Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Flâneurs and bowerbirds

I vividly remember my then-boyfriend-now-husband coming home one afternoon when we were studying for our degrees, and telling me about a lecture he'd attended which talked about 'the flâneur'. Neither of us had heard the term before and were highly amused to learn about a small niche of 19th century men who dedicated their lives solely to the job of strolling the streets, alone, appreciating the modern-day urban landscape, as 'botanists of the street'.

The french word 'flâneur' translates as saunterer, lounger, loafer, loiterer, dawdler*. The flâneur became a figure of fun in our lives at that time, who we gently mocked for living so self-indulgently, but also jokingly aspired to grow up to be, for no other reason than that it sounded like quite a nice life.

The term suddenly popped into my head recently, when I was scrolling through pictures on Instagram and saw photos capturing beautifully coloured buildings, rooftops at dusk and bikes chained haphazardly around iron railings and I had the realisation that in some ways Instagram encourages a modern-day form of flânerie, inviting us to stop, appreciate and record the architecture and urban landscape around us. I felt unexpectedly delighted that this term, which had seemed so antiquated when I first heard it nearly twenty years ago, has now been reabsorbed in a more sustainable way, that can run alongside normal life and jobs, no longer just a preserve of wealthy males, but free to anyone who can afford a phone with a basic camera and the wish to turn the journey to work or a trip to the shops into something more enjoyable.

I googled for information about modern-day flâneurs when I had this thought, and found that Susan Sontag had jumped on this idea nearly forty years ago (I'm only a little late in making this connection, then!) when hand-held cameras had become more commonplace: The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world "picturesque". 

You may be wondering why I chose to illustrate this post with a photo of my cat on a sofa; a lack of more suitable photographic resources suggests I clearly did not grow up to be a flâneur. However, as I scrolled though my photos, I realised that I do take an excessive amount of pictures of creatures, sewing paraphernalia and woodland paths (also my family, but I don't tend to share those publicly), very much with a 'stop and appreciate' ethos.

I recently learnt that an intense appreciation for surroundings isn't just confined to humans. During a conversation with my sister, where I was discussing my wish (currently stunted by my husband on the grounds of potential wind-dispersal of my 'litter') to leave scraps of Liberty print fabrics in the back garden in the hope that birds would use them to make beautiful nests in our silver birch tree, she told me about the bowerbird. The male bower bird decorates an elaborately woven bower, with perfectly colour-coordinated bits of foliage, flowers and even rubbish, with the sole aim of attracting a mate. They can spend years perfecting the structure and the interior design of their wooing parlour. Here's a wonderful short video by David Attenborough about the bowerbird - the bower structures in this are incredibly beautiful, although modest in comparison to some! Do watch - it's five minutes of pure stomach-flipping wonder. I believe that a bowerbird would truly appreciate some Tana lawn, but I think trusting in wind-dispersal as far as Australia and New Guinea, where the birds are found, is overly-optimistic.

I'm quite unsure what the point of this post is, other than to tell you about words and birds that I've enjoyed thinking about recently. Do feel free to leave any of your own random thoughts in the comments. Chatting on the phone to my grandmother recently, she exclaimed warmly: Darling! You do remember an enormous amount of pointless information, don't you. So true. If only all the useful bits would agree to stay in there too.

It's one of life's mysteries to me how people retain important bits of general knowledge. I am often left nodding blankly when people assume that I have some basic bit of geographical, historical or religious knowledge in conversation. Yet conversely, I can remember the spine colour of virtually every book I've ever read; identify the titles of most songs I like going back 30 years from just the first few opening notes; and name the shop where each piece of clothing my husband owns has come from without looking at the label, having never made any conscious effort to remember a single one of these pointless things. I'm aware that I could spend time learning the capital city of every country and memorising where each country is on a world map, but certainly amongst my own family and friends, these pieces of information are things they claim to just 'know' and to have absorbed by osmosis, rather than by memorisation, in much the same way as I have done with my book spine colours. I'd love to know how brains decide which bits of information to retain and which to let fall through the sieve and how to influence this. While over the last few years, I've become much better at remembering names by mentally linking a face to other people I know who have the same name, I think it may make life feel like a bowl of spaghetti to think up brain games for every piece of information I'd like to retain. If you have any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them - I find it fascinating thinking about how different people think or even whether it's possible to become a different sort of thinker.

Florence x

* I think saunterer, lounger, loafer, loiterer and dawdler are all such delicious words, especially when grouped together. I'd like to add the word 'lolloper' in there, just because it would fit so well, even though it's not an official translation of the word. And because it reminds me of a line from one of my favourite films that my sister and I watched repeatedly as teenagers, 'P'tang Yang Kipperbang', set in the 1940s, where a teacher says to schoolboy, Alan Duckworth: You're a lolloper, Duckworth!'.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

A sneaky way to shorten jeans

I always really dislike shortening jeans. It's one of those things that I'll put off for months and is eventually undertaken wearing sunglasses, as I feel so traumatised by the thought that when the needle inevitably snaps going over the massive hem-hump on the inner leg seam of jeans, it will fly off and spear my eye.

