Catch up

Time to catch up a bit, I think, and bring my poor, neglected, blog up to date. I won’t attempt to do this all in one go as there’s too much water under the bridge.

Here’s a piece I finished the other day. If you have been a regular reader of this blog, you’ll see that it’s in a familiar idiom:

Latest piece

A family member asked me , quite some time ago, to make her a piece in this style. We spent some time selecting colours; she’s pretty keen on the turquoise/teal range, so this was a must. It’s a colour range I’ve not used much so it was interesting to me to see how it was going to work out. I used the sandy/yellow ochre range with a splash of a dark reddish brown for contrast. People seem to like the pieces in this style – when I put this on Instagram it got my best response yet. But I don’t want to get stuck in one style and it’s probably time to broaden my horizons. So, I’ve decided to get busy with sampling again, just doodling around to see what I can come up with. More on this another time when I will provide a further catch up.

It’s been a while…

Bit of an understatement there, really. It’s been about 20 months since I last posted anything. I’ve noticed that a lot of bloggers run out of steam after a while and it’s not too surprising. It’s a lot of effort to keep a blog going, especially when you have other things going on in your life.

The last message I posted here was in July 2017. That’s when we moved to live in North Northumberland in the UK. I was born and brought up in Northumberland, very near the coast, and I’ve had a hankering to get back to the place for many years now. And finally, I’ve done it. We live a few minutes walk from the North Sea, and can even see it from the upstairs windows of our house. In the other direction is the mainline railway station on the North/South route from London to Scotland. It’s all stunningly convenient and pleasant, and I’m now back living in a climate that suits me. (It rarely gets hot, usually there’s a cold wind from somewhere, and the rainfall is low – I just love it).

It’s been so long since I blogged that numerous WordPress and other software updates have taken place and I’ve had to download lots of things I don’t yet fully understand. So, I’m going to keep this simple and not try, yet, to upload any photographs or do anything else fancy that will crash the thing.

The other day I was thinking about the last few years, and realised that my recollection of events would be helped by reference to my blog. It’s a kind of diary, and that’s the most useful feature of it for me. I thought originally that it was a means of social media communication, but only on rare occasions has the communication ever been two-way. So I need to rethink my expectations around blogging. Best to think of it as a way of communicating with myself, and recording events and thoughts.

In my absence from the blog I have kept up regular posts on Instagram, so please have a look if you’re reading this and are interested. Instagram is, as a means of communication, preferable to blogging. It’s much less work and hassle and there’s a chance of almost immediate feedback in the form of ‘likes’ and quite often some comments. But I do like writing, so I think I should keep this blog going. As the events recorded in it become more distant over time, the blog becomes more valuable and more interesting to me.

Social media

So… social media….if you’ve read the last few entries, you’ll know that I’ve been somewhat absent from this blog lately. But, on the other hand, I have been fairly regular in posting photos on Instagram. (If you want to have a look at what I’ve been doing you can click on the Instagram icon on my home page). This is an ideal medium to use while you’re on the move as all you need is your phone and a minute or two to share a photograph. It requires no planning, minimal time and little thought. So, what’s not to like?

Well, nothing really, except that I can see that enthusiasm for Instagram could conceivably get out of hand. What’s gratifying about it is the feedback which is almost instantaneous in some cases. When you’ve spent some time working on something as labour-intensive as hand embroidery, it’s wonderfully affirming and validating to get somebody ‘liking’ what you’ve produced. It’s also very satisfying and interesting to see what the people you follow are up to, so that you can ‘like’ what they’ve been working on. It’s a kind of virtuous circle where you can keep up with work you like, whilst also receiving some recognition for your own. And yet….. I can see how it could easily become obsessive.

