Archives for May 2014

In praise of sashiko needles

Just a brief post today in praise of sashiko needles. I’ve been doing some hand quilting, through a couple of layers of fabric plus batting, and a fairly long sashiko needle is ideal for this. I’ve been using the same needle for this type of work for some time now, and it’s just perfect. Here’s an image of Olympus brand sashiko needles, to show you the kind of thing I mean:

Olympus sashiko needles

This is not quite the same as the brand I bought which has a Japanese label and the word ‘Suncoccoh’ on it. I bought mine from Euro Japan Links Ltd – the pack of six needles for £3.60 sterling or 5 euro. It’s an excellent product, and if you’ve not tried it for this type of work I can thoroughly recommend it. Oh, and I did use the needles for some sashiko work. One of the City & Guilds Diploma course requirements is to study and write about textile work in three different countries. I chose Japan, Afghanistan and Peru – all well worth the effort. A requirement is to work a piece in a typical style of the country, and I worked a couple of sashiko pieces. I loved making the pieces and I really like the plainness of traditional sashiko work. Don’t know when I’d ever find the time to do more, though….

The joy of tidying

I had a cathartic experience the other day: I tackled my wardrobe and threw away lots of old clothes. It took me a whole afternoon to go through everything, but I was left with about a third of what I started with. The catalyst for this unusual action – it must be at least ten years since I had a serious go at this – was the loss of about 15kg (equivalent around 33 pounds for US readers) in weight. Now, it’s taken me well over a year to lose this weight so it’s not been a quick fix but I can really appreciate the benefits. The main advantages are feeling so much better and healthier, the increased energy and optimism, but also there’s the pleasure of finding that many of my clothes are now too big for me. It took me a while to build up to the major task of going through wardrobes. Like many fat people, I have clothes in there in a range of sizes – hanging on to the old stuff in the hope that it might one day fit me again. Well, now some of it does fit me again, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to actually wear it. In the  ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty years since I first bought an item my tastes may have changed, and my age group certainly has changed. However there is some stuff in there that I can now wear, and am willing to wear for the first time in a long time. Notably, the jeans I’m wearing as I sit here typing. What a pleasure!

So, what did I do with the stuff I decided not to keep? When I got really fat I did spend some money on relatively expensive work clothing designed to minimise bulk. Some of this was so well made that it’s hardly worn at all. I will never need it again (no, really, I won’t) and these items went into the British Heart Foundation charity box. Some of the more casual clothing wasn’t fit to donate, though. When you’re too big, you might just make an effort for work, but being at home you tend to find that you wear the same few items over and over again. Where things were just too far gone, I threw them away. A third category of items was things that I can dye. For example, there’s a fine cotton lawn shirt that I liked very much but which is now far too big. I will cut this up and re-use it for natural dyeing.

Over the last few months I’ve bought some new clothing, as I’ve lost more weight. I do tend to take care of things and I’m hoping that these things will serve me well for many years. However, I’m planning to lose more weight so, who knows, maybe these items will end up in the charity box too. Here’s hoping…

Seeing colours

Sometimes there’s a lot of colour around but it’s just a little hard to see. Several months ago, my husband took this photograph, but I didn’t see it until a few days ago.Tynemouth rust

This was taken on a winter’s day on the harbour wall at Tynemouth in the North East of England. The day was uniformly grey – grey skies, sea, castle and other buildings – and very cold and windy. We took an exhilarating walk to the end of the harbour wall which projects out into the sea by quite a long way. Along the way, my husband took various photos, but this is the bes of them. At one time a gantry crane ran the distance of the harbour wall, presumably for lifting things off boats. The remnant of this system is the heavily corroded rails running along the stone of the wall. The rusting of the rails has resulted in this beautiful colouration of the rail and stone. There is such a wide range of hue in this photograph – and yet the overwhelming impression of the day was that it was saturated with grey.

The memory of this November day is so much at odds with the place where we’ve spent the last week or so. In the South of France, the skies have been deep blue most days, there is wonderful spring vegetation, and lots of amazing colours on our plates too. We were there during the brief cherry season, and apricots and other colourful fruits were starting to appear. I suppose it’s because I was born and brought up in the North of England that I’m so drawn to the greys, the cold and the wind of the North East coast (to be fair it’s not always like that; sometimes the sun shines). But I do appreciate the ability to travel and to appreciate the contrasts.

Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Barbican

Passing through London last week, I visited the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican. My husband, who gets some pretty good ideas from time to time, suggested it might be a good outing with our daughter who just happened to be at a loose end in London that afternoon. This is not a cheap outing for three people, with tickets at £14.50 each, but it turned out to be well worth the cost as it was a memorable exhibition.