At the point of going over the hem-hump, my experience is that the stitches can falter and become irregular and ugly to look at. And then there's the issue of stitching on jeans being of so many shades of mustardy-brown, that a new reel of top-stitching thread* needs to be colour-matched and bought for each pair of jeans. The whole thing just feels slightly exhausting. But I've had a cunning tutorial saved that solves both of these problems and, yesterday, I finally tried it out. It's every bit as ingenious as I hoped it would be.

The tutorial shares a method that allows you to use the original hem of the jeans, meaning you don't need to buy any mustard top-stitching thread and you don't need to worry about what your stitches look like as you traverse over the hem-hump, as that will only be visible on the inside.

In the photo above, the top leg is completely unshortened and the bottom leg is the finished, shortened leg. The only thing you lose is the slight distressing of the denim above the stitching line. Visually, it's very slightly different to a conventional hem, in that, with a double-thickness of fabric in the hem, you'd expect it to be fractionally bigger than the rest of the leg of the jean, but with this method, it ends up fractionally smaller and the hem goes in very slightly at the side seams. Because this is viewed as a close-up above, the effect of this is very much exaggerated, but in reality, once you're wearing the jeans, it's barely perceptible at all, especially after an absolute pasting with an iron.

However, when I looked at these photos, I found the slight 'step' at each side intensely irritating, so I give it a another pasting with the iron, this time turning the jeans so that they were flattened out mid-leg with the side-seams more accessible and then pressing the seam upwards toward the leg, to flatten it better. This helped considerably. However, I do think this method of jean shortening is better suited to straight-leg jeans (see my husband's later in the post) than skinny jeans. Here's what the inside looks like:

You could make this look a lot nicer by using an overlocker to finish the hem, but I didn't feel enthused enough to get my overlocker out for the task...also I had visions of my overlocker really not handling the hem-hump very well and with its double-needle, you can imagine the visions I was having of what needle-snapping time would look like (my breakages seem to occur using a 100/16 needle, a jeans needle or any other kind of heavy-duty needle).

The above jeans are my own, but ones in the next photo are my husband's. Being 6ft2", it seems almost unimaginable that jean-shortening could even exist as 'a thing' for such a person; normally it's all about trying to find jeans long enough. But then I discovered that Boden make jeans for regular and giant men. While most shops seem to offer a leg length up to 34", Boden come in at just under 36". But the way that the jeans sit on my husband makes this a really long 36" when worn (and some of their trousers can be bought unhemmed with an inside leg of 39"!). It's a whole new world for the long-of-leg.

This photo shows the shortened jeans. I don't think that it's all that obvious where the join is and it's so good to have the thread and stitching style perfectly matching the top-stitching on the leg, that it seems worth the compromise.

The tutorial is fantastic. The only thing that I found unclear is when it tells you to stitch next to the original hem and shows a photo of the needle going in just next to the fabric edge of the hem. I tried this and the seam line looked really obvious, so I tried again, stitching right next to the original stitching line instead on the actual fabric of the hem, and that worked much better for me.

Can you sense the gratefulness pouring out of this photo that my jeans weren't any skinnier at the ankle! It's a perfect leg/arm fit!

However, even having found this great tutorial, I find that I'm still left thinking: why don't I just do what a non-sewing person would do and take them to the tailor and have them shortened for £10 on an industrial machine. The cost of the snapped needles, thread, extended procrastination when the jeans can't be worn (in my husband's case, it was a 3-month wait), time spent worrying over eye injuries, time spent doing the actual sewing, time spent taking the machine apart to fish out the other half of the snapped needle, surely amounts to more than £10. Sometimes being self-sufficient in this way can feel more of a hindrance than a help.

But either way, over the last few months I've had so much work to do that I haven't turned my machine on very often and in the evenings I've felt so tired that I've barely done any hand-sewing either. Having a relaxed afternoon of measuring, cutting and hearing the whirr of my machine again was a delicious thing; as was actually finishing something. It's made me turn my thoughts toward some summer dressmaking.  

Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x

* If you aren't familiar with top-stitching thread and want to shorten your jeans in the conventional way, you can read about my bearded, heavy-breathing, and macintosh-wearing delight on discovering this thread back in 2010.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

After the election

I think the general election left a lot of people feeling a bit flat. I felt that way. I have always voted either Labour or Lib Dem (this year, fruitlessly, Lib Dem), but despite this I've been feeling disconcerted by so many people who vote on the left or middle-ground assuming a moral superiority that gives them the right to publicly attack anyone who votes differently from them, labelling them heartless, uncaring bastards. Usually with more swear words, vitriol and character assassination than that. 

In my own life, I know a Conservative who dedicates much of their time to charity work and helping others, and a life-long Labour supporter who is so mean-spirited that he leaves me feeling chilled every time I come into contact with him. I've found myself feeling disbelief at the mass over-simplification that would suggest that the way these two people live their day-to-day lives could be considered so insignificant that after making their voting choices, Mr Lovely-Pants is to be branded a villain who should go and eat coal in a corner and Mr Bad-Crumble patted on the back and sent straight to heaven in a post-voting glow of worthiness. I don't think these two people are voter-profile anomalies - I genuinely believe you'll find an equal amount of caring people on both sides, who just happen to have varying views on the country can best be run to preserve our benefits system and NHS in the long-term.  

