This is my church. This is where I heal my hurt. God is a sewing machine.

I am, as ever, hugely lucky in my friends.  In times of difficulty (and this is such a time), people have rallied around and supported me, and I feel very loved.  My hugely wonderful friend Penny (who runs Rats as Big as Cats here, and here) invited me to visit her family in Hereford.  Last time I spent more than a day with them was when I began quilting the Japanese quilt.  Which, as it turns out, was over 5 years ago.  On that occasion, I ran out of time to finish the quilting, and so hastily basted what hadn’t been done and brought it home to do in my machine.

Only, that never happened.

So I took the quilt back to Hereford with me, and spent a wonderful (frustrating) day in Penny’s studio, finishing the quilting.  Wonderful, because I finished it.  Frustrating because…. oh, the thread wouldn’t run through the machine without fraying and snagging.  So we went to Doughty’s, who are conveniently just down the road, to get more thread.  I had originally been working in a Gutterman Sulky variegated thread, which worked with the whole colour scheme.  But Penny had offered a Gutterman plain embroidery thread, which worked with the sewing machine (I think I was using Penny’s own machine, five years ago).  And that had run out.  So we went to get more.  I took the empty thread bobbin with me, and they didn’t have *quite* enough.  I needed to change colour.  My eye got distracted by a lovely variegated thread.  Penny very gently suggested it was the same as the one I’d already given up on, but I was insistent.  Magpie-drawn to the pretty colours, I wouldn’t listen.  I spoke to a lady who’d never seen my quilt, or my thread, or my sewing machine.  She was a very nice lady.  She assured me the thread would work perfectly.  So I bought a lot of it.  And we took it back to the studio, and I unrolled the back roller of the quilting frame, manoeuvred the machine out of it, wound some bobbins, threaded up, manoeuvred it all back in again, rolled up the back roller and…. it was exactly the same as the thread I’d already rejected, and frayed and snapped in (predictably) exactly the same way.

I did what any rational adult human would do, and gave serious consideration to burning the whole fucking thing.  With fire.

Luckily, snuggles with Baby A are very soothing, and Penny is very gentle, and the quilt survived my stupidity.

So I got up early(ish – this is a relative concept) in the morning and headed back to Doughty’s to exchange the wrong thread for the right thread.  And whizzed back to Penny’s and repeated the whole unrolling and manoeuvring shenanigans, and set off again.  Bingo!  The right thread worked perfectly!  Within two (maybe three) hours, the quilting was done.

There were some pre-existing challenges with quilting in Penny’s frame.  I had originally, five years ago, made the quilt as a full-size double.  The frame is a queen-size.  So there was always a fit issue.  Over the past five years, the quilt has not shrunk and the frame has not grown.  So I was only able to quilt *most* of the surface.  The original plan was to finish the quilting in my machine, but I had, in the intervening years, made a couple of attempts to manoeuvre this beast by hand, and it was just too heavy to be able to do the density of free machine quilting I’d achieved in the frame.

So yesterday, when I’d done as much as I possibly could in the frame, I simply chopped off the bits the frame hadn’t reached.  So it’s a cut-down quilt.  Apart from the link above, I don’t have any images of its pre-cut-down state.  The link above has images before the borders went on.  And the borders have come off again, now.

When I got home, last night, I whizzed up some binding from the chopped-off borders, and stitched them on in front of the TV.  Then I threw the whole thing in the washing machine.  It’s not perfect – and it was once going to be a technically astounding piece (that’s how I planned it, anyway).  The backing has wrinkled by dint of being taken off the frame and then stored and then put back on the frame in a fairly approximate way.  It’s shorter and narrower than I planned it.  It’s a different quilt in practice than it was in my head.

But this is part of my healing.  Much of my life is suddenly not as I’ve been planning it, in the five years it’s taken me to finish this quilt.  It was all going to be one thing, and now it’s going to be another thing entirely.  I’m sad about the lost borders and different dimensions of my quilt, and I’m quietly devastated about the wider changes.  But the lesson this quilt delivers is twofold: first, a change of plan doesn’t render everything else useless or redundant.  You can work successfully with what’s left, and still end up with something lovely.  Secondly, the love and support of friends makes pretty much anything possible.


Japanese geek work

So.  There’s been some stuff in the news and all over Twitter that I wanted to get away from.  And I’m on holiday, and the kids sleep all day on account of being adolescents and overrun with unmanageable hormones.  And the obvious solution to all this is to spend some time in my shed.  Mental health sewing.

