Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Tracy Chevalier and The Sleep Quilt

As teenagers, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I used to watch two hospital dramas if we happened to be in when they were on (although 'happening to be in' may understate how much we enjoyed those programmes at that point in our lives...ensuring that we had a family-sized bag of chocolate Minstrels for viewing and both leaping onto the sofa in time to hear the theme music is probably a more accurate description). One was a drama set in a casualty department and the other set on the wards of the same hospital. I tell you all this because, very occasionally, a character from one show would make a fleeting appearance in the other and we would feel curiously delighted to find the two worlds colliding!

Anyway, that's kind of what happened to me a few weeks ago (minus hospitals and chocolate, although with the addition of things that appeal to me far more twenty years later...), when I met with one of my favourite novelists, Tracy Chevalier, to talk about her forthcoming book with Fine Cell Work. The colliding being that I'd interviewed both Tracy and Fine Cell Work separately about different things last year and suddenly found myself with Tracy chatting about their joint project. (Those initial interviews are yet to be published and I don't want to duplicate anything here, so what follows is, to me, only half the story, but I'm not sure the page would be long enough to accommodate the whole story anyway)!

For those who haven't come across Fine Cell Work already, they're a wonderful charity whose volunteers teach prisoners to stitch and sew, enabling them to earn money by making things based on the charity's commercially-viable designs, which they collaborate on with interior designers, such as Kit Kemp and John Stefanidis. The finished hand-made cushions and quilts are of incredible quality and are sold by FCW to an appreciative (often high-profile) customer base. There are countless benefits from this scheme: prisoners who stitch are statistically calmer and less likely to get into fights; the long solitary prison hours are passed doing something productive; positive feedback from customers builds self-esteem; it allows them to offer some financial support to their family while they're inside and often when the stitcher emerges from prison they have the skills, enthusiasm and small nest-egg necessary to begin a new life, rather than returning to old habits.

Tracy's first meeting with Fine Cell Work was when they invited her to talk to some of their stitchers at Wandsworth Prison about a novel she'd written, where the central character is a quilt-maker. She said that on that first visit, despite her initial apprehension about entering a male prison, she actually felt relatively safe. Although most of the FCW stitchers are category A prisoners (high security), they value their time sewing so greatly that they are at pains not to jeopardise the privilege and tend to be respectful and eager to please. Tracy said that conversation with the assembled prisoners quickly felt curiously akin to that of any quilting group, where people are united by a shared enthusiasm for needle and thread. She said that the FCW stitchers were eager to share their own work with her and hungry for positive feedback. It was an experience that left her feeling she wanted to continue her connection with Fine Cell Work.

Around the same time as her visit to Wandsworth, Tracy was also invited to curate an exhibition of quilts at Danson House in Bexley Heath. She called that exhibition 'Things We Do in Bed' and chose to give each of the five rooms a theme - birth, sleep, sex, illness and death - to be explored through the medium of quilts. After her prison visit, she felt inspired to invite the Fine Cell Work stitchers to create a quilt for her show; she decided that the least controversial theme for that may be 'sleep'. What she discovered, was that sleep isn't as neutral a topic in prisons as she'd first imagined and the resulting quilt is as heavy with emotion as it is with stitches.

Through Fine Cell Work, prison stitchers were invited to create a patchwork square for the quilt, depicting what sleep meant to them. In eight prisons, a total of sixty-five prisoners brainstormed ideas and, if anyone lacked the artistic ability, collaborated on artwork to help each person successfully convey their feelings around sleep. The resulting quilt is a richly tapestried piece of wakefulness, dreams, insomnia, escapism, counted sheep, guilt, regret, sadness, vulnerability and, at times, hope.

Photo credit: Fine Cell Work
To give the Sleep Quilt a feeling of cohesion, dark blue sashing was placed between the blocks and the predominant colours used were white and blue. Additionally, Fine Cell Work decided that just one stitcher should do the hand-quilting to bind the layers of the quilt together - a 'burly Polish inmate in London's Brixton Prison who worked 10 hours a day for six weeks on it, in between bouts of weight-lifting' was chosen. When I saw the quilt, for all the beautiful blocks it contains, I found this hand-quilting equally captivating. The stitches are exquisitely even and consistent...it puts my own hand-quilting to shame. As a quilt-maker, I think we're always left wanting to know the exact techniques used - in one place I could see the faintest blue line beneath the stitching, which I recognised as the distinctive ink of a wash-away quilt marker. I don't usually rule out my lines of stitching, tending to 'eyeball' it, so I may try this next time. Tracy pointed out the decisions the quilter had made: where to quilt around a picture or where to stop; whether to use navy or white thread. It's not until you begin to analyse it that you can see the sensitivity of the quilting decisions and appreciate that he somehow called it exactly right every time. It's a huge responsibility to make stitches on a block that someone else has pieced.