The smog of abuse that's being thrown around on social media platforms seems like an opportunity to vent and bolster one's own status as 'one of the good ones', rather than a genuine defence of the poor and disadvantaged (which is always more persuasive when not calling someone a wanker). Minds can only be changed by discussion and the blanket abuse that's being hurled halts the prospect of any intelligent, lively conversation at a peer level for future elections - simply because most people on the right will not bother to voice their true opinions, but take them quietly off to the polling station with them. And who would blame them? 

I don't know whether I'm alone in this, but I feel like it's been a hideous week of stereotyping that's made my toes curl and my head feel noisy with how much hatred and negativity has been flying around online (when I say online, I mean newspapers, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram - I've never heard this kind of abuse being bandied about by people face-to-face. When I realised this delineation, I avoided looking at any of these things, but by then my headspace already felt polluted).

When I sat down today, I'd intended to write about something sewing-related, but that's not quite what's appeared on the page. So, in an attempt to re-balance, I thought I'd share a list of totally random things that I'm really enjoying at the moment. 
  • Let's start with the slippers at the top of this post. My husband bought them for me from Christmas. They're made by Ugg and are the comfiest, cosiest things I've ever worn and have allowed us to have our heating turned down a few degrees lower than usual this winter. I'm still wearing them now even in May - my feet feel naked (in a way that's more naked than usual foot nakedness) without them. (If you're planning to put them on your own happy wish list, it's worth noting that I'm usually an UK size 3, but that with sheepy Ugg slippers I take a UK 4.5.

  • A friend bought me The Year of Living Danishly for my birthday, as she'd read and enjoyed it herself. I found it completely fascinating and inspiring reading about how Danish society operates. Did you know that their quest for a socially equal society runs so deep that when you buy a second hand car, the law dictates that the number plates must be swapped for new ones to avoid there being any social stigma around the newness of car one can afford?

    The book also introduced me to the term 'hygge'. You know when you have 'a thing' that doesn't have a name in your own language and then you discover that someone else's does and you feel so happy that a whole nation sees this 'thing' as deserving of a name? That was discovering 'hygge' for me. It's the cosiness of everyone gathering in, turning their backs on the outside world and nestling down to make merry with their family and friends for days on end. It's the lighting of candles; the warmth of big, home-cooked meals; time spent chatting around a table; and copious amounts of alcohol being drunk. As a homebody, I have a vast appreciation for hygge. I think that we have it to different extents throughout the year, and like the Danish, more so in the Winter than summer. The long Christmas holiday is the height of our hygge, where we play board games for hours on end, drink more than we do for the rest of the year put together, cook enormous meals and spend extended time with a lovely family friend, who comes over most days over the holiday and is so hygge (because apparently hygge can be a verb or an adjective) that there is no need to actually get dressed to enjoy his company. 
  • The same friend made this fudge recently. I'm not sure there's anything more joyful than someone randomly arriving at the door with a tin of fudge. I didn't think I liked fruit or rum in my confectionery - I would have said I disliked both, in fact - but I am now ruined for eating any other type of fudge. This was the best thing I've ever tasted. I have no recipe to point you towards, so I feel slightly mean posting this. Sorry. But my reason for posting was more to comment on how special I found handmade food feels when given as a gift. I really loved it and I'm determined to bake random bits of sweetness up for others more often myself in future. 

  • I recently bought a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, by Marie Kondo, purely because I find tidying so comforting that I thought it would be a really enjoyable read. It sparked an absolutely massive decluttering session. Marie Kondo said two things that really resonated with me and I realised had previously stopped my tidying being truly effective. The first was that you should tidy by type rather than location. When she elaborated on this I realised how true this is - we had shoes in our understairs cupboard; in the cupboard in the hall; under our bed and a few other places around the house. When you get everything out in one place, you're suddenly able to view duplicates clearly and then tidy them away so much more effectively when you give them a home all in one place - you wouldn't believe how many places this left empty in our house - in fact, we got rid of the hall cupboard entirely, because we no longer had anything to put in it. Tidying by this method will also reveal some startling neuroses that you may not have been aware of having: I clearly have a real fear of running out of dental floss as 12 packs of dental floss were unearthed from various drawers and handbags over the course of one weekend.  

