Field notes from Utopia

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A couple of months ago, I went on a fantastic weekend at Shore Cottage Studio.  I have blogged about this before, but, to recap, it is a gorgeous studio on the Dee Estuary which runs short courses on a variety of activities (textiles, glass making, photography, laser cutting, for example).  It is run by the family team of Sue, Laura and Kris.  This is the word cloud of their trip advisor feedback:

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Word clouds make patterns in which the largest words are the ones most frequently used.  I am very interested to see ‘love’ so prominent here.  I suspect it comes from comments such as ‘I love the Studio’, but I thought it was a place which just about ran on love.  That’s why this post is called ‘Field notes from Utopia’.  I felt loved the minute I walked through the door and that is a utopian feeling.  So this post is about my embroidery, but also a little bit about Utopia.  If you aren’t interested in Utopia, just skip to the pictures of the embroidery, which I hope you enjoy.

I am really interested in utopias because they are so contradictory.  One person’s Utopia is another person’s dystopia.  For example, in HG Wells’ The Time Machine we have the Eloi who seem to have the perfect peaceful, aesthetically beautiful life but who are actually so calm and refined that they are unable to achieve anything new or creative, plus their life depends on an underclass called the Morlocks, a dystopian troglodyte society who only come out at night, but who have the energy to do stuff and in the end to rise up against their oppressors.  One reading of the novel is that the Eloi represent a communist group, and, as we know from our own recent history, communism is seen as paradise by  some and oppression by others.  Utopia and dystopia again.  This was the plot of endless episodes of the first series of Star Trek.  Captain Kirk was always finding new civilisations which looked wonderful at first sight, but which were always inferior to Earth.  And tribes of cultural studies scholars have provided readings of this as code for the Cold War struggles in the US when Kirk and Spock and Uhuru were created.  I am also interested in utopian communities’ carrying within themselves the seeds of their own destruction (we are going in for political economy a bit today).  So, religious groups often go off into the wilderness to find a pure place where they can practise their beliefs without persecution or pollution.  The problem is that sooner or later differences of opinion arise, and no-one is quite pure enough to satisfy the demands of the leader so you get a split and another attempt at a utopian community elsewhere.  These sorts of communities can topple over into cults which often end disastrously, such as David Koresh and the Branch Davidian.  Finally, I am interested in the role of place in all this.  Very often utopians leave a place they consider toxic to go and set up a new purer place elsewhere.  Utopias always seem to be places of tension, reactions against, flights from, black and white situations where you are either right or wrong.  There is not much space for grey in Utopia.

Anyway, for me, Shore Cottage is a form of Utopia.  It is a place where I felt completely at home, loved and cared for, and able to develop my creativity.  I was there as part of a project looking at the anthropology of the Dee Estuary and to do a short ethnography (although really there is no such thing: ethnography done properly is an extended business).  Ethnographers make field notes and so my embroidery represents field notes in cloth.

I designed it to look like an artefact an ethnographer might take with them, so it rolls up:

The linen has a toile print of a river, which is the nearest that I could get to an estuary.  The tree rather appealed to me.

It unrolls to show several ‘leaves’ or panels:

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The piece uses the fabric and thread that I dyed on the weekend with Sue.  Some of them were left whole just to show the effects such as this microwaved tie dye:

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This is a really brilliant simple technique for hand dying cloth which I will use again. There is also a piece of overnight rust dyeing:

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Brilliant results overnight onto this piece of linen.  The marks were so beautiful that I didn’t want to mask them with stitching or embellishment.

I kept the stitching pretty simple on the rest of the panels:

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This is fern stitch with variegated thread onto a thick blanket-y wool that I dyed.

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This shows simple straight stitches arranged as seeding, vertical cross stitch and some running stitch.  I used the big black and white bead as a sort of sample, like you might get in a ethnographer’s collection of material.

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This is a variation on a theme.  I love these big disc beads.  They remind me of pumice or some other sort of lava.

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This is  a found piece of curtain fabric and the pom pom is part of it.  It is stitched down with layered fern stitch.