The blocks themselves are at times humorous and, at others, tear-inducing. Some tell a literal story of sleeping in prison - in one block, a vast torch light looms over a prison bed and the words 'Turn that bloody torch off' and 'I only get two hours' are written on the intricately thread-drawn brick wall above.

Some blocks convey dreams of home, a camper van, family or a partner. The quilt block below is the only one created by a female prisoner.

Here, a block shows a sleeping man, tears on his cheek and his face heavy with sadness, depicted in delicate blue floral fabric...it's a surprising fabric choice that feels both brave and vulnerable.

Another densely-stitched block tells an autobiographical story, described in the accompanying words with startlingly frank self-awareness: 'The lower right figure represents past relationships, where a candle of enlightenment belatedly reveals my true nature' and 'the most prominent design on the left symbolises my daughter. I have never met her and she subsequently displays my burden of shame.' It is not an easy read.

The projects that the stitchers usually work on are patterns provided by FCW, so Tracy and some of the volunteers had felt apprehensive about whether working on such an emotive project may unleash feelings that were difficult for the prisoners to deal with, but she said that ultimately, the prisoners seemed to find it a positive experience. I wonder if exploring feelings through stitches may be easier than talking, as the soothing repetition of the work simultaneously offers its own balm to any turmoil the actual work may stir up.

The men collaborated on layout and Tracy pointed out to me how the four outer corners are weighted with darker-coloured blocks; the sheep blocks are evenly spaced to avoid ending up with a field's-worth clustered in one area; and the nine central squares have also been carefully placed in terms of colour value. Once the layout had been agreed, one prisoner was then tasked with sewing it all together, a privilege as well as a responsibility. Assigning duties like this was handled by Caroline Wilkinson, one of Fine Cell Works most active volunteers, who oversaw much of the quilt-making.

I asked Tracy whether she feels apprehensive when she commissions a quilt - it's something she's done several times, also commissioning quilts for her subsequent show celebrating Charlotte Bronte's bicentenary. She told me that in this case, when the initial squares were shared with her, she worried about whether the final piece would have enough impact, but like any quilt, it's often only once it's viewed as a whole that the individual components feel 'right' and she was delighted with the finished quilt. I also asked her about the experience of curating an exhibition. She said that she's learnt something each time she's done it - one thing being an acceptance that she won't always get viewers to do what she wants them to do! She explained that at the Things We Do in Bed exhibition, there was a brief and unmissable piece of writing, which, if read, would make sense of the whole exhibition for the visitor...and she watched as person after person walked straight past it. When I went to visit the Matisse in the Studio exhibition at the RA recently, I caught myself hungrily striding towards the paintings, only forcing myself to return to the introductory writing when Tracy's words rang in my ears and I imagined some poor curator watching on in horror. Although it was like a bit like sucking a sweet to appreciate it's flavour, when my instinct is to chew it briefly and then devour it almost whole, I feel I will probably always stop to read the introduction from now on!

The sleep quilt ended up being displayed alongside works by the likes of Grayson Perry and Sara Impey. It's yet another facet of Fine Cell Work's genius that through their relationship with Tracy, prisoners have been offered an opportunity like this. Although, in order to protect their privacy, their names aren't shared, the positive effects on one's self-esteem in taking part in such a high-profile project, when one's life to date may have lacked any kind of praise or affirmation, seem inestimable.

And now, a book, reincarnating the sleep quilt in paper-form - something I'm so delighted by, having missed the exhibition when it was on originally. It's a small, perfectly-formed book, ideal for gifting, self-gifting or coffee-tabling. The quilt blocks have been beautifully photographed and fill the pages, sometimes with a short explanation alongside elaborating on the meaning it holds for the maker. There's an introduction by Tracy, as well as Katy Emck, Fine Cell Work's Director. And at the end of the book, several pages of quotes from prison governors, FCW volunteers, and the inmates themselves, sharing the difference that Fine Cell Work and needlework has made to their lives.