  • The other thing that Marie Kondo said, which I initially thought was madness, was that you should store your clothes vertically, rather than horizontally. This is not madness at all; getting dressed each day is now a joy and done in two minutes as I can see everything immediately. I'm also able to see that I dress mainly in stripes or in shades of blue and grey. My clothes rarely need re-ironing before I wear them now either. The really colourful scarf at the front of this photo is one my mother bought me when I was 21. It's a very lovely Missoni one that I couldn't afford myself at the time, but loved with all my heart. I no longer wear it on the grounds of it feeling too colourful, but it gives me joy every time I see it and Marie Kondo says that that kind of hoarding is fine. 
  • I absolutely love wearing eye make-up and mascara, but am less enamoured by dragging a cotton wool pad over my eyelids each evening to remove it before bed. But a few weeks ago, Natalie Fergie (aka The Yarn Yard) posted on Twitter asking if anyone had used Clinique's Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm. I hadn't, but I looked at the reviews on Boots.com and decided that I wanted to try it. This stuff is amazing. You put on the balm, massage it gently over your face and eyes for a few seconds while it emulsifies into something slightly oily and weird-feeling. You then rinse it off and your face is left completely spotless, with no horrid dragging around 'the delicate eye area' (I love that when reading about anything beauty-related it's never just an eye area - always 'the delicate eye area'). I have very sensitive eyes and am allergic to several brands, but happily this doesn't give me watery eyes. I love it. 
  • We've watched some fantastic films recently: The Imitation Game, about the life of Alan Turing and the attempts to crack the Enigma code during the second world war; If I Stay, which my daughter and I wept our way through; The Greatest Game Ever Played, which was incredible, even though no one in our family has even the slightest interest in golf.

  • Finally, Nell's desire for you to sit and hold her paw in your hand. It is the most delicious, simple thing. That her life-long quest to elicit displays of your love for her AT ALL TIMES can be quelled for the duration of some very human hand-holding always make my heart ache a little. In a good way. 
Right, I'll stop now as I feel I may be in danger of overloading you with the things I'm enjoying - this list could go on for a very long time as I feel like I've read so many interesting things lately! Please feel free to add any of your own joyful discoveries in the comments. 

With all good wishes, irrespective of how you voted, 
Florence x

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Magic Mirrors (and tooth kaleidoscopes)

I haven't had much time to sew lately, so when I finally had a few hours of stitching time last weekend, I felt very clear that I wanted to actually do something that involved a needle and thread, rather than to just spend the time trialling fabrics. When the trialling involves painstakingly fussy-cutting each fabric (you can find my tutorial on fussy-cutting here), cutting a paper for it and then wrapping it with said fabric enough times to get a good impression of whether that particular fabric will 'work', it's a time-consuming business. Especially when you wrap several pieces and you take it to your most trusted consultant and he says, looking slightly like a deer in the headlights: I just don't know; I can't imagine it properly until you've cut more of them!

I'm not sure why I haven't thought to use the set of mirrors I invested in over a year ago earlier until now, but possibly because I wasn't entirely clear how they worked and thought it may involve having a perfect right angle on which to place them. This is lunacy. They are so easy and effective to use and no right angles are necessary, so I thought it may be a good idea to share the magic with you here, just in case you'd find them useful too, and didn't know about such a thing.

Magic mirrors are made for especially for quilters. They consist of two mirrors, with a strip of tape forming a hinge. Because they are special magic mirrors for quilters they are quite expensive, but there's nothing to stop you from taping two square mirrors for regular people together and ending up with the same product accompanied by the warm glow of thrift. However, finding two frameless square mirrors can be tricky and so the purchase can be justified by these being slightly safer for being made from acrylic - in a workroom which can quickly become a chaotic mess of unfolded heaps of fabric (which the mirrors may take to hiding beneath) and heavy scissors and rotary cutters being tossed about over the cutting table, this seems like a good feature. 

With the magic mirrors, you just need to cut the smallest sampling of pieces and then place them on your fabrics (see above), and your selection will grow into a fully-formed round and you will see this:

Or this...

What would normally require the cutting of many pieces, much careful blurring of eyes, indecisive nose-wrinkling and intense imaginings to try and picture the whole effect, is reduced to an entirely painless process. I was able to take comparison photos of several different completed colour schemes all laid out with no imagination required for proper analysis. The green one won. The fabrics are all from Bari J's Petal and Plume range for Art Gallery Fabrics, by the way - sent to me in one of Hantex's care packages (in reality, they're marketing packages, but they always seem to arrive on a day when a surprise parcel of fabric is just what I need, so I've come to see them as 'care packages'). Annie stocks a few of the prints here.

Sewing was undertaken in the evening sun, I already knew what the completed cogwheel would look like (which is good, as it's still yet to be fully stitched) and all was well with the world. But stop the clock! There's more.

For anyone* who, the moment they're faced with triple mirrors, feels delighted by the opportunity to be the Beverley Sisters for a brief moment, there's a treat in store. Yes, these magic mirrors for quilters aren't just for quilting. They're also good for making tooth kaleidoscopes.

I did consider not telling you about this. But in the end, I felt it was too good not to share. Enjoy.

Florence x

*I originally thought this was everyone, but my husband, who said: 'you're so weird', when I told him about this, clearly didn't do this, so maybe it's just a girl thing, or maybe it's something that just runs through my family, because my grandmother, mother, sister and I and my daughter all do this with no tuition or encouragement.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Thinking about solid fabrics

One of the things I often struggle with once I've embarked on a project is 'what comes next'. For example, when I've been working on my Passacaglia cogwheels, which are pieced in rounds, I will often take several days before deciding on which fabrics should be used for the next round in a cog.

