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After a recent blog, a friend asked me if I were being sponsored because I mentioned brand names and suppliers so often.  She meant it as a joke, but I started to think about why I do usually say where I sourced things from.  I came to the conclusion that it is because so many craft blogs and pages I read are American.  They have fantastic craft superstores such as Joanne’s and Michael’s where there are endless choices and low prices.  We just don’t have an equivalent.  Hobbycraft is okay, but is often out of stock.  So, I tend to say, particularly if it is a high street chain, where I found things.  It’s really frustrating if you want to make something and can’t get the materials.  If you do go to Etsy or to a US website you can end up paying double in postage and customs and handling charges, which makes a cheap item quite expensive.  I try and put things on here that people could have a go at and could find the equipment for if they wanted.

Having said all that, if Tiger,  Marimekko, IKEA or Bernina, Madeira or  Liberty do want to sponsor me, I am more than willing to talk.

Maria, Hen Empress of all the Russias

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If you have been following my blog for a bit, you will know that every New Year’s Day I make a doll which either says something about the past year, or about the one coming up.  My rule is that it has to be completed from scratch in one day.  This year I knew that I wanted to do some work on Easter eggs, and Fabergé Easter eggs in particular, and so I decided to start work on that by making a Fabergé hen.  After all, you do need chickens to make eggs, the old – which came first, the chicken or the egg conundrum notwithstanding.

I started off by adapting a pattern from one of the Tilda craft books:

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I was rather pleased about this as these books are a regular impulse buy and I never actually use them.  The pattern had to be adapted as the chicken had bloomers on:

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I don’t really think that a Fabergé chicken would show her underwear, so I had to cut those out immediately.  I decided to make mine in felt for some reason which now escapes me, so I made the wings and stitched them on:

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I used a ready made motif from Aarti J and sequins from a bumper pack bought at Paperchase.  Paperchase and Tiger are a really good source of cheap sequins, but they do come in variety packs so you can’t be choosy.  Then I started to encrust the body with beads.  This is where the plan went awry.  It takes a while to encrust a felt chicken with jewels:

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So I broke my one day rule.  This seemed a reasonable sacrifice given what I wanted to achieve.  You can see that I used another Aarti J motif for the eyes.

The second snag came when I got round to the crown.  Because I have spent over thirty years in the educational company of a medieval historian I know that because she is an empress she needs an imperial crown, which is a closed crown.  A crown would be easy to make:

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A nice strip of gold fabric with some points joined into a ring.  But an imperial crown needs a bit more thought:

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Much fancier.  In the end, despite a lot of internet searching which resulted in instructions for making tiaras for Barbie on YouTube, I resorted to that old favourite: the pipe cleaner.  I pushed it through some gold tube knitting yarn that I bought at a knockdown price in Homescene, and cobbled it together with some very plastic-y bead braid and a button which had lost its shank which was lurking in my collection.  I have no idea where this bead came from, no recollection of buying it nor of my mother’s giving it to me:

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The beak is two separate quarters of giant sequins from a garland I bought in Habitat’s closing down sale stuck onto the felt underneath and the wattle is from the same garland but sewn on.  I am adding these provenance details because people often ask where I get my beads.  The large pearl beads come from a five pound bargain bag from Hobbycraft.

The whole crown affair is rather wobbly and what my native dialect would describe as makkled together, but it represents the outer reaches of my chicken jewellery-making skills.

I am quite happy with the finished article:

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Of course, Fabergé would have hated it.  It is cobbled together and it is too irregular for him.  He loved very fine craft skills and a neo-classical style, so this would have appalled him in its cheap materials and cobbled together making.  On the other hand, he loved novelties and small animal knick-knacks, so he might have given a half-smile.

Finally, she is called Maria because this was the name of the first Romanov empress for whom Fabergé made an Easter egg.

More on the Fabergé egg project later.

Cossacks for Christmas

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I can’t imagine that many of you  are interested in my Christmas decorations, but just in case you are, here we go.  This year they are minimalist to say the least.  I have had a lot going on and putting up trimmings seemed way down the list of priorities.  But I did get round to making and putting up these gentlemen.  They are dancing cossacks.  I would like to tell you that they are my design, but they came from a book called Homemade Christmas, (which is very cheap on Amazon):

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It doesn’t seem to have an author, but it does have a number of surprisingly nice looking things to make.  The author, whoever it is, as no author is credited, made their cossacks out of old book covers, but I thought it would be a good way of using up gelli-printed papers that I had done myself:

 

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I rather like the way that the printed paper for his face makes him look like he is rather keen on the vodka, or doesn’t use a good enough moisturiser in all that cold weather.

