Posts

Accentuate the positive

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I’m sorry that I haven’t posted much recently.  Surprisingly, July is my busiest month in terms of having time available to do things.  You would think with the students having more or less finished for the year it would be an easier time of year, but in my case there are conferences and holidays to contend with and thus August is a time of getting back into work and routine.

That said, I have been working  on lots of things which I will write about, but first I want to do a slightly unusual post about journalling and noticing ‘stuff’.

I have kept a journal for years and years, although not every single day of all of those years.  I generally start the day with it because early morning is my best thinking time.  I have lots of my best ideas at those times and can write them down before I forget.  Yesterday I was moaning to my diary that the previous day had been very unsatisfactory and that I hadn’t found much satisfaction in any of the creative work I had been trying to do.  This is unusual because Sunday is a day that I retreat to my workroom after walking the Mighty Mutt, and I am usually really energised by my sewing.  Because I was feeling so flat, I sarcastically left a box in my journal to write down the wonderful thing which was going to occur that day.  This is an old technique from motivation courses that I used to teach on about thirty years ago.  You are supposed to look yourself in the mirror (and a journal is a kind of mirror) and say outloud to yourself, ‘Something wonderful is going to happen today.’  I didn’t really expect to be spilling much ink filling in the box later.

So I was surprised to find that I had some things to note down this morning.  I was rather hoping for a massive cheque or a book deal or an interview with Grayson Perry, which is ridiculous.  The universe is not going to deliver on major things like that on demand.  Instead, I found myself looking out for good things, and this is where I found the technique interesting.  It forced my attention onto the positive.  The day was still the day, but I was looking for things to enjoy rather than endure.  I waded through a lot of dreary admin, and marking of student drafts and so on, but I also experienced some good things.  Here is the list:

  • My monthly stationery lucky dip package turned up from moustache.com.  Pricey for what it is, but always contains a treat or something cool (sorry) or interesting.
  • I managed for the first time ever to return work to a student saying I wasn’t prepared to read it unless it was re-written for readability.  I am so scared of upsetting students with my comments that I would normally soldier on, but this one was so dense I had no idea what s/he was saying.
  • I found the perfect backing fabric for my Laura Ashley Regency quilt on spoonflower.com.  I have been thinking about this for months and when I saw the print on the website although it wasn’t what I was looking for, I knew it was absolutely the right thing.  I just need to work out how much to order.
  • I sat down at my work table and although it took me ages to get going, I made a special gift for a friend.  I had no inspiration and did not feel like making, but the desire to make something exquisite for her kicked in at some point and I am very pleased with what I made.  It is a wallet to hold paper money.  It has corny hearts on it for friendship and it is made with my favourite burning back technique with a very cheap remnant of a rainbow organza over some lovely leftover silk.  Then a lot of hand stitching and an awful lot of pearl beads.  All made between tea and bed time.

I will finish with some photos of the wallet.

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Under lock and key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reference

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

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What I finished off at the weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Brighton Bead shop the beads came from was KerrieBerrie

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van Gogh inspiration – neutrals

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The prompt for this exercise was to use cretan stitch in neutral shades.  I felt a bit of a cheat as I used some of my lovely variegated thread from Winifred Cottage (sadly no longer available), and it worked really well instantly.  I added a bit of light brown wool over the top to show willing, but the beauty of the soft shades did all the work itself.

As happens so often with massed cretan stitch, it looked a lot like grasses.  I decided to play this up and to use some thick linen knitting yarn to make pebbles by using colonial knots.  I prefer colonial knots to french knots now as they are easier and less likely to go wrong.  I know that misshaped french knots can be useful for creating texture but I am a full convert to the colonial, as taught to me in the middle of the Festival of Quilts by Sandy Lush.  I added in some neutral looking beads and was pretty pleased with the result:

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IMG_0983IMG_0984I hope that this has some of the texture of some of the drawings that van Gogh made:

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That’s the end of the workshop pictures.  The pieces were all made on a piece of linen mix furnishing fabric with a fairly loose weave, and all done in a hoop.