If you'd like to support the production of the book, you can purchase it through the KickStarter, where you can also choose a handmade purse or cushion to go with it, if you'd like. Any surplus money raised will help finance Fine Cell Work's new hub, where ex-inmates will be able to find work and learn to re-integrate in society. If you'd prefer, there's also the more conventional Amazon route (although I think the charity would love it if you'd consider being part of their Kickstarter). It's a really beautiful book - I think anyone would love it and I'd wholeheartedly recommend buying a copy!

Tracy's actually holding two of the aforementioned prisoner-made cushions in this photo (she also showed me the loveliest side table, which was covered in the same colourful needlepoint, also made by FCW stitchers). Tracy explained that these cushions are often one of the first things prisoners will make when they finally reach the point of being skilled enough for Fine Cell Work to sell their stitching. Each little square in the cushion contains only two colours, so the stitchers are able to be fairly creative with less chance of a demoralising failure, because the duos of colour just always seem to work well together.

If subtle cushions are more your thing though, I am also swooning over these and have one of them on my Christmas wishlist (I wrote about a beautiful hotel where I'd stayed for my 40th birthday and it's owner and designer, Kit Kemp, has collaborated with Fine Cell Work to create this range of hand-finished cushions).

In the days before I met Tracy and was thinking about The Sleep Quilt, several things bobbled up in my mind. One was a book about sleep by Matthew Walker that I'd heard being discussed on Start the Week and read various articles about (do listen here, if you have the time and inclination). His book suggests that sleep deprivation impacts on virtually every aspect of our mental and physical health. An extreme example of this is that when the clocks go forward and we lose an hour's sleep, the rate of heart attacks increases by a staggering 24% in the days that follow. By contrast, when the clocks go back and we gain an hour of sleep, the rate of heart attack decreases by a similar amount (I share this news from the relative safety of the clocks having gone back just three days ago...)! Matthew's book sounds fascinating from a personal point of view, but I then started thinking about it in the context of the Sleep Quilt: for those who are potentially most in need of an environment that fosters mental stability, level emotions and resilience of spirit in order to make positive life changes, prisoners are thrown into a place that couldn't be more hostile to facilitating the kind of sleep that could make those things more attainable, with clanging doors, bright torch lights, pacing guards and potentially intimidating room mates. It seems just another of the many ways in which our current prison system seems set up solely to punish, eschewing the need to also rehabilitate. On the subject of room mates, I listened to a podcast a few months ago called Ear Hustle, which is recorded, under supervision, by prisoners in an American state prison. The first one, Cellies, gives a really interesting insight into how sharing a cell impacts on one's day-to-day experience of prison.

Finally, last year, I read about a government-led system in Brazilian prisons where inmates can reduce their sentences by up to 48 days per year, by reading books and then writing reports on them to demonstrate their comprehension of the text. The carefully curated reading list offers a range of literature, philosophy and Brazilian classics for different reading abilities and is labelled Redemption through Reading. When I think about how life-changing certain books have been in my own relatively sheltered life, it's not hard to imagine the possible impact they may have on a life that's gone awry, where exposure to thought-provoking literature may be an entirely new experience. Although the Brazilian prison environment is almost certainly more gruelling than our own, implementing systems like this seem a relatively low-cost way of bringing about small, positive changes. One of the teachers who works in a Brazilian prison says 'We hope to create a new perspective on life for them. This is about acquiring knowledge and culture and being able to join another universe.'

Just before I left, Tracy indulged me with a show-and-tell of her work. You can see her beautiful baby quilt in the photo above on the left - all the squares were fussy-cut to create a whirligig of pattern. I also saw some glorious patchworks and even some of her very first piecing, all hand-sewn. This initial piecing actually set off an idea in my head that I'm hoping to try out at some point, so more on that when I eventually do!

Finally, because I know some long-time readers may be thinking it: how did I meet one of my favourite authors and retain the power of speech? As I stood on her doorstep, it did suddenly occur to me that I may indeed lose all my words and have to gather them up from the pavement. But talking about quilts together somehow very quickly made her seem more Kindred Spirit than Author God.