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This is also a tiny found sample of furnishing fabric.  I loved the indigo and white.  The white thread is quite thick and reminded me of sashiko.  I wish I could get my stitches that even.  I am not sure I quite like the uneven spacing of the mauve beads, but had I been making this in my tent by hurricane lamp in the nineteenth century, I might not have been able to get them straight, so I left them.

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Another bead and seeding combo.

I wanted to use these little wooden hands because of the importance of the hand made on this weekend:

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I got them from Artchix Studio, which is run by a lovely Canadian woman.  I have lots of things from her shop, but I have stopped using it because the postage is ruinously expensive and then there are charges on top when the parcel gets here.  Gorgeous, unusual, inspiring stuff but now very pricey.  That aside, these hands are lovely.  They are about two centimetres long.  I like the combination of the handmade and the manufactured.  They are all alike and symmetrical, and yet they have a real charm for me.

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The above is some knitting tape which I dyed and couched down and then stuffed with brown glass beads which I got from a Hobbycraft cheapo clearance bag.  I also recycled some embroidery I did a couple of years ago.  They maybe jump a bit, but I think they look slightly like sketches of landscapes that you get in ethnographer and explorer notebooks:

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This is another picture of part of the piece showing how the panels fit together:

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You can just about see in the top left-hand corner that there is a heart shape.  I found a stone on the Dee Estuary beach which had the suggestion of a heart on one side and I thought that this was emblematic of the Studio.  I was really pleased when Sue noticed that a heart had emerged from the hand dyeing on this swatch.  To the left of that, which you can see in the picture at the top, there is a piece of embroidery taken from a vintage tablecloth I bought from a textile fair last year.  This refers to the hand-embroidered vintage tablecloths that they used at the Studio and which I really enjoyed.

This has been a long post, so thanks to reading to the end if you did.

 

Thinking about the stash

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I had a very interesting conversation last week with a group of women women talking about ‘The Stash’.  This is a subject which quilters will always talk about with great enthusiasm, and I thought I would take a little bit of time to write about what the scholars are thinking.  To keep it a bit lighter I am going to sprinkle internet memes about the stash throughout – this is why the pictures are a bit small today.

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Nearly everyone I know who pursues any sort of craft has a stash.  I am in awe of those people who just buy enough for a project and thus have a pristine workroom.  I am not quite sure what they do with the scraps at the end; I presume they make them into things to give to the deserving poor.  I cannot believe they throw them away.  I have to have a stash for my work because very often I just need a one inch piece of something so I keep vast amounts of scraps, but also big pieces which will probably just have a corner cut out sometime in the future.   I think about this as my compost: eventually it will break down into something lovely and sustaining.

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The fantasy way to keep all this stuff is shown in the photograph at the top of this post, but the reality is much more like this:

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or this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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Which brings me onto my first point discussed by the academics: our feelings about our stash.  There are a number of these:

  • A number of well-adjusted women take the view that they work hard to be financially independent and so how they spend their money is no-one’s business.
  • Some women see what their husbands/partners spend their money on and see their stash as being an equivalent.  It might equal a set of golf clubs or an expensive camera plus accessories.
  • Some women feel extremely guilty about their stash.  This possibly because it is spending money on themselves and not their families, or because they buy it and then can’t bear to use it.  There are probably lots of explanations, but they mainly come down, I think, to women thinking that they are not worth it.  If ever I want to buy something extravagant I phone one of my male gay friends.  They always say one of two things: ‘You work hard, you deserve it’, or: ‘Do you mean to tell me that you don’t think that you are worth a (insert item of choice plus price)?’  Or I recall my mother’s wise words: ‘You will remember (insert name of item you wish to buy) far longer than you will remember the overdraft’.

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  • The older women get the more likely they seem to find the stash a burden.  I have noticed with friends that our mothers become really keen to declutter and to throw stuff away that has been in the attic for years as they get older.  In my case, the stuff transfers from my mother’s attic to mine.  This desire to get rid of stuff seems to be even worse if there is a stash involved, and I think there is sometimes guilt about leaving the burden of sorting it out to whomever has to clear out the house.  I have come across quilters who have had to sell off another quilter’s stash who vow never to pass that job onto someone else.

