Stash heaven

A new year …. new projects, new thoughts, new ideas … And, after the rush of Christmas and its busy preparations, January offers such space, such time!

I promptly filled the space with a new project – one of my favourites.  Out came my fabric stash. This is messy play in our small house on a grand scale …And the cats love it!I dig deep into my stash for various projects – doodle stitcheries, patchwork quilts, and, of course, GiveWraps

But my stash is a great sentimental and luscious pleasure, so this week (as my husband was away and I could take time with my mess) I indulged myself on a slow journey through these beautiful fabrics and some of the stories behind them.

The core of my stash came to me via my Australian grandmother Dora, then in her second incarnation as a grand Leicester lady. Married to a local businessman, she would often have occasion to dress up glam, and she could really go to town properly.  Here she is at a smart event in the 1960s …And a few years earlier at a London wedding …These beautiful beautiful dresses were made for her by her Leicester dressmaker, Fernanda. I have very vague memories of visiting Casa Fernanda when my grandmother attended for a fitting – wish they were more vivid!  But what I do have – perhaps even more precious – is scraps from the dresses of other Leicester ladies which Fernanda would save for my grandmother. I doubt if any other of the Leicester ladies wanted these pieces, but my grandmother, my mother – and my great-grandmother – were enthusiastic patchworkers and treasured these scraps.

Later, the leftovers came to me … I don’t have many of them left now, but those I do have are Glamorous! See that tiny little gold piece in the middle? Far too small for me to ever do anything with it, but I keep it as a memory of the gorgeous ostentation of those Leicester ladies …My grandmother only went to Casa Fernanda for the seriously smart stuff. The rest she made herself. She had a particular penchant for batiks which has left a lasting influence on my own taste, – and what sits in my fabric stash.  Here she is in her beautiful Leicester garden, wearing a dress made of Egyptian cotton – and yes, I still have pieces of this material …As I do have of this batik dress that she is wearing outside her London garden in 1971 …I wonder how representative a sample this is of my grandmother’s taste that still sits in my stash?  There’s certainly lots of batik and Indian fabric, also some Thai silks and you might just be able to make out a scrap of fabulous pinky-green tweed. She wasn’t afraid to wear vibrant colours and strong patterns …When she died in 1980, a great many of her batik dresses came to me – I guess nobody else in the family wore such patterns. They were mostly shift dresses which the younger me disdained, so I re-pieced them into other styles. As there wasn’t a great deal of fabric in a shift dress, my trick was to mix several of her dresses into a very 70s-style smock dress. The irony is that now I am in my 60s, I wear lots of shift dresses, and would happily wear these dresses of my grandmother’s. But they are long cut up and re-pieced …

A major contribution to my stash (and my mother’s as well) was a donation of imperfect tie silks.  My parents were living in Kent at the time, near to a factory where fine silk ties were made – and these are just a few of the fabrics. I still have lots left. Indeed, I was amused when I looked these pieces out to see that some of the bundles are still wrapped in elastic bands as they were when they arrived. I guess they’ve just never been used …These have been fabulously useful pieces of strongly coloured material, used in so many projects. Again, there wasn’t really a lot of any one piece of fabric, so the trick was to be ingenious with their use – as here, lining sleeves with different coloured fabrics.  Who would ever know?I wonder if some of you will find my next collection of scraps as evocative as I do? They are so much of my 1970s youth!