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting post on a blog that I follow. It was about Facebook, and the blogger detailed her concerns about her habit of looking far too frequently at Facebook for updates, and to receive validation of what she’d been doing. I found this very interesting and spent a bit of time constructing a suitable comment. But then, when I accessed the blog again, a couple of hours later, I found that the original post about Facebook had disappeared. The blogger must have thought better of it, and must have taken it down. I find this even more interesting. Perhaps it just felt too…. revealing? I won’t, of course, say who it was, but I found it interesting that even someone who is well-known in her field and who is a sober and thoughtful commentator, would feel the need for constant validation via Facebook. I had supposed that the gratification I get from Instagram would diminish over time if I got more followers and more ‘likes’ because it would all become very familiar. But what if it doesn’t? What if it becomes a bad habit? Clearly, I’m going to have to watch myself. And, perhaps, I need to avoid Facebook. I’ve been tempted from time to time to set up on Facebook, but have not done so, because I can see it would waste even more time that I haven’t got, for dubious benefits.

In the meantime, here is one of the photos I shared a while back on Instagram:Running stitch, colour




Dressmaking. Yes, it’s not quite the usual sort of thing I blog about. But it is closely related to the general themes of textile and stitch, so I reckon it’s probably OK. (And, actually, it is my blog and I can write about whatever I want!) But, if you’ve turned up in the expectation of reading something about embroidery, fear not – I’ll no doubt be back on message soon.

Back in November, when I went to K&S at Harrogate, I wrote a bit about the Maker’s Atelier and how impressed I’d been with the sample clothes on the stand. I bought two of the patterns, resolving to do something about them at some vague point in the future. Well, somewhat to my surprise I’ve reached that point and have produced my first garment. The pattern I used was the pleat detail dress and top – see pattern photograph.Pleat detail dress

I was very taken with the simplicity and neatness of the pattern.  I discussed its making up with Frances Tobin, the mastermind behind the Maker’s Atelier, at the K&S show. One of the aspects that concerned me was how well the pattern would scale up to a larger size. She was reassuring on this point, and suggested that I could alter the positioning of the pleat. On a larger size it could look awkward over the bust, so it might be preferable to place it further down.

I had decided that if I was going to make a serious attempt at dressmaking again I would have to spend time on fit and sizing. One of the things that’s put me off over the years is the sheer difficulty of scaling up patterns so that they will fit properly. So, I really went to town on the fit. Following the advice on the Maker’s Atelier website, and on numerous other blogs and websites, I decided I’d go the whole hog and make a toile (referred to in the USA as a ‘muslin’). I spent some time tweaking the pattern. Not only did I reposition the front pleat around 5 inches further down the dress, but I also altered the neckline to bring it down a bit. I have never done anything of the kind in my life, but I reckoned it couldn’t be that hard? Could it? Well, actually, it was OK, and especially once I was armed with the correct bit of kit, which is a French Curve for drawing the curvy bits. I also lengthened the top to tunic length so it would cover my bottom.

I cut the toile out of lightweight calico, which is a fabric I use a lot. Then made it up, which wasn’t a big deal as there are so few pattern pieces.  Then I tried it on, to discover that the garment was OK over the bust and shoulders, flappy around the neckline and a bit on the snug side round the hips. (I should say that I was working on the 16-18 size). I spent a lot of time getting the neckline right, but got there in the end. One of the challenges about changing a neckline is that you also have to change the neck facings. But after a couple of goes I got that right. Widening it out over the hips was very easy as this pattern falls in a straight line. And, while I was at it, I lengthened the sleeves a smidgeon.

I had bought two lengths of fabric to try out this pattern, and decided to go with the broderie anglaise first. This is a very lightweight cotton covered in machine embroidery which gives the surface quite a lumpy texture. I soon realised it was going to be quite challenging to work with as the machine needle tends to get to a bump and then veer off. Making the facings was not going to work in this fabric. But then I remembered that a few weeks ago the iron had gone through the very worn surface of one of our older pillowcases. I’d mended it with a bit of old sheeting, but same thing happened again next time it went in the wash. The 100% cotton white pillowcase was very worn in the middle but there was plenty of viable fabric round the outside, and it had become soft and pliable. It turned out to be just perfect for the facings.