I haven't used a single purely 'solid' fabric in the cog above, so not only did every print have to work in terms of colour and tone, it also had to have the right type of print to be fussy cut. Additionally, if I'd used a particular shade of pink at the centre and wanted to tie the same colour back in further out, finding just the right fabric was often quite problematic - you just need such a vast catalogue of fabrics to draw upon to do this quickly or to sew exclusively from just one range of fabrics, as some have done when working on the Passacaglia (for example using just Cotton & Steel or just Tula Pink prints - I was trying to work more from my stash, so didn't go down either of these routes). There were other places where I wanted to give a bit of space and calm around some of the busier prints; it's surprisingly difficult to find just the right patterned print to fulfil this need sometimes. In some of my later cogs, when I reached an impasse like this, I eventually ordered a single fat quarter of solid fabric that I thought might work, as with the star points below...but somehow it never occurred to me how useful it might be to keep a stash of solid fabrics and to use them in a more positive way than 'last resort'. 

This idea was only clarified for me when, earlier this year, I was working on Alison Glass' Tessellations pattern. I started off trying to do it using patterned fabrics. I don't have a huge collection as fabric stashes go and I was finding it really difficult to graduate the colours in the way that Alison does in her sample photos. The photo below (taken at night, so it's marginally more hideous than it was in reality) shows how that went. I spent hours trialling different fabrics just to make this small section, until I did what I always do when things feel too hard colourwise; I called for my husband to come and dig me out of the hole I'd got myself into. 

He looked at the photos of Alison's original quilt, looked at what I was trying to do, looked through my stash and just said very bluntly: you don't have the fabrics to do this. I was slightly infuriated by what I saw as a defeatist attitude and so felt inclined to beat him out of my sewing room with a broom; I rarely entertain the idea that I can't do something because I don't have the right fabrics, but rather latch onto the idea that it's not working because I just haven't tried hard enough (which is at times like beating myself with a broom). 

But when I eventually put the metaphorical broom down and gave him the chance to explain himself, he said that he felt I could solve this recurring problem on a permanent basis if I invested in a stash of solid fabrics that could be used in any project and fill in all the gaps that I so frequently found when trying to pull prints together. It's so obvious, but not something I'd ever considered before, but he was so right in how well this could work. 

When I first began cutting up solid chunks and sewing them into triangles of graduating colour, I actually thought my mind may be in danger of popping - it was pure delight to sew unencumbered by the delays that numerous strokey beard moments over fabric choices present. I'd intended to mix the solids in with some prints, but found that I just wanted to have the fun of playing around with pure solids for the first time. 

But however much I love the finished thing, all solids isn't the thing that really makes me heart race. I really do love pattern. So I was determined to include a mix in my next project. 

My yellow daffodils include three solids and two fussy-cut prints - a fairly sparse palette, but one which to my eyes feels right. When I'd finally finished designing the pattern, it would normally have taken several sessions to pick out some fabrics to use. I couldn't quite believe it when just half an hour after completing drafting the pattern pieces, I was cutting up fabric and starting to sew; it was so easy. A true Eureka moment for me. Possibly one that most other quilters were born knowing, but new to me. 

So, let's discuss the actual fabric. Investing in a stash of solids is much less expensive than buying the same quantity of printed fabric, but can still feel very, very expensive when done in one fell swoop (until very recently I've always thought that expression was 'one foul swoop'!). As this was his idea and his treat, my husband laid out certain fabric-buying criteria. His argument was that I should avoid a range with only a limited number of colours, as rather than solving the problem permanently, he felt this could just prove to be a semi-fix. He reminded me of when my daughter and I had spent a few days colouring last Christmas and both found that the set of 36 beautiful pencils which had initially felt like a huge array, often still didn't have just the shade of green or blue that we wanted. This was a slightly problematic idea, as the solids that I really love are Art Gallery Fabrics' Pure Elements range - they have a very high thread count, beautiful colours and just feel really quite dreamy and a complete pleasure to sew with. However, there are currently only 60 colours in the range, so this was ruled out with a heavy heart.

Kona Solids were the obvious choice to go for as the range has the biggest number of solid colours available (over 300), but the base cloth used for these doesn't really thrill me - it has quite an open weave and I find it a little scratchy compared to other brands (it softens nicely with washing, but I really enjoy fabrics that feel lovely at the point of sewing them together and I don't pre-wash my quilting fabrics).

I was told that Michael Miller's Cotton Couture range were really lovely and very similar to the Art Gallery Fabrics solids that I loved, but was warned by some that they'd experienced horrific colour run with these, of quilt-ruining proportions. I was so disappointed as these had initially seemed the obvious choice with the perfect blend of quality and colour range. 

Eventually, I settled on Free Spirit's Solids range, which has a softer hand than Kona, a slightly less open weave and a fairly wide range of colours (currently around 170). I usually only order from overseas if I can't actually get something over here, as I feel committed to supporting the UK shops that I very much want to stay open. However, when the fabrics are half the price overseas (half a yard in America is around the same price as a fat quarter over here) and my real-life fabric godfather wanted to buy a bulk order for me as a gift, I felt the need to keep costs down, so we crossed the ocean to Hawthorne Threads

There is so much logic to cultivating a healthy stash of solids, reducing the need to buy so many patterned fabrics, that I'm guessing this is something that many quilters have already done. But in case you've been missing this idea in the same way that I have, and are now thinking of starting a solids stash, there are few other things I'd also consider first if I were doing it again.