I expect most of you are familiar with J-P’s work, some of which is very well known, e.g. Madonna’s corsets and some of Kylie’s stage outfits. (See example of corsetry in photo below). Jean-Paul GaultierI first became aware of him years ago when he was co-presenting ‘Eurotrash’ on Channel 4; he has a most charming and beguiling personality which worked very well on television. What I hadn’t realised until I went to this exhibition is that he’s also a serious and very influential artist. I just loved this show. You actually get quite a lot of frock for your £14.50; we were in there for around an hour and 40 minutes and if I’d been on my own I might well have spent even longer.

So, what are the highlights? For me:

  • The huge range of styles and influences. It’s not just about corsets although there is a lot of corsetry in the show. There are some lovely dresses, suits, kilts and jackets. Some of them look eminently wearable, although you’d have to be brave/impervious to comment to wear some of the garments outdoors.
  • The sheer ingenuity of the concepts. For example, one of my favourite pieces was a woman’s evening dress made entirely out of men’s silk ties. This was beautiful, stylish, imaginative and even wearable.
  • J-P’s eclectic approach to style, design and models. Although he’s dressed many famous, stick-thin, models, he’s also taken a more broad-minded approach to size and appearance, designing, for example, for Beth Ditto and for unusual, non-standard, models. Given that most of us are not supermodels, this inclusive approach is very welcome.
  • The beautiful manufacture and finish of the couture garments. I spent ages looking at how the garments had been put together, and the ornamental finishes achieved. It’s a good opportunity to look at couture up close and to appreciate the vast amount of work and skill that goes into these garments. Anyone who is interested in stitching would get a lot out of this show.

Any downsides? Not really, although I would have really appreciated the opportunity to look at a sample of garments on the inside, in order to look at the back of the work, the seams and construction. I should think fashion students and anyone interested in garment construction would get something out of this. But this is a minor point; it’s a fabulous show, and if you get the chance to go, I recommend it.


What if you don’t like what you’ve made?

What if you don’t like what you’ve made? You spent ages planning a project, drawing, sampling, selecting materials, and then put hours on end into making the object, whatever it is, then you get to the end and find you simply don’t like it that much.

I find this happens to me rather a lot, and I wonder sometimes why, or how, I keep going, trying to create something that I’ll actually like. Especially when a stitching project has a natural tendency to take a very long time.

Generally, I’m not that keen on aspirational aphorisms or quotations, but I came across this one from an American bloke named Ira Glass: ‘

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

And this is the nub of the problem. You like beautiful, striking, meaningful artefacts and you would like to emulate the people who make them, but you’re constantly disappointed by your own rather feeble efforts. You criticise  what you’ve made because it’s weak, derivative, uninspired, ugly, a pointless waste of time and materials etc  (select any that apply…). It’s so hard to keep going when you’re disappointed in this way, and it’s helpful to have someone, as in the quotation above, telling you that most people who do interesting creative work go through years of this experience. (A bit depressing, though).

Bearing the Ira Glass quotation in mind, though, has helped me somewhat. I think there are certain things you can do:

  • Keep on keeping on and try not to be too ultra-critical of yourself – because if you are you might just give up on it
  • Compare what you’ve just produced with something you made a year or two ago and try to find evidence of improvement
  • Try to enjoy the process even if you don’t much like the finished product
  • Make lots of small samples, because this increases the chances of making something you don’t positively detest

I think something that could help, too, is constructive criticism from a mentor if you can find someone suitable, or at least support from others in the same boat. So far I haven’t tried to find a group to work with, because of the difficulty of making regular commitments of time, but I should think if you could find the right group of people to work with this might just help.

Incidentally, I was alerted to the Ira Glass quotation by a piece on Lisa Call‘s blog a couple of years ago.

Do you know what I mean? Any ideas or advice to offer?

I forgot to tell you….

When I wrote the post about the triangles sample yesterday I forgot to tell you that I’d taken it into hospital with me a few days ago. I was having a minor operation and was expecting there to be periods where nothing much was happening (I was right about this). I was hungry and, most especially, thirsty while I was waiting for the operation, and doing some stitching helped to take my mind off the discomfort and general anxiety. So, there I was, stitching away, and a nurse came in. She immediately came round the bed wanting to see what I was doing and we had a great talk about the pleasure of making things. She went away and another nurse came in, and pretty much the same thing happened. It was so cheering. I’ve occasionally had this experience before when I’ve been sewing on the train, and it’s just lovely when a conversation starts up about it. Another good reason for taking your stitching with you when you travel – or go into hospital….