I also used some painted paper:

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This one has jewelled brads or paper fasteners on his joints.  Finding paper fasteners, which are those split pin things with the round heads that you push through papers and then open out, turned out to be one of the hardest parts of the project.  I had to go to the internet to find them.  Clearly the paperless office is becoming a reality.

After I had made a couple of cossacks, it occurred to me that this might be a really good use for some notecards the Medieval Historian gave me a couple of years ago.

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So I had quite good fun fussy cutting bodies to get a good cover image on the chest:

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I also liked picking the most un-Christmas-y titles such as this:

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Nothing like a nice Ballardian dystopia to set you up the festive season.  We also have Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a nod to my home town.

Then I remembered that I had bought some Marimekko notecards as I love the graphic designs and clear colours:

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Both of these worked brilliantly which makes me thing that you could do it with any postcard:

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This one is decorated with washi tape.  This one is fussy cut:

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In the book they are strung to work as jumping jacks, but I like them just as posable figures.

In the end I made twenty-five of them and they dance around the room suspended from the picture rail.  So quite a lot of cutting, punching, sticking and stringing, but I think that they make quite a smart decoration, even for people, mentioning no names, Medieval Historian, who claim not to like Christmas.

 

 

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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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.

Teeny tiny sewing machine

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I have just come back from a long weekend break in Spain.  While we were there we had a less than successful stay in Murcia, where the Medieval Historian had been many years previously.  Sadly, everything shuts in Murcia on a Monday which was the only full day we had there, so I did not get to do my very favourite thing of sketching in an archeological or folk museum.  But, looking on the bright side, the shops were open and were having major sales.  I will blog about them separately, but this is a quick post about a tiny hand-held sewing machine that I bought in Tiger.  I think it is originally a Norwegian firm, but Tiger now has lots of branches in the UK, and is worth going into regularly as it turns over its stock very rapidly.  I bought these sequins, for example, in the Bristol, and they are now permanently out of stock:

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The other reason for going in is that they play great music and I had a nice time singing Tamla Motown classics with the assistant in the Brighton branch on another trip.

Having said all this, it is a cheap and cheerful shop with an interesting selection of things for makers such as rubber stamps, beads, sketchpads, washi tape and so on, but once it’s gone it’s gone.

In Murcia I picked up a pair of snipping scissors with a case which looks like a long thin mouse (I am always looking for scissors to take on planes), and the mini sewing machine.  It is a good job that I did.  I assumed that the product range would be the same in Murcia and Bristol, but I was wrong.  I can find no sign of this product on the British Tiger website, even though I bought it less than 48 hours ago.

So, I bought it because it was so tiny.  I knew that I was never going to make a full set of curtains with it, but I thought it might have potential.  It does sew quilting weight cotton reasonably well, but the stitch is a chain stitch, like the one that I used to have on my toy sewing machine as a little girl, and which I wish I had held onto.  The best bit of this is that the chain stitch is so tiny and delicate:

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I wonder if it has potential for use in embroidery.  The stitch is far tinier and regular than I could ever achieve.  I will experiment and report back.

 

Trio of dolls

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These dolls are made from Jess Brown‘s book, The Making of a Rag Doll.  Her dolls are really ‘arty’.  They look like the sort of thing Miss Haversham might have sitting next to the crumbling wedding cake.  I have always really wanted one since I saw them featured in Selvedge, the arty textiles lover’s bible.  They aren’t ruinously expensive, but they would be an investment rather than a little self-present.  I was delighted, therefore, on a trip to my mother’s to find Brown’s book in the big branch of Waterstone’s in the middle of Nottingham.

Once I started making the dolls from the full-sized patterns in the book, I realised that these are designed to be heirloom presents for little girls and not playthings.  The dolls are pretty robust, but the clothes are very distressed (Derelicte, for Zoolander fans).  Because they are not finished, by which I mean no neatened seams or turned up hems, and the closures are almost all by embroidery drawstring rather than buttons, I think the average child would destroy them within weeks if they wanted to play dress up.  This is not a problem for me, my dolls are for display only, but I wouldn’t make one without modification for a child.

