“Oh the Places You’ll Go!”

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Completed ‘Owls’ four patch quilt (27 inches or 69 centimetres) square.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ― Dr. SeussOh, The Places You’ll Go!

“You’re on your own. And you know what you know “. Well, sometimes neither is ideal, or quite enough, when it comes to putting a quilt together all by yourself.  Most of us learn best by doing, though we can learn more wisely if we are lucky enough to have a family member, mentor, or friend, to point out useful tips and strategies so that we aren’t falling at every fence.

I think to some extent that’s what we look for in other people’s blog posts, a guiding hand, someone who can help us avoid problems, see where we went wrong, in addition to ideas, inspiration and connecting with a like mind.

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A simple four patch, English Paper Pieced and basted – and then abandoned

When I first started looking at quilting blogs I was coming across so many posts where a finished creation was posted in a Ta-da! moment, the blogger describing the fabric they used, or how excited they were, but nothing about how they got to that moment, or the challenges they faced on the way.  I used to think it was just me making these mistakes. Everyone seemed to be making amazing things, as if they knew instinctively what to do. I thought it might be an American thing, a quilting know-how passed down through families; something we don’t have here in the UK anymore.

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The owls were quilted around the outline of their bodies and the four patches quilted with large and small stars

One day I was looking for advice on Pinterest about attaching some wavy braid (ric-rac or rick rack in the USA). I was finding turning corners with it tricky and wanted to understand how best to tackle them, but I found that posts either didn’t mention the corners, or if they did, the corners didn’t show in their photos.

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An imperfect corner, following a prolonged tussle with ric-rac.

After a while it began to dawn on me that people didn’t want to admit to mistakes, they didn’t want to show their ‘done, but not quite perfect’, corners. They wanted to appear capable, accomplished, professional and just have us admire their creations.

I do understand that. Who wouldn’t like to post something beautiful and have people admire it, but what if your posts could accomplish much more?

Eventually, I found a few blogs that did discuss process and discovered what is referred to as a “win-win” situation. The bloggers had learned from their mistakes but SO DID I. And I admired them for their courage and honesty and willingness to share what they had learned and struggled with on the way to their finished quilt. I realised I wasn’t on my own. I wasn’t the only one finding that my quilts didn’t quite match my expectations. There are others out there just like me, even in America, and it’s good to have each other’s help.

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The back of the owl quilt, showing the outlines of the owls and stars

So, I am happy to say that I have completed another quilt that was languishing unfinished in a box (Ta-da! drum roll!) but less happy with the quilt itself.  In a previous post I mentioned that this was a quilt I started as a beginner quilter and so it was not pieced as well as I would like, and the stitches show much more than I would like. I abandoned it after I had done the top because having made the quilt sandwich with backing and batting tacked on, I had no idea how to quilt it or bind it. Three or four years on I have learned enough to complete it, but, even now, some of the choices I have made I would be wary of repeating in future.

Here are the main things I learned:

Stars are not easy to quilt: I used stencils for the stars, tracing them on with pen lines that wash out and quilting over the lines. It was hard to get into a rhythm of stitches, getting the right number of stitches coming up to each spoke of the stars. I kept having to unpick my stitches, making them bigger or smaller to fit. The smaller stars were even harder. I realised, too late, that the larger stars effectively quilted all four of the tiny patches at the same time, which was SO much more helpful. The smaller ones took ages and only covered two patches, leaving me wondering what to do with the other two. Did they have to be quilted too? I wasn’t sure.  I decided on a small ermine stitch but felt all these made the quilt fussier and more labour intensive than it needed to be. I think in future I would have the whole quilting design thought out a bit better before I started.

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Variegated thread may not be the best choice: I used variegated thread for the stars because I thought the softer colours would be better on  a quilt that was already so bright; that a soft blue moon and stars would be less obtrusive and would prevent the quilt from looking too cluttered.

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The moon is quite hard to see on the quilt.

I have used variegated thread before on quilts to good effect but it was as surface embroidery or in lines along borders and edges. On this quilt it caused some images to appear to be only partly there, when seen from a distance. I think using only large dark blue stars would have have maintained the simple, bold look of the rest of the quilt.

Using very dark fabrics can be risky: I used a very dark fabric for the border. I did prewash the fabric and it did run a little. I rinsed it until the water ran clear but I am still worried that when I wash this quilt the colour may run a little. Version 2I no longer buy very dark fabric for projects that will be washed and always avoid cheaper cottons where this could be a problem.

So, “the places you’ll go” may not be quite what you had in mind originally,  but they may well lead somewhere more satisfying eventually, especially with the help of others who have been there before you. And if you are lucky “you’ll know what you know” because they helped you get there. I want to say thank you to those quilters out there who have opted to talk about the problems they faced and the mistakes that they made. You know who you are. Bravo!