Florence x

Friday, 13 October 2017

Patchwork & Quilting: A Maker's Guide

It's been a while since I last posted, so now I have a whole queue of things impatiently lined up waiting to be shared, but this book, published by Thames & Hudson for the V&A, has leapfrogged straight to the front of the queue.

Last year, an email landed in my inbox asking if I'd like to contribute an English paper pieced project to a book that the Victoria & Albert Museum were bringing out. Contributors were invited to pick something from the museum's collection and create a piece inspired by it, which felt like such a delicious premise for a project.
I chose this Sundial Coverlet from 1797 as my inspiration piece, drawn to it through a combination of it containing some wonderful blocks suitable for EPP, as well as finding the thoughtfulness behind its structure appealing. Described by the V&A as 'a microcosm of her world in cloth', the maker has placed matters close to home at the centre of the quilt and slowly stitched her way out to the far corners of the world. The central blocks relate to domesticity: a pincushion, needle, scissors and it also looks to bare the initials of either herself or family members. Moving outward, the coverlet is dotted with blocks that reference the garden: ducks, birds, butterflies and honeysuckle. In the four corners are pieced maps: the top two showing the Eastern and Western Hemispheres on the globe; while the outline of England and Wales, and then Scotland, are depicted in the two bottom corners. It's a structure that made me imagine a maker who appreciated what was close to home, but who was also outward-looking and whose dreams were filled with travel and adventure.

While the more figurative blocks initially attracted me to the quilt, I focused on some of the geometric piecing that the quilt encompassed, which is better for EPP. I chose three blocks, which increase in level of difficulty, beginning with simple hexagons, working up to smaller pieces and some gentle curves. Having drafted the blocks, I chose to use Liberty prints, which feel to bridge the gap between old and new. This is the most simple of the three blocks:

In the photo below, you can see the direct inspiration for the quilt block that follows. I've tried to mirror the original maker's careful placement of prints - you can see that she's used the same prints at 12 and 6 o'clock, and then again at 1, 5, 7 and 11 o'clock and so on. The curve sits on the outside edge of the outermost pieces, so one doesn't actually have to sew any curves together.

Again, in the block below, I've tried to make my placement of repeating fabrics sympathetic to the original layout, as it was so thoughtfully done that I didn't want to dilute its loveliness in translation. The blocks could be made placed in repeat to make a whole quilt, or framed and put on the wall, which is where mine will be going.

I wanted the three blocks to each have a distinct feel, but also to work together as a cohesive trio for photography. When choosing fabrics for a block, I'm always waiting for that illusive feeling of 'ah, yes, of course', which comes when I finally feel I've found a combination of colours and prints that works. It's long been a source of frustration for me that I'll hold a project up for weeks, while I wait for that combination to materialise (although this subsequent sewing exercise has really helped with conquering that - I'd really recommend it for fellow indecisives). In order for me to meet my deadline and not steal too much time away from another project that I was immersed in for much of last year, I knew that I had to make quicker decisions with these blocks, so I decided to confine myself to just one weekend for fabric choices. 

I've found the quickest and least wasteful way for me to trial a large number of fabrics is to scan them in and then mess around with them on my laptop, swapping fabrics in and out, until I have a combination I feel happy with. My sister had offered to be a second pair of eyes for me and that weekend we had countless texts and phone calls, discussing what was or wasn't working with each version. I was relieved that by about 7pm on Sunday, I had all three blocks finalised and a digital image of how each fabric should be cut there for my reference and the finished blocks do look identical to those first images (above, the first photo shows the digital version, the second is the hand-sewn versions)! It made the cutting and sewing bit really speedy and a few days before Christmas, I posted my blocks off to the our editor, ready for their photo shoot in the new year. 

So, on to the actual book, which is a thing of beauty. It's peppered with samples from the V&A's collection, which makes it feel a really rich and weighty book. It's also fascinating to see how each contributor has approached creating a modern version of their original inspiration piece.

The book's other contributors are Jenny Barlow, Susan Briscoe, Caroline Crabtree, Jenny Haynes, Pippa Moss, Ruth Singer and Gillian Travis and their makes are all gorgeous. One of my favourites is this reversible cot quilt by Pippa Moss - I haven't tried making a whole cloth quilt, but this makes me want to have a go. Beautiful tactile fabric and intricate hand-quilting.