Free Spirit doesn't seem to produce a colour card for their range of solids. As computer screens are unreliable for colour-matching, I've since realised that it's virtually impossible for me to order more of one particular colour as I have no idea what the name of each colour is. Working on my Daffodils piece, shown earlier in the post, I'm getting toward the end of the yellows and mustards I've used; this is making me feel edgy as I don't know what colour names/numbers they are. The other issue is that while the UK-based shop, Cotton Patch, stocks some of the Free Spirit Solids range, it doesn't stock all of the colours, which means that I may need to order overseas again if I want to replace particular colours. 

Shockingly, I also found recently that I did not have quite the right yellow when creating the outer section of my daffodils piece...so I had to resort to ordering some Kona, which has a wider colour range. Perhaps this means that as you may end up mixing and matching anyway, buying entirely from one brand isn't so important, unless the finish is dramatically different (the difference is much more visible between Art Gallery Fabrics and Kona, for example). 

You might remember that in a recent post I asked what your greatest extravagance was (to which I received 243 answers - I've said it before, but if you have the time, do read through the comments - there's something joyful in reading list after list of things that make people happy!). I asked my husband this question over breakfast one morning. His first answer was the time he gives up to coaching youth football; the amount of emails, preparation and organisation it takes eats into our working week, especially when the summer fiestas are being planned, so he said that it feels like an extravagance that he really appreciates making the time for. His second answer was that it was probably me. At which we both laughed. A lot. Because I'm not sure either of us had ever stopped and thought of his out-of-season Father Christmassing in that way before, but I realised that this is true and dates right back to the first week I met him, aged 18, when he arrived at my door with two goldfish one evening, after I'd mentioned the idea of getting some for my room in our halls of residence. I feel slightly guilty that gifts for him did not naturally make it onto my own list of greatest extravagances, but rather 'having the heating on whenever I'm cold' and other things that make me appear like a selfish wretch by comparison!

I'd love to know how you use solids in your own projects, which range of solids is your favourite and whether you are ever hit by the brick wall of 'what comes next' too and, if you are, whether you have any other routes around it. 

Florence x

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Melanie Colletta

Today, I wanted to tell you about my lovely friend, Melanie Colletta, who has just opened a shop for her beautiful artwork. I've know Mel for over a decade, since her eldest daughter took it upon herself to help my own daughter unbuckle her shoes each day when they arrived at nursery (her daughter was older). The unifying shoestress soon caused us to gather for lunches around our kitchen tables and over the years more babies were added, until eventually there were six children sitting around the table with us. With the busyness of all the children, I didn't actually realise that Mel painted until I'd already known her for nearly five years and I remember being astonished by it, in the way that you can be when you feel you know someone really well and then discover that there are whole other layers there that you didn't know where there, but which are so impressive that you can't imagine quite how they stayed hidden away out of view.

Photos don't capture it to its full extent, but Mel's work just seems to literally glow in a way that, to me, defies having been created with pen, ink and paint; it looks more like she's managed to install some kind of souped-up light-box inside the paper that gives her work an ethereal radiance. However, the paper is of an unsuspicious thickness, but it does have a texture that makes the prints look as tactile and 'real' as the originals. You can click on any of the photos in this post to see them at a larger scale.

I'd actually desperately wanted one of Mel's drawings the moment I first saw them, in part because her style is so entirely in keeping with what I knew my husband would absolutely love, so I was completely delighted when she started selling affordable giclee prints and I was her very first customer. My husband and I chose two prints together (frames yet to arrive, so for now they're pictured in their mounts). Our first choice was the Avenue of Birds.

The second print, Catherine II, shows Catherine from Wuthering Heights enveloped by a tree as she waits for Heathcliff. I love how the two have merged together, leaving no visible boundary as to where one begins and the other finishes. That the tree looks to be swaddling and cocooning her, while at the same time imprisoning her, gives the drawing an intrinsic sadness that I find completely captivating. This is the second of two drawings in the series; the first shows Catherine at an earlier stage, when her arms are less tightly bound within the trunk of the tree. Both leave me not only in awe of Mel's imagination, but also her ability to translate an idea that exists only in her mind's eye onto paper with such incredible skill.

I've never really loved Wuthering Heights and it's possibly my least favourite classic (it's one of my sister's favourites though, so even though I don't love it myself, I have a second-hand fondness for it) and my husband has never read or seen Wuthering Heights, but we both fell in love with this image and the intense pencil strokes it's created with.

Mel's prints start at just £10 (I think that's around $15USD) and she ships worldwide. Please do go and have a look at her beautiful new shop if you have a bare spot on your wall and like what you've seen here - it comes highly (and very fondly) recommended by me!

