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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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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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Inspired by boro

This is not the best picture in the world, but it gives an idea of my latest boro-inspired experiment. I used a convenient pomeranian dog to prop it up against for the photograph and I don’t think it really worked.

This piece, which is about the size of an A4 piece of paper, is made from strips of silk, mainly slubbed dupion, which I tore ages ago to make a scarf.  I had made about a foot of the scarf before I realised it looks fantastic in the book but would look ridiculous on me.  So, I was left with a bag of bits, and, as regular readers will know, I can’t bear to throw anything away.  I found them recently when looking for something else of course.   I rather like them as a variation on the boro idea of making up a cloth using tiny scraps, and I particularly like the rich colours of the shot dupion:

The strips were hand sewn with perlé cotton onto a piece of linen from a charity shop skirt, and the whole thing was a delight to sew.

I am doing quit a bit of hand sewing at the moment as it is too hot for machining in my studio and the fan blows all my stuff about.  Plus, I am still learning how to use my behemoth of a new machine.  Watch this space, though, for when it cools down and I start to become more machine confident.

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Welsh Tweed Eggs

The medieval historian and I are just back from our annual trip to Pembrokeshire.  The family joke is that we go for the dogs, but actually, we go because it is so beautiful and we never tire of the beaches and the walks and the small towns.  A very regular place of pilgrimage is Melin Tregwynt (pictured above) which is a Welsh woollen mill in the absolute middle of nowhere, but a bit near Fishguard.  It makes traditional Welsh wool fabric, not sure you can call it tweed if it isn’t Scottish, but the designs are modern, the palettes contemporary and the whole thing very high end.  You have almost certainly seen some of it on television shows on fancy sofas, or in hotels you might have stayed at – the Mercure chain has it for example.  It is pretty expensive but fabulous.  I bought a throw in the half price sale last year for our 30th wedding anniversary and it is the best thing possible for an afternoon nap.  So, count me as a fan.

I have been going and collecting offcuts which they sell by weight or in prepacked bags for years and I have quite a collection.  I have been steadily adding them to make blankets for some time.

I have also made embroidered bags with them:

 

I love doing wool embroidery as the needle slides through so much more easily and the wool feels lovely in the hand.

All this leads on to a group of embroidered egg panels which I did while in Pembrokeshire.  I took threads and some beads from home, but I also came across a bead shop in Narberth, Begelly Beads.  It’s a tiny bit out of the town so you have to look for it, but it is worth a visit.  Some really nice £1 selection bags to be had in various colours, as well as bargains.  I often find that the beads that no-one wants for jewellery are perfect for embroidery.  Take these unlovely brown rose beads:

I can quite see why you wouldn’t want brown plastic roses round your neck, but they really do look like piped chocolate flowers and they worked very well on this egg.  I sewed them onto the edge with blanket stitch and then dotted some on the tweed, following the pattern.  I am pretty sure that Fabergé would have loved the skill and delicate palette of the weaving.  I am not sure what he would have made of the beads.

I also experimented with different sizes of egg using the same fairly bold pattern:

I reversed the fabric so that the top one has the darker background.  Then I used the spot design as a basis for embellishment.

The top, smaller egg gave me a few problems:

The metallic silver glass beads refused to stay put in a graceful sweeping curve.  Incidentally, the beads around the edge are glass cubes with orange pigment of some description around the threading hole.  They are lovely to work with: chunky and well-finished so they don’t fray the thread.  I was introduced to these cube beads by Linda Kemshall who sometimes finishes off her magnificent art pieces with them.  That was roughly twenty years ago, and at that time the beads were ruinously expensive.  They were imported from Japan and hard to get hold of.  Now you can get them widely and they have really come down in price.  They are a brilliant way to get a really neat edge and they give weight to a wall piece.  Again, you put them on with a blanket stitch the width of the bead.

The final egg for this post is this one where I decided to concentrate on the background rather than decorating the egg.  It’s a ‘What if?’ technique for those of you interested in creativity:

I used a variegated thread for the stitching.  I was going to put beads on as well, but the simplicity of the design, and the seeding which is a very basic stitch, seemed to make sparkly bits rather too much for once.  These are all very small pieces, roughly A5 and so useful for using up scraps.

Just to finish, here is Affie, the colour reference pom:

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Orange rose egg

This egg panel is very simple.  I wanted to use the orange rose print just because I think it is so pretty.  I tacked the fabric over a stiff card egg template, stitched almost all the way round it and then pulled the card through the gap.  I find this is a good way to handle curves.  Then, to give it some interest, I used variegated thread to go round it in beaded fly stitch:

Orange rose detail

I used very cheap glass beads from Tiger.  Sometimes having cheap elements is good because it is easier to be generous with them.  The fabric came from a cheap bargain bin at a quilt show.  I suppose that lilac and tangerine isn’t everyone’s choice, but I really liked the exuberant full-blown roses which lent themselves to fancy-cutting here.

I don’t have much else to say about this one.  It was quick and easy and has a bit of a sparkle but not enough to look flashy.

 

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More good works at Pomegranate Studio

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We had two days of glorious sunshine at the weekend which I took advantage of to repaint the summerhouse at the bottom of the (very short) garden at Pomegranate Studio.  I was using Annie Sloan chalk paint which I am assured sticks to everything without need of sanding and priming.  It shows the sort of place this is that when I ran out of painter’s tape to mask the glass I used what I had: several rolls of washi tape mainly from Tiger and Paperchase.  The problem is that now I rather like the gingerbread cottage look it gives.  Certainly the fresh green and the airforce blue (‘Aubusson’) seem to work well together.

