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Kaffe Fassett at the London Fashion and Textiles Museum



Yesterday I went to the London Fashion and Textile Museum with my Grate Frend, Beatriz.  We went to see the Kaffe Fassett exhibition.  She had never heard of him, which I found a bit strange as all knitters and  patchworkers and needlepointers in the UK will know his innovative and colour-soaked work.  Anyway, it was a lovely show – unfortunately it finishes tomorrow, so you will have to be quick to see it.

I took some pictures, but flash wasn’t permitted (understandably) so my photos are a bit murky.  There was plenty of his work on display including his paintings which I think I have only seen reproduced in his books up to now.

What was interesting to me, however, as a raging egotist, was Beatriz’s comment that his work is like mine.  I think it is probably the other way round.  He has been a huge influence on me, and still is, I think.  Since I came across his first book Glorious Knitting at an impressionable age, I haven’t been able to resist a yellow background:


His work has always been highly decorative, with detail being one of the main design elements:

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I love these little crocheted and beaded caps he seems to be doing now.

But I think that what I mainly got from him was something about pattern.  I remember going to a lecture by him in Bath years ago and taking away one thing he said which was that if you repeat something, even a mistake, it will look deliberate and like part of a pattern.  This has saved me on a number of occasions:


Pattern making, particularly with beads, is a huge part of my work.

Finally, he gave me what he gave lots of women in the eighties and nineties, a freedom with colour.  Again, I remember reading in one of his books that one red is difficult to work with, but ten reds are easy and give a vaguely faded feel to a piece.  I have used this a lot in my work.  Firstly lots of red which I love, and secondly lots of variations on a colour in one piece of work:


I’m not sure if you can still get this pencil print, but it is exactly how I feel about red, pink and orange.  This is why I will never be a really trendy embroiderer.  I cannot do that bleached out, stripped back stuff.  I think colour is life.  I have taken to wearing bright red lipstick in my fifties just for the hell of it and life really changes.  I had a friend who said that if every woman in the country were given an Estee Lauder Parallel Red lipstick we could do without assertiveness courses altogether.


Confidence with colour marks Kaffe Fassett’s work and I think I owe him a real debt for that.

images-3PS.  Naturally I bought his autobiography in the tiny shop.  I got it home to find it was an autographed copy which was a delight.  On reading it, however, I discover his birth name was Frank.  I seriously don’t think he would have gone so far called Frank Fassett.  Kaffe, by the way, comes from a children’s book about Ancient Egypt that he loved.




Walter Benjamin Artist’s Book – Progress


I blogged recently about the panel to make up the cover for the Walter Benjamin ‘Destructive Character’ artist’s book.  I have now finished the first half of the panel, the part based on the crazy patchwork tradition.  This is what I started with:


and this is how it’s finished:


I really enjoyed learning some of the composite crazy quilt embroidery stitches although I am not great at them.  I also loved putting a bagful of beads on as I haven’t done much of this sort of work recently.

I now have to make the stripped down top to this piece, and make the title, possibly on primed canvas.  I have bought some of those ready gessoed boards you can buy to mount it over.  I like doing coptic binding so I might use that to put the pages in, or possibly a loose Japanese stab binding I’ve found.  But I only have a fortnight to get the whole thing done – and, of course, I have had a whole year.

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Walter Benjamin Artists’ Book continued




I am continuing my slow progress on my artists’ book about Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Destructive Character’.  I think that this might eventually be the cover.  This is the bottom half of the panel.  The top is going to be stripped back, bleached, slashed, raw edges and with a modernist stainless steel brooch incorporated somehow.  This is the botton half.  This represents the Victorianism or Bismarckian or Gruenderzeit aesthetic that I think he was rejecting (I am almost certainly misinterpreting it, but the project has changed from understanding the essay to understanding how Benjamin is my muse).  So in this part of the panel I wanted to use a very traditional crazy quilt style which was hugely popular in England for a while and epitomises the leisured class element of Victoriana, super-over embellished pieces of needlework which serve very little purpose except to show off the maker’s ability with the needle:





Much too delicate and too heavy to sleep under, so they tended to be throws and firescreen panels and so on.