Till next time….

Arrgh, Those UFO’s!

IMG_9480I have come to realise an uncomfortable truth and I suspect I am not alone in this; I accumulate UFO’s; not the flying saucer soaring through the sky kind but the UnFinishedObject lurking in a box kind.

I have an idea for a quilt and get excited. I find the fabric and decide on the pattern; all things I love doing. I piece the top, loving how the idea comes to fruition. Then I make the quilt sandwich (top, back and wadding/batting in between), tack the layers together….and then start a new project. Why?

It’s partly to do with needing a bit of time to decide on an appropriate quilting design and partly to summon the courage to start quilting, or embroidering , on the surface of something I have taken days to piece, knowing that I risk ruining the whole thing when I am this far along. So I put it away for a while, (chicken out ) and forget all about it. I have about five or six unfinished quilts. I say that in a whisper, eyes downcast, as if I am at a Quilters’ Anonymous meeting. My name is Lesley and I have more than FIVE unfinished quilts. And, (mumble, mumble) a few other smaller projects.

Last week I dragged them all out of their boxes,  laid them out on the dining table, and realised another uncomfortable truth. UFO’s that hang about lose their shine. I don’t like them much anymore. The thing is that UFO’s stay the same but you move on. You have new ideas, learn new ways of tackling problems, grow more experienced. And then you look at your UFO’s and realise they scream Old You, a You that you don’t want to be anymore. A much less experienced you, and it shows.

I am an English Paper Piecer and the quilt police have put it about that modern English Paper Piecers are not expected to have stitches showing. My stitches don’t show anymore, but in these quilts, the first few I  did before I learned how to hide them, before I learned to quilt designs on the surface, before I learned to match thread more carefully to the background, they SHOW.

Of course if I was to hang the quilts on a wall, so I am looking at them from a distance, I  the stitches holding it all together are no longer visible. But I know how they look. These quilts no longer meet my expectations. They make me feel unprofessional. All I can hope is that there are people out there who doesn’t give a hoot about stitches showing, that they know every one is sewn by hand,  over many hours, and love them for that. Thank heaven for those people! Are they any?

So here is the first completed UFO. My ‘Bows’ quilts from the old, traditional, Bow-Tie pattern, in summery Moda fabrics. It measures  24 x 32 inches (or 61 x 81 centimetres).

I am now a reformed being. I have set myself the goal of finishing these quilts (well, as many as I possibly can) over the next month, so that I can get on with new ideas that I am itching to start. And because my box is full and I am NOT going to start another one.

The Moral of this Post:

Start very small, so there is more chance of finishing what you have started.

Don’t try and quilt before you can stitch. Create little samplers that are not so important and try techniques out on those.

If you are like me and can’t do sensible things like that, don’t put your UFO away. Leave it lying around where it bugs you, so that you tackle it at intervals until it’s finished.

Plan a reward:  ‘When I finished this quilt I can….’ Maybe get a friend to help. When you’ve finished it you can do something together that you’ve both been wanting to do.

And if you really hate it, unpick it (shock, horror!) and begin again. It might be worth it in the end.

Here are two of my other offending UFO’s: a Burgoyne’s Quilt made during the last Olympic Games in the UK (still no idea how best to quilt it – any suggestions? ) and an Owl Four-Patch which I am working on next. I’ll post them when they’re  finished. It could be some time….

and THIS ONE, below, (more shock, horror) I began in 1981 !! I thought it would be nice for my daughter to have a quilt when she moved from her cot to a single bed. I didn’t attempt another quilt until 2014.

This was as far as I got: A pieced, appliquéd cottage on a plain background with a single border, in pink and blue Laura Ashley fabric. A few trees are still waiting to be appliquéd on. There are curtains in one window and not in another. I don’t like how incongruous the flower patches look. I can embroider my own on, now. And I hate the stitches. They are WHITE. I probably only owned white and black thread then. This one is going to be taken apart completely and I will start again. Maybe I will finish it before her 40th birthday.

Do you have any UFO’s languishing somewhere? Quilts? Paintings? Poems? Drag them out into the light, get the pesky things finished and, who knows, maybe they will fly!

 

An Asian Experiment

Today’s post is a departure from quilting to run something quite different ‘up the flagpole’, something I have been wanting to try for a long time, an image using a piece of manipulated fabric. I decided an Indian woman wearing a sari might be a good idea. First I drew her, deciding that a simple profile would be best, no eyes or ears to detract from her sari. Then I traced my drawing and transferred it onto a piece of neutral coloured fabric.