Another project that jumped out at me is this gorgeously bold quilt by Jenny Haynes, finished with hand quilting in thick perle cotton.

There are so many other lovely projects inside - too many to mention here. 

Finally, I wanted to show you some of the beautiful step-by-step illustrations by Eleanor Crow. When I first received proofs of my pages, I could scarcely believe how perfectly she'd reproduced the Liberty prints...almost lovelier than the originals. 

If you're interested, you may well be able to hunt a copy down in your local bookshop. Alternatively, you can find it on Amazon (that's an affiliate link by the way - it means if someone buys a copy, then Amazon give me a tiny percentage of the sale price. Amazon doesn't share any of your details with me though. If you'd rather they didn't pass on a share of the sale, just type in 'Patchwork & Quilting A Maker's Guide' on Amazon and it should come up for you).

I think a launch party for the book is being planned at The Village Haberdashery in London on 25th November. I'll share more details nearer the time, but if you fancy coming along, it would be really lovely to meet you.

Wishing you a happy weekend,
Florence x

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Ikea Flat-Pack Top

I've had this beautiful Robert Kaufman swiss dot fabric sitting in my fabric drawers for nearly two years. I'd draped it across myself in all kinds of light, trying to work out whether it was so sheer that it required a lining and that dilemma had prevented me from ever cutting in to it. From time to time I conducted little experiments, such as standing in front of sunlit windows and saying to family members: can you see my hand/waist/outstretched arm through this? To which they would always reply: Yes. The fabric would then be folded back into the drawer, feeling increasingly like Eeyore's burst balloon, which he repeatedly puts in and out of a jam jar for his own entertainment (for the uninitiated, it's a Winnie the Pooh story). It seemed unlikely that the fabric would ever actually be used for anything other than being taken in and out of drawer.  

But somehow, here it is as a finished top! My experiments never reached a point where someone said: Florence, that fabric is sufficiently opaque that you will never find yourself unwittingly having a Princess-Diana's-see-through-skirt-moment, but I did find myself wanting to make a top this summer that I wasn't entirely sure would work, so I decided to take a double-risk of failure by using it, in favour of ruining a fabric that was both nice and definitely not transparent (I don't like lining tops on the basis that it makes them feel somehow more formal to wear). My double-risk paid off: the top worked AND I realised it doesn't need a lining at all, although it definitely would if it were being made into a skirt. 

My daughter - who still seems to want to spend time with me despite being part of the is-this-transparent experiments and other daily strangenesses - took these photos for me the first time I wore it when we were out walking Nell together. Photos taken outside never seem to show the same level of detail on clothing, but there was a risk that it would never get photographed and shared here if left to my own devices (several pieces of clothing have gone undocumented this summer due to my inability to actually take some photos of them). 

The top is based on one that I bought from Joules several years ago. I followed my own tutorial for shirring the top panel and thanked myself for writing it up back in 2010, as I couldn't quite remember how to do it several years later (nb. if you're wondering, shirring requires you to put elastic in the bobbin case to create a panel that is both stretchy and appealingly tactile with rows of tight gathers). I spent a frustrating hour feeling like I'd lost all ability to do anything other than hand-sewing in the intervening years, as my machine sewed row after row of unusable 'shirring' on practice fabric. It was only when I googled it, that I realised that my latest machine requires a 'creative bobbin case' to sew with elastic, a requirement that seems curiously stifling of creativity...

Rather than buy an expensive new bobbin case, I fetched my old workhorse (that post has links to all kinds of other things in it - I just disappeared down a memory rabbit hole reading it) from my daughter's desk and was reminded what a total dreamboat of a machine it is. It can do nothing more complex than a zig-zag stitch, but it is pure heaven. My latest machine has fancy things, such as an automatic presser foot that snaps down the moment I press the pedal and rises the moment I take my foot off it; it cuts my thread; it backstitches automatically to make securing stitches...and so many other good things. But when I returned to my old machine, I realised that a machine that can do so much has an almost imperceptible, but ultimately negative, effect of leaving me feeling disconnected from my work. All those fleeting moments where I sit, redundant, waiting for the machine to carry out an automated task accumulate to leave me feeling detached, slightly impatient, less well-skilled and ultimately less enthusiastic. I realised that my switch to hand-sewing came around the time that I bought my first Big Girl machine, which had lots of bells and whistles. At the time it seemed a natural shift (or a shift because I didn't actually end up loving that particular machine at all, unlike my new one, which is far more intuitive and well-behaved)...but now I wonder how much of it was just a case of falling out of love with the process of machine sewing once I felt less involved. So, having got the machine out only for the shirring, I shunned both my newer sewing machine and my overlocker and sewed the entire shirt on my old machine and it was a total joy. It whirrs and hums with a delicious authenticity and sound of true industry. Avoiding the overlocker meant switching over to using french seams, but that didn't feel a troublesome thing. 

