Tagged: Topping Books

Mar 19

Bath in Fashion


I’ve just finished playing with props again, this time for Topping Books, a very special independent bookshop here in Bath. The lovely people at Topping’s ask me to decorate their windows periodically. Last time was in January for the launch of food and travel quarterly, Cereal magazine.

Topping Books window display

The things hanging down from the ceiling were little strands of paper notebooks, joined together on my sewing machine. It’s hard to see, but there is also an old stepladder: a family heirloom which my husband’s grandmother climbed to access those hard-to-reach shelves in her Dorset off-licence, circa 1930. And I added a lovely old robin’s-egg blue typewriter (this particular model is a pioneering 1949 slimline design, still favoured by the likes of Will Self and Leonard Cohen) and several pine cones. Very orderly and restrained, isn’t it? I didn’t want to overwhelm the pared-down Scandi styling of the magazine. Volume 2 of Cereal is just out, by the way.

This time, the bookshop needed something punchier for Bath in Fashion week, an annual event which is fast gaining a reputation amongst people who know about such things. This year it runs from 13th-21st April. Topping’s will be hosting two events to coincide: one with Sir Roy Strong on Tuesday 16th April, another with Kaffe Fassett on Thursday 18th April. My brief was to create an eye-catching display to flag up these events; the bookshop is on the A4 route through Bath and probably gets more attention from people in their cars than on foot. So, you have to work hard to grab attention.

First, I set to with my paintbrush and some old sewing boxes like this rather sad one; it’s a fabulous mid-twentieth century shape, but the varnish had been wrecked by water damage before I got it, so it was ripe for a makeover.

Mid-century sewing box

Here it is with a lick of paint.

Painted props

I also painted a tiny chest of drawers bought new about ten years ago, the perfect thing for buttons, bits and bobs. And I played with some buckram (the white stiff stuff you make tie-backs with, or don’t make tie-backs with, in my case).  I have a little thing about Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and thought that a giant classic Dean tape-measure would be A Good Idea. Never mind that I only painted up to the 12″ mark; most of the measure is coiled, so nobody will ever know. Instead of ‘Dean’ I painted ‘Bath’, and where ‘Made in England’ would have been, I put ‘Bath in Fashion’. Pretty subtle. Yeah, I guess nobody will clock that from their cars.

I borrowed an old French mannequin, which I felt compelled to Christen ‘Claudette’, and draped the giant tape-measure around her shoulders.

Several hours, some giant prop buttons, and many metres of orange fabric later, here’s the window.

Props in situ in Topping Books

Judging by my display, the event might well be called ‘Bath in Haberdashery’, but not to worry. Close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. Does it say ‘fashion’, however tangentially, to you? You can be scrupulously honest. My job is to catch the eye, and I hope that the bright colours and sewing props do that. Anyway, if you’re passing the Paragon at the end of George Street in Bath, or sitting in traffic at the lights, look out for it and let me know what you think. Better still, come to one of the bookshop events! Events are invariably delightful, warm and welcoming occasions at Topping’s, particularly with such colourful guests.

Here’s the entire shop front.



PS This was actually attempt #2. I had a go at the windows on Sunday and made an incredible vintage-fabric mish-mash of them both. If you walked past late Sunday or early Monday and wondered what on earth was going on in the mind of the window-dresser, I was just having an off day. And trying to be über-thrifty by using only what I had. Big mistake. But this is how we learn.


Dec 04

Keep-it-simple Christmas decorations



A local magazine asked me to put together the following brief article about making your own Christmas decorations. And I mean brief: the word count was 250-300 words (the briefest of briefs) so there was no space to explain or give instructions. But  it offers a few thrifty ideas to pursue, so I thought I’d post it here on the blog. If you’d like instructions – or even a film from me – explaining how to make any of these, just leave me a comment or email and I’ll be happy to demonstrate; I’ve been meaning to dust off the camera for a while now.


Place-marker cotton reels

Place-marker cotton reels


OK, so here’s the article…


Think laterally this year and make your own beautifully thrifty Christmas decorations.

1. Use what you have in the cupboard.  Jazz up sewing materials; coax a paper-clip into a circle with some jewellery pliers and position in a cotton reel to make a jauntily festive place-marker. Or thread buttons onto looped wire for a napkin ring, finished with a scrap-fabric bow. Turn functional kitchen items decorative; upend a jam jar to create a voguish snow globe*, and hang cookie cutters as tree bling.

Jam-jar snow globe

Kitchen bling


2. Display kitchen ingredients. Pull dried cinnamon sticks and star anise out of the spice cupboard to look and smell the part. String fresh red chili peppers this Christmas and they’ll slowly dry for your cooking throughout 2013.

3. Gather natural objects. Bring in pinecones and garden greenery.

4. Recycle broken paperbacks. Cut page lengths into 2.5cms /1”-wide strips. A pair of children’s scalloped craft scissors gives a fancier edge. Glue or staple strips into loops to form a paper chain.

Book paper chains

Old book paper chains


5. Turn newspapers into hearts. Old wrapping paper, greetings cards and catalogues also work for heart garlands. Consider investing in a specialist cutter (like a giant hole punch) if you’re making lots; good but slower results come from drawing round a template, such as a heart-shaped cookie cutter, and cutting out with scissors. Machine-stitch hearts together vertically or horizontally, with gaps close or wide to suit. Red thread sets it off nicely.

Upcycled garlands

Before: a newspaper, a sweater, a scarf, a map


6. Upcycle old clothes. Transform a precious wool garment accidentally felted in the wash into another pretty garland. Cut out graded circles (3 slightly different sizes look good). Arrange rounds pleasingly before stitching together on a sewing machine. Strengthen with a second line of stitching before decking the halls.