 

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Some of the women in the group were what are called ‘early career academics’ which means that they are doing their first or second jobs, just having finished their PhDs.  They talked about moving and having to ‘drag it from house to house’ as they tried to find a permanent position.

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A really extreme position was that having a stash was morally corrupt because it represented having an excess while others have nothing.  The Western world always has too much and never enough in the context of a global world

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One of the ways that having the stash is often justified is to collect vintage fabric for reuse, a form of recycling, and this is certainly something that I like to emphasise.  A lot of my stash is old samples or remnants which would have gone into landfill if I hadn’t rescued it.  But, as a colleague of mine who works on the engineering of waste and recycling says, this just delays or defers the problem.  Recycled presents are great, but you are just passing the stuff onto the next person.  ‘It’ still exists and will have to be dealt with at some point in the future.  Overproduction is the problem and recycling is not the answer.

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A slightly lighter note was struck by one of the women who said that she thought the ideal was the ‘sweet spot’ between having enough but not so much that it crossed over into being clutter.

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Even more positive was the position that the stash represents potential.  It is there to be transformed and it is there to liberate creativity.  Certainly in my work with grown-ups involving making of any sort I have found that it works best when there is an enormous, generous amount of stuff.  Having stuff to waste or experiment with seems to liberate the childlike desire to create in people.  It always gets mentioned in feedback.  ‘There was just so much stuff, so much to choose from’.  I wonder if people somehow read this as care in material form, and if you are being cared for then you are safe and free to play.

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There was also some conversation about how stashes circulate, a bit like those friendship cakes where you get a small piece of batter to make your own cake and then to pass on to friends.  I get parts of my mother’s stash which I pass on to friends needing new cushions or bags or backing fabric.  The academic women described these as ‘small circulating economies’ which just means that there is a form of exchange involved.

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An interesting suggestion was that Ebay represents a global electronic stash.  There is all that stuff just sitting there all over the world just waiting to be transported and rehomed and re-used.  I think this is an interesting idea, although this is a very brazen commercial form of stash, and yet it is one that I have participated in, of course.

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As all this material circulates between us, one interesting question is whether or not knowledge is being transferred as well.  Do the skills follow the fabric?  I think it’s an interesting idea, and it is possible that when someone gives you, or swaps you, or even sells you a piece of fabric or equipment they will tell you how to use it or what they used it for or intended to use it for, but my suspicion is that it is mainly about the material exchange.

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There was some talk of the stash being a community resource where people could come and take what they needed for their project.  I thought this was a bit idealistic.  I think that there are politics around the stash, and unwritten and unspoken rules.  We have a sort of stash at Bristol Quilters where there is a Saint Peter’s Hospice stall with fabric for anyone.  But we all know that we are expected to pay for it.  If I just took a chunk of something I would expect at the very least to get some dirty looks.  Even when the lovely women who run the stall and know that I collect Laura Ashley fabric give me something free I feel obligated to make a donation anyway as it is for charity.

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I think there is even a question of who gets to use your stash.  I have two stashes: one is available to anyone.  Take and waste as much as you like.  Cut the centre out of the piece rather than snipping a bit off along the edge.  Spill stuff all over it.  Make something incredibly ugly with it.  I genuinely don’t mind.  The second is my stash for me.  Now if you are a really good friend and want, say, some red fabric, you can have anything, but only because you are a really good friend.  This is a relational activity.  It builds and binds friendships.  It makes me a mealy-mouthed person community-wise and makes me a terrible fabric capitalist, but it is how I feel.  Hands off the precious last bit of my favourite fabric.  I know at least one woman who really resents being seen as a community resource.  She hates takers who never seen to flip over into givers, and I sort of know what she means.