My new machine only made a reappearance when it came to the final stage of sewing buttonholes, which it does really beautifully. 

I posted this photo of a buttonhole on Instagram as I wanted to share a tip I'd been given years ago by an elderly lady who was a very experienced dressmaker. She taught me that if you put a pin in front of the bar-tack, you'll never accidentally slice through it with the seam ripper when you're opening the button hole up - it's such a good tip and I think of her every time I use it. A few people on Instagram commented that they weren't able to get a buttonhole they were happy with - I do feel I'm blessed with a good machine in this way, but I've noticed that omitting a few things will cause even a good buttonholing machine to create sights that looks far less lovely. Firstly, interfacing the button placket - it's obvious, but if forgotten is totally ruinous (I know this because for the first time ever I forgot recently. I have no idea where my head was that day, but I ruined this nearly-finished shirt. I still feel cross with myself now); my second suggestion is slightly less obvious (and therefore probably more helpful), but I find that placing a tiny piece of Stitch n' Tear stabiliser beneath each buttonhole while sewing gives a much-improved finish. It offers some stability while the dense stitches are being cast and for me it's an absolute essential. I use this one, made by Madeira, as it's sold locally to me, but I think Vilene's version may be more widely available and is probably just as good. The important thing is just that it just tears away and doesn't require being ironed on in order to provide stability. 

These two photos show the shirring better. I think the fact that I'd shirred the fabric, and in doing so altered its texture, blurred the boundaries of where my work began and ended with this top, for when I walked into the kitchen wearing this top for the first time, Mr Teacakes stopped, looked totally in awe, and said: You're just amazing!!! I can't believe you've sewn all those tiny dots in the fabric!!! It looks incredible!!! (Yes, there were that many exclamation marks in his voice, so I have a duty to overuse them now as I write). 

I did momentarily consider allowing him to continue to think that I had indeed painstakingly implanted each of these little tufts into the fabric myself as I had never seen him look so impressed and it made me quite hungry to gobble up all of his praise, so it was with some reluctance that I climbed down from the Awesomely Talented Wife pedestal he had erected and revealed to him that the fabric had actually just come this way (I feel confused as to whether Mr Kaufman is now inhabiting my place on the pedestal).

Oh, well, it's still a really great top, he said. But the look of awe had left his face. I could have been crushed by the new-found knowledge that to make clothes using fabric created by others is the sewing equivalent of assembling some Ikea flat-pack furniture, but actually I was left humbled and delighted by the idea that he thought I might possess the patience (or possibly the lunacy) to create perfectly placed little tufts all over my shirt. Several minutes later my daughter entered the room and assumed the exact same thing and expressed similar amazement. The moral of the story is that if you really want to impress people, you should create hand-tufted fabric - they will LOVE it! 

The top is billowing slightly in the last photo as Nell took me for a faster-than-I'd-hoped-for walk (as is her mischievous way) and it's a delight to see that even in that scenario the fabric is not showing signs of transparency.

In other news, we have just returned from our annual camping trip with old school friends and their families. Since last year's shocking post (where I unexpectedly discovered that I LOVED camping) I had entered a state of disbelief that it could be so, and had spent several weeks dreading it, seeing the forthcoming trip as a blight on the calendar. It will come as no surprise to anyone other than myself to find that I loved it all over again. It turns out that four days spent doing nothing other than sitting around in chairs, chatting, playing cards or rounders, eating and watching campfires crackle and small children toasting marshmallows rates highly in my list of things I like doing. I think what I also enjoy about camping is that there's so little pressure to actually do anything - the effort it takes to undertake basic things such as showering, cooking, getting a drink, journeying to the loos is so great and so absorbing that one is entirely absolved from all other activity.  It helps that the place we go seems to exist in a strange bubble of glorious sunshine and we had another four balmy days this year. Also, that one of our friends made me my very own tin of fudge to consume in case of inclement weather, knowing that my spirits can be kept afloat by such things in emergencies. It was delicious, even in brilliant sunshine.