Having said all that, I loved making the dolls.  The artiness of the enterprise is reflected in things like the assumption that you know what you are doing and what you want to achieve.  I really wanted to achieve the arch expression that Brown gets with the straight-stitched eyes and pursed lips, but there are only the most basic instructions for how to do this.  Brown states that the face and hair for the doll is where you express your own ideas and personality and that is pretty much it.  She explains that she uses strips of wool for the hair but there are no close up photos to show you how to do it – there are, however, loving semi-sepia shots of her studio and piles of vintage textiles.  I used a really thick boiled wool jacket which shrank to Barbie size in the wash, and which I really loved and wore to bits.  It made great hair, and I liked the suggestion of hair for once rather than using wool to create strands.

I used a brilliant tool that I was sold at the Knitting and Stitching Show to turn the arms and legs which are really spindly.  You may well know what I mean by being sold something at a trade show.  I have a failsafe pompom maker which is totally useless but looked fantastic and I think most sewists (a term I am trying out) have got a draw full of useless gadgets.  This one, sold to me by a charming Frenchman, turns rouleau very easily and comes in three sizes for the various gauges of rouleau.  I understand that you can get the same effect with a crochet hook and drinking straw.

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This is a Prym brand set, but there are lots of others.  Using this really made it easy and even fun to turn the limbs through as opposed to the usual frustration with a pencil or the chopstick that Brown suggests.  Seven pounds well spent for once.

As usual I made a sample doll before cutting up any fabric I was particularly fond of, and I began with a remnant of furnishing weight linen with a vague chinoiserie pattern:

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You can also just about see the fun I had with her braids/plaits.  The other two dolls were tea-dyed white cotton.  I used three Yorkshire tea bags for three hours.  I really liked the mottled look it gave to the fabric, making it look vintage.  All the creases came out easily when I stuffed them:

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I dressed her in cast off furnishing linen, and she ended up very faded, but quite smart because hemmed and finished for the most part.  The second doll was dressed entirely in Liberty Tana lawn and became a riot of colour with orange eyelash yarn which came from a lucky dip pound shop bag from out by the M32 motorway.  Her flower hat is from a bag of trimmings which was part of my Christmas present from my resourceful mother.  I loved her exuberant style.  The final doll is dressed entirely in silk.  I started with a printed silk dress which was so elegant I decided to make it a dupion silk coat and to give her a cocktail hat which is a large piece of costume jewellery.  The only problem is that it is so heavy she can’t really sit up.  But I loved the look with the bob hair do.

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I don’t know why I love making dolls so much, although a psychiatrist would probably have a theory, but one of the reasons is that I never know who will emerge.  I didn’t intend to do linen, cotton and silk, and I wasn’t expecting tasteful Liberty prints to come out quite so eccentric old lady-ish.  She also has a Klimtian hair do which you can’t quite see in these pictures.  Making them is quietly addictive, though, and I realised during the making that this is because I am making a kind of fashion doll rather than a toy or character doll.  That makes it feel much more grown up.

New Year’s Day Doll 2016

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If you have read this blog fairly often, you might know that every year I make a doll on New Year’s Day.  The idea is to say something about the year that has passed or the one that is to come.  Last year I made a bonkers tall pyramid to celebrate the fact that I had found a lovely piece of theory about iceberg economies which had a lot to say about the invisible work done by quilters.

This year was a bit odd.  One of the rules of this practice is that the doll has to be makeable in 24 hours.  This year I knew that I was going out for one of my favourite gatherings of the year at a friend’s house, so I had to adapt.  The result is that this year’s doll is from a kit – a kit that I bought for £5 in the Hobbycraft sale when I went up to see my Mum over Christmas.

Making the doll was quite pleasant, as everything was cut out and the stitching holes were pre-prepared.  It is largely made of very cheap and nasty acrylic felt, which seems to be a recurring theme in the beginning of 2016, and while this was a bit grim to work with, the effect of the blanket stitch is very nice in places, particularly the hair.  I followed the instructions to stitch up the body in white which is odd as there was plenty of pinky brown thread.  I think, in the end, it improved it a bit.

The kit would teach you how to construct a doll, although why you would want to do it in blanket stitch rather defeats me as it isn’t the most robust stitch.  Backstitch would be stronger.  Anyway, it was pleasant not to have to decide on eye placement and so on.

One thing that did come out of it was about having the right tools for the job.  Last Christmas my mother gave me an inspired present: a set of doll-making needles.  Fantastic.  These really helped me to sew on the arms through the buttons quickly and easily.  I am imagining that it would have been much harder with the plastic tapestry needle which came with the kit.

I didn’t quite finish her in one day.  I had to glue on the sparkle white dots in her eyes and that took almost a fortnight to get round to doing.