Florence x

Ps. Mel's shop, The Hallelujah Tree, is named after the Jeff Buckley song, Hallelujah, which happens to be a favourite of mine too - the singing starts around 1m20 in the linked video. I've heard my husband play this song so many times, that I've realised re-listening to this now, that it's ruined the original for me slightly, as I prefer my husband's version (possibly in the way that any happily biased wife might).

Saturday, 4 April 2015


I've wanted to work with some curves in English paper piecing for so long now, and last month, I finally launched into designing something where I could use them and I'm finding these flowers so incredibly joyful to make! They were inspired by some new bed linen.

A few months ago, after over a decade of having completely plain white bed linen, I suddenly craved some colour, quite unexpectedly, triggered by walking past some cushions and throws in John Lewis (which makes me think it is probably not safe for my bank balance to walk past things in future). I've never owned any of these curious bolster cushions before and chose them purely for the colour and then was delighted to find that there's a practical reason for their existence - they are so comfy and supportive to rest against when reading or sewing!

I've read so many research studies over the years saying that changing things - whether it's the route you take to work or the order that you get dressed in - is good for the synapses in the brain and I now feel convinced that a complete change of bed linen colour every decade is the same. Every time I walk into the room I feel surprised and delighted by the splashes of egg-yolky yellowness*, doubly so on realising that my book cover matched the bed linen!

Our bedroom is very plain, even with the newly acquired spatterings of egg yolk and I decided that I wanted to create something in a similar palette to hang on the wall. The duvet cover has a few panels of interlocking flowers embroidered onto it, which you can see below - so I decided to base my design on this.

It hasn't really ended up being the same, but it's definitely a nod to the original inspiration.

I'm planning on releasing this as a pattern, just as soon as I've finished sewing it together myself (which is proving to be very slow, not because the piecing is overly time consuming, but just because I've been working really long hours over the last month), but the Easter holidays have already offered up some time for sociable hand-sewing while watching this wonderful film (no knowledge/love of golf required - it's just wonderful in its own right) with our children and then catching up on the televised election questions and debates in the evening.

Finally,  I feel curiously compelled to talk about emoticons as there are 300 new emoji soon to be released with iOS 8.3 (that's the iPhone operating system, but I'm guessing similar are available on other devices?) and I feel bizarrely excited by this! I was very late in embracing emoticons, mainly for slightly snooty reasons of feeling that they didn't look pleasingly designed and also because whenever I saw those garish yellow faces (pictured below - alarmingly similar in colour to my current sewing project!), it just made me think of the 1980s acid house smiley face and I couldn't quite work out what its relevance was in 2014. And then there's the whole thing of why use a picture when there are so many wonderful words. But regular exposure therapy and stuffing yourself into 140 characters on Twitter on a regular basis changes that slightly. I now love how much a simple picture can convey and there's a whole new satisfaction to be gained in trying to communicate an entire message solely through the use of pictures in a text - it's like a game of Pictionary being thrown into your day at random times.

I would say that I am now a relatively enthusiastic user of them when texting, most especially with my daughter, husband and sister (I have also found that sending my husband a picture of a single smiling poo with no accompanying words after a disagreement is actually far more effective than an apology for quickly restoring equilibrium - pictured above). However, I do have all sorts of inexplicable self-imposed rules for appropriate usage of emoticons stored in my head. I read yesterday that they're likely to become more widely used by businesses in the coming years, which feels like an odd thing. What do you think of emoticons? (nb. I've found that calling them 'emoticons' rather than 'emoji' in front of a young person may elicit much snorted laughter and scoffing. There is nothing like having a teenager in your life to make you feel very, very old). I think they're possibly very much like Marmite (emoticons, not teenagers).

And if you're wondering why a smiling poo exists in the emoji keyboard, I read yesterday that a pile of poo is considered good luck in Japan and that at the time that Apple created the first set of emojis they were trying to break into the Asian marketplace.

Florence x

* Colour link memory: when I was about ten, my aunt bought me an umbrella in exactly this colour and I always remember her saying that she enjoyed the thought of people watching an egg yolk scuttling along the road from an upstairs window. As an adult, I am on the QV** for a sighting of a moving egg yolk out in the street, but am yet to see one. I'd quite like to.

**I know shamefully little French beyond GCSE level, but being 'on the QV' is one of my favourite family expressions for being hyper vigilant at all times, taken from the French words 'qui vive' which translates literally as 'who lives', but which essentially means to be on the lookout and question 'Who goes there?', I think it may be a relatively common term in English language now, but I personally hadn't heard it until my sister jokingly said it in conversation several years ago when posing for a photo where she was peering out at something suspiciously and announced to me that she was on the QV.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Completed: The Charlotte Bartlett Quilt II

I made this quilt as my parents' Christmas gift, but I've only recently photographed it, because when I finally finished this quilt, either me or one of my family had flu (the flu took five weeks to complete a full circle of the family, with each person suffering for nearly three weeks, decimating Christmas with fevers and chills) and just the idea of hauling a quilt up onto the wall to photograph it made me ache, so I didn't bother and gave it to them only having taken a few close up photos.

