of the Fashion Museum, then just a few years old. Bath was not quite the tourist hub it is today, and it actually looked pretty shabby back then, though one couldn’t help but be struck by its elegant (if very blackened) stone architecture.

Looking at these scraps still fills me with a kind of feverish excitement, depositing me right back circa 1973. Laura Ashley had such an exhilarating aura of  elegance, sophistication and wholesome escapism, so unlike anything else I can remember from the period, though I didn’t get out much in middle childhood. Anyone under thirty might find it hard to imagine, looking at these little brown fragments, how they excited such admiration and longing. Maybe you just had to be there, with rocketing inflation, the 3-day week, the sexual revolution, the perennial fear of Soviet invasion (not to mention nuclear annihilation), doing your best to block it all out with your tranny tuned to Radio Luxembourg under your brushed polyester bedclothes. No wonder we were so ready to lap up The Forsyte SagaWar & Peace, The Onedin Line, and Upstairs Downstairs on the TV.

Laura Ashley fabric, early 1970s

Laura Ashley print of mythical beasts

 

I still love almost everything about these Laura Ashley pieces. The sturdy texture of the 100% cotton, a world away from my purple manmade sheets of the time (which crackled with static and snagged against my toenails when I rolled over). I love the earthy, hippy hues, giving the impression that they’ve been dyed with the products of a hedgerow, though I’m very sure they weren’t. I love the small-repeat designs in just two restrained tones, the pseudo-medieval, mock-oriental and Victorian-style motifs. These fabrics seemed so sophisticated, so opulent, yet incredibly safe and modest too. It was a compelling mix for a young girl.

But possibly most of all, I love the fact that Laura Ashley was selling these as genuine manufacturing offcuts: pieces culled from dresses made in the Welsh factory. No pre-cut patchwork squares from virgin metres of cloth in those days. I wish there could be more conspicuous selling of designer wastage today. Shall we start a campaign?

The dresses themselves would have been beyond the budget at the time, so scraps were all I could reasonably aspire to. These scraps date from when the company was still very much Laura’s baby, and I can easily imagine (though it’s purely my fantasy) that every piece of cloth still passed under Laura’s gaze for a final quality check. I’m sure it didn’t really, but her spirit is very much here. 

1970s Laura Ashley pansy design close-up

Print S105 featuring a triangular pansy motif

 

Laura had a keen sense of thrift and strove to avoid waste when pattern-cutting. One of her early designs was an oven glove, made from the wastage created by the scooped neck of a gardening smock. And it’s easy to imagine how her unwillingness to see such offcuts go to waste, plus her love of patchwork (notably sparked by a WI exhibition in the early ’50s) informed the decision to package them up and sell them.

Any pattern-cutters out there care to tell me which garment pieces you think these were cut from? Is that plum ‘C’-shape from a neckline, the comma-shaped piece from an armscye?

1970s Laura Ashley fabrics

1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts

 

There’s a great story related by Meirion, one of the Welsh factory stalwarts, in Anne Sebba’s biography Laura Ashley: A Life By Design published in 1990 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson:

Once I cut the neckline wrong on three hundred dresses and I thought at first I’d just keep quiet and fill the gap with lace. But, of course, she would have noticed so I told her and we turned the scoop to our advantage. In future that style always carried the “wrong” neckline. All she said to me, very calmly, was, “Remember, you can always learn from your mistakes”.

And speaking of mistakes, here’s some of the patchwork I made from these offcuts, way back in my very earliest needle-plying days. Don’t look too closely at the stitching.  And how many shades of brown can you include in one piece, anyway? The cushion was well loved, but this wasn’t my finest hour. The item with the smaller piecing is a bag, with every hexagon stuffed. Not sure why I thought that was a good idea.

Laura Ashley patchwork items

My early Laura Ashley patchwork

Laura Ashley and me

Don’t look too closely at the stitching

 

Hexagon patchwork also features in the current exhibition. There’s a cover pieced by Rosemary Harden, the director of the Fashion Museum, and a vibrant patchwork skirt made by Beverly Peach. Now, I don’t remember Laura Ashley producing particularly bright fabrics, but I realised how wrong I was when I visited the exhibition. More about that (and some surprisingly psychedelic offerings from Mrs Ashley) very soon. 

1970s Laura Ashley patchwork

Spare hexagons

 

In my next post: a report on Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine which celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is currently 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.

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Jul 01

Book review: Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer

 

Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer

Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer published by David & Charles

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Box pleat necklace

 

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

 

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Rippled brooch

 

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

 

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

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

 

*Sorry, Ruth! My reporting skills are rusty.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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!

 

 

 

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Feb 27

Scrap of the week #19

Death by mustard

 

These hexagon flowers have been meticulously hand-pieced then machine-applied to a massive  ’70s bedspread which I picked up in a charity shop a while back.

I really don’t like the ground fabrics at all: greeny oatmeal plus mustard textiles, presumably leftovers from curtain projects. Thankfully, the entire item is threadbare around the edges, so I’m toying with the idea of releasing the appliquéd patchwork portions for another purpose. Each hexagon grouping is 13.5 cms across. And there are a lot of them. There are also some bigger hexagon sections which would make great bags or cushions, if teamed with more sympathetic textiles.

Whoever created these hexies was obviously a perfectionist as their pattern placement was scrupulous.

It occurs to me that if anyone out there is staging (or re-shooting) The Good Life, this would look just perfect on Margo Leadbetter’s washing line, or possibly covering Tom & Barbara’s sofa. And now I’m beginning to get flash-backs of the mustard dralon sofas and avocado bathroom suites of my childhood so had better go. Enjoy your week!

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