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van Gogh in purple and yellow

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This is the second sample from the Vincent van Gogh workshop, this time working with purple and yellow, which co-incidentally were the colours of my school uniform.  The-Sower-Vincent-Van-Gogh

I love this combination, although it took me years ever to wear purple again after the school experience.  I am not quite sure about the finished piece, where the technique was Roumanian couching, where you use the same thread as the thread you are couching and the holding thread.  I did a little bit of that, and we practised sewing curved couching threads to simulate van Gogh’s swirling skies:

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I much preferred the technique we learned for working with thick threads which was to knot them and couch them down.  I really took to this and, although I ended up with a blob which looks a bit like a fried egg, I enjoyed using knotted yarns of different thicknesses to get a domed effect.

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As ever, it was improved by a bit of bling, in this case some bronze beads:

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I loved the way that they sank into the couching, as if they had been inlaid.

 

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Inspired by Janet Edmonds and Vincent van Gogh

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On Wednesday I went to a great workshop with Janet Edmonds which was based on working with van Gogh as inspiration.  I knew it was going to be a good day when I sat down next to lovely Nathalie who got her stuff out and told me I was welcome to use anything she had brought with her.  In the end we didn’t use that much of each other’s stuff, but the offer made for a lovely atmosphere.

The exercises were designed around one stitching working in colours inspired by van Gogh’s paintings.  So this one is based on his pairing of orange and blue:

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imagesThe stitch was sorbello which is illustrated above and is actually quite straightforward once you get into the rhythm.  I did it with thick and thin threads and strips of torn fabric.  It looked okay on the day, but I took it home and added to it, and stood back from it, and thought it looked like the sort of aesthetic you got in the 1960s and all that creative embroidery that I grew up with, the work that Constance Howard did, for example:

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The colours were okay and looked vaguely Egyptian to me, and I realised that they would look much better lifted with a bit of gold, so I stitched on some beads in the gaps left by the stitches:

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You can also see the layering of the stitches in this photo with the finer thread over the strips of silk.  I love the crunchy texture of this stitch:

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I am not that huge a fan of van Gogh.  I had my van Gogh phase quite early as my extraordinary school had a series of morning assemblies with my art teacher, the wonderful, Mrs Pandora Finlay-Broadbelt, reading from Vincent and Theo’s letters.  I just went because I fancied a day learning something and just enjoying stitching, but it turned into a lovely day and I made some things I really liked, which I will post about as I finish them off.

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Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?

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This is quite a small panel, one of the last ones I made, but the one which will be in the top-left-hand corner.  Some of the panels have fents or offcuts instead of costume prints, including this one, which has three pieces of the finer lawn prints from the 1980s and 1990s.  On top of this is some beaded lace, and some burnt away fabric offcuts from another project.

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Because this came quite late in the process, I bought little items rather than using things in my stash, and as ever, I have only dim memories of where they came from.  But these two bits came from Copenhagen:

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I am quite proud of the little seed beads holding on the golden spray of leaves, and I really like the little black crown underneath the key.

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Although this doesn’t look much, I am very pleased with the stem-stitched box round the leaf charms.  Stem stitch has always defeated me until the wonderful Tanya Bentham showed me how to do it properly in one of her workshops.  So a small personal triumph.

I really enjoyed the hand embroidery on all of the pieces.  This is a ribbon rose:

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IMG_0845I wish it were as glorious as this contemporary take on a crazy quilt from the Bristol Embroiderers’ Guild Exhibition.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of the artist’s name, so only one unauthorised picture.  If you know who made it please let me know.

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Falling in love again

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There haven’t been many posts recently as I have been finishing things off and there hasn’t been much to report, but suddenly I have quite a lot to post about.

This is a big project from my work on Laura Ashley.  I made a start on it ages ago and just didn’t like what I’d done.  The colours were too pastel for me.  But a couple of months ago I got it out of the box and started again, and for some reason, I totally fell in love with it.  So, I have done a lot more work and the piece is almost ready.

As usual with my work it is made in panels.  These were inspired by the printed panels from Quilters’ Trading Post.  They are fashion plates of Regency costumes, which I have combined with Laura Ashley fabric and lots of fabric samples including silk and embroidered wool, and lace.  Again, a lot of the fabric would otherwise have gone into landfill, so there is recycling and upcycling involved.

My interest in Laura Ashley was originally in the seventies with the milk maid and country cottage ranges, but I have become increasingly interested in her later product ranges and the way in which everything became much grander and country house-y.   There is some nice scholarly work about the brand coming out of it, which I will outline at some point, but this project is about the airy muslin loveliness of the Jane Austen type view of the eighteenth century, which will be contrasted with the gruesome Hogarth vision.