Triangles sample finished

I’ve finished the triangles sample that I wrote about last week and here it is all hemmed and tidy. Triangles sample finishedYou can see from the photo that it’s not just, or even mostly, about triangles, because they started insinuating themselves as I was working. However, it’s been enough to make me think that I must do some further explorations on the same theme, so watch this space….

A very useful feature of simple running stitch is that it can suggest movement. In the close up you can see the effect of movement suggested by the triangles placed in different ways on the cloth.Triangles sample completed I like this, and would like to explore it further. This sample is really very plain, which I like, but there’s room for more complexity in the design. With stitching I think you learn certain things through practice that cannot be learned in any other way; not through books or instruction or even video demonstration. You have to actually go through the process yourself, absorbing the fine motor movements over a long period of time, and this is one of the joys of hand stitching. I’ve learned something from this piece of stitching, as from them all, which, I trust and hope, will feed into future samples and projects.

I think my next move with triangles will be to do some drawings and possibly paintings, and then I’d like to start piecing some triangles together. I won’t be getting on with this in the very near future, though, as we’re shortly going on holiday. I’ll be taking some handstitching with me, and will continue to write posts about this and that while I’m away. The holiday involves a long train journey there and back, and I know I will enjoy my time on the Eurostar and French railways (especially the latter; the TGVs are so comfortable, especially when compared to most British trains which are cramped and vile) having a good time stitching for many hours. Just hope my thumb holds up….

Elegance and constraints

The other day I found this image on the Quilt Museum website, and added it to one of my Pinterest boards:Canadian Red Cross quilt

The accompanying text explains that it’s an example of a Canadian Red Cross quilt; these were sent over from Canada to Britain in their thousands during the Second World War as donations to the war effort. The intention underlying these quilts was to produce an item whose function was, simply, to keep people warm in difficult circumstances. Accidentally, though, it manages to achieve elegance and beauty. The quilt is made of rectangles and squares of suiting wool. Because no two pieces are the same, it is thought that the fabric comes from a sample book. The quilt is tied with pink and blue wool, probably because that is what came to hand at the time, and, as the description points out, tying is a quicker method of quilting than stitching. So, in summary, it appears that this piece was put together quickly, out of whatever materials serendipitously presented themselves, and its focus was on function, not ornament.

Isn’t that interesting? One of the big challenges, it seems to me, about creating or designing anything, is to establish constraints of materials, colours, shape and so on. Where there is a superabundance of materials available, which is the case for many of us, how do you go about making these choices? I’ve been thinking about this in any case, because of the Matthew Harris course that I wrote about a week ago, but this Canadian quilt has helped to focus my attention on the matter still further. Some of the most striking and lovely examples of textile art (e.g. the Gee’s Bends quilts, and Japanese boro work) are the result of the use of scarce and precious resources in the form of rags. In my own recent family past, rags were used routinely to make rugs, and jumpers were unravelled when worn out with the better elements of wool preserved for making into something else. It’s not always the case, of course, that accidental elegance will result; in most cases this probably won’t happen. But sometimes it does, and then something wonderful is created.

Thinking about triangles

Yes, I’ve been thinking about triangles recently. I’m keen on geometric shapes and my all-time favourite is the square (e.g. my piece that’s currently on display in the Living Colour! exhibition comprises a series of squares), but that doesn’t prevent me appreciating and thinking about other excellent shapes. An important limiting feature of the square is that the only thing you can do to it is make it larger or smaller. But triangles have a lot more potential for variation. I didn’t much enjoy learning geometry at school, but I do remember liking to draw triangles with my protractor and dividers. And I especially liked the names: not so much equilateral, which is a bit dull, but isosceles and scalene which are lovely words. One of the few advantages of being a maths teacher must be the opportunity to work these words into conversation, an opportunity that doesn’t otherwise arise very often.

I’ve been planning a quilted piece based on triangles for a while now, but haven’t done anything about it. Maybe I’ll get round to it eventually. Most of my stitching time is taken up with working on my entry for the Carrefour Européen du Patchwork (I wrote a post about this last month). However, I do have a sample in production, which is just something for me to carry around and do when I’m not at home. I was away for a few days over the weekend and did some stitching on it. The stitching started off as straight-edged blocks, but I was intrigued to see some triangles started to emerge. I hadn’t really planned this, but then I hadn’t really planned any of it; it’s just a sample to keep my hands busy. Here’s a photograph of the work in progress:Sample with triangles



And another below:

Sample with triangles

This piece, incidentally, uses some of my naturally-dyed fabrics. The yellows and oranges are onion-skin dyed, and the blue is logwood. Once I’ve finished this sample, I think I’ll go on and do some more pieces with triangles. I’m also collecting images with triangles for a Pinterest board; there’s not much on it at the moment – a mere 15 pins –  but I hope to add to it over time.