I had intended to use the wrong side of the fabric, so that the design on it would be very faint, but I forgot and the image ended up on the right side (mistake number one).  For the sari I chose a five inch square of purple/red/pink batik fabric because I felt it was important that the fabric was a vibrant colour and that the pattern suited an oriental theme.

Once the image of the woman was transferred to fabric, I decided to paint her face and hand using a mix of white and burnt umber fabric paint, to create a soft brown complexion. I thought that the fabric paint would cover the design on the face and hand but it didn’t, (mistake number two). Perhaps if I had used the wrong side of the fabric the design would be at least be more muted. It wasn’t worth worrying about it at this stage, so I went ahead and started to outline her hand and profile with brown embroidery thread. In the pic below I have just completed her hand and her chin.

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Then, with the outlining done, it was time to add the sari. I folded the batik fabric scrap around the shape of the woman’s head and stitched it down, allowing folds to occur as I worked. As I stitched I realised there were three other sections that would need sari fabric too, the areas either side of her hand and above her thumb. These were areas that would have gone unnoticed if I had left them out of my drawing/tracing, instead of giving myself some very fiddly work to do, (mistake number 3).  I decided to use the English Paper Piecing technique to create those pieces as they were so small. Before I tackled them, I pinned a decorative trim along the edge of the sari, sewing it down only after the two small patches above and below her thumb were added, as they needed to be tucked under the trim.

There is still some more to do before it’s finished, but here is the result so far:

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The background needs something, so I am thinking about what to do with that. I quite liked how it looked in the hoop so perhaps I could set the whole thing in something circular. What do you think?

It was just an experiment, so I don’t mind the mistakes too much and I have certainly learned from them.  I hope to show you the  finished pice in my next post.

So, until next time…..

 

Running it up the Flagpole

IMG_9363Hi Everybody,

It’s been a while since I posted because I have been out gardening in our lovely weather. Now we are back to rain, rain, rain, it’s a good time to let the garden take care of itself and sew, sew, sew.

I had a friend once that worked for an American company and was always coming up with new sayings he had heard at work. One of them was to ‘run something up the flagpole’, or just give something a try. I love the idea of metaphorically offering something to the winds and letting it unfurl, even if it has to come down again. So this post is about new experiments; giving one or two more unusual things a try.

About a year ago I bought some fabric panels from a line called ‘The Sweet Life’ by the designer Cori Dantini.

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I’m not a great fan of panels because it feel like some of the work has been done for you, but I wanted to experiment with how big I could go with English Paper Piecing. Would the technique still work using very large pieces of paper? And if I had to butt several pieces together would the block be stable enough to keep its shape?   I also wanted to make a quilt that could be seen from all sides. Perhaps panels could be used effectively in this way. I laid the panels out on the carpet to see how it would look:

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I chose a co-ordinating piece for the back of the quilt, made up of similar, smaller panels, and auditioned some fabrics for the centre square. At first I thought I would use the blue floral design but opted for the green stripe because it blended in better and because it was called ‘Field of Joy’.

 

I didn’t have any very large pieces of paper, so I used three overlapping sheets of A4 paper stapled together, slightly smaller than the panels, and basted the fabric over the paper.IMG_9287

Then I sewed them together, sewing the centre square last. Unfortunately I attached the last panel facing the wrong way.  Can you see, the two girls with wings are facing the same way?IMG_9334

 

I left the quilt like that for over a week while I wondered whether to leave it alone, or unpick the panel and reverse it. Eventually, I decided to unpick it and change it, for two main reasons: 1) If it was to face this way, it would make sense for the two panels that have writing on to be facing you but they were sideways on, so you couldn’t read them easily. 2) This  started out as an experiment with a ’round and round’ design. If I left it this way then every time I looked at it I would be disappointed that I didn’t do that, that it didn’t work out. The mistake would shout at me. So I unpicked the panel, put the paper piece back in, re-basted the edges and re-sewed it on the right way. It seemed to take AGES. The other paper panels had been taken out (I didn’t want to have to put them all back in, so it lacked some stability which meant going slow). However, the good news is yes, the English Paper Piecing technique is do-able with large pieces of paper, just as it is with small ones.

Then I ran something else up the flagpole: I decided to embroider some of the surface design before I quilted the panels. I knew this would make the quilt totally impractical buy hey, this is about learning and have fun. I didn’t want to go too crazy or the stitches would interfere with the quilting, so I decided to embroider the girls hair and eyes and embellish their dresses a little. What a fun way this is to practice stitches! I can see myself doing much more of this surface stitching on fabric.

 

Now it’s time to sew the front and back together with a piece of cotton batting in between and start quilting. In the first picture above you can see I have drawn some turquoise parallel lines across the panel. These are to guide my quilting stitches and will wash out afterwards. In the next post, I’ll show you how it all turns out.