Clothkits, Liberty and Laura Ashley really made such a big contribution to our fabric world – and in those days people really did make their own clothes.  John Lewis in London had the entire ground floor dedicated to sales of fabric and cloth. We would pick up fantastic Tana Lawn and Varuna Wool fabrics at Liberty’s in the sales.  Many of these pieces are too small to ever be much use in a project – just look at the snip of red with white spots fabric! – but they won’t be thrown away any time soon …In the 1990s another wonderful gift came our way with a bundle of unwanted church silks. My parents had moved to Wells in Somerset, and my mother – a very find needlewoman – offered her services to the good ladies who repaired the cathedral altar clothes and clergy vestments.  If you know your Christian year, you can identify the fabrics below: red fabrics (used for the commemoration of martyrs), purple fabrics (used in seasons of penance like Advent and Lent) and yellow or gold (used for days of celebration like Easter).  Not much green because that was the fabric of ordinary time and so probably the most used. But aren’t they wonderful?!  So wonderful that I just get them out, stroke them and put them very carefully back again – no, sometimes, I allow myself to use just a little …I’ve been so very lucky – all sorts of people have given me their old dresses so I can make use of the fabrics. These are just a few of them. I particularly love that yellow scrap – from a dress either my mother or grandmother wore in the 1950s.  How I wish I had more of it!But it’s the green fabric with black/brown flowers that really sparked my imagination and sent me off on my first doodle stitchery. Thank you so much, Mandy, for passing this dress on to me …These are all scraps from my clothes – not necessarily my handmade clothes.  Some of these are dresses I wore as a child which my mother made, and some of them are from garments I purchased readymade.  In those cases, I loved the fabric so very much that when the garment no longer suited/fitted me, I kept the fabric for sewing projects …Perhaps a preponderance of red and orange …? Yes, I did use to wear a lot of orange when I was younger …And I did get married in orange batik too, which must say a lot for my taste …More generous donations – this times animal print fleece. I have very little of this left, I guess because I must have used it up on children’s projects …Clockwork Orange scraps left over from my daughter Helen’s art school studies …Look at this wonderful collection of pieces that Helen found for me from another art school! I am struck by the OTT glitteriness of these fabrics – they remind me rather of the fabrics the Leicester ladies wore in my youth …And this is batik heaven! The imagery and colours used by African wax designers is really unsurpassed. My Instagram friend in Nice, Isabelle, shares my passion for batik fabric and has given me many of these lovely pieces. Thank you so very much!And, of course, I’m still wearing batik fabrics …Yet more fabulous fabrics have come my way from other friends on social media.  A big, big thank you to Claire, Anne and Louise.  These pieces are all treasured and admired, lingering in the mind as little nuggets of inspiration …I think what I love most is the picture fabrics …So what did I make from this heavenly stash play, I hear you ask …? Well, I made some GiveWraps, my stock of GiveWraps being reduced by the Christmas season of giving …

This GiveWrap use pieces from an old Japanese yukata which I loved so much that I wore it out.  It is good to see these beautiful Japanese ladies taking pride of places amid the other fabrics.  I guess I won’t be passing this on any time soon, as this fabric is so very precious to me …Quite a contrast here! These strong fabrics are almost all from old dresses of mine …Orange – rich glowing orange. The centerpiece and many of the side pieces are fabric prints made by my cousin, Polly …More of Polly’s prints here – a mixed bag … I hope the colours I’ve used draw them together …And my favourite – orange and purple – what a heavenly strong mix! Just a glimpse of a butterfly from one of Isabelle’s statement batik fabrics in the centre …That’s what I did in the first weeks of the new year.  And then my husband came home and I tidied away the fabrics for another month or so … (He doesn’t mind my fabric mess really …)

I’m struck by the generosity of so many friends, businesses and organisations which has gone to make up this collection. It gives me so much pleasure. Thank you all so very much. And Happy New Year!

A summer’s stitching …

I can tell autumn is on it’s way – not from that chill morning smell in the air, nor the blowsiness of the garden … No, it’s because I am all stitched out for this summer …

Last year, a visiting American friend brought me some lovely presents – two little hand-made bags and an exquisite glass heart – all charmingly wrapped up in a little flowery handkerchief …About the same time, another dear friend (this time from Nice) sent me some of her left-over fabric scraps – knowing how much I enjoy piecing odd little stitcheries together …Well, somehow these bits and pieces came together, and before I knew what it was June – and that little handkerchief was the centrepiece of a summer doodle stitchery … I don’t know why earlier incarnations of this piece escaped the roving eye of my iPhone, but there it is, they did.  I think it is because I struggled – I really struggled – to get this piece going further. Frankly, I struggled even to enjoy the stitching …

What changed for me round about June was that I eventually began to train myself  to look at my stitchery differently. It continued to be a bit of a struggle for a while. But I found I could stop aiming for a finished product, and focus on the particular, the different constituent parts of this embroidery. And how very different they all are!

