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Patchwork and quilting as problem solving – or why sewing is good for the brain

There was a piece on the news a couple of weeks ago about the negative impact of the over-fifties watching more than three and a half hours of television a day.  It seems that over these three and a half hours people became more forgetful.  I was never much of a social scientist, but even I had to ask myself about the sample size and make-up.  Who did they ask?  Did they do anything other than watch television, like crossword puzzles or mental arithmetic?  Were they watching game shows or subtitled black and white art films?  Was this a snapshot or a longitudinal study?  Those sorts of questions came to mind.

I am sure that I watch more television than I should, but I don’t just watch television.  I use it like an augmented radio and knit or sew while cocking half an ear to it.  I have sewn on a gazillion beads and put in a million seed stitches while watching the television.  I wondered if the study took this into account.

I get this industrious habit from my mother who was never keen on my sitting idly and passively consuming television.  She drilled me in making the most of my time.  She also introduced me to the concept of a good ironing film.  Sometimes when the stitching is particularly engrossing I really do just listen to the television as if it were the radio.  I recently sat down and started watching a film with the Medieval Historian and just had the feeling that I had seen it before.  I knew the entire plot but did not recognise any visuals.  Then I realised that I had heard it but not seen it.  Very strange.

This is all just a preamble to thinking about craft as therapy.  There is a lot around at the moment about how good sewing is for you, which is something I really do subscribe to, and I am increasingly interested in the way we link the felt and the seen together so closely.  Sewing can certainly slow you down and calm your thinking.  You have to get the posture right, though, as I find that if you are hunched over your work it can lead to diminished breathing which lowers rather than raises your mood.  If you can take care of that, however, then craft can be therapeutic.

This is fine, but I think that our passion for craft is much more than a mood booster.  When you become good at a craft to the point of having mastered it, perhaps, something else becomes important.  Beginners follow instructions, sit with their teachers or watch a YouTube video and learn the basics.  Once we become proficient, though, and want to produce particularly distinctive work, we have to start working things out for ourselves; we have to become problem solvers.  We have to use our accumulated skills to work out how to get the result we want.  Quite a lot of the time we fail, and many artists talk about falling short of what was in their imaginations, of the gap between the subject and the made object.  Some people hate this, but I like the voyage of discovery.  I love those times when you stand back and think, “I made this’ but have no idea where it came from, and I have blogged before about that feeling of turning up and providing the hands while the work almost gives birth to itself.

There was a phase a few years ago when we all got interested in management development in the notion of 10,000 hours producing mastery.  People have been lining up to take potshots at it as a theory for some time, but I still think it has some validity.  You do have to practise your craft.  I remember when I was still teaching at the university and was in a writing class.  One of my students produced a really moving account of why he worked in the NHS.  Someone asked him how long it had taken him to write it, and he was about to say three hours or whatever, when the guest tutor who was leading the session said, ‘40 years’.  All your life experience and all that practice goes into producing our very best work.

In my most recent work I have been rediscovering my childhood passion for making dolls clothes and drawing historical fashions.  This return to childhood with the benefit of a lifetime of experience and education has been therapeutic in the sense of helping me to recover a lost delight.  It has also made me work very hard to exercise my skill and do some immediate problem solving.  My brain has had to get involved to a surprising degree.  How am I going to represent hair?  How am I going to suggest shoes?  How will I get a 3D object to sit satisfactorily on a 2D substrate?  What shape do you actually have to cut to get a wraparound pinny?  What can I use as a blazingly glittering ring when I don’t have a spare diamond lying around?  I have solved all sorts of problems and even if some of them are not that brilliantly realised, at least I had the mental resources to think of something.