I am also experimenting with a small piece using fabric paint, applique and surface embroidery. More of that next time too….

 

 

Spring Things

IMG_7539The bluebells were out early this year and there seem to be more of them than usual. I love seeing the haze of blue in the wood behind our house and how they have spilled into much of our garden.

June is not far away and it feels too hot to work hard in the garden now and soon the buggy things will be out and about and ready to feast on me, so apart from a couple of hours in the early mornings, I’m taking a break from all-day gardening until September.

I have dragged some old planters chairs that were in our cellar into one of our greenhouses, so that I can sit and enjoy the garden whenever it is very windy or when there are too many biting insects to risk sitting still outside.

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Last year I spent so much time trying to generate stock and meet deadlines for a shop and craft stall that the summer disappeared while I was looking out of the window and wishing I could be out enjoying the good weather. I decided that wasn’t going to happen this year, that I would spend every lovely day outside from March until May and then some of every lovely day outside after that. Everything else would have to fit in between. This is what I have done, so there has not been a whole lot of sewing going on since my last post.

Last week I trawled through my fabric stash and unearthed my ‘works in progress’, or more accurately, my ‘works planned’. Hmmm, I seem to have quite a few of those. I found patterns I liked years ago and bought the fabric to make them, which is good in that fabric is much more expensive these days, but not so good in that my tastes have changed and I am itching to do more challenging things now.  I guess I need to get on and get them finished, perhaps alongside something new that is smaller.

There are some new ideas that I have been dreaming about; a project that involves a series of images that use folded and manipulated fabric stitched in place. I have made some drawings and now, although I have no idea if this will work the way I want it to, I can’t wait to try it out.

I also made this drawing, as a free embroidery design for you, if you want to give it a  try.

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Last week I had a complete re-organisation of my fabric stash. I found that a sweet shop nearby has stock of Haribo sweets arrive in square plastic boxes and that the owner is happy to let me have the boxes as they are emptied, rather than throw them away. This means I can sort, subdivide and store fabric to my hearts content, and it stays clean and easy to find. I have scrubbed the insides of the boxes but I love that when I lift each lid a sugary, sweetie smell still wafts out.

The only trouble is my study/writing space is turning into a craft room. There is hardly any leg room left under my desk because the space is full of stacked, fabric-filled sweetie boxes and my bookshelves are gradually being taken over.

I also managed to complete a couple of mini projects during April and May. The first mini project was a small embroidery ‘sketch’ for Mental Health Awareness week. It was to flag up the problems caused by depression/anxiety/agoraphobia and how sufferers are often housebound, trapped by their own fears.

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The second is a tiny wall hanging for an artist friend, Lisa Hooper, which is a copy of a driftwood sculpture she made, of an owl. Here is her lovely driftwood piece, on the left, and my fabric variation on the right. I just have to pop a label on the back and then it is ready to post out to her, to wish her luck when her studio opens its doors to the public later this month.

 

This blog  started out as a journey in English Paper Piecing but I see that it is gradually turning into much more as I explore the different aspects of working with fabric that interest me. I am certainly on a journey and learning all the way, and although my love for EPP will always be a part of it, I can’t resist the desire to experiment and maybe surprise myself.

Until next time….

 

Escape to the Garden

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The completed English Paper Pieced top, still tacked around the outer edge with the papers inside. No batting, backing or quilting.

 

With all the fine weather we’ve been having over the past couple of weeks, there hasn’t been a whole lot of sewing going on. Some dreaming but not much action. I began this year deciding to complete the three unfinished quilts I have lying around, as well as experiment with some new ideas. It’s now March and I have made a start on one of them, my ‘Bows’ quilt.IMG_9111 I have added the backing and batting layers and begun quilting (with the tacking still in place), just simple running stitches around the squares with pink, blue, yellow and green embroidery thread. It’s the largest quilt I have tackled so it’s got a bit crumpled as I try and quilt the centre. I tried a quilting frame but couldn’t get on with it and decided to quilt it on my lap instead.  Not sure if that will turn out to be a mistake. I think I will have to quilt around the bows as well, so it’s going to take a while. Here’s the quilt, over a chair, to give you a better idea of size. IMG_9112You can clearly see the three layers of back, front and centre batting (a low loft cotton wadding) and how I have begun quilting the top half but still have the bottom section to complete. And here is a close up of the backing fabric.:IMG_9114I LOVE text on the back of a quilt.