There are twittering birds. With embroidered French knots those little birds began to twitter more and more …The cats’ glasses became even more extravagant …Their bow-ties flashier …The Mayan figures (scraps from my daughter) got glasses too …And little Japanese doll companions …One Mayan figure sprouted cats from its head …Which grew more and more elaborate as the stitching went on …Until there was a great totem pole of be-glassed cats …In the centre of the panel the flowers grew more ornate …With little decorative centres …Embroidered dragonfly hovered about them … (Copied from another stitchery of mine) …Another fabulous fabric bundle of scraps arrived, this time from my friend Claire …Did you see the silk cloud fabric just peeking out at the top from under the cat? Well, all of a sudden there were clouds in my stitching … little ones …And big ones too …And medium sized ones as well …And some time in the stitching, it began to snow little cherry-blossom flowers …I spent many evenings cutting out these fiddly little fabric pieces …Pinning them on …Suddenly there were loads of them …I am sad to say (but not surprised to record) that the kits were no respecter of my work …Finding it a comfortable pad from which to survey their domain …And boy does Eggy love my embroidery basket!Earlier this month I realized I was approaching the time when it all needed to be drawn together – it needed a border. Perhaps blue seashell fabric? Hmmm, I think not …But I could pick out that turquoise spotty fabric? No, too swimming … Now how about some dark ikat fabric? Ah, now that’s worth trying! It’s a surprisingly light fabric so needed some gentle wadding folded into the frame …And a nice bit of stitching along the ikat border to hold it all in place …Now for some final cherry blossom snowflakes to tie it all together …The outer dark ikat border is transformative, sending the inner dark border of the original handkerchief into recess, as though a window opening onto another world.  I am so very pleased!  It has to be time to finish stitching …

My weird and wonderful world of birds and cats
with glasses …

Just a bit of summer fun …

A handmade starry Christmas

Earlier this autumn, my daughter and her husband arrived with a huge bag of fabric samples. They had been thrown out of a London college because they were out-of-date – but they were definitely far too good to waste!These were the sort of fabrics I’ve never worked with before – fabulous textured silks and satins …Extraodinary materials …Glitter to die for!And imaginative prints that I just loved – what I would give for a dress of that beautiful shimmery seahorse print!The thing is that most of these fabric samples were small – some very small indeed. Very tricky to know what I could do with such small pieces, but by chance I’d recently read a blogpost by Ann Wood on making little star folk and stars were on my mind …It seemed to me that these small glittery pieces of fabric would lend themselves so well to making those little starry folk …I got carried away.  I made quite a few – and some were different ….Some were pink …And there was even a cat star – yes, with genuine cat whiskers (no cats were harmed in this, I assure you – our cats considerately moult whiskers every now and then).Then it occured to me that I might be able to make beaded stars just as I had made beaded paisley botehs last Christmas. (I learned to make paisley botehs from the very talented Lorna of Chookiebirdie and wrote about my lesson in an earlier blogpost). So I set myself up in my woolly room with a tray of beads and some star templates (developed from Ann Wood’s original pattern) and these gorgeous little scraps of fabric …Tricky stitching …But the result was very pleasing …And I found it sort of addictive …As I stitched my way through November and early December, my bowls of stitched stars changed as stars went out to homes throughout the country, around the world … new stars were made, I got excited by different colours combinations … so much variety, so much potential …Still loads and loads of gorgeous fabrics sitting unused in my woolly room …I just had to make some GiveWraps … (These are handmade reusable present wrappers – you can find out much more about them in another of my old blogposts). Here I am working in one of my cousin Polly’s dragon prints into an orangey GiveWrap.The finished item here … the orange counterbalanced by some fabulously dark colours and very strong prints …Another orange one, but this one with soft blue-grey tones …Now for some black and brights … I loved working all these strong colours and patterns in together …And by complete contrast, here is a GiveWrap that is almost completely neutral tones … (featuring some fantastic Alexander Henry cats around the border and in the centre the Ghastlies around the dinner table).What a contrast this almost completely scarlet GiveWrap is! What a treat to work these strong patterns all in together …And of course for my mother (who only acknowledges the colour blue), a china-blue, gold and white GiveWrap …I have had such pleasure in all this making, but the icing on the cake (or far more accurately the hanging on the tree) is to see the stars and GiveWraps in their new homes …Dear blog readers, I would that I could send starry folk out to you one and all but I will have to make do with sending you stellar wishes for Christmas and the New Year! The world is full of such difficulties these days, so above all else, I wish that you may be richly blessing this coming New Year  – and that it be an easier year for so very many of us …