I was talking to the excessively talented English Paper Piecing guru, Naomi Clarke, about the therapeutic side of sewing.  We were talking about people wanting to claim it as a way of achieving mindfulness or as a self-soothing activity, but we haven’t seen anything on sewing strictly for the joy of doing it, or as a way of exercising really quite ‘left brain’ skills.  These are the logical, sequential, numerical skills that have been associated with men for so long and leading to high-paying jobs.  Sewing requires great accomplishment in these skills.  It requires planning, conceptualising in three dimensions, calculating quantities and proportions, prototyping and reworking.  These are the skills required in many of the new approaches to strategic management and project management.  I think I could almost argue for dressmaking and embroidery to be on the curriculum at all business schools.

Just to show you what I mean about problem solving though, here is some work in progress from a series of appliqué portrayals of women for my new talk on cozy crime novels.  I start with the basic body form:

 

This gets modified sometimes, as here, to give a profile:

I thought she looked a bit Egyptian at this point, but because of time constraints I had to go with the original plan.  Her face is deliberately just sketched in.  This is because she is an illustration rather than a portrait.

I knew that I wanted to give her expensive highlights and so I tried some glittery fabric:

This is not brilliantly successful and so I will continue to work on it – watch this space.

Then I wanted to make it more three dimensional so I stuffed it a bit, and I love the way that this gives a sort of crêpey neck.

The arm worked really well.  I wanted her to have a wrap dress so I found a scrap of jersey which I sort of draped over her body.  The size of the scrap meant that I had to drape the less stretchy size of the jersey over the form and this did not give such a good finish, but she is well on the way.

I will post more as the series continues.

 

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Trends for 2019

 

For some time I have wondered about doing a pictorial blog, and so this is an experiment using pages from my little ideas notebook.  I am going to start with a bit of a summary in case my writing is too hard to decipher, but after that it is notebook pages.  Any feedback gratefully received.  Just for information, this is my ideas notebook:

It’s a very nice Italian number with wooden covers, which I picked up at a bargain price at TK Maxx.  It’s very small, and I literally use it for quick notes when I have an idea.

This post then, is about trends in decor from the January number of Elle Decoration.  I occasionally do this quick review and have a think about what impact the trends might have on patchwork and quilting.  I think the answer is basically none, but it is worth thinking a bit about if you are hoping to sell anything, or just want a prod to do something slightly different.  This year’s trends then are:

  • Industrial luxury (I am none the wiser having read the article)
  • 1970s full-on Abigail’s Party
  • Yellow and in particular deep mustard and turmeric.  Also recommended: deep mustard, terracotta and teal
  • Chrome
  • Handpainted tiles
  • Lozenges
  • Woven art work on the walls
  • Eco surfaces
  • Coloured stone
  • Graphic lines
  • Rust and rose together
  • Timber

 

 

 

I hope you find something here of interest.

 

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New Year’s Doll 2019

 

Bethan Bear at the only service station she will deign to visit: Gloucester Gateway

Every year I make a doll on New Year’s Day.  I have a few rules.  It must be made from scratch and it must be completed in a single day.  It also has to say something about the year that I have had or the year I want.  This year I broke the rules a bit, because they are my rules for me and I can’t see much point in giving myself a hard time in our current climate.  The doll was finished in one day, but the clothes took me a lot longer.

This year I have been making bears for sale in my Etsy shop so I decided to make one for myself.  I also wanted to make a doll based on a photograph I saw in House and Garden of Bethan Laura Wood who is a textile designer.  She is a walking work of art and I particularly love the way she does her make-up with two spots of rouge and then two extra dots on top:

This was my starting point.  I made the bear out of wool felt with boiled wool features.  Once I put the eyeliner on like Ms Wood, though, the bear suddenly looked like a lioness or a puma, which was a bit of a surprise.

I really enjoyed doing the stem stitch round her eyes, which was done with three strands of embroidery thread.  I made her with long legs in order to make it possible to dress her.  The little squat bears are lovely but their bandy legs are hard to get into trousers.