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There is also a class element to all this.  I can afford to spend money on fabric; I have enough disposable income to allow me to do it.  But not everyone has.  My very good friend, Marybeth Stalp talks much more about the guilt over the stash in her interviewees in the US, probably because it is a more working class pursuit than in the UK where the guilt is less.  I think there might also be an age component.  Many quilters were born during or just after the war when there was austerity and utility and shortage.  Having a store of things was fine as that would feed and clothe the family in hard times, but buying things for yourself for the pleasure of stroking and folding and having them was an indulgence and therefore morally wrong.  So I got used to smuggling things in past my father when my mother and I had been shopping.  So I think this brings me back to my starting point about the mixed emotion of the stash.  I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts if anyone would like to leave a comment.

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Joy in work: feathers

 

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Very occasionally I get to write one of these posts about when a piece of work just goes amazingly well.  This is one of those occasions.  It feels like I just turn up and provide the hands but the universe does the rest.

This small piece of work is part of a series I am making after my visit to the wonderful Shore Cottage Studio I have already mentioned.  I collected some inspirational pieces on the beach and then did some mark making and then dyed some fabric and thread, including making some pieces in the microwave using very ordinary dylon.  I have already blogged about using straight stitches on one piece, inspired by the striations on the beach pebbles.  This piece was inspired by the feathers I collected with Sue:

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I knew that I wanted to do something on feathers and I had bought a sizzix dye machine dye of the feather shape in preparation, but this morning I went to my work table and had completed the piece in about an hour.  It just fell together.  I found the background fabric which is a lovely piece of pure Scottish wool in my pile of samples bought by weight round the corner from me in a curtain maker’s shop, I found exactly the right sized piece of cotton bump to work as the padding, and I found the black Mettler quilting thread sitting on top of the tub of threads I use most often.  I threaded up the machine, got it ready for free machining and off I went.  I did make a sample, which I do more often now, but that went really well and I was off:

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I was a bit worried that I have made so many leaves over the years that I would do that rather than feathers, but it seemed to work.  The secret there was just to do it, not to think, just run the machine fast and get on with it:

 

The very dark and more navy blue pieces are bought fabric.  Mine is the more grey and less densely coloured pieces like the horizontal feather in the above pictures, but the bought fabric blended really well and allowed me to make a bigger piece.

I think you could argue that using the sizzix machine is cheating, but I think that the creativity bit comes in with how you use it, how you cut the fabric, and how you stitch it.  Plus it speeds up the process that you can experiment and do the what if? stage much more quickly.

I did hand cut some feathers as can be seen in the above sketchbook pages, but as the sizzix will cut bondaweb, I intend to use it and cut out the drudgery.  For information, I have the Bit Shot Sizzix Plus:

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I had it for Christmas last year and have really enjoyed using it.

But the point of the post is to record one of those small projects when everything goes really well and when it is a delight to make, and when I experience what Deming and William Morris describe as joy in work.  I don’t think we take enough time to enjoy what we have made with our hands.  I think we think it’s in some way conceited, but I really think we should.

 

Frome Vintage Textiles Market

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I spent most of Saturday morning at a vintage textile market in Frome.  This was a mistake, as it is always a wallet-hoovering occasion when I meet old fabric in a commercial setting.  I spent rather more than I intended to, but there were some lovely pieces on sale.  I didn’t even look at the price tags on the quilts, but there were plenty for sale and quite a few in pretty good condition.  There was also quite a lot of new fabric which I hope the traders weren’t trying to pass off as old.  Vintage seems to mean anything over twenty years old, although most of what was on display in Frome was rather older than that.

I bought the red and white/pink and cream pieces above, as I have fallen in love with red and white quilts, and intend to make something with the old and some new fabric.  The pieces above came from a ‘lucky bag’, which was reasonably priced.  I also bought some specific red pieces:

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This one just looks old, and therefore right to me.  It looks like a lot of reproduction fabric I have seen over the years with those little pin-pricks of black.

This one is all red and very red.  I absolutely loved it, although the trader said it was hard to shift because it was just too red:

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It’s a gorgeously rich colour in the flesh.  The next one was such a glorious print that I  couldn’t resist it, even though it is just a scrap:

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I wonder if it’s from a popular song.  It doesn’t look like Ophelia floating off to her watery end.

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Plus the banana tree in the background would be oddly placed.

This one also has a lovely print:

 

Nearly faded away but just about visible.