A cat crisis …

There we were – on the afternoon of Tuesday 11th September – quietly enjoying a balmy early autumnal afternoon in the conservatory with our two cats, Eggy and Ilsa. Some serious bird watching going on too.A few minutes later I went into the garden to water the plants, and Ilsa followed, ambling off somewhere …

Suddenly – noise – drama – and there down the path I could see Ilsa in the forecourt, but ….. under 5 dogs. There was a terrible din – they were all barking furiously while the dog-owner and his young son tried frantically to pull the dogs off her. I don’t really know how to convey in text my absolute panic and horror.  Suffice it to say I dropped everything I was carrying and tore out into the forecourt, yelling blue murder to those dogs and their owner.

Miraculously Ilsa escaped the dogs and fled over the neighbours’ wall, but then – perhaps in her panic – she continued into the nearby field.  So the dogs followed her – as did we all. At last we were able to pull them off her, and,  with her scooped up in my arms, get her away from the dogs.

At first it wasn’t clear how wounded Ilsa was, but she was breathing extremely fast, and I didn’t want to explore her wounds then and there for fear of making her more anxious.  So we had a brief sort of conversation with the dog-owner (who seemed as stunned as we) and his son, and set off for the vets.

The vets were lovely – professional and quick to give immediate treatment.  It transpired that Ilsa had been bitten on her rear right leg and her lower belly and was bleeding quite heavily from this wound.  However, they were particularly concerned that her breathing was so fast, and feared she might have also sustained a puncture wound on her lung.  So she was hospitalized for the night with antibiotics, painkillers, and tender loving care.

But she was OK.  Extraordinarily for such a dog attack, she hadn’t been ripped to shreds and left as meat.  The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that worse hadn’t occurred.  Had the dogs just been playing with her?

After leaving Ilsa at the vets, we went to see the dog owner. In part this was because I was aware that he’d had his young son with him who had been extremely distressed and tearful during the attack, and I wanted to give reassurance to this little boy that she would be alright.  I’m glad that we were able to do that because his mother reported that she’d put him to bed looking like he’d seen a ghost.  Poor little lad.

It transpired when talking to the dog owner that he’d been walking staffies and pit bulls and a chihuahua, and it had been a single disobedient staffie that caused the damage to our cat.  I really want to emphasize this because it’s not really what we are led to expect about such dogs. The dog owner immediately said he would pay the vet’s bill.

Of course, the problem only occurred because he was walking his dogs off the lead past our group of houses …..

The next day we brought Ilsa home.  It turned out that she hadn’t experienced any lung damage.  And we were reassured that her wound should heal fine – but take time as she was pretty bruised.

Oh, poor little Ilsa.  This what a cat does when it feels terrible – burrowing deeply into nice safe soft places (my unspun fleece basket) …Nevermind we thought – she needs to take her time as the vets said. But she’ll be back to normal soon.