Finally, if you find yourself with a free day near London, I visited Kew Gardens for the first time in years recently and found it to be pretty close to perfection in terms of a lovely day out and relatively inexpensive too (£18 for the three of us, which seems wonderful value compared to most London attractions that charge an entry fee). The gardens and temperate greenhouses were all amazing, but it was The Hive that stole our hearts.

From the outside, it's hard to see a uniform structure, but viewed from beneath, looking up (as in the first photo), a beautiful order becomes clear. The design is based on a beehive and when you enter the top level and stand inside the hive, it's quite an incredible experience. There is a confusing hum of musical instruments and vibrations that seems un-pin-downable in terms of what the noises are and where it's coming from. It pulses through you and somehow left us all feeling completely calm and rooted. My daughter, son and I sat on the floor in there for at least fifteen minutes and we noticed that others seemed drawn to spend a long time there too. Some people even sat and meditated. The audio is linked to two real hives (I think one elsewhere at Kew and one in Nottingham, if I'm remembering it correctly) and the intensity of music and noise that you hear is entirely determined by the vibrations and activity in the real hives. It feels like a truly special place, although so strange that a written description could never accurately convey quite what it's like. If you get the chance, do go and visit.

Also, randomly, we took the train out to Kew Bridge and en route came across The Natural Kitchen on the upper concourse at Waterloo station, where we bought one of their gluten-free salted caramel brownies. I've never tasted anything like it (and I say that living close to a little coffee shop that makes what I'd previously thought made the best ones imaginable - brownies seem to be the one gluten-free food where there's no compromise in taste), so I would encourage you to make that a part of your Kew experience too if you have a sweet tooth! This post makes it sound like I've been doing very little else other than eating sugar, but until last week, I'd actually had a few months of not having any.

I hope you've had a happy August,
Florence x

* When I went to get a link for the Robert Kaufman swiss dot just now, I found that I'd already shared a photo of an is-this-fabric-sheer test on the internet too! So strange when you search for something and are met with a link to one of your own forgotten posts!

Friday, 18 August 2017

Festival of Quilts 2017 + Tiny Piecing

Firstly, before moving on to the comfort of quilts, if you're reading from America, I just wanted to say how much I've been thinking of you after the awfulness that took place in Charlottesville last weekend and then Trump sinking to new lows in his response to it. I'm sending so much love your way if you've been left reeling from this. x

I hadn't been so sure whether I'd get to the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham this year, but I ended up going over the weekend with the unexpected company of my daughter, who is keen to absorb all the inspiration she can while in the midst of her Textiles GCSE. I usually find the hours of connecting train journeys, the walk through the strange dystopia that is the Birmingham NEC building, and then the sudden joyful overload of inspiration inside the Festival of Quilts to be both thrilling and surreal in equal measure, but it all felt more lovely and less surreal in my daughter's company and we giggled and chatted our way through the day and the journeys seemed too quickly over.

My daughter was more interested in the exhibition side of things than the shops (and I am too, but it's so easy to get side-tracked by the consumeristic imp that lives inside when it comes to sewing supplies!), so we devoted an hour to them at the end of the day and spent the rest of the day carefully combing through the aisles and stands of quilts, trying hard not to miss anything. We'd been so conscientious in this mission that I felt sure we'd left having hoovered up every little bit of inspiration that was there to be had, but on returning home and looking on Instagram, I saw that we'd actually still somehow missed many things. One of which was this portrait by Jenni Dutton. Jenni's work focused on exploring dementia through mixed media pieces and I still feel full of regret that I somehow missed seeing her work in person.


But to the bits that we did see: this princess-cut diamond quilt by Katherine Jones was one of the most extraordinary quilts I've ever seen. It was even more dazzling in real life.

One of the other highlights for both of us was The Egg, which was pieced by Hillary Goodwin and quilted by Rachael Dorr. The texture was fascinating and we found it hard not to touch it. It was difficult to grasp where the piecing ended and the quilting began - they seemed to have morphed deliciously into one.