A good thing about making the neck bigger was that I was able to dispense with putting in a zip in the back seam. The garment pulls over my head quite comfortably. Here’s what it looks like finished:Broderie anglaise pleat detail top The neckline fits perfectly, after much effort to get it right.Broderie anglaise pleat detail top neck c I’m very pleased with the finished item. It’s required much time and effort, especially considering it’s such a simple piece of clothing. However, I’ve now perfected my pattern to fit me, and will be able to make another one with the other piece of cloth (blue linen) that I’ve got earmarked.

One of the reasons this has been slow to do, apart from the work on fitting, is that I’ve been garnering and applying advice from a range of websites on how to produce home-made garments that don’t look home-made. Some of the advice I would follow in any case as this is what I learned when I was a child, e.g.

  • Always press seams carefully as you go
  • Apply staystitching around the neckline to prevent the fabric stretching out of shape
  • Baste any seam that’s likely to cause problems – e.g. in this case the attachment of the neck facings to the neckline
  • Finish off the raw edge of the facings.

Here are some of the other bits of advice I followed when making this:

  • Make a toile. Opinions vary about this around the internet, but I found it invaluable and would always now do this with a new pattern
  • Prewash the fabric, so that any shrinkage is taken care of before you start cutting into it. (Bingo! Brilliant! Why hadn’t I ever done this before?)
  • Use directional stitching, e.g. stitch up the two side seams in the same direction, from the bottom of the garment

One piece of advice I meant to follow was to use a new machine needle for each new project. I just forgot. And actually, it didn’t matter because the machine behaved perfectly throughout.

I also tried to improve the look of the garment by taking care over finishing off the hems. Back when I did more dressmaking, decades ago, I often found that my lack of expertise in hemming gave the game away and made the thing look hopelessly homemade. On this occasion I cut (using a cutting mat and rotary cutter) some straight-grain facings from my trusty pillowcase, and these were easy to apply. I did the actual hemming using the blindstitch hemming attachment. I’ve used this on curtains before, to good effect, and the technique worked well here too. These are probably the most professional-looking garment hems I’ve ever produced.

So, on the whole, a very positive experience, although it was very time-consuming. I wish I’d written down all the time I spent on this, but I estimate I must have put around 4 days’ worth of time into this simple garment. The broderie anglaise fabric I used is too fine and see-through, certainly for a person of my age and build. I can wear it with a white cotton vest top, which looks fine, but I’d have been better off starting with a slightly heavier and more opaque fabric.

Right, I’m going to cut out the blue linen version now. This should be really easy….







Stitching activity of late

Having flogged and left the house (see last blogpost) in early March, we then went up to the Scottish borders for a few days, then pushed off to France for about three weeks. Many months ago, when I first found out about it, I had booked to go on a Matthew Harris mentoring workshop in April. And I was quite determined not to miss it. And I’m really glad I didn’t.

If you’re interested in stitching, and if you’ve read my blog previously, you will have heard of Matthew Harris. Here’s a link to his website. I have previously attended one of his mentoring workshops at Bobby Britnell’s in Shropshire and very helpful it was too. However, I was keen to also go to one of his workshops on his own premises in Stroud, because the number of students was even smaller than at Bobby’s. There were six of us altogether, three per studio and each of us had a large space of our own in which to work. I found it very useful to discuss my work and where I’m up to. Matthew is very good at encouraging ideas and suggesting possible directions to explore. For example, he suggested I have a look at the work of Shirley Craven, a textile designer of the 1960s. Very pertinent, very helpful. (Look her up on Google Images and you’ll get the idea).

What I specifically discussed during the two day workshop was the possibility of working on paper.  I wrote a brief blog post towards the end of March on the subject, and I’d been doing a bit of work on it (although not much because of the house move and toxic quantities of income-generating work).