But she wasn’t. Over the weekend she deteriorated and next week she was so poorly we headed back to the vets, only to be told that the antibiotics hadn’t worked and the wound was infected. So they whisked her back into surgery, put drains in her infected belly and gave her different antibiotics. Her poor belly looked awful …We’d been warned that suppurating drains make a terrible mess, so drugget preparation was necessary.  Our sitting room became a hospital ward (cat litter included) …Perhaps nastiest of all (to her!) she’d come home with the dreaded cone …Now a cone is horrible on all small animals, but is also a particular problem if you happen to have a very flat face.  Drinking required almost full immersion …Perhaps most worryingly she stopped eating, so we embarked on a program to syringe liquid high energy food into her mouth at regular intervals over the day and night. I made myself a bed in the sittingroom …Despite all this love and care, she was getting more and more unwell, so back we went to the vets as a second weekend approached.  We were at this stage more than slightly dazed from lack of sleep and worry about Ilsa and the growing vet bills (no, of course we didn’t have pet insurance) …

Horrific news.  Her wound was now so infected that the vets had to clean out a great hole of necrotic tissue (mercifully not on any of her organs) and she needed to spend the weekend at the vets on a drip with more antibiotics.  Her huge wound required sluicing out a couple of times a day.

We were allowed to visit Ilsa on Sunday in the surgery, and frankly it was almost more disturbing than not seeing her.  They were looking after her beautifully – faultless efficient medical care, very lovingly administered …But our little cat wanted to come home!We finally got to take her home on Monday, but had to return her to have her wound washed out every day that week.

The good news was that she didn’t require a cone, and coped very well with living with her horrible hole …How we welcomed the news after a week of regular expensive sluicing trips that she could have her wound stitched and stapled! It doesn’t look very pretty …But she really did seem to be so much happier – and so were we!Apart from anything else the dog owner had given us a decent contribution to the vet bills. It nothing like covered the whole expense of course, but at least made us feel that he recognised the damage that his dogs had done.She was starting to get back to normal pursuits, joining Eggy in the woolly room with me …And even taking tentative steps outside – tail up, a happy cat!Even back to a little mousing with Eggy …Whew!

Today Ilsa went to the vets and had the staples removed.  The stitches lying under the staples come out in a couple of days.  She’s been pronounced nearly back to normal – well, almost.  The bite damage to her leg is lasting and she will never quite have the mobility she once had with that leg – and there’ll be a scar!  But hey …

It’s been an overwhelming month.  Partly the horrifying initial attack – though that did not turn out be as bad as we originally thought – but even more the rollercoaster of worry about her increasing infections and the rising costs of veterinary care.  We felt out of control.

So we haven’t been out and about on long trips, but there has been quite a bit of quiet sewing and crocheting …

After my malaise earlier this summer which I wrote about in my last blog post, I was suddenly inspired to ask my cousin, Polly, if she had any of her fabric prints that I might embroider. (You can read more about her fabric printing in our earlier GiveWrap posts). These are some of the prints she sent me …I was very taken with the deep orange print with swirly yellow lozenges. It’s quite small, but once pieced together with similarly toned fabrics gave me an interesting start …The lozenges spread out …Until I reached the point where I am now with the piece propped up on a tall chest of drawers while I decide about the edging.  I can either go for the darker spotted fabric (on the right) or the lighter fabric (on the left).  What do you think?That embroidery was very pleasing to do – calming and meditative – and helped keep me occupied in difficult times.

I also crocheted these little Toft elephant friends for some little girls who have a new baby sister – a very belated welcome present to all the family.  When I wrote about my listlessness earlier this summer, somebody wisely told me that there is nothing like making presents for others to give you your mojo back.  Thank you, friend, you were quite right!What a relief to be back to normal!(Cats find mice in the darndest places!)

That darn Noonday Demon!

In the fourth century AD, Christian monasteries sprang up in the deserts near Alexandria in Egypt. In these harsh conditions monks struggled to live ascetic lives of prayer and deprivation in the belief that this would secure them eternal life.  One can easily imagine how these monks might lose heart and be distracted from godly prayer – particularly in the sleepy postprandial times of the midday lull. One monk, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote about the tiresome demon behind these temptations of listlessness and lassitude, calling it the Noonday Demon.