I took the decision to stitch the clothes by hand which was a debatable choice, but does give them an artisan feel.  I started with trousers and a tunic:

The fabrics are by Amy Butler because I love her joyful use of colour.  The little cotton scarf, however, is a piece of IKEA furnishing fabric which I had dyed for another project.  Then I made the duster coat to go over the top, and started on the accessories.  I made her a shawl from mustard yellow yarn which is pure acrylic but produced a lovely drapey texture.  The colour is also apparently one of the hot looks for 2019.  I appliquéd a felt artichoke on it.  I don’t think it particularly looks like an artichoke but I do like it as an appliqué piece:

For her hat, I used the rather ropey knitting I did on four needles.  It was my first ever piece of tubular knitting.  I crocheted an edging to try and make it a bit more appealing as a wrist warmer or something.  It remained stunningly unattractive, but came into its own as a hat from Bethan.  I added two tassels and appliquéd a rose in a finer wool and acrylic mix felt:

I made her some jewellery and finally, I made sure to add some pompoms on her shoes to echo the fantastic ones on Bethan Laura Wood’s pumps.

I absolutely love her and she is definitely not for sale.

 

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What can we learn from Tyger?

I have been blogging for a while now and so I don’t quite remember if I have blogged before about taking joy in our work.  Joy in work has been a big thing for me for years.  I have long been interested in William Morris.  I am fascinated by his contradictions.  He was a life-long socialist dedicated to the production of exquisite craft which he believed would lead to the improvement of the masses.  Beauty will save the world by making people more civilised and so on.  But the craft he produced was so exquisite and so labour-intensive that the working classes could not possibly afford it.  I do admire him, though, for his insight at the height of industrialisation that the world of work is a much better place if people experience joy in what they are doing.  We need to find meaning in what we do, and if we enjoy the physicality of doing it, so much the better.  This is a real challenge today when so much work is virtual and an endless stream, so there is little prospect of a tangible end product.

This is a long preamble to the point I want to make about end products.  In my culture with my upbringing celebrating the work of my own hands is really frowned up.  It is labelled showing off, showing pride, being big-headed and full of oneself, and yet, to have finished something that pleases you is a brilliant sensation.  We do not allow ourselves that phase in the work process where we sit back and admire what we have done.  I have taught creativity for years and I don’t recall coming across a single creativity process in which the final phase wasn’t along the lines of going back and seeing what you could have done better.  Constantly finding fault in your work, in effect.

I think we need to allow ourselves time and opportunity to say, and please pardon the coarseness of this: I MADE THIS AND I BLOODY LOVE IT.  It’s brilliant.  Look at the skill that went into it.  Look how it adds to the joy of nations.  Look how it makes us see the world slightly differently.  Look how it fills me up with delight to think I knew how to do this and now I have done it.  Look at this thing I made which came as a surprise to me as it resolved itself, but now I am overjoyed to have it in my hand.

I mention all this because I recently experienced it myself when I made Tyger here.  I have been making bears recently as you will see from other posts, and they have been from fabric I used to make some party decorations and wanted to recycle.  When I came to a batch of orange fabric I knew I wanted to make a tiger – so this is Tyger, the bear who wanted to be a tiger.

I start the pieces by making a piece of cloth, boro style, from which I then cut the shapes for the bear.

I have been collecting fabric to make a tiger rug quilt for a while now.  So off I went and it soon became clear that this one was not destined for my etsy shop.  There is just too much work in it.  All the stripes are appliquéd on and then strengthened with hand stitching.

 

You can see from the photo below how much work there is in this by how much the worked side has shrunk:

Charging for time is impossible.  And so I realised that I was going to be keeping Tyger.  This is a bit liberating because it meant that I could do what I wanted.  I experimented with the stitching on his tummy:

This is a lovely white wool felt, because why spoil something you love with the tacky nylon stuff?  It was sheer delight to work with, and the experiment was in stitching it with a pale yellow-y cream thread rather than white.  I think it worked really well.  It gave texture which was tactile and visual.

The final element was the face.  I had some reference material, but one big inspiration is the fabulous markings around my dog’s eyes.  We joke at home about how early she must get up to get her eye makeup on:

We are looking at the foxy one at the front.  I was probably also channelling Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra a bit.