So, what HAVE I been doing these past weeks? I’ve been escaping to the garden. Mainly I have been stripping the branches of fallen trees  and roughly sorting them into size order and stacking them, so that my husband can more easily create kindling and logs for our fire. IMG_9044I have also been arranging spring plants outside my study door, where I can see them from inside:IMG_9081

Max has been sunning himself in the meadow while Sweet Pea watches from a safe distance. )

Early Spring is my favourite time in the garden and I really want to make the most of it. Now is the time to prune and weed and dig and plant. Soon the the garden will explode into leaf, the ground will get harder and buggy things will appear in their hordes determined to feast on me.

Today the weatherman has said that rain is on it’s way, for a few days at least, (saving me a lot of watering) and that will certainly necessitate an escape back to the house and to sewing.

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So, until next time…

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Rings Around My Valentine

img_8990It’s hard to come up with something different to make your husband each year for Valentine’s Day, but he likes the more easy-to-see-firsthand love and care that goes into something I’ve made specially for him. This year I wanted to celebrate how many years we had seen together and how, despite the ups and downs we’ve had, nothing has changed. We are still best friends that love each other’s company and can talk to each other for hours, about anything.

I thought I might make something with rings and I wanted to try some mini piecing, so I bought the templates for a miniature Double Wedding Ring design from Paper Pieces. img_8997When it arrived my heart sank. Each piece was about 1 cm square. How was I going to wrap fabric easily around those and stitch them all together. I decided to make a larger pattern but after I had made several 5 cm pieces, I went back to the tiny ones. I wanted to showcase a wedding ring, not a lifebelt.

The pattern I bought was for six rings that entwine but I only wanted to make two. It was going to take far too long to make the whole thing and in any case I wanted a more modern take on the traditional design. img_8994I decided on two half-rings and numbered the parts I might use, so that I could separate out the right number of templates and accompanying pieces of fabric.

I decided on dark blue fabric for one of the rings and a lighter, more ‘feminine’ colour of turquoise for the other, to add variety in colour as well as tone. I chose a different pattern for each piece of fabric I used (which were repeated in each ring). The shapes were so small, I thought they would work together as there wasn’t much room for a colour clash.

I love that the range of dark blues I chose had tossed patterns of frogs and snails to suggest lines from that old nursery rhyme “what little boys are made of”..while the turquoise fabrics were flowers and paisleys “all things nice”.

 

 

I thought it might be fun to try working with linen but it looked rather dull by itself, so I put a brightly patterned fabric, also with a pattern of rings, behind it, allowing it to show through. img_8991Then I tackled the tiny pieces. I sorted out the three different shapes, the tumbler shapes that made up the curves and the two shapes that ‘edged’ each curve, which then met the kite shaped pieces. The holes in the shapes in the picture below show needle holes from the basting stitches I made to hold the fabric to the template and to minimise fraying.

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The two ring shapes didn’t come out quite as I had planned. I wanted one to be much shorter than the other and to cross  each other nearer the top. However I started in the centre with the kite and edge shapes. I did thins mainly because once covered in fabric they all looked very much like each other and I knew I would get confused. I wanted to get them done while I remembered what they were. The trouble is, that beginning in the centre set the pattern for the rest of the curve and I ended up with two horseshoe shapes.  There’s nothing wrong with that as they represent luck but the result was not what I originally had in mind and had got excited about making. As I completed the shapes I had to stick a pin in each one to stop it moving and adhere it to the background, hedgehog style, because pinning it in the normal way distorted the tiny shapes.

Once I had stitched down the tiny pieces, I quilted long utility stitches around the circumference of the rings with turquoise and yellow embroidery thread and added a couple of ‘sparks’ in the centre of each. Then I put it in a frame to sit on his desk.

I did make a piece of board to stitch the backing to, with a view to keeping the piece stretched and the linen taut in the frame but realised that, out of the frame, the piece would be always be stiff (unless I unstitched the back and took the board out); not quilt-like at all. I wanted it to be a quilt, in or out of a frame, so I left off the backing board. This means the centre does bulge slightly towards the frame but it just looks like two rings sitting on a little cushion. I can live with that.

He likes it and that’s the main thing, eh?

So here is the result:

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I didn’t have any suitable paper, so I wrapped it in bubble wrap and then in cloth, Japanese style, and added a tartan ribbon. I think I might wrap more gifts in cloth, it gives them a wonderfully soft and friendly feel.

So, until next time…Happy Valentine’s Day, People!

 

 

Illustrating a Poem with Fabric

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The poetry collection I received from Ann

Today I have a story that I want to share with you. It began at the beginning of September last year, when a poem by Ann Gray was featured on a poetry blog that I follow: https://anthonywilsonpoetry.com.