My big problem was that I could not bear to cut up the pieces into the irregular or crazy – like crazed glazes on china – shapes that you need to make this work.  So I have ended up with squares from a pack I bought which I think were samples for fancy waistcoats or ties or similar.  My crazy really should be crazier, but I did enjoy starting to embellish it, and learning some of the combination stitches you need to use to make it look authentic:



This is a decorated cretan stitch.  The following is a more composite stitch:



It’s cretan stitch with straight stitch and colonial knots, plus glass beads which look like bunches of grapes to me.  The close up makes me realise how shocking my embroidery is – certainly not making me marriage material in Victorian England.  But I wanted to include some photos of the piece before it get encrusted with stuff, which it will.  It’s a perfect travelling piece and the pieces, which are properly  turned under (unusually for me), have stayed very flat because I used thoroughly contemporary fabric spray glue to keep them down while I sew them.. The result is much flatter and less ‘domed’ than you usually get with an applique piece.  The glue might eventually corrode the silk, but I expect to be dead by then and past caring!

More on this as it develops.



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What I did at the weekend


As part of my day job, I chair a scholarly organisation of academics working with critical or alternative ideas about management and organising, SCOS, which stands for Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism.  I am currently SCOSBoss.  This weekend was our Spring board meeting, and because the conference will be held in Utrecht in July 2014 we went on a visit to the university where it will be held for a look round.  It’s a really lovely place, a bit like Amsterdam but less busy and frantic.  I’ve always found Amsterdam a bit febrile, but Utrecht is much more relaxed, and half an hour from Schiphol by train.

Obviously there was serious business to be done, but our hosts arranged a walking tour of the city after the board meeting.  And naturally, as we were appreciating the Roman origins and the havoc caused by the Reformation and the various invading armies that this part of the Netherlands experienced, I was on the look out for shops.  There are two canals in Utrecht and one of them has a wonderful art shop, a bead shop and – of course – a quilting shop.


The quilt shop which is called Carol Cox is really lovely.  She seems to specialise in Japanese fabric and in gently faded colourways.


I particularly liked the way that she had some quite small scale pieces of patchwork framed as little works of art rather than turned into wall hangings.  I think this gives patchwork the dignity it deserves.


I bought some really exquisite Japanese fabric which has pattern on the reverse made by the weave:


And here are the fabrics in the same order on the reverse:


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I alos bought some fat quarters of a genuine Dutch fabric, a dress weight version of a reproduction chintz which I loved for the design and the sheen, but also the subtle colours:


As ever, I could have spent an absolute fortune.  There was a hitch with my mastercard not being acceptable, so while I was digging around for the euros the lady who served me, who might have been Carol herself, gave me a lovely piece of very pale blue fine linen as a free gift. I thought that was a lovely gesture.

I couldn’t resist this book which is in Dutch but has great pictures:


It has a slightly different edge to textiles than you get in British collections, and I reasoned to myself that it wasn’t likely that I would come across it again, so I had better grab it while I saw it.

By the way, be careful if you decide to google Carol Cox.  There is a very enthusiastic amateur pornographer of the same name and you might not end up on the site you were expecting.

On the way back to the hotel I went into a wonderful art supply shop.  It had the full range of my current favourite Posca pens, and this lovely display of powdered pigment, plus the glass pestles to mix them with oil.


After that was the bead shop which had the beads in printers’ trays in chests of drawers:


Utrecht also seems to be a home for yarnbombers, and this is one of the most extensive ones I have ever seen:

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It turned out to be a sort of advertising installation for a children’s shop over the bridge, but it was one of the more visually appealing yarn bombs I’ve come across.

Finally, at the airport I bought a copy of this magazine, again in Dutch, but for paper lovers, it was a real treat:


I would definitely buy it in a British edition.


There is a nice website and blog for this publication, but I couldn’t see if you can get an English version.

So, throw in the Museum of Contemporary Aborginal Art and the Miffy museum and it’s a location for a textile/art lover’s perfect weekend.