Over the last few months, I too have struggled with this darned Noonday Demon – though in my case, it has broken all the rules, and will not stick to the stipulated noonday hours of ten to two …

I did complete my doodle stitchery as I wrote in my blog post last month. But otherwise I seem to be just flitting from project to project, unable to find the energy or drive to complete anything in particular …

At the beginning of the summer I started another Judi Dench tapestry, this time replacing the greens with blue tones …It came on a couple of train trips with me, and then I lost interest and it got put to the side …So I thought I would try some spinning … I got out my best most glorious colours …And yes, I did find the spinning very comforting and pleasurable, and got quite a bit done.  But I lost interest when I saw what how the dark tones submerge the brighter colours in the finished spun yarn …A pile of my most beautiful fabrics came out one weekend when Stephen was away …I did a little machining …Played with some other fabrics …But it just didn’t grab me.  So I put it all away – and the only being happy with the whole event was the cat …I know! I declared to myself. I’ll go back to my first proper knitting love!  I’ll do some Kaffe Fassett knitting! And I was indeed very happy with this blue/green/purple strip of knitting – but then unruly thoughts niggled at me  … Was this planned knit really going to be useful … Kaffe Fassett knits are so cosy with all that stranded knitting at the back.  Do I really want to wear that sort of cardi any more …It got put to the side, ending up next to the wastepaper basket – oh dear, what indignity!I got books of inspiration out …I was sent fabulous fabric scraps by generous friends … but nothing seemed to spark my creative wires …I did complete one other piece – oh yeay! I was asked to stitch a Berwick Worm for the Tweed 1000 celebrations …This is a community stitchery being worked to commemorate the Battle of Carham of 1018. That almost unknown battle resulted in  the Scottish/English border being set as it is now, adjoining the River Tweed, rather than near Edinburgh. The pieces being worked are all linked with the history of the area.

There are many stories of Worms in the area – probably the best known is the Lambton Worm of County Durham.  The Durham locals have a song about their worm which you can hear here beautifully sung by a famous County Durham boy, Bryan Ferry. It’s a great worm story!

The worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,
An’ grewed an aaful size;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggly eyes …

I was so very chuffed to be allocated the Berwick Worm.  I got out my fabrics, and started stitching …Sadly, I have to say my heart wasn’t really in it. Although I think he’s quite a pleasing worm and I’m not in any way ashamed of my contribution, I didn’t find it quite as unputdownable as the best projects are …The one other long-term stitching project that I have toyed with this summer is an old friend which I started last year when I first learned about Alabama Chanin’s embroidered clothes.  I wanted to make a garment for myself but decided to start with a sample piece – and here it is at the beginning of the summer …I have picked it up recently and enjoyed adding quite a lot more different stitches to the background …I’m not alone to struggle with this problem. Others call it different names – for Ann Wood, for example, it’s Natsubate.  Some know it as Accidie.  Myself, I like the personalization of that imp, the darned Noonday Demon.

Perhaps it’s just this very long hot dry summer that we’re experiencing in the UK right now.  And I only need for the heavens to open to right my energies? With the political temperature soaring all over the world, it seems more than a trifle shaming to be so concerned with the pace of my creativity.

It’s just the small things though, isn’t it, that are really important?

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to rest.

Wendell Berry: Sabbaths 1999, VII

Ever in hope I have started a new knitting project! There is nothing like a knitting shawl for comforting ease of project and I have several very long car journeys later this summer when I will need some knitting.  I had to undo a shawl that I didn’t think was quite right for me to reclaim this beautiful Old Maiden Aunt yarn.  ( It’s a beautiful 4ply baby alpaca, silk and cashmere combo called ghillie ghu.) I’m hoping to knit it up as a Karie Westermann Bibliotheca shawl.Wish me luck – I so wish to find a project that will be absorb me!