The poem was completely my sort of poem, the sort I get excited by, the sort that bulges with stuff it doesn’t say, yet is deeply affecting. It was from a poetry collection called ‘At The Gate’, so I went in search of a copy. The only one I could find was on Amazon for £60! Well, I didn’t have even a quarter of that to spare so I wrote to the blogger (Anthony Wilson) and asked if he knew where I could get hold of a copy I could afford. As it happened he knew the the poet and, after asking her permission, let me have her email address so that I could buy one directly from her. My email messages always have a few lines of information about me at the bottom of the page; the addresses of my blogs, Facebook and Pinterest pages and I can only gather that she must have been interested enough to check them out.  However, imagine my surprise  and delight when she responded saying:

“What I would like, which might sound a bit strange, is not to be paid, but for you to make me a little gift….I’d like you to read the book, hopefully you won’t weep too much, and choose a poem that speaks to you and make me a little something in exchange.”

 Oh my, I thought, I have a commission! And she’s paying me in poems! (I know it was really the other way around).

I read the book of poems from cover to cover as soon as it arrived and began to think about which poem I would choose. It was hard. They were moving, deeply personal poems and I began to realise that no fabric design that I could manage would reflect the depth of meaning needed to do any of these poems justice. I looked for something concrete. There were dogs, guitars, hollyhocks, pines and, one of my best loves, Indian runner ducks. These small things I could reproduce but there was another thing and it got in the way. The poems brought back my own sense of loss, not only of people but of whole other lives. They spoke of songs I had loved, places I had lived, road names, bridges I knew. They expressed raw parts of me, too. I couldn’t put those into my sewing.

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‘Fox’ Anne’s poem on page 27 of ‘At The Gate’

I went on looking. I was reading ‘Fox’ when another of Ann’s poems came to mind. It was one that I read while I was waiting for the book to arrive, when I was searching the Internet for other poems by her; one that I had loved so much. And, although it wasn’t in the collection she had sent me, it wouldn’t go away. It sang to me, over and over, its song of love and hope and faith and resilience. This was what I wanted to put into my sewing. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Here is the poem:

My Blue Hen

by Ann Gray

I sing to my blue hen. I fold her wings
against my body. The fox has had her lover,
stealing through the rough grass,
the washed sky. I tell her, I am the blue heron
the hyacinth macaw. We have
a whispered conversation in French. I tell her
the horse, the ox, the lion, are all in the stars
at different times in our lives. I tell her there are
things even the sea can’t do, like come in when
it’s going out. I tell her my heart is a kayak
on wild water, a coffin, and a ship in full sail.
I tell her there is no present time,
an entire field of dandelions will give her
a thousand different answers. I tell her
a dog can be a lighthouse, a zebra finch can
dream its song, vibrate its throat while sleeping.
I tell her how the Mayan midwife sings each child
into its own safe song. Tonight, the moon holds back
the dark. I snag my hair on the plum trees. I tell her
I could’ve been a tree, if you’d held me here long enough.
I stroke her neck. She makes a bubbling sound,
her song of eggs and feathers. I tell her you were
a high note, a summer lightning storm of a man.

My Blue Hen is reproduced here with the kind permission of the poet.

I wanted to immortalise this Blue Hen and her companions and put them forever out of

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My working designs and patches

the reach of any fox. So I began my task. I made some drawings, chose the fabric and made photocopies of patterns that suggested the stitches I wanted to make.

The birds’ bodies are made of fabric wrapped around a piece of thin interfacing (instead of paper in the usual English Paper Piecing way) but rather than being pieced and the papers removed, the wrapped bodies are sewn to the blue background fabric, applique style, and then surface embroidered. Once all the surface stitching was complete I created a mini quilt by adding a layer of cotton wadding and some backing fabric and quilting the layers together.

In the past all my stitches have gone through all the layers at once to keep them well ‘glued’ together, especially if the piece is to be washed. Most of my stitching was on the surface this time because I thought it would be difficult to sew through the extra layer of interfacing inside the birds. That left me with the possibility of the centre of the piece bagging, once I had stitched around all the frame of the piece. I got around that by silhouetting each bird with large quilting stitches in dark blue and by adding a couple of drifting feathers. I won’t repeat this in future though, because the interfacing was softer in situ than I expected it to be and I missed the silhouette of the piece that appears on the back when all the stitches are visible.

The hens’ running feet were another potential problem, too small to paper piece and too jagged to needleturn a hem under, at my level of experience anyway. I settled on making them from felt and stitching around and over them.

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Little felt feet

I wanted the backing fabric to have pacing foxes on it, to keep them well behind the hens and unable to catch up and I loved the one I chose initially but it was too white, too stark.