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My quilting bona fides




Most of the time I make quite small pieces, or large pieces which are more about surface embellishment or ‘ideas’.  But just occasionally I do a bit of traditional non-nonsense, uncomplicated patchwork and quilting.  This is an example of the latter.  It was originally meant to be a cover to protect the sofa from the dogs, but as time (a lot of time) went by, it became increasingly apparent that dogs would not be invited to sit on it.  It was a holiday project that I took to Pembrokeshire a couple of times, and up to my mother’s.  I started it years and years ago when I went to a Kaffe Fassett exhibition at the American Museum at Claverton, just outside Bath.  I thought that the large pieces looked like it would be quite quick to make (wrong again):




It began with scrap fabric (because it was aimed at dogs rather than people) but I started to buy fabric when i was on holiday, mostly the batiks.  It has a virtually antique piece of red Jinny Beyer fabric for the binding.  I had it long-arm quilted at Midsomer Quilting:




The pattern is called ‘Tempest’ which I thought rather suited the slightly nautical feel of the quilt.  Midsomer Quilting did a fantastic job with it.  It lies perfectly flat against the wall, the corners are totally square, the binding is dead straight and unpuckered, which says a lot about silk purses and sows’ ears.  I am really happy with it.  I think it took roughly ten years, but was worth the wait.  And it makes me feel like a proper quilter, able to hold my head up with the quilting sorority when I do talks on the whacky stuff!


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All our yesterdays


I have been clearing out the stuff we had to clear out from my mother-in-law’s attic in something of a hurry, and finally got round to a bag that I don’t think I have opened for at least fifteen years.  It turned out to be full of beautiful but now very dated Liberty woollen shawls, long lengths of calico which smelled really musty and required two good long cycle washes to be bearable, and a selection of my very first attempts at a number of things.  Some, like the dull Hawaiian applique piece, aren’t really worth sharing, but some are a bit more interesting.  So today’s second  post is a bit of a gallery rather than having anything very profound to say.


This is a very early quilt made from a pattern which dates from a time when I had the leisure to make things for Christmas.  I expect it was hand-pieced over papers. It looks okay from a distance, but close up you can see that the quilting is so bad that I had to stuff the centre to make it look deliberate:


The points aren’t bad, though.


I have no idea why I made this piece.  I think it fitted over a dull arm chair we had when we first got married.  It looks like it was ‘inspired’ by a workshop I did with Dawn Pavitt many years ago.  She famously told me: ‘If it offends the maker take it out.’  She didn’t believe in only you will notice it once the binding’s on.  She thought a mistake would irritate you every time you looked at it, and I think she was right.  It’s done with quilt as you go.  It has a fair bit of Laura Ashley fabric and some from Clothkits which used to have a sort of factory shop in Bath when we first moved here:


Notice the skilled use of decorative machine stitching…


And one of my earliest attempts at free machine quilting.  I am delighted to say that at least my competence in this area has improved.

Here are a couple of place mats that I was inordinately pleased with:


A Grandmother’s Fan.  Incidentally, I am now of an age where I feel that the fan should be reinstated as a fashion item.  Anyway, here is a log cabin version:


The quilting on this isn’t bad:


The fabric on the right of the picture gives some indication of the range of quilting cottons that were available.  Okay but not spectacular.  We did tend to use a lot of Liberty fabric.  I made this little quilt to go on top of a wooden blanket box we still have.  It sat in the window, though, and more or less disintegrated in front of my eyes:


This had very clear colours when it was first made entirely from Liberty tana lawn.   I always wanted something like this, very faded, almost eighteenth-century looking, but I was hoping to buy one one day rather than making one myself.  This does not help in the quest for eternal youth:


I’m not sure where that green stain came from; I think I might have to wash it again with some stain remover.

So, not all that lovely, but definitely like meeting old friends again.

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On not having a Kaffe Fassett quilt




I haven’t posted much recently because I am mainly trying to finish things off and there isn’t much to show.  I have taken two quilts to be professionally quilted which is a great way of getting them out of their plastic bags and off my workroom floor – so I feel like I am progressing the tidying up, although I then have to do something with them when they return.  I made the first one to cover the sofa when the dogs are bounding about, but, of course, so much work has gone into it that I now can’t let them anywhere near it.  It was made of scraps but these have been transformed into precious fragments after hours have gone into the cutting and stitching.