I am not quite sure what she says about my life at the moment, but a few ideas are:

  1. Never prioritise a personal tradition over a great friend’s New Year’s lunch. Grate Frends, as Molesworth knew only too well, are far more important than work of any sort.
  2. I am really busy and shortcuts are okay occasionally.
  3. Having the right tools for the job really helps, but so does having a great supplier like my mother on the case.

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Big smiles all round.

Under lock and key

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(Please note: this is one of my slightly more academic posts – continue reading at your own risk of terminal boredom!)

One of the reasons that I like using textiles as part of my academic work is that it slows things down.  We are under tremendous pressure to produce published articles and this cuts down the time we have to consider what we are doing.  Reflection is a bit of a thing of the past.  This is fine for research which deals in quantitative data where analysis is largely mechanical and carried out by computers crunching numbers, but work which deals with ideas and the complexity of lived experience often needs a bit more time to ‘cook’.  The textile pieces provide this space and allow all sorts of things to emerge.

I had a case in point last week.  I am becoming very interested in what historians call the ‘long eighteenth century’, that is a period roughly from The Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Battle of Waterloo (1815).  I became interested in this through my work on Laura Ashley and the second phase of her design aesthetic which draws on this period, but, as I have done my research, I have become fascinated by  the period as a consumer revolution, when shopping became a real element of social life.  All of this is a preamble to talking about keys.

I have long used keys on my textiles, such as this really early piece which has a band of tiny keys on the right hand side:

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This is from a suite of five small quilts, several of which featured keys:

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canvas quilt

 

 

Serious quilt

The piece was about confession and secrets.  For me the most obvious symbol for secrets is a key.  I also like the duality of them – they lock and unlock.  They can be symbols of dead ends – the locked door, or opportunities as the door unlocks.  Keys are a significant metaphor in our language.  In my first job, in the dark ages, we talked about keyman insurance.  In my current occupation we have keynote speakers, and talk about the key work on the subject.  In the case studies we use to teach strategy there is often a key fact which unlocks the case.  In education in general, our children go through key stages.  I have some problem with this.  When I was a very little girl I thought you learned languages instantly by being given the translation key which transformed English into French and so on, and we see what a mess that can lead to with the translation programmes available to us now which lead to garbled approximations of a text.  I dislike this notion that education is an event – passing a keystone – rather than a unpredictable process.  Information, I suspect can be acquired to order – how to strip down an engine, for example, but wisdom and knowledge take a bit longer to acquire.  But this notion that there is a key which will unlock the world for us if we just look long and hard enough for it, is deeply engrained in our thinking about education.  George Elliot satirised it in Middlemarch with Casaubon’s fruitless, lifelong search for the Key to all Mythologies, a search for arcane knowledge.  He died suffering from this delusion.  Douglas Adams subsequently satirised this in his ‘Casaubon Delusion’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  The delusion is that we can overcome uncertainty by finding the key to all knowledge.  Keys and knowledge, then, are closely linked – locked into each other, perhaps.

So, I was a bit surprised when I was reading Amanda Vickery’s excellent book on Georgian life: Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England to read her comments on keys and their importance in Georgian homes.  She argues that keys became almost synonymous with women.

The association of keys with women is archaeological.  Anglo-saxon women were buried with keys.  A collection of keys hanging from the waist was a female ornament from at least the Renaissance.  Eighteenth-century pickpocketing trials reveal that keys were commonly found along with money, teaspoons, thimbles and scissors, pieces of jewellery and handkerchiefs in women’s tie on pockets.  Small padlocks can be found amongst the tokens vouchsafed by desperate mothers (probably servants) when they surrendered their infants to the London Foundling Hospital in the mid-eighteenth century.  In paintings, the bundle of keys was the attribute of Martha, the patroness of housewives.  Trial responsibility for the keys was part of female training.  (Vickery, 2009: 45)

And giving up the keys was a ceremonial passing over of power either from a sacked and disgraced housekeeper or a mother handing over her son’s inheritance.  Vickery is led to this consideration of keys through her examination of privacy in the eighteenth-century home.  Essentially there was none.  The only private space anyone, other than the very pinnacle of the elite classes, had was their locked box, to which they alone held the key.

I was struck when I was making the early pink quilt at the top of this post by all the keys on it, which I don’t really remember consciously putting there.  This led me to thinking about the most important key bearer of them all in my upbringing: St Peter.  Peter holds the keys to the kingdom, and this is a very interesting dynamic.  He decides who gets into heaven and who is refused admission.  Here he is on the Vatican, overlooking (I think) his cathedral in Rome, clutching his key:

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For me, then, St Peter is a symbol of patriarchy, the keeper of the rulebook which keeps social order in place, and that social order has man at the head of the faith and the family.  His word is absolute; there is no getting round him.