Scrap paper and felt garlands

Deck the halls with… junk!


I’m selling packs of 100 pre-cut book-page links in my Etsy store. I am also happy to supply you with finished chain, if you prefer. You can  see some of the finished paper-chain currently decking the halls of Topping Books, Bath, where you might also be interested in a lovely event this Thursday 6th December with Scandinavian Christmas author Trine Hahnemann, 6-9pm.  I’ll be there, sniffing the lingonberry gin fizz! Hope to see you.


* snow globe remarkably similar to this one spotted in Anthropologie, Chelsea for c, £22 pounds. Dear Reader, make your own!





May 21


Kaffe Fassett‘s marketer once came up with this snappy little mnemonic for pronouncing his name: “Kaffe Fassett’s a safe asset”. They’d appear to be right. Even in these troubled economic times, Kaffe looks like a winner. He burst onto the craft scene in the ’80s with Glorious Knitting, his colourful approach blowing the cobwebs away. Then there was the needlepoint. Then the patchwork. How many books has he published? How many thousands of metres of cotton designed for devotees to hack into small pieces and reassemble in myriad ways? Don’t even bother to try to count.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Kaffe speak on three occasions in recent years. Each has been a hoot. I caught up with him most recently last Friday night when he was plugging his latest book at my wonderful local bookshop , Topping’s. Kaffe seems to come to Bath a lot and has a long-standing association with the American Museum at Claverton, just outside the city. Now in his 70s, Kaffe is still an elfin, twinkling, slightly waspish presence. He gives great publicity, telling colourful, non-broadcastable anecdotes, and having a poke at the often repressed traditional craft establishment.

After speaking compellingly about the new book, Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts,and its inspiration (more of that in a moment), he elaborated on some of the confusion caused by his unusual name: a customer at Hatchards, the famous Piccadilly bookshop, reportedly once asked : “Do you have Glorious Knitting by Yasser Arafat?” – Kaffe mincingly re-enacts the imagined lady’s voice before swishing some gems from his fabric range at us like a mesmerising toreador. No wonder the Topping’s cash registers kerching as I wait  to pay for the book – the book I’d already promised myself I wouldn’t be buying; I have several Kaffe quilt titles at home already, and can I really say that this one is so unlike the others?

Kaffe Fassett's latest book

Quilting eye-candy

Well, yes, I’d say it is. Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts attempts to teach the reader how to see and compose quilts, to open up Kaffe’s own extraordinary creative vision. Kaffe dedicates it to ‘all the quilters worldwide who ask “Where do you get your ideas?”‘ – that infuriating old chestnut asked of all creatives.  And inspiration is at the heart of this book. It’s arranged in chapters dedicated to various simple geometrical shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, diamonds, quarter-circles and full circles) and shows, via lush photos of source material, how you too can find such patterns in your own environment and translate them into stunning quilt patterns. As we’ve come to expect from Kaffe’s books, the pictures of completed quilts are rich and complex, the instructions simple and clear.

I’m not sure if I imagined it, but there’s just the faintest hint of the broader recessionary climate in the book’s production story. Unusually, Kaffe didn’t travel to exotic locations to drape his quilts (I say “his” though they’re made in collaboration with his quilt expert Liza Prior Lucy and an enthusiastic team of stitchers) over bucolic barn doors for these shoots. Instead, photographer Debbie Patterson‘s approach was rather more make-do-and-mend, with all pictures taken within a few miles’ walk of  Kaffe’s home. Debbie is first and foremost a food photographer and takes a mighty appetising photo. However, the geographical restraint – using industrial sites and architectural locations – gives a pared-down quality, a back-to-basics approach, which I really like.  A pile of car tyres and a heap of oil barrels are used to illustrate circles; industrial mesh gates and ordinary paving tiles to suggest diamonds. You don’t have to live somewhere exotically beautiful to find creative inspiration, it implies.

Circles inspiration page including tyres, oil drums and buttons

Why the stress on geometry? As Kaffe explained to us, he’s not interested in today’s art quilts with their looseness of form, their conscious rejection of traditional patchwork. Taking the old quilt patterns and doing them in a new way is what fires him up. Kaffe contends that the old-fashioned geometry of quilting is endless in its variety:

“Geometry is like Shakespearian language: you can never wear it out,”  he says.

He’s fascinated by the effect of cutting up patterned fabric and placing it within another pattern (the patchwork pattern). As one might anticipate, therefore, he doesn’t “get” the modern quilts on show in the current V&A exhibition: if you’re just going to paint on fabric, he says, why not do a painting instead? He’s equally dismissive of what he calls the “Thimbleberry” style of traditional quilting fabrics: small-scale, dull prints in hundreds of shades of oatmeal.

In spite of his swatch-swishing, Kaffe claims that the book is less prescriptive than many of his others, and is not tied to a particular line of fabrics, but there’s an awful lot of his familiar perennial Rowan/Westminster Fibres range detectable in the quilts featured. It is slightly less hard-sell than it might be, though, and I really don’t begrudge the guy a few fat quarters in his bank account. Kaffe told us what a kind critic has said of this publication: “Your other books were recipe books. This is the art of cooking.”  He must have a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of books ahead of him yet, the next one being, he tells us, his autobiography. He’s still looking for a title. Get in touch with him if you happen to have any suggestions. My best shots are Multi-Fassetted or possibly Fully Kaffeinated, though A Life in Colour looks like a safer bet.

Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts: 23 Original Quilt Designs by Kaffe Fassett with Liza Prior Lucy, photographed by Debbie Patterson, is published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang (an imprint of Abrams) price $35.00 (US) $45.50 (Canada) or £22.50 (UK)

Have you read Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts? What did you think of it? I’d love to hear your take on it, or anything you have to say about Kaffe. Has he inspired you?

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