That aside, I have been finishing off a quilt that my sewing group made for me.  We all took a month of the year and chose a theme and the others in the group, The Saint Andrews Quilters, made the blocks.  So we have had pretty hearts for Valentine’s day, and sparkly fireworks for November, and shiny crystaline snow for January.  My month was either June or July (I don’t have a great head for details), and I wanted to use up a stash of strawberry prints that I have had for a long time.  I began collecting them because strawberries are the Medieval Historian’s favourite fruit.  Shortly before they closed down Rose and Hubble, did a line of really luscious strawberry prints and I couldn’t resist.  So, I chose a very simple Kaffe Fassett design and off we went.  This is the quilt from Quilt Road, one of those irresistible Rowan books:




And this is the book:




And this is Kaffe wearing the quilt on the back of the book:




And now we are getting to the point of the post.

The quilt is very nearly finished.  I am stitching the borders together, and it is really nice, but not what I was expecting, and this is what I wanted to blog about.  I really love Kaffe Fassett’s work and have done for ages.  I bought a copy of Glorious Knitting and pored over every beautiful page and photograph.  I love that idea that you don’t just use one red you use ten, or ten blues, and a flash of lime green.  I have loved his work for years.  But my quilt, which I will photograph when it’s finished, just didn’t look like Kaffe’s: lovely as it is,it isn’t Kaffe.  It has a large variety of blue fabric but it doesn’t have that Kaffe colour drench effect.

I was leafing through the introduction to the book and found out why.  As he says, traditionally quilters use a lot of contrast in terms of light and dark.  Make sure your lights are light and your darks are really dark, and be careful about those mediums is advice that I have been given on any number of workshops.  And if you are interested in playing around with block designs, that is good advice.  If you want those blocks to show up you have to make sure you have enough contrast in the fabric.  But Kaffe isn’t really interested in making Irish Chains that leap out at you, he is interested in a wash of colour, so he deliberately chooses all medium tones.  This is conventional wisdom overturned, but it does explain how his colour glows, and why my quilt with its strawberry prints on pale backgrounds don’t zing like his.  The question then becomes, does this matter or not?

At one level it does because I started out to make a Kaffe Fassett quilt, but in another it is quite a good thing, I think, that I didn’t make a clone.  I have got a quilt which mine and which makes me think of the Medieval Historian, rather than having a pale imitation of Fassett’s style, which he does much better than I can.  Starting with a strawberry printed on white, I could never have achieved a Fassett colourwash, but I have achieved a quilt which will have tremendous sentimental value and which has luscious strawberries all over it.  I remember a very well known quilter running a workshop in Bristol in which people used her techniques and closely specified materials who was then surprised when all the workshop samples looked as if they could have been made by her.  She was really disappointed but gave people no room to improvise.  I am not that good at slavish copies.  Better a really good version of yourself than a pale imitation of someone else, as the saying goes.

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Inspirational book




Sometimes on the blog I like to give a recommendation for an inspirational book and this one, Conflict and Costume: The Herero Tribe of Namibia is wonderful.  I found the book featured in Selvedgewhich is also inspirational.  The book, by Jim Naughton, is about a tribe in South West Africa which was colonised by the Germans in the nineteenth century.  There was a war in 1904-08 and the Germans withdrew in 1915, but they left behind a weird combination of militarism and Little House on the Prairie chic.  So there are young men in uniforms complete with homemade cardboard trappings like this:




But more interestingly for me, women still wearing extraordinary patchwork dresses inspired at least in part by missionary influence under colonial rule:




The cow headdresses show the importance of cattle in the culture and they get much smaller as women get older and less fertile.  But the patchwork dresses are quite extraordinary, more so because they are supposed to be long to give the impression that the women are floating. The effect is also heightened by Naughton’s photographs which are shot in the arid desert landscapes.  The book is published by Merrell and is an absolute treat.  I don’t know how I will use it yet, and I think that some of the Laura Ashley dolls are not unlike the dresses in the photographs purely by accident, but I am sure that I will draw upon this imagery at some point.




