This is Tyger:

These Trimmit cat’s eyes are perfect.  Now I know that tigers are big cats and bears are more or less big dogs and so Tyger wouldn’t have eyes like this, but if we can believe a bear would dress up as a tiger we can believe he would buy some special effect contact lenses.

Once the eyes were in he was irresistible to me;

I

His eyes are really widely spaced and big rather than small and placed low down so that he is cute like Belle:

And this makes him slightly more menacing.  I also think he has an illustrative quality, and I can see him starring in a children’s book.

I think he is gorgeous.  He is solidly stuffed so he feels good as well as looks good.  I am in love with him, and am going to find him a great spot in the studio so he can be inspirational in the coming year.

Endnote; the photos in this post are not brilliant.  Hold tight.  I am hoping that Santa will bring a technology update.

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Art crossover

A couple of weeks ago the medieval historian and I went to the Djangoly Gallery at the Lakeside Gallery at the University of Nottingham and saw an exhibition of work called ‘Space Light Colour’ by Rana Begum.  She makes large work playing with the three elements in the title: Space, light and colour.  The work changes totally as you move through space.  In the large pieces there were strips of square material – I think, wood, painted different colours on different sides so they look different as you see them from the left, right or straight on.

We were there on the most beautiful bright sunny morning and this made the colours glow in the white gallery.  But my eye was really caught by two smaller pieces which really reminded me of boro, the Japanese mending technique.  They start out looking like op art but change as you move in closer:

 

 

 

 

The superimposition of the grids leads to little cross marks just like the random boro stitches making cross stitches:

 

 

Really good show by an artist/architect who was new to me.

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Brave Bear Belle

My bear making exploits continue.  This Belle.  She has a guilty secret which is that her body is not made of old patchwork too tatty to do anything with other to be cut up.  It is actually a printed, commercially produced quilt which I bought for a fiver in a charity shop.  Now, I, in common with most quilters, disapprove of women in sweatshops making cheap quilts for sale in big department stores and the like, so I have qualms here.  But the quilt is fantastic.  It looks old and faded and pre-loved and all that.  Plus it is soft to stitch through.  And there is a lot of it.

Otherwise the bit tummy and muzzle and ears are made with considerably more expensive and ‘luxe’ fabric, a boiled wool from a very classy knitting wool shop.

Belle was one of those projects which just fell together.  I was musing on where the variegated ribbon was in my stash (= oddments shoved in a plastic bag inside another plastic bag) and dreading the excavation to find it when a card of fancy stuff I had bought on a whim in Liberty literally fell on my foot as I moved the first plastic bag.  The button also floated to the top of my button box, along with two black buttons which I used for the eyes having risen to the top of my mother’s.  She is a very sweet bear, and this is her story:

Brave Bear Belle

The other day Belle was sitting quietly in her well-appointed cave when she heard a hiker in the woods crying out,’Help, stop thief’.  She dropped what she was doing (sudoko), and rushed out to help.  She couldn’t see what was happening at first, but it soon became clear that someone had stolen the hiker’s rucksack and made their escape through the forest.  Quick as a flash, Belle climbed the nearest, tallest tree and spotted the robber.  She leapt to the ground, and following secret ursine paths through the trees, she caught up with the robber and came to a halt right in front of him.  ‘Put that down,’ she roared, ‘and put it down now’.  The terrified robber dropped the bag and the park ranger soon arrived to congratulate Belle and apprehend the villain.  Belle received the Ursine Valour Medal, first class, which she proudly wears here.  She keeps it in a box on a very high shelf well above the reach of burglars in her bijoux dwelling.

She’s about to go into my Etsy shop which you can find under PomegranateByAnn.

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In which commerce raises its ugly head

A couple of weeks ago I had a small, experimental, try-out stand at a tone-y sort of textile fair to promote my workshops at Pomegranate Studio.  I am still not sure if it generated any business, but it was a good source of feedback.  I was advertising my Blinged-up Boro workshop and took along a lot of examples of the sort of things we would make.  The two small boro-inspired plushie bears I made proved to be very popular:

I blogged about this pair earlier if you would like to know more about them (https://pomegranatestudio.co.uk/2018/06/14/little-boro-bear-and-big-boro-bear/).