Kumiko Frydl had a stand all to herself for her miniature quilts and they were so inspiring. All of the samples shared here were less than 30cm/12" square. 

Somehow the machine quilting on these mini quilts feels harder to comprehend that the piecing itself for me. It is just at such a minuscule scale, especially the seaweed quilting that lies in between the main design. I was left feeling fascinated by how Kumiko works and whether she has a vast magnifying glass attached to her machine.

Each year's festival has a slightly different feel, determined by the work that's been submitted and this year felt more weighted toward art quilts and modern quilts. Although the area I'm most drawn to in my quilts is traditional, there's something inspiring about viewing so much work that's not necessarily in my own comfort zone. The thing I took from it was that there's so much potential to make a quilt more wonderful with the quilting and that my own vision often stops when the piecing is completed. It was a slightly uncomfortable realisation to see that in doing so, I'm probably allowing a whole layer of extra interest to go unexplored. I'm slightly frustrated with myself that I didn't take any images to share with you that represent this, but I really loved it when people had envisioned a quilting design that worked like a jigsaw with the piecing - accentuating, complementing or contrasting with it, but never settling for an all-over-design that offered little conversation with the piecing.

I was left feeling it's an area I'd love to explore, but also with an awareness that I lack a natural vision for it - quilting is just never part of what I conjure up in my mind when creating a quilt. My fabric choices and relatively traditional piecing tend to mean that there's very little negative space to fill, but even if there was, I'm not sure I'd see the potential for what could go there. I wonder if you know of any books that you'd be happy to recommend for quilting inspiration? Or maybe a particular quilter's work that it would be good to study? I've been pondering this book by Angela Walters, but I'd love to hear if you have any recommendations. 

Throughout the day, my daughter spotted both Kaffe Fassett and Brandon Mably (I think she's absorbed their faces from the piles of quilting books around the house and perhaps Kaffe's exhibition of quilts at Standen earlier in the year, if there was a photo of him there). We didn't speak to either, but we were looking at some fabric near Kaffe while he was having a conversation with someone else and we heard an anecdote that made us laugh and that we shall keep in our pockets and which feels somehow more lovely than having spoken to him ourselves. I did have a brief chat with Anna Maria Horner, who was just as lovely as I'd imagined she might be. Seeing the crowds of people around her, my daughter asked me later if Anna Maria was the Beyonce of the quilting world. Pretty much :)

I think the quilt-related highlight of the day for me was seeing this framed tiny piecing. When I caught sight of it, I felt drawn to it with an almost magnetic force (that in retrospect, possible caused me to scuttle toward it, rather than maintaining a dignified walking pace). It was just as magical close up as it had looked from several metres away. The pieces were magnificently tiny and the fussy cutting and piecing quite stunning. The stars are pieced from beautiful silk ribbons, which were apparently popular for this use between 1880 - 1920. I don't feel I have adequate words to convey quite how breathtakingly lovely I find it and how ridiculously exciting it was to see it - giddy and heart-flippy don't quite capture it. I'm intending to have a go at recreating a few blocks at the same scale at some point soon - although probably not from ribbon as that's possibly one challenge too many! (FYI - the owner of this piece is Carolyn Gibbs - I'm so grateful she decided to share it at FoQ).

I've become more fascinated with miniature piecing projects recently (I have one appearing in a book I contributed to recently, that I'm looking forward to sharing with you soon) and when I was in the midst of writing my Eight Dials pattern, I had a go at creating a small version of the main block. This one uses Liberty Tana lawns and I quite like how three-dimensional the penultimate round of bulbous blooms makes it appear to be. I find it hard to show scale in photos, but here are a needle, thread and hand for an idea. There are 24 little pieces tucked into this rosette!

It always surprises me to find just how quickly tiny pieces come together - it's obvious because there are less stitches to be made, but I'd always thought that would be evened out by dealing with the tinier pieces, but somehow it's not, as it's never quite as fiddly as I imagine it to be (unlike making doll clothes, which make my fingers feel itchy with how fiddly it is).

I can't remember now how much I scaled down by, but here it is with the regular sized block. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with this little piece, but I've enjoyed having it sitting on my desk for the last few months.

Did you go to FoQ? What was your favourite piece?

Wishing you a happy weekend,
Florence x
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