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The paint is fantastic, though.  It dried quickly and I think I might get away with one coat, at least for now.

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The summerhouse is in a bad way needing a new roof covering, plus a good scrub out, but the structure is pretty sound.  The lovely Adirondack chairs I bought myself as a present were in good shape too.  I will post pictures as the makeover continues.

This is my Westie, Hedy, who was on hand to help throughout.  But the end of the afternoon she was covered in blue paint although I thought I kept a close eye on her.  Miraculously it washed off when she had a bath.  Another plus for the chalk paint.

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Brave New World

You may have noticed that there have not been too many posts on my blog recently.  This is because I have taken the big decision to start offering workshops.  When I have given talks in the past, people have asked if I would do a workshop and I have always said no, but this year I took a deep breath and decided that I would like to offer classes in a variety of things that interest me.  To this end, I have been dreaming up workshops that I would like to go on myself and making demonstration samples.  Plus, I have roped in the Medieval Historian to add some historical information relevant to the workshop.  So, Christmas decoration making will have a session with tea and cake where he will talk about the origins of Christmas customs in this country.  My Easter workshop (which may well launch in 2018 – it takes much longer than you think to get these things ready) will include an informal session on the romantically doomed Romanovs who commissioned the Fabergé eggs we will be thinking about.  He will not be caught up in the Romance, though; he’s a proper historian after all.

My vision is to create a series of workshops based on customs and celebrations that we used to have in this country but have lost.  For example: the just-post-Christmas Wren Hunt, the cakes and candles of Candlemas in dreary February, and others to follow.  All will have projects and historical information to drop into any conversation.  Social success is assured.

The biggest step of all has been to have a studio built in my garden where I will offer small courses of no more than six participants.  It’s called Pomegranate Studio as the pomegranate symbolises creativity for me.  At the moment the studio looks like any new build in February – mudastic – but it will be surrounded by an inspirational flower garden when it is finished, I hope.  Here are some far from enticing pictures.  I will add more as I get the decorative bits finished after the hard build:

The studio is insulated so it is warm, has lots of light so that no-one gets a seat out of natural daylight, and is plumbed in so there will always be plenty of tea and coffee.  There will also be my not inconsiderable collection of books to browse through.

I will be posting a lot more about this in the next few days with pictures of the possible products from possible workshops.  In the meantime, let’s hope the rain lets up and I can get round to that flower garden I mentioned.

 

 

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Joy in work: feathers

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

A new project

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

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

I will post some more on my progress.

 

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Red Rabbits

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I am starting in the middle a bit with things here.  This is the second quilt in a series, and I have yet to blog about the first, but I am aware that it has been a while since I posted anything and this is easier to photograph than the first piece.

This is one of those quilts that started off as a quick demonstration piece of an improvised quilt made with the leftovers of a previous piece.  Then, of course, I decided to make it a bit more interesting and to put some appliqué on it.  As I have recently rediscovered a love of hand appliqué, that’s what it had to be.  In this instance, because the pieces – the rabbits – were so large, I decided to user the freezer paper method.  With this method you iron the freezer paper shape onto the top of the fabric and push the turning under with your needle.  Then you pull the completed shape off the top.  I prefer this to trying to get the paper out from under the shape when you use it underneath, particularly when you have something as tricky as rabbit’s ears.  This probably sounds like badly translated instructions if you are not a quilter.  If you aren’t and you want to see what I am talking about there are dozens of examples of the technique on You Tube.

I got the rabbit design from a clipping from a magazine that I kept because it appealed to me and I knew that it would come in useful at some point.  Unusually for me, I didn’t keep a note of who the original designer was.  All I know is that it was on a ceramic:

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It was quite easy to stitch.  I thought that I would be clever and just cut the shape of the chin and the legs and arms and then turn the edges back.  But, of course, this requires a turning on both edges so you end up with a very large gap.  I made a test piece and decided that I would have to do the outline with embroidery:

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I am rather glad that I did do the test – the piece on the right, before cutting the whole thing out.  I usually cut first and make samples and major mistakes later.  In this case the little bit of extra time was well spent.

After I had finished the piece looked a bit empty.  I thought briefly about doing some lettuces and carrots for a rabbits’ picnic, but my sketches were really a bit too twee.  I fell back on good old flowers.

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These needed a lot of surface embroidery but they worked reasonably well in the end.  I like the fact that they look a bit vintage, which is one of the aims of the piece.  The flower centres, which are raised, are suffolk puffs sewn on backwards.  The outline embroidery on the rabbits is whipped backstitch which I find a lot easier than stem stitch, particularly with a chunky thread.  The surface embroidery here is all done with three strands of embroidery cotton:

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I love using seeding as a quilting stitch even though it takes forever.  I haven’t done it for a while but I think the red here complements the big stitch on the body of the rabbit.

The quilt as a whole is a bit jumbled.  The outlines are not always clear, particularly the leaves and some of the petals on several of the flowers, but in this case, I rather like the effect.  It gives it a lived in, vaguely faded feel, even though almost all the fabric is brand new.

 

As a bit of a trailer, this piece also illustrates another project that I am working on which is about working with ugly or old-fashioned fabric, the sort of thing that you find in your stash which you bought years ago which is good but essentially out of date.  The rabbits are done in this fabric and the backing, which I will show in a subsequent post, is truly horrible and I genuinely do not know how it got into my stash.  More on this project as I go along.