As they generated interest, I thought I would make a few more and develop some patterns.  This is fine but there comes a time when you only have so much room for samples.  My mother has a wonderful phrase for this, ‘I’d rather have their room than their company’, which is a line which rings through my head when I am sorting stuff out for the charity shop/thrift store.  In addition to this, I retired from my teaching job just over a year ago, taking very early retirement, and frankly, I need to generate some cash.  And so, much as I love the bears, and so much else of the things I make, I am going to have to learn to sell them.

And so I have decided to revive my ailing Etsy shop.  I started it in 2014 but have never really got going with it.  There is a thriving community of Etsy makers in Bristol and so I have been much encouraged by the bright, enthusiastic, talented young people who are using Etsy and making some sort of return on it.  My bears are going to be my first items in this relaunch.

The two little boro bears are already up there, and so now is the first of my bigger bears, Arturo.

Arturo, of course, is a variation of Arthur, which means ‘bear’.  It was also my grandad’s name.  I know that means this chap is called Bear Bear which is daft, but I like the play on words.  All the bears in this series are going to have stories to go with them.  I realised at the textile fair that one of the things that people loved was when I told them stories about my workshops and products.  This is his story:

Please, please will someone give a home to Arturo, or I won’t be able to part with him. He is such a character. He claims to have danced in Paris with Maya Angelou and to have had cocktails with Jackie O on her yacht. Given his very dapper demeanour and witty conversation, I can well believe it.

Arturo is hand made from pure cotton patched together boro-style. Boro is a Japanese mending technique. His natty beret and foulard are hand-crocheted.

He is 30 cm/11.5″ tall and 33cm/13″ from paw tip to paw tip.

He is not intended as a child’s toy and children should not be allowed to play with him unsupervised. He would, however, be perfect as a commemorative Christening/Naming toy for a lucky child.

Bear made from 100% pure cotton, hand-dyed, with safety eyes and safety stuffing. Hat and scarf 100% pure new wool.

I will include a pattern for these bears in a subsequent post, as there are more to come.  They are not that hard to construct, and all the skill goes into the decoration.  Arturo was made from IKEA fabric which I dyed in a batch using Dylon machine dye so that they all toned together.  His muzzle is a piece of old charity shop cashmere sweater with some embroidery and a scrap of boiled wool.

I also really enjoyed making his accessories.  The beret, in particular, was a lot of fun and really satisfying as I worked out for myself how to get the shape of the hat in crochet and, even more rewardingly, how to make the little stalk thing in the middle:

If you want to visit my Etsy shop you can go to www.etsy.com and search for PomegranateByAnn or have a go with this link; https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/PomegranateByAnn.

Thanks for reading to the end of this one.

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Cuckoo Bush Quilters

A couple of weeks ago I went to my mother’s quilting group’s exhibition in Gotham, Notts.  This is Goat-ham not Gotham, home of Batman.  It’s got its own Wise Men of Gotham lore in which the inhabitants acted like fools to stop a royal visit which would have meant opening up the road to the village which they didn’t want to do.  One of the foolish activities they undertook was to hedge in a cuckoo and the village commemorates the very spot where this was supposed to have happened.  The spot turns out to be a neolithic burial ground.

There is also an 18C nursery rhyme:

Three wise men of Gotham,
They went to sea in a bowl,
And if the bowl had been stronger
My song would have been longer.

And so it goes on.  The villagers are very proud of this tradition of feigning idiocy to avoid inconvenience.  I once worked for a boss who had an ‘I’m a simple country lad from Bridgwater’ routine which threw people off the scent of his really quite forensic brain.  I am, however, digressing.

The exhibition was held in the local church as you can see from the above photograph.  The medieval historian had been lured in with the promise of tea and homemade cake, but was actually quite interested in the church itself, which, it appears has some fine tombs and some very early stonework.  And there were indeed cakes.