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I just love these ear-twitching, prowling foxes

I wanted something that would blend with the colours on the front, so I had to find something else. I chose something softer, though here the foxes here look a little too innocent:

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The back of the mini quilt

After I had sewn it all together I added a label, and gave the piece a title taken from the penultimate line of the poem.

I finished it in the middle of January 2017 having emailed Ann from time to time to let her know it was progressing, albeit slowly. At no time did I reveal what I was making or which poem I had chosen. After a while I began to worry that I had not kept strictly to our agreement, that I hadn’t chosen a poem from ‘At The Gate’. I told her that if she was in the least disappointed by this, I would make another one.

I posted the finished piece to her last Friday (January 27th). Less than twenty four hours later she was opening the package at the other end of the country, and this is what she saw:

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A Song of Eggs and Feathers

She has told me she loves it. I’m so glad. And grateful too, for such an opportunity.

Do read more of her work.

‘My Blue Hen’ was shortlisted for the Forward best single poem prize in 2015. You can read more about it at http://www.forwardartsfoundation.org/  where there is more information about Ann and the inspiration behind the poem, as well as links to readings. Her collections include At The Gate (Headland, 2008), The Man I Was Promised (Headland, 2004), Painting Skin (Fatchance Press, 1995). Her poems have been selected for the Forward Prize Anthology in 1995 and 2008, and she was commended for the National Poetry Competition in 2010  She has also been a guest on  Arvon courses and a tutor at Ty Newydd.

Until next time…

New Thoughts on English Paper Piecing

Happy New Year Everybody!

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My ‘Tulips and Roses’ baby quilt, the last one I made in 2016

I love the new year, seeing it stretching ahead of me, so full of potential.
I can’t believe I have been blogging about English Paper Piecing for a whole year! OK, there have only been one or two posts a month, so that’s not really very many, but when you sew by hand you can’t post a whole lot faster, because it takes ages to complete things. If I am to post more, this year may be more about works in progress that I return to at intervals. We’ll see how it goes.

So what have I learned from my year of posting?

I’ve learned:

  • To hand quilt using ‘Utility’ or ‘Big Stitch’ quilting, which is much more fun than you would ever expect.
  • Several basic embroidery stitches and oh, how I love them!
  • How to use stencils and I adore them. I got some wonderful ones for Christmas.
  • How to thread the sewing machine that my kids bought me two years ago. Well, it’s a start!
  • That the secret to combining colours and fabric patterns in a quilt is to work with fabrics that DON’T match each other. This is because individual fabrics have to read differently from each other to show up in the composition. This has been a recent revelation since, like many of us, I tend to select fabrics that blend. This has led to predictable, safe looking quilts and I want excitement in them!
  • My tastes have changed rapidly as I have learned. I collected fabrics and patterns furiously when i started, only to find these tame and uninteresting now that I am bursting with my own ideas.

I’ve decided:

  •  I much prefer to use cotton rather than polyester batting for all of my quilts. It drapes beautifully and is easy to hand quilt.
  • Craft fairs are definitely not for me.
  • It might be ok to use my sewing machine just for borders and binding.
  • Although the craze in English Paper Piecing at the moment is all about fussy cutting for La Passacaglia and Millifiore quilts, or Lucy Boston quilts, these are a least a progression from simple hexagons. They do look amazing and, like most EPP quilts, require countless hours of hard work but I long for something more pictorial and hope it will come, eventually. I feel quite alone in this but will see what I can create without straying from the basic technique.
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‘Town Square’ mini quilt on a small inside window sill

I’ve come to understand that:

  • Craft fairs are expensive to set up and you need to commit to several if you are to get a return on your initial investment.
  • Handmade things cost more than anyone is prepared to pay for them.
  • People might like them but that’s not the same as wanting to buy them.
  • The market out there seems more conservative than the ideas I have and want to share, so I haven’t been as adventurous as I want to be. That has to change.
  • None of this actually matters because I sew to please myself first and foremost, because it brings me knowledge and new skills as well as peace and joy into my life… though of course I love it when someone tells me they like something I’ve made

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    My children’s pillowcases got the most compliments

And what of this year? I definitely want to:

  • Discover much more about how colours, tones and shades work in fabric compositions.
  • Finish at least five of the larger, more traditional quilts that I started a couple of years ago. Perhaps I can add a new twist to them.
  • Experiment with plaids and stripes and improvised patterns.
  • Move on from simple patchwork towards applique, especially stuffed work.
  • Learn how to print and dye my own fabric and make my own stencils.
  • Work on creating some fabric pictures based on my Indian childhood.

BUT FIRST I have to finish making something for a poet, who kindly gave me a book of her poems in return for illustrating one of her poems.

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Anne’s moving collection of poems

I have the fabric and the ideas and photocopies of my sketches and I’m ready to begin.