To recap, I've made this quilt before and loathed every minute of construction due the repetitive machine piecing it requires, but whenever I got that first bright red snowball quilt out, my father admired it with such previously-unheard-of enthusiasm, that it spurred me on to embark on the hateful pattern once more. I called the original quilt The Charlotte Bartlett Quilt - here's an explanation of why, taken from a blog post a few years ago:

It is intended to be a huge quilt, perhaps the largest I've made, to accommodate the whole family and a picnic...however, I'm mentally reducing the amount of food that one really needs for a picnic...and even thinking that some family members may like to sit on the grass, not on the quilt at all. I shall force Charlotte Bartlettism on them to allow for a smaller quilt. 

If you haven't met Charlotte, she's a character from an EM Forster novel who featured highly in our household as I grew up. If anyone was self-sacrificing in a way that inspired guilt in others they would quickly be accused of being Charlotte Bartlett, or if one wished to imply that they themselves were being badly done by, then muttering 'no, no, you sit on the rug' in the manner of Charlotte would convey the extreme level of self-deprivation with no other explanation necessary. Here's a passage from the A Room with a View that particularly delighted my mother and shows Charlotte at her very worst!

With many a smile she produced two of those mackintosh squares that protect the frame of the tourist from damp grass or cold marble steps. She sat on one; who was to sit on the other?

"Lucy; without a moment's doubt, Lucy. The ground will do for me. Really I have not had rheumatism for years. If I do feel it coming on I shall stand. Imagine your mother's feelings if I let you sit in the wet in your white linen." She sat down heavily where the ground looked particularly moist. "Here we are, all settled delightfully. Even if my dress is thinner it will not show so much, being brown. Sit down, dear; you are too unselfish; you don't assert yourself enough." She cleared her throat. "Now don't be alarmed; this isn't a cold. It's the tiniest cough, and I have had it three days. It's nothing to do with sitting here at all."

True to form, my parents' snowball quilt ended up being much smaller than I'd originally planned too, making it a very worthy Charlotte Bartlett Quilt II. However, despite my not enjoying the pattern, I did put large amounts of love into making it, so there is no bad feeling emitted by the quilt - I would say it is positively puffy with love!

While the quilt pattern was chosen for my father, the fabrics were really very focused on my mother's tastes. Ever since I can remember, she has always revelled in rich blues and I chose the fabrics for this really carefully, trying to pinpoint which prints contained the exact shades of blue that I know she is particularly drawn to. Because Kaffe Fassett and Philip Jacobs prints are large in scale, it's actually quite a tricky task doing this via the Internet as often the swatch that you see, doesn't reveal quite how many other unexpected colours appear. I cross-referenced each print with larger samples that I could find around the Internet before ordering, to try and get around this problem and, luckily, I was really thrilled with the colours when they arrived and only omitted a few of the ones I'd ordered.

I went and photographed the quilt in situ one day in February after a dog walk with my mum and the boy child. I had thought it would take two minutes...but we discovered that we don't possess a stylist's skill for artfully draping quilts and ended up laughing over our own poor attempts at a successful this-quilt-just-happened-to-be-draped-nonchalantly-over-the-chair shots. This photo is entirely affected and there was nothing nonchalant about the draping whatsoever. It involved two grown women tweaking, pulling at it and frequently marvelling at our own ability to make a quilt look like it had been 'dolloped' somewhere. But look, at least you can see quite how right the colours are for my parents, when cross-referenced with the print on the wall!

Eventually, we realised that it was far easier to photograph a quilt when draped over a mezzanine wall, which my mother happened to have to hand (over a decade ago, we lived in this house for eight months when our own house was found to be structurally unsafe. The wall hides my parents' bedroom, which meant that they were often woken to the noise of our two-year-old daughter playing with farm animals and having tea parties below! In retrospect, this was possibly the loveliest alarm clark imaginable for them).

The photo below shows you the piecing before it was quilted. I really love the snowy blue print that sits between each snowball. 

I also really love that hidden in amongst all the snowballs, is a picture of my father's moustachioed face (before he grew a beard). I asked my parents if they could find his face in the quilt and apparently they could. 

The quilting for this was something of an experiment. As a graduate from the School of Straight-Line Quilting, as well as that of the University of Seaweed-Shaped Meandering, I felt the need to embark on another course of action that challenged my over-reliance on these two techniques. I sought advice on Instagram as to where I should go next, and someone came up with the clever idea of big, lazy concentric flower petals, that are just (apparently) one step up from the curves of seaweed. 

You can see a close up of some of my flowers here. I would say it took the course of the entire quilt for me to come close to completing a perfect flower - I am awe of people who have the ability to do incredibly intricate quilting, because for me, this took days and extreme amounts of concentration. Every time my husband came up to see me, I was sat in exactly the same place, doing exactly the same thing, seemingly making very little progress at all. My husband took this photo of me one night at around midnight when he went off to bed (for the uninitiated, the white gloves are quilting paraphernalia, rather than a sartorial homage to Michael Jackson), but a photo taken 24 hours later would have looked almost identical. Quilting does not come naturally to me. 

Right, it's now half-past nine on Saturday morning and I probably ought to get out of bed. 

Wishing you a lovely weekend, 
Florence x
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