What I did at the weekend


Well, I had a very busy and routine week last week.  I taught the same two seminars over and over again to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure what I had said in any of them.  I am not complaining about this; it is the day job, but it did leave me close to brain dead by Friday evening.  So, I made the decision to do some creative work over the weekend (teaching is creative, but you know what I mean), and there will be plenty to post about.  But, I thought I would start with a project that I thought was finished.  This is the mourning quilt that I  made a while ago, using the fabric from one of my longest standing quilting friends, Peggy, who died a couple of years ago.  Those of us in the little quilting group, St Andrews Quilters, all had a small bag of her fabric.  I decided to make mine into a memorial quilt so I made very simple patchwork and then put on a frame of black beads, like Victorian jet mourning jewellery.

It has been hanging about for some time, but I took it out for another look, it being All Saints Day and All Souls Day last week.  It looked like a frame without a picture.  There was a big gap where something ought to be.  So, I took it up to my workroom. It would have been nice to have had a picture to put in there, but in the end I went back to the death theme and a line I remember from Shakespeare:

Come away, come away, death,

And in sad cypress let me be laid;

Fly away, fly away breath;

I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,

O, prepare it!

My part of death, no one so true

Did share it.

It’s from Twelfth Night, one of those A-level books you never forget for the rest of your life.

I put in the sad cypruses using black silk and spray adhesive and then I stood back.  What would the Kemshalls do?  I wondered.  I have been given a massive sheet of gold foil by the wonderful Davina, artist and walking work of art.  It came from the Scrap Store.  In craft shops it is violently expensive, but this sheet was leftover from photographers putting very fine gold lines on their mounts – I could tell from what had left its ghostly form on the sheet I had.  So it was free.  Such a bargain that I could be liberal with it.  I gilded the trees using bits of bondaweb and then stitched a leafing pattern in to the quilting.



In the end, I rather like it.  The existing embroidery picks up the evergreen foliage theme, and the black and gold lifts it out of being a miserable piece.



It’s a nice way to remember Peggy.

More on the weekend’s activities later.

What I did at the weekend – mainly for fabric lovers



The Medieval Historian was working on his big book yesterday and this left me at a bit of a loose end.  I had the afternoon and the car to myself, and so I decided to go to Downend to have a look at Fabric Plus.  Downend is not exactly the ritziest shopping area in Bristol, but this fabric shop has opened and I thought I should give it a visit.  Plus the idea of having all the time I wanted to look round without sighing and. ‘I’ll just go for a bit of a walk’, echoing in my ear was too good to miss.

Fabric Plus is pretty much what it sounds like.  It is a fabric shop which also sells knitting wool and haberdashery.  It had the big rolls of sparkly stuff for making into dance costumes for little girls, but it also had a pretty decent range of patchwork cotton, and some nice printed cotton on the roll.  I bought some cotton printed with strawberries in a blue colourway.  One of my side projects is making a series of quilts with St Andrews Quilters where we all have our own quilt at the end.  Mine is predominantly blue, but has strawberry prints which I have collected over the years, so finding a blue-ish strawberry print for five pounds a metre for the back was great.

The fabric I fell in love with, though, was this one, a gorgeous peacock print:


I think it’s by Rowan.  I couldn’t resist it.  I checked to make sure that I could cut round a complete peacock with a view to using it in an applique, and I think I might make another peacock panel.  The one I made for the Threads of Identity series which has been in the Bath Textile Artists Show in which I have taken part, has been a big success – people seem to love peacocks.  So I wonder if another peacock panel might be fun to make.  I am aware of the irony, that for me, the peacock symbolises grown-up mature, wonderful women, when the bird itself is male.  I link it with Hera, queen of the gods, but maybe strong, powerful, grown-up mature women need a bit of masculine energy in the mix too.

I also bought a bag of remnants, which for the most part are a bit uninspiring:


but I would have paid the £1.50 requested just for the furry bit:

I have no idea what I am going to do with it, but it was far too lovely to pass by.

The other thing I really liked about the shop was that there was a wide range of people in there, some buying fabric for their granddaughter’s majorette dress, some buying knitting wool and putting stuff by, which something I remember from my childhood, and some like me, treating ourselves to beautiful fabric because we just wanted it.  And, there was precious little card-making and rubber-stamping stuff.  I know that these hobbies have kept craft shops open, which is great, but it was a relief not to see yet another fabric shop drown under a wave of card blanks and ink pads.   The shop felt like a community resource, and I hope it prospers.