I did some sketchbook work, developing a basic shape which I then used in several permutations. Here’s an image that made it as far as being painted and then stitched:Stitch on paper March April 2017

And here’s how I developed it at the mentoring workshop in Stroud:More developed idea stitching on paper

I cut out a template of my basic shape, and then experimented with overlaying it in various ways. I do like the effect.

I cut a similar design (gouache and coloured pencil on paper) into strips and rearranged them:Matthew Harris mentoring April 2017

I like this one, too, and I can see some scope for scaling it up. However, I’m going to have to wait for a while before I can engage on such activities. In the house we’re moving to (provided all goes well), there is quite a large studio at the bottom of the garden. It was a stable but was converted into an artist’s studio. Imagine how happy I am about that! It’s properly insulated and has a stove so I will be able to work there all year round. It’s well lit from above, and there is plenty of space in it for working on a fairly large scale. So, this red and white piece could be a candidate for the first large piece I make in my new studio…..



Well…! That was a long break from blogging. I do have some quite good reasons, though. We’re in the process of moving from Lancashire to Northumberland. It’s been, and continues to be, a frenetic process. The house sold in early March and we packed up and left, putting most of the stuff into storage. We will be moving into the new place within the next two or three months, but don’t yet have a date. In the meantime, we’ve been travelling around with a car containing the bare essentials for five or six months.

The nomadic sewing kit contains:

  • My sewing machine (couldn’t bear to be parted from my Bernina for that long)
  • Two large bags of art and stitching materials, full to bursting and spilling out

This lot occupies quite a lot of volume in the car (which is a pretty normal hatchback size). We’ve each got a couple of bags of clothes and personal items, and there are two large boxes of paperwork, both domestic and work-based (because I have to carry on working throughout this period). Computer equipment and lots of trailing leads. Then there are a few domestic items that were last minute (e.g. teapot and coffee pot, a sad little teaspoon on its ownio) and odds and ends that just somehow got left behind. A solitary plant which we couldn’t just abandon. Shoes. Sandals. Coats and jackets to cover the different seasons.

It’s been quite an upheaval, to put it mildly. I suppose it’s good for a person, to have everything thrown up in the air, and to still be waiting to see where the pieces fall a few months later. But, to be honest, I’ve found it much more difficult than I expected – and I wasn’t expecting it to be easy.

And just to make life that little bit more difficult, in the course of all this I’ve had my latest round of dental implants done. Most of the time since we moved we’ve been in either France or Scotland, but I had to go back to England for a couple of things, once of which was the dental implant op towards the end of April. And it’s taken me till now, early June, to feel more or less back to normal. We’re back in France, although I’ll be off to England again in a fortnight for work. And then after that it’s Spain for a few days….. I know this must sound really interesting and possibly even enviable, but really, I just want to move into the new place, sit down on the sofa and cuddle the cat (who is in long-term care at the cattery – I miss her lots) and not move for rather a long time. I rather enjoyed gadding about when I was young, but that was then and this is now.

So, I’ve got started with blogging again, I’ll have to have a bit of a retrospective catch-up over the next few entries. I have continued, somewhat surprisingly, to get some stitching done. I’ve had work exhibited at Ramster. I’ve been on another Matthew Harris course. I spent a day stewarding at the Prism exhibition in Birmingham. And although I haven’t kept up with social media to the extent of doing any blogging, I have been quite assiduous about keeping up with Instagram. I’ll write a bit more about all these things over the next couple of weeks.

One thought I’ll leave you with for now is about stuff. This move had been planned for some time but the transaction was getting so dauntingly difficult (this is in England where property transactions are more often than not a nightmare) that it looked as though it wasn’t going to happen. Once it did happen, it happened incredibly quickly and we had less than a week in which to organise a last-minute leaving party for friends and neighbours and get everything packed up to go into storage. Apart from the items I mentioned earlier, it’s all gone. Nearly three decades-worth of stuff. And what, if anything do I miss? Most of all I miss the cat, way out in front of anything else. Next, I miss certain items of art that we have bought over the years, although I have to say there are some items I’m quite indifferent about. I’d like to get back to having a really big table for artwork and stitching. And, er, well, that’s about it. It’s going to be interesting to unpack all this stuff, and to properly appraise whether or not we want to keep it.