For the moment, though, this is the pretty top.

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This is fly stitch done in a wine-red Madeira luna thread which has a lot of wool in it.  The second part of the stitch is done through a clear bugle bead.  The little dots are done with colonial knots which are much easier and reliable than french knots and give a nice dimple in the middle.

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These are pieces of old-ish lace over silk samples.  I love stitching through this thick upholstery silk because it is so crisp.

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This is a lovely bit of tiered lace, with some composite embroidery from Judith Montano Baker’s Elegant Stitches, which is a fantastic source book for embroidering crazy quilts.  These panels are essentially well-ordered crazy pieces.

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I used this panel to work in a piece of my favourite Laura Ashley fabric, the swan print:

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More of the panels to come.

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Latest Laura Ashley panel

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I have started doing some work with Laura Ashley fabric again.  This time there is no rush.  It’s not for an exhibition or a conference paper, so I can take as long as I like.

It started with one of the fents – or waste trimmings from the manufacturing process, and then I added some extra elements which I bought from one of the traders at the exhibition in Malvern that I went to a couple of weeks ago.  Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the trader.  Much as I would love to say that I dyed the lace myself, I bought it, and it went instantly and magically with the Laura Ashley floral – which is the dark green fabric.

I laid out all the elements, but in the course of sewing everything shifted a bit and I ended up with a different arrangement in the end.  Here are the initial layouts with the Madeira Lana thread that I intended to use to do the stitching:

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This is what it looked like at the end:

 

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I bought the buttons in the summer in a great shop in Utrecht (which is every bit as nice as Amsterdam but without the museums – and the crowds and the frantic-ness).  They are big, but I thought they worked.

The piece really came together, though, when I realised that it was basically a variation on a Victorian crazy quilt.  So I did a lot of embroidery on it, including herringbone stitch, which I consider to be one of the most relaxing things in the world to do:

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While I was poking around the internet looking at pictures of crazy quilts and fancy embroidery stitches, I found some sage advice about not bothering whether the embroidery is absolutely perfect because it reflects your energy at the point at which you were doing it.  I rather like this.  My slightly wonky herringbone is a bit like my signature and the opposite of mass made.  There isn’t any machine stitching on this one, it is all done by hand.  And, as with a lot of my work, it seemed to come to life when I started to stitch on some beads:

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The big pearl beads are stuck on as they must have come from a necklace which was taken to pieces at some point.  This makes the piece a bit fragile, but I think the sparkle justifies it.

The netting, by the way, always suggests textile conservation to me, as professional restorers often use it patch up very fragile pieces of cloth, so this fits into my theme of conservation and preserving the past.

I really enjoyed making this piece and it has spurred me on to make some more panels and to produce a large piece about the importance of nostalgia in the brand.

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Modern medals

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A couple of years ago my mother gave me a book she had bought because it was so beautifully produced, but which turned out to be totally useless.  It’s called ‘French General Treasured Notions: Inspirations and Craft Projects Using Vintage Beads, Buttons, Ribbons and Trim from Tinsel Trading Company.’  Snappy, non?  Its author is Kaari Meng and it was published in 2010 by Chronicle Books in San Francisco.

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Mum bought it, I think, because the photos are absolutely sumptuous and enticing:

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The above photos are mood boards or inspiration boards for Meng’s projects and I absolutely love them.  The problem is that the projects all require antique haberdashery: the buttons, beads, ribbons and trims of the title.  Plus, they are not particularly desirable objects when you finish.

But for some reason I got the book off the shelf last weekend, and found the little medals.  I thought that they would be the ideal thing to give to people who had helped me on the recent Thinking Futures day.  So on Sunday afternoon I made some of my own but with a much more contemporary twist.

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I was really interested to see just how much better they looked mounted on the cards.  They could be framed, and they have brooch pins on the backs so they can be worn.  This final one was made for a really good friend of mine who recently got his PhD after 22 years.  I thought he deserved a medal:

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So far the recipients have loved them, and they are a good thing to have in the repertoire for gifts for people that you want to give special thanks to.  I have just ordered a bunch of 1950s ombre ribbon from Etsy, because I am hoping to have occasion to give out a whole bunch of medals in the future.