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This looks like the edge of a quilt or a valance, but has a wonderful colonialist feel to it.

I also bought prints just because they were pretty like this one:

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and this lovely hyacinth one:

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I have also started to enjoy bark cloth, which I only discovered this year.  It’s a thick cotton fabric, popular in the 1950s with a heavy texture.  It was used a lot for kitchen curtains and such which lingered on into my 1960s childhood.  I used to think they were very ugly, but I think the nostalgia bug has bitten:

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This was a cheap bit bag, but it gives a good idea of the gloriously overblown prints of the time.  I have some other pieces which are much more modernist and ‘cool’, but the sheer liveliness of these bits sang out to me.

I got a large piece of Laura Ashley fabric which I also collect, for a good price:

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Some fabulous falling to pieces embroidery:

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which will come in handy for something somewhere, and some tiny buttons:

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It’s always hard to judge sizes, so here is a terrier to help give scale:

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The terrier also features with this lovely piece of pretend crewel work:

I am ending with a lovely piece of tattered woven silk:

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So, it was a really good day, and there was lots I would have liked to have bought with an endless budget, but I came home pleased with the haul.  I know very little about dating old fabric or where they came from and so on, and I think this is potentially a good thing for me, if not the fabric, as it doesn’t inhibit me from using it, as it would if I knew it were really precious.

Straight stitching

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Most embroiderers, myself included, have at least one book on their shelves called something like 101 Embroidery Stitches.  This is a bit like having all those programmes on an automatic washing machine: 80% of them are superfluous.  Most of my work uses a very small number of stitches: running, seeding, back stitch (whipped and otherwise), fly, herringbone, colonial knots.  But for a project that I have been doing for the last couple of weeks I decided that I would branch out a bit and try something new.

I wanted to do something with the lines and striations on some beach pebbles:

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I was also influenced by the spiky vegetation around the beach where I found the stones:

I wondered about lacing some herringbone or cretan stitch but in the end reached for the magnificent and ancient Constance Howard’s Book of Embroidery Stitches.  This is a real oldie but goody, black and white throughout but magnificently clear:

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It is now quite expensive on Amazon and the like, but there may well be copies in second-hand book shops and, if so, they really worth snapping up, particularly if, like me, you love seventies embroidery.  Plus Constance Howard apparently used food colouring to dye her hair, which makes her a style guru as well.

All that aside, I decided, unsurprisingly, to have a go at thorn stitch.  It is as prickly as its name suggests, but it is also really easy to do and you can use it in a lot of ways.  The basic stitch is:

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This is basically an asymmetric cross stitch over a base thread, which makes it very good for couching.

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This is a page from my sketchbook showing how I got to this point.  I had a go at it and found that I really enjoyed doing it.  Here are some dark photos of the end results (I experimented with a different form of lighting which didn’t really work):

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This is the basic stitch done in a fine perlé cotton.

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This is a thicker thread, but still a basic version of the stitch.  But then I decided to do some couching of a dyed knitting tape which I knotted randomly.  The couched knot approach is a brilliantly simple way to get a lot of texture into something, and this variation really did give me something organic:

 

I also used a mix of threads for the couching, some perlé and then some ordinary sewing thread.  After I had completed the pieces (which I will put up separately), I was so entranced by the possibilities of the stitch that I made a little sampler:

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I really enjoyed threading the beads onto the couched thread and then arranging and anchoring them with the thorn stitch over the top.  It’s a bit hard to make out but the sample second from the left has a wrapped or whipped couching thread, which also worked well.  The beads are from a charity shop necklace I took to pieces.

I used some other stitches to get a spiky effect.  I love fly stitch because it is easy and really versatile:

 

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It gives a softer effect, though, as it is a loop stitch not a stab stitch:

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Nice here in a very fine perlé thread.

And I used the stitch I learned at the Mandy Pattullo workshop that I went to, fern stitch, which is also pretty spiky:

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I have used this in other projects:

 

In this project I used it as a border:

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I started this project on a brilliant weekend with Sue Barnes at Shore Cottage Studio in Heswall.  I cannot recommend it highly enough and will post about it separately.