Doodling a stitchery …

Or stitching a doodle … I’m not really sure …But I do know that I started this piece in the most playful of manner, with just some pieces of fabric machined together – perhaps originally I was thinking of making a GiveWrap? And then I took a turn off  (veered to the right as it were), and starting adding pictures and scraps, and embroidering, stitching them …
Some were strong images cut out from fabric … And others were just pieces I found in my scraps, exactly as they were…Scraps from all sorts of places.  Those strong green flowers came from my dear friend Mandy’s cast-off dress.  And the vibrant yellow silk lines were an unintended gift from my cousin Polly – beautiful scraps of sari silk used to wrap up a GiveWrap …parcel from PollyHappy stitching through the winter months, playing idly with fabrics and keeping the cats company as they bird-watched. My favourite times …winter stitching with catMy stitchery grew. I had started to add faces …whole piece 2I am fascinated by stitched faces.  One of my favourite feeds on Instagram is Spiritcloth who with such skilled dyeing and stitching produces pieces like this …Spiritcloth faceSo small green faces crept into my work too. I never quite knew how they would appear. They always started quite similarly – just a couple of scraps of green fabric, pinned together …smiley cat - startingroi soleil - startingI was nervous about stitching them, but I needn’t have been. They took on a life of their own. Some were catty …impish cat - working onSome were sleeping …sleeping child - startingAnother had a fawn-like appearance, I thought – especially when it became clear they wanted beards …thoughful man - finishedSo they all got beards – some wispy …smiley cat - finishedSome luxurious, as with the Roi Soleil …roi soleil - finishedThe cat has a fine beard too, complementing its whiskers!And a few beardy wisps too for the sleepy one – perhaps to complement those wisps of hair …My piece was now growing, and I was no longer thinking of it as an idle doodle.  It demanded to be seen as a whole – with backing (a lovely cotton Ikea duvet from a local charity shop) …whole piece 3And, once I started to see it as a whole, I had to think of balance. It needed some more of those strong yellows – and it needed poetry …
whole piece 6There usually comes a point when I am stitching when words come into my mind that I might stitch into the work in hand. Some of my embroideries have been stitched around text as in my Love Letter to Europe …Love letter to EuropeWith others, the words sort of drift in as I stitch away.  So it was with my Chinese Vase embroidery. For a long time it was just fabric pieces and embroidery …working on chinese vase embroidery Then – as I stitched – some of Eliot’s words from the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton) came to mind: “as a Chinese jar Still moves perpetually in its stillness.”chinese vase embroideryIt was T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets (Burnt Norton) that came to my mind again as I stitched those little green faces …TSEliiot quote 1
TSEliiot quote 2A little fiddling around with size and placement: “Go said the bird … for the leaves were full of children … hidden excitedly, containing laughter … quick said the bird … find them, find them …”whole piece 5And then some stitching …At first I was disappointed that it’s so hard to make out Eliot’s words and I wondered about re-stitching them.  But I decided that the almost-hidden words was in keeping with the sense of looking: Quick, said the bird, find them, find them …
whole piece 7My stitchery was drawing to an end.  Time now to add the backing, and quilt it with some comfortable sashiko stitching …summer conservatory stitchingThe cats approved …As the border stitching drew to an end, I thought – well, perhaps I’ll just add a little extra stitching here … and there … and there.  I realised that I’ve grown accustomed to having this stitchery around to pick up for a little stitching here or there.  The time had come to finish it.

By happy coincidence I was introduced at this time to the old Navajo belief that the spirit of the weaver literally enters the cloth they are weaving. In an article on the Spirit of the Cloth in the Spring 2018 edition of Spin Off magazine, Rebecca Marsh describes how the Navajo weave a spirit line from inside the border to the edge of the of the weaving to allow the weaver’s spirit to leave the cloth.

I needed a spirit line!

My spirit line – my escape from this stitchery – was to add my initials and the date.
stitching the signatureFinished!
whole piece 8

 

Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

When we moved to Northumberland in 2010, one of the things on Stephen’s list was to learn to play the Northumbrian pipes.  I won’t go into the Northumbrian pipes in detail (you can find more about them here), – just suffice it to say that unlike the Highland pipes which are blown, the air in the Northumbrian pipes is produced by elbow action. And they aren’t easy to learn to play!