Linen on paper

I said in the last post that I’d say something about what I’m doing with my collection of linen threads. As regular readers may remember, I’ve been very impressed for a while by the work of Emily Barletta. She has produced quite a lot of very striking stitched work on paper. I experimented a bit with this last year when I was working on my whitework project. One of the images I produced at the time has been repinned a few times on Pinterest, so it seems to be quite appealing. Here it is as a reminder of what I was doing:Whitework on paper - resolved piece

This was actually a very complicated and time-consuming piece of work to do. But as an experimental sample it was very absorbing. So, the next stage, I felt, was to produce some more samples to see what I could do with the combination of linen and stiff paper. Here’s the first one that I tried:Linen on paper

I drew out the design, then used a needle to make holes in the stiff watercolour paper. Then it’s just a matter of filling in the holes with stitch – quite easy really once you’ve decided what to do. I was only moderately pleased by this one, but it was just an experiment and the intention behind sampling is just to see what happens if you do certain things, combine certain materials and so on. In this case, I drew the design on the back of the piece of paper, and punched the holes through from the back. I don’t think this is particularly satisfactory as it creates a slightly raised area around each hole.

So for the next sample, I punched the holes in from the front. I decided to keep it simple, but to try to create a textured surface. Here it is:Textured surface linen on paper

I deliberately photographed it at an angle to emphasise the surface texture. I really like the effect. The technique I’ve used is wrapping – just a simple running stitch but each stitch is then wrapped to create the texture.

Currently, I’m working on another sample, which I’ll put on the blog when I’ve finished. It also uses wrapping but this time of single chain stitches. More on this very soon!

Linen thread

I’m very attracted by linen thread. Over the last year or two I’ve built up quite a collection. I got them all out the other day and put them in my useful shallow basket:Linen thread collection

At the bottom right is some of the thread I bought from Namolio at a show. This is lovely, but comes in quite a limited range of colours. On the left is a little stash of vintage Swedish linen thread which I got at the Linladan stall at K&S in Harrogate in 2015. (Click on the links to get to the Namolio and Linladan websites).These are beautiful threads, although pretty expensive. As usual, when I buy something quite expensive I’m wary about using it. Which is a ridiculous attitude if you spend half a second thinking about it. The only thing that could possibly justify the expense, surely, is actually using the materials. Well, it’s illogical, but I think it’s quite a common attitude. There’s a feeling that you’re under pressure to produce something really good, and it would be wasteful to just experiment and maybe produce something you’re not satisfied with. Understandable, maybe, but it’s an attitude that needs resisting.

At the time I pulled back from buying a whole box of Linladan thread – at £38 per box, it seemed a bit much. But look at this example here and you’ll see why I was tempted…Linladen thread box

Isn’t it lovely? Now that I’ve got my actual threads together I see that they’re mostly in rather sombre hues, and there’s very little contrast. Either I shell out on this box of threads, or I use some cotton or silk when I want a bit of colour contrast. I think for the moment I’m content to do the latter.

And what am I going to do with these threads, I hear you ask? Well, more on that next time….



More pincushions

I’ve decided to produce more pincushions so I can put some of them into the Prism shop at the Birmingham exhibition to see if there’s any demand for them. If there is, then I’ll feel more confident about offering them via an Etsy shop (yet to be set up, but you never know – I may just get round to it one of these days). I had to think about how best to present them, and decided that they would look better presented in a box. Cue much searching around on the internet for suitable cardboard presentation boxes. I wanted black, 10cm x 10cm, and deep enough for the pincushion. In the end I couldn’t find black, but I did find a very nice off-white which come flat-packed. Yesterday I made them up and put the pincushions in. I may add some tissue paper, but this is how they’re looking at the moment:Pincushion, boxed

Nice, and a good fit. I’m pleased.