 

 

 

Restorative walk in the woods

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The Medieval Historian and I decided to go to Westonbirt last weekend to walk the dogs and have a bit of an excursion.  This was beyond stupid.  Westonbirt is the national arboretum, with the national collection of Japanese maples.  If you can’t get to New England in the Fall, then the next best thing in the UK is Westonbirt in October.  At least that is what half of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset seemed to think.  It was heaving with people.

I thought that I might get some nice photos to work with at some point, but only took my phone camera.  This made me a considerable lightweight as people were hauling round cameras with two foot long lenses and the obligatory tripod.  People formed orderly queues to take photos of particular trees, such as this one, without others standing in the picture:

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Glorious, but it only gives you half the picture:

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Everyone and their dog had their cameras out.  Most people queued up and took the shot and moved away, but some families took another approach and set up shop to have picnics under the boughs of all this autumn colour.  It struck me that it was like going to one of the big blockbuster art shows or even the highlights of the great national galleries.  You begin to wonder if anyone is looking at anything or just using it as a photo opportunity.  In the end, I got very fed up with the people and the cameras and the buggies and constantly looking out to see if the dogs were getting trampled and we left the maples and walked round the less visited native British woodland areas.  That was lovely.   It was my stupid fault for suggesting the trip and, of course, people have every right to troop through the trees en masse, I just wish we had gone on a weekday and missed the crowds.  I did get some lovely photos, though, hypocrite that I am!

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Even the seed pods were pretty.

I will end with a couple of very odd but interesting experiments my phone decided to make all on its own:

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Imagine my surprise when…

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I bought a copy of Mollie Makes last week to pass the time when I was on a train and was interested to see the following article:

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That looks interesting, I thought, just my sort of thing.  As I read on, I found I agreed wholeheartedly with it, not least because I was quoted extensively in it, and not in a way that made me look terminally stupid.  I had forgotten about giving the interview, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it.  Jessica Bateman, the author is a lovely person and the piece is a lovely read.

Also you can learn how to make a pom-pomed muff, and that I feel would make the ideal Christmas present for anyone.

A good read

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I haven’t done much in the way of recommending quilting books, but this is one worth looking at, not because I particularly want to make three fabric quilts, but because it has a really good introduction on how to make a quilt.  There is a lot of good advice in this one.   At least a third of it is about sewing.   Also if you want to make a small quilt in a weekend, I think that this would be an excellent place to start.

I bought it in one of those bargain bookshops at the weekend.  I saw it full price and passed it by some time ago, but for £6 it was a real bargain.

A small thing

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This is short post about this very small piece which measures about six inches by four inches.  It is made on a piece of old quilt with needle-turned appliqué.  The appliqué is mainly done with plain fabric which I monoprinted, but I used such small pieces that it just looks like striped fabric:

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The fruit is meant to look like an apple, although I think it looks more like an orange.  I made the piece because someone was telling me about the old, and now defunct, I think, Austrian custom whereby young women would put a piece of apple in their armpits and then do a ritual dance.  At the end of the dance they would give the apple slice to their lover who would eat it.  I presume if he refused the relationship came to an end.  The way I was told the story was that the lovers put the apple slices in their armpits and then danced together all night and then swapped slices at the end and went home with their lover’s scent impregnating the fruit so they could continue to think of them.  I think this is a nicer version.

This was a quick piece to make and I think the old, battered, frayed quality of the piece goes with the old, romantic tale.  The piece of old quilt came from the Welsh Quilt Museum in Lampeter.

A new project

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I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting much recently.  I usually wait until I have finished to post about my work, but the latest piece might take a while so I thought I would do some work in progress.

This is the start of a quilt using some heavy fabric from IKEA.  It will be broken up by two appliqué panels, and this is the first.  It is the start of a large branch – this is the full 45″ or 115cm of the background fabric.  It’ s very nice shot Indian cotton on some chambray that I had left over from a dress.  It has had a couple of false starts, and I had to undo the flowers I was thinking of before I could start this new design.  The unpicked appliqué looks a bit sad:

I will post some more on my progress.