I am what I sometimes refer to as ‘stupid busy’. For some reason, I am completely swamped by the day job with deadlines piling up all around me and no idea how I found myself in this position, and this is why I haven’t been posting much recently. The temptation when I am so pressured is to abandon doing anything creative (and I defy anyone to see marking as creative except in the very loosest sense and moderating other people’s marking is even less so). But I have learned in the past that if I don’t do anything creative I get nastier and nastier and tetchier and tetchier and that, strangely, won’t help the students as the frustration will come out somewhere in the marking process. So, on Saturday afternoon I managed to find three hours to do some stitching. I was putting the binding on first part of my big Laura Ashley quilt, which like most of my large pieces is made in panels.
This is a detail of the quilt panel which is made from, I think, two bags of Laura Ashley squares for patchwork which have been lying about for at least twenty years. There will be more about the quilt in subsequent posts.
What I wanted to write about today, though, is something that struck me while I was doing the very dull, prosaic work of putting the binding on. I make folded-over continuous binding on my quilts when I do bind them. I like it because you get nice neat mitred corners and it’s very sturdy and you measure once and that’s it and you don’t need to pin whole thing twice. And it’s very even, and even I, queen of the slapdash, get a neat, professional effect which I sometimes want. But there is a lot of dull stuff – particularly pressing it before it goes on, and this gives great thinking time. One of my favourite thinkers on creativity and, indeed, happiness, two things he links firmly together, is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is credited with developing the idea of being’ in the zone’. It’s applied to sport a lot – those moments when apparently you have hours to hit the right shot because time seems to slow down and you are in perfect synch with your environment. I will never know about this, but I like what he says about being in the zone because I definitely experience it when I am sewing, particularly at the machine. He says that you lose track of time – you could have been working for an hour or three hours, that you have more energy when you finish than when you started, and that you experience total contentment and well-being (it’s a while since I actually read this stuff, but I seem to remember those were the hallmarks of being in the zone). To get into the zone you have to be doing something which you can do well but which is not so hard that you get frustrated and give up. So driving is difficult because of everything going on around you but it’s possible to do it without becoming too overstimulated and that’s why so many people get ideas when they are driving. I find this with sewing on binding. You have to watch what you’re doing if you don’t want to burn your fingers on the iron, or lose the quarter inch allowance when you are stitching but it doesn’t demand your total concentration. So, yesterday, repetitively pressing and stitching I wandered into the zone.
I have been trying to make a showstopper Laura Ashley quilt for at least a year, but the one thing that I have learned is that these pieces want to be small. This is a whole other post, but they want to be miniature. They want to sit in the hand. They want to be keepsakes. They don’t want to be huge embellished wall pieces. I need and want a quilt to be the opposite bookend to my huge Anita Roddick quilt, but I have not been able to make one. The fabric cries out against it. So, I have a number of false starts. It has become apparent to me as I have been working on the Laura Ashley pieces, and doing some interviews with quilters, which I really do need to buckle down to this spring, that this quilt for me is not about Laura Ashley plc at all. This work is about my love of patchwork, quilting, cloth and sewing. And cotton. So, this quilt is really not about the company. Whereas my Anita Roddick/Body Shop quilt could most definitely be called Anita and Me, this one, I think, is going to be called For the love of cloth. My academic research for this project has definitely lead me into thinking about the sociology and anthropology of cloth – hence the Death Quilt, and I have loved doing that part of the work. What this quilt seems to want to talk about is how I started stitching in the first place. So, finally, we arrive at the point of the post.
Yesterday, as I was sewing the binding around these very simple nine-patches, I was thinking about how I started making patchwork with my mother when I was pretty small, and I remembered that a few years ago I found a copy of the book which I would say started it all in a jumble sale at the Friends Meeting House on Gloucester Road in Bristol near where I live. I need an old book on sewing like a hole in the head, but I couldn’t pass it by. I expect I paid a pound for it. But when I opened it, it really was like a time machine. I was right back in Nottingham as a little girl making a doll quilt. How traditional is that – starting off making a doll quilt before progressing to the full-size version? It is like Little House on the Prairie all over again. Here is the very page of the instructions in My Learn to Sew Book, published in 1970 from which I made my first quilt:
I really wish I still had the quilt. I remember it vividly. It was made up of predominantly turquoise blue prints, almost certainly polycotton, stitched at random like this one, and very definitely no work of art. The real turning point came when my mother made a similar piece but arranged the patches in diagonal rows like a quarter of a Trip Around The World. I thought it was the most exquisite thing in the world and had plans to make it into a clutch bag, although what a ten-year-old would do with one of those escapes me. Anyway, that was it. The bug had bitten. The rest is personal history.
I have a rather large professional problem which is that although I think this stuff is fascinating, I cannot see any way of turning it in an academic production, and this will need some creativity of a different order, but it might make for some interesting autoethnography, which is a social science technique which involves examining a phenomenon through personal experience – investigating an illness by giving a personal account, for example. It isn’t considered quite nice, though, by the majority of social scientists. At the moment I am prepared to ‘sit with it’ with all this and see what emerges, but I begin to think that there is a book about Laura Ashley, stitching and the construction of femininity. I just need an imaginative publisher to go with it…
That aside, I thought I would include some pictures from the book. This is the full-page spread. for example:
This is a pattern for a hedgehog pin cushion which I am so going to make (watch out at Christmas, my friends):
Here are some wonderful late sixties/early seventies illustrations which I think formed my aesthetic judgement early on:
And finally, here is a page of patterns for felt bookmarks which for some reason sent the biggest wave of nostalgia crashing over me:
Right, catharsis over, back to the marking…