But, I think that Vickery also gives us a timely reminder of the connection between keys and women.  People frequently ask me where I get all the stuff for my quilts:

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I am given a lot of stuff (for which I am very grateful), but I also scour bead shops wherever I go.  I like using pieces which remind me of good trips, and some of the keys in these photos were bought in Denmark and Brighton.  What is fascinating about this is that the key is a very popular charm, as they are known, in bead shops which largely cater for young women who make jewellery.  The prevalence of key charms, which are also on sale in the big out of town box stores such as HobbyCraft, suggests that there is a ready market for them.  Young women – and longer in the tooth ones like me, must connect at some level with keys.  They appear to have a universal appeal, along with hearts and flowers and birds.  Clearly they are a supplied choice: we can only buy what we are offered for sale, but, their prevalence suggests that they are popular and have meaning of some description for the women who buy them.  It is as if, and that is a phrase that a proper academic would never use, they belong to a shared unconscious repertoire of images, and one with a complex set of gendered associations: inclusion and exclusion, public and private, hope and denial.

I am not sure what, if anything, to do with this.  One thing might be to look at old quilts and see if they have this imagery in amongst the freemasonry and the flora and fauna, to see if this is a recent resurgence in use of key imagery.  Another might be to do some empirical research – perish the thought – and ask women why they are attracted to keys as design motifs.  Perhaps they will talk about the five year diaries with tiny locks and keys that most women of my age were presented with at some point.  I don’t really know, and I don’t know if it’s worth pursuing.  Any ideas would be welcome.

Finally, I couldn’t find a way to fit this in, but one of the images I remember from reading books at school was this one from E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, published in 1902, in which It speaks ‘in a harsh, grating voice like large rusty keys being turned in locks’.   Which is a great image to end on.

 

Reference

Amanda Vickery (2009) Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

What I finished off at the weekend

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I am still working on this large Laura Ashley wall piece, although there are other things I should be getting on with.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I lost all interest in this piece and so I am rather surprised to find myself enjoying finishing it off so much.  I have two more of the Regency panels to go and then a very small Marie Antoinette and then I will have to get it all together which is going to be fun as it will be very heavy.

I am really pleased with these two panels, the one above and this one:

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The colours, which have not come out well in these photographs, go together really nicely.  Almost everything, as usual, is scrap and was destined for landfill.  The beautiful machine embroidered silk, for example is a tiny scrap from a sample book:

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I couldn’t bear to throw that away even though it is just a scrap.

These panels are supposed to evoke these ‘simple’ muslin gowns of the Regency period – seen here with the fashionable paisley shawl accessory, necessary because the dresses were pretty flimsy in the un-central-heated mansions seen in the background here:

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All these panels have some Laura Ashley fabric, although the further I get into the project the more I am using silk scraps.  The Laura Ashley piece here is some very tightly woven, fine grade furnishing fabric printed with olives.  I decided that the ladies in these panels would at the very least have heard about olives from their dissolute brothers on the Grand Tour, even if they didn’t eat them.  I couldn’t be bothered to do the food historian bit to find out if olives were commonly eaten in the eighteenth century.  I apologise!

IMG_1047The scraps for these two panels were attached to the thin cotton wadding with decorative machine stitching which I did with the tank-like Singer machine that my mother gave me because she could no longer lift it.  Some of the stitches are perfect for doing a sort of pseudo-crazy quilt.

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I’m afraid I use spray glue to keep everything in place and then do as much construction stitching as I can on the machine before doing the embellishments by hand.  I have no idea what the long-term effects of the spray glue will be, but I expect to be past caring in the nursing home when I find out.

I used some beads I bought on a weekend away in Brighton to finish off the quilts like the three little flower charms in the above panel which were exactly what I needed, and the key here:

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Again, you can see a little bit of the luscious embroidered silk, also from a discarded sample book.

These beads are from a broken necklace, and I love the way they look like little walnuts or even brains:

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Finally, I don’t really like the craze for buttons as jewellery.  Buttons are utilitarian things, unless they are the really special ones, and no amount of stringing them seems to me to create art from plain plastic in primary colours.  But, I do like mother of pearl and I like it, like all my embellishments, massed, so here are some ordinary round buttons, sewn on with pearl beads:

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I really like the difference in tone of the mother of pearl.

 

The Brighton Bead shop the beads came from was KerrieBerrie