It was a lovely exhibition because it was a good group show.  I like exhibitions where everyone is included and where there are displays of different quilts coming out of the same workshops or group challenges.  This show was nice because so many of the quilts were draped over the pews and various sofas, so it gave it a kind of cosy nomad tented feel.  By this I mean that you could imagine reclining on all the soft quilts, and then being able to pack them up and be on your way following the herd or going to the next oasis or whatever your nomadic tribe got up to.

I very much liked this quilt which was draped over some choir stalls:

I love the vintage placement and all over design with a modern palette.  It is wrong, really, to single out one piece, but it is the one that I would have taken home with me.

Really, though, this was about my mother showing off her quilt.  Now this quilt has been hanging about in various stages of construction for years.  In the end, I said I would take it and get it long-arm-quilted for her so that it would get finished.  I also did the binding and the hanging sleeve, so I like to think that I made a contribution to it.  It’s called Scherenschnitte after the paper cutting technique, where you fold paper and cut to make symmetrical snowflakes:

This is not a brilliant photograph because the lighting was not the greatest on a really rainy day, but it gives you an idea of the layout.  It is all hand appliqué:

But, I have to give a load of credit to Frances Meredith who did the quilting.  That perfectly fitting circular motif was just gorgeous, as was the extravagant feather border:

She took something that we really just wanted to see that back of and made it into a stunning piece which was greatly admired.  She even told me the fabric range that the main blue fabric came from so that I could find the dark blue binding to match.  I cannot recommend her services highly enough.  Her business is called Faberdashery and she is a joy to work with.

So, a success all round, and we also won a raffle prize which turned out to be some lovely fat quarters from the Moda Grunge range.

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Yet more recycled fabric

This is one of those pieces that I am making but have no idea why.  I am just really enjoying stitching together these tiny scraps leftover from the leftovers of leftovers.  I think after this I might finally have to throw the scraps away.  I think it has the spirit of boro: never wasting anything, and if there is a gap finding a piece of fabric to cover it and then stitching it down.

It is put together on curtain lining scraps with embroidery floss which is turning out to be my current favourite thread:

 

I don’t really know what to do with it.  I might cut it up and make it into another dog or a bird:

It will be quite big when it’s finished.

I think it’s a form of crazy patchwork although the wadding is already on the fabric which has been machine quilted.  It’s quite hard on the wrists, though.

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Boro blocks

Making stuff is great, and making samples just try out a technique is also satisfying, but there is often the question of what to do with them afterwards.  I was walking past a house in my neighbourhood which had a pile of oddments of bits of pine from some home improvement job.  They were left outside the house, and it is a custom in the area where I live that we leave stuff out that we are happy to give away.  Fortunately, I had a backpack and so I took them away because it struck me that they were just about the right size for my boro samples.

It was really strange quite how well they fitted together.  The boro is just the tiniest bit bigger in most cases.  The one with turquoise beads was cut to length but otherwise they just paired up.

I sanded the wood a bit and then was going to paint them with trendy Farrow and Ball colours, but I had a can of off-white chalk spray paint which I had bought to do up another street find, and I used that.  This really speeded up the process, and, because I gave them a light spray the blocks looked a bit like they have been limed.  Once they were dry I stuck the textile to the wood with a generous dollop of PVA glue.

This one is made with an off-cut from a  red and white quilt I trimmed with some hand-embroidered laisy daisy vine wandering between the two boro patches.

This is made from scraps of sari fabric, worked with perle cotton.

This is a combination I really like of blue and orange.  The orange beads are from a broken necklace from a charity shop.  The orange thread is perle crochet cotton which I dyed for my boro workshop.

I am not quite sure about this one as it is a little pouch.  I suppose it could be a money box

This is probably my favourite.  Lots of Tula Pink fabric and some turquoise beads.  I like the colour combination.

Grouped together I think they look particularly nice.  After the workshop, I will be putting them into my Etsy shop.