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Scraps of this and that, ready to sew

With Christmas and New Year out of the way and all the extra washing and putting away that comes with it, at last I can get on and finish this project.
I hope to have a post showing it to you alongside the poem but I will have to ask for her permission first.

So, until next time……

Adventures with Quilt Stencils

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Prym ‘Curls’ Stencil

I thought stencils were for people who weren’t creative, that stencils gave you a template to use if you couldn’t draw, or were useful for those times that you needed dozens of repeat images to be the same each time. I could see myself using a stencil on a wall but not on a quilt.

The first quilt I made was a tied quilt but then I wanted to learn how join the layers with tiny quilting stitches. The next few quilts I made reached the quilt sandwich stage, with all the layers carefully basted together, but then they began to collect in a cupboard. How was I to quilt the borders, let alone the great yawning centres? Was there a pattern that suited a particular design of quilt? It all seemed so daunting.

The answer, to begin with, was Big Stitch Quilting. I was introduced to this via an online Utube quilting tutorial (Hand quilting techniques for beginners (on perle cotton) by the Australian quilt designer, Sarah Fielke, and it was a revelation. I still have to master the tiny quilting stitches that have been traditionally used for quilting but I’m taking my time over those. In the meantime I was happy outlining borders and images in bold running stitches, using variegated embroidery threads, and couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it after months of being afraid to try anything.

I wanted to do more. I wanted patterns, repeated images, tiny motifs, more variety! So, I began to consider stencils. I decided that although I could draw, the set pattern in the stencil would allow me build my sewing confidence until I was ready to draw freehand onto the quilt surface.

I had no idea where to begin. It didn’t occur to me that there would be different sizes of stencil for borders and all over patterns for centres. I just found an interesting pattern that didn’t cost too much and gave it a try. The first one I bought was a Prym ‘Curls’ stencil and I quickly realised it was much too big for the narrow borders I was making. Not to worry, I thought, I’ll just combine the two, big stitch quilting in narrow borders and stencils in larger areas and I’ll use the same Perle 8 embroidery thread for both. It seems to work.

About the same time as I was beginning to explore stencils, I discovered a pen that I now practically worship. It is a blue EZ quilting water soluble pen.You draw on the quilt top, inside your stencil, making thin, turquoise blue lines. Then you remove the stencil and stitch along your drawn lines. When you have finished, you give them a spritz with water and all the blue lines under your stitching, disappear. Well, blow me over with a feather! How’s that for magic?

Hot on the heels of those two revelations came another: A single stencil pattern could be used to suggest more than one thing. The Curl Stencil could be used for ANYTHING with a slight curl in the pattern such as smoke, or waves, or a paisley pattern AND by altering the pattern, using just a part of the pattern, or leaving out some of the inside or outside lines, the stencil could be used in more creative ways than you’d ever imagine.

In the quilt below, ‘House in the Country’, the smoke coming out of the house chimney has been made from the Curl stencil:

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In ‘Coastal Cottage’, below, the same quilt stencil has been used to suggest waves:

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The next two stencils I bought were flower designs, one a tulip and one rather like a row of petals. The petal design was used to create the pattern in the ‘garden’ of ‘House in the Country’, above, and also in the two golden borders in the mini wall quilt, below.img_8752

I also used it on the mini nine-patch blocks in my ‘Roses and Tulips’ double-nine-patch quilt. In the close up, below, you can see the design has been altered to suggest an ‘Orange Peel’ quilting design over the centre block, where each petal meets in the middle. On the block either side I’ve used the tulip stencil but, similarly, a single side of the tulip could be used elsewhere to suggest leaves, raindrops, faces in pointy hats, or whatever else your imagination creates for you.

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I’ve recently bought a whole series of stencils in different sizes from The Stencil Company at  http://quiltingstencils.com/ in the States and they arrived in the UK yesterday. My daughter is  collecting them from the post office for me and bringing them here on Christmas day. I can’t wait to try them out.

Stencils can also be found in the UK at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/, https://www.cottonpatch.co.uk/ http://www.paulinespatchwork.co.uk and  www.threadsandpatches.co.uk. They are inexpensive as they are just thin plastic though of course there is postage to pay as well. There are dozens of patterns and images available and sizes range from 3/4″ border patterns up to large images of 5-8 inches.

I hope this post might find its way to someone who is feeling daunted about making a start with quilting stitches and/or using stencils. It’s all enormous fun. Just jump in! If you have any questions I am happy to help if I can.

So… it’s only a week to Christmas. Yikes. It’s getting a little colder but it’s mainly grey, wet and mushy along our Scottish country lanes.

Till next time…..

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