(But they produce an enchanting light sound. According to organologist Anthony Baines, they are “perhaps the most civilized of the bagpipes …”)

Most impressively Stephen did learn to play them, and joined the Alnwick Pipers group, later setting up a local group, the Spittal Pipers.  These groups play for pleasure, and also at shows and exhibitions. In 2016, for BBC Music Day, the Spittal Pipers were asked to play on the Union Chain Bridge. They assembled early on an exceptionally cold June morning …All wearing their fine Northumbrian plaids – bar Stephen, who didn’t have his own, so was lent one … err, a lady’s one.  The difference is that the lady’s plaid is a short shawl, while the gents wear a magnificently long piece which sweeps right round the body.This year I decided it was time to give him his own plaid, and approached a fellow member of the Tweed Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, Janis Embleton of Flight Weaving for help because I knew she’d woven a shepherd’s plaid before.

However, Stephen didn’t need a thick plaid designed to keep you warm and dry in all-weather shepherding work.  He need a formal  Northumbrian plaid to match in with the other plaids in the Spittal Pipers’ group. So we turned to Stephen’s fellow piper, Lyndon, for advice – and the loan of his plaid.  Here he is being fitted in Lyndon’s plaid as a guide for length …When we knew exactly what we wanted (more or less a copy of Lyndon’s) and had a set of measurements for Stephen’s height, I went back to Janis to ask her to make the plaid.  She came up with a most generous plan.  She would weave the plaid, and I would finish it off – tassel, wash and pleat …

Janis works on a vintage Ulla Cyrus Loom, passed on to her by a fellow weaver some years ago.  To my ignorant eyes, it is a most beautiful – and very complicated – piece of woodwork. Parts are worn smooth and darkened from repeated handling, but it carries a story of the love and care it received from one weaver – and now another.

She sent me these fascinating photos of the loom when it was first set up to weave the black and white Northumbrian plaid. My goodness, what meticulous hard work is involved in setting up the loom for a large piece of woven cloth!Later, she welcomed us to her studio to see how the weaving was progressing. By this time there was a substantial piece of cloth already woven …She invited me to have go with the shuttle, and I can assure you it’s not as easy as it looks!I was struck by the complexity of the loom – all those interconnections …And in many ways, it felt as though there was an organic integrity between loom and weaver …When the plaid was completed, I visited again for a lesson in tassel-making. First Janis showed me how to remove the cotton bands which edge her weaving …Then the fringing was trimmed to the length we wanted …Starting to make the tassels with her dinky little tassel-maker …I finished the tassels off at home, and then came the terrifying moment when I had to wash the plaid …Despite testing for colour run before she started work, Janis had discovered the black wool was leaching colour onto her hands, so I was advised to handwash the plaid first in cold water – it did indeed come out quite black …Then it went in the washing machine for a 30 degree wash. Scary! How relieved I was to have it out blowing on the washing line, soft, clean and slightly shrunken!Now for pleating. Lyndon’s plaid was pleated with narrow folds over the shoulders, fanning out to wider folds at the hem of the plaid. Hard to find a clean floor long enough to lay out such a huge piece of fabric …Tricky – especially when I got help …Now for some very careful pinning and tacking all the way down the pleats.  I copied Lyndon’s plaid and machined the pleats in place at judicious intervals (over the shoulders) …Finally the whole process was finished off with some very damp ironing using a white vinegar/water solution.  I discovered this pleating trick from a very helpful website on historical sewing .  Apparently this was the old-fashioned method to secure pleats in place.  (My solution was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water.) And yes – the room did smell like a fish and chip shop, but the smell has now vanished!Time for a fitting. Here’s my Northumbrian piper in proper piper’s plaid! Just magnificent! And here he is playing the pipes!This has been such a happy project.  The plaid isn’t just a beautiful piece of work by a very skilled weaver, it’s a record of history – and in particular, for Stephen and me, the lovely folk who helped bring it together.  Thank you so much Janis for so generously allowing me to work on this project with you – it truly made it memorable.  And we can’t thank Lyndon and his wife Heather enough for their patient advice every time we needed to consult on some technical aspect of pipers’ plaids.