Previously, I’ve read artists accounts of how much time they spend on applying for exhibitions, boxing work up, dealing with the admin, and so on. I can attest to the truth of this. Some of the time it’s taking up at the moment is no doubt because of my inexperience, but still, it just does take a long time. When you still have a day job, this means even less precious time to spend on actually making. However, there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from doing these things properly.

As well as the finished pincushions, I decided I’d try offering them in kit form. Again, this is experimental. Now, this really has taken up a lot of time, as it’s required some careful thought and sourcing. But I’ve loved putting the kits together, and some aspects of it are quite creative. Here’s a photograph of part of the assembled kit: Pincushion kit

On the left is the base material of strips of silk and cotton appliquéd to a ground fabric of lightweight calico. The block of solid colour is the fabric for the base of the pincushion. Then there is a knot of threads (selecting these was the really fun bit), plus a couple of needles and two buttons from my collection. Also in the kit, although not visible on the picture, is an embroidery hoop (not sure about this, but thought I’d perhaps better put one in), a bag of polyester filling and three pages of instructions with colour illustrations. We’ll see whether anyone goes for it or not, but I think they would make nice presents for sewists in your life, and actually, they could be made up by someone with very little experience of sewing. I’ve produced seven of these so far. They’ve taken an age to put together, but I guess now I’ve got the hang of it, I could produce a few more if there’s any demand for them.

K&S Harrogate 2016

As usual, I went to the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate this year. Got there on the first day of the show, the Thursday, and had a belting time. Fortunately, I was feeling quite energetic because the whole experience was exhausting. But I stuck it out for well over five hours, with only a cup of coffee to keep me fuelled.K&S logo

So, what was good? Actually, this year, I was most attracted by the dressmaking, and spent more time on that than anything else. On going into Hall A, I was immediately attracted by the Maker’s Atelier stand which I don’t recall having seen before. This is the brainchild of Frances Tobin, a fashion designer, who has set up in business designing dressmaking patterns. Each of her designs was available to inspect, made up in simple, high-quality, fabrics. I loved them, and so, by the looks of things, did lots of other women. Many of the visitors to this blog will know just how difficult it is to find simple and stylish clothes, especially when one is at a certain age and a less than ideal size. I spent some time talking to Frances and her assistant on the stand. The assistant was particularly inspiring as she was wearing a couple of the items that she had made recently, but, and here’s the thing, she had only started dressmaking about a year ago.

I bought two of the patterns and was directed to Rosenberg’s stand where a mighty scrum was taking place as many, many women all attempted to buy fabric at the same time. I’m not surprised – the quality of fabric seems to be excellent and the prices are unbelievable. Have a look at Rosenberg’s website here. There was a long wait but it was all very good-humoured and cheerful. A woman standing next to me told me that you have to get in at opening time, 10 sharp, in order to get to the front of the queue. I eventually managed to buy some lovely fine wool at £12 per metre, and I hope that I will find time in between all the working and the pincushioning etc to actually get something made.

What else did I buy? Well, not a vast amount, as I really have all that I need. I bought a few small pieces of silk and some sari strips from The Silk Route – I almost always buy something from them. And some plain Kona cottons in fat quarters to provide a sturdy backing to my pincushions. Other than that, not a lot. I spent some time looking at the exhibiting artists’ stands and was especially impressed by the work of Debbie Lyddon. I’d been aware of it previously, but hadn’t seen it in the flesh. The work in the show had been inspired by time spent at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, and I thought it was genuinely evocative of the place (which I first visited a couple of years ago).

So, yes, all good. I’m pleased I went, and I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with dressmaking. I did a lot of it in my youth but it was a lot easier back then when I was slim and a UK size 12 pattern would fit me without any alteration. Ho hum. Times have changed and so have I.