There are a number of quilts bumbling around in my head.  I’ve started re-working my sister’s quilt, which has been on the back burner for a number of years.  I originally started it as a wedding gift and for one reason or another – largely due to the technical complexity of the original design idea and the fact I went back to work and didn’t have time to execute it – it’s been languishing.  But I finally have a way of simplifying it, which means unpicking quite a bit of what’s been done, and starting again from scratch.  Which I have now done.  The unpicking part, anyway.  The starting again is for next week!

In the meantime, I’ve been wanting to do something with the Japanese designers.  I love the fabrics produced by Kokka, Echino, Melody Miller.  They are things of utter beauty, and for a long time I’ve wanted to make a quilt wholly out of some of their more graphic pieces.

At the Festival of Quilts, last weekend, I decided to sate this particular ambition.  I told myself that I would spend *all* my FoQ show money on Japanese fabrics.  I would visit the Eternal Maker, and fill my boots.  And so I did.  I intended to sit on the fabrics for a while, and see what happened.

But as I say, there’s been all kinds of stuff that I’ve wanted to hide from.  And there’s been an idea brewing in my head about how to honour these beautiful fabrics.  How to ensure that the prints were *seen* on the face of whatever I made, rather than cut up small and pieced in a traditional way.

So I decided to make a strippy quilt.  I thought if I did stripes of uneven width, I could ensure that the fabrics were represented properly, and the art of them could be admired.

Actually, this did pose some difficulties.  The strippy is easy to put together – no cutting fabric into teeny tiny pieces and re-joining them into bigger blocks, to be joined together to make the quilt top.  But despite this, the overall effect risks looking very busy, and reading incoherently.  But aha! I had thought of that.  I got a plain.  A real, actual plain (where usually, if you scroll through my quilts, you’ll see I normally go for fabrics that ‘read as’ plain).  And I decided to put a bit of plain in every row.

Half a dozen rows in, it became clear that a piece of plain in every row wasn’t going to work – perversely, that just made the plain read as though it was another pattern.  I needed some rows of *mostly* plain, in order to create spaces for your eye to rest as you look at the thing.

Anyway, I cut lots of bits.  Uneven widths.  I didn’t even measure – it was all totally guided by the print on the fabrics.  And I put them together.  And I laid them out on my bed to guage the size, and then I went and made some more strips.

It flew together.  Obviously.  Big pieces, see?  I started it yesterday lunchtime, and by this afternoon Freya and I were laying it on the dining room floor, auditioning rows against each other to determine the final layout.  I find it impossible to look directly at a quilt top and decide whether I like it, at this stage.  I have to work from photos, which means that there are inevitably a lot of photos of potential layouts, and then Freya and I shuffle rows about, and try to make sure there aren’t too many similar pieces too close together.  She usually declares herself satisfied a good while before I do, but I’ve bought her some new Vans this week, so she was obliged to humour me, and persevere!  This is the layout we (I) eventually decided on.

Stitched together, trimmed up and on the bed it looks like this (click on the pictures for a bigger, clearer view)

I love the graphic, stylised nature of these fabrics.  Doing this piece has allowed me to gorge not only on Japanese fabrics (which are coarser than their American counterparts – like a lightweight canvas rather than a dress cotton.  Or perhaps more like a coarse shirt linen…) but it’s given me some 50s gloriousness and speaks to my whole Mad Men obsession. 

I still need to put a border on.  I have an olive green fabric for this, with pale pink polka dots – it’s more in keeping than it sounds.  I think there’s going to be a fairly narrow border at the sides, and a deep one at top and bottom.  The back may well be plain (I’ve never done a plain back before), although I do want to pay a geeky homage to the fabric I’ve used, and work the selvedges into the back.  I’m not sure how to quilt it.  Perhaps I can work out a martini glass design, if I can get access to a longarm machine… not sure I would have the strength to manhandle this through the throat of my machine.  But we’ll see.  Stranger things have happened!

Despite the fact it’s being modelled on a bed (for size) I suspect this might become the living room quilt of choice for this winter. 

In any event, once the border is on, this will go back on hold for a bit I think, while I work on Sissy’s overdue wedding quilt.

In the meantime, can I just pause to point out that this is the first time I have shown you work in progress quilt photos without Buto in them?  Poor little kitty cat.  I do miss her quilt inspection talents!

Cats and Short Cuts

 So.  I have finished the memory quilt top.  No, not the whole quilt.  Just the top!  It has evolved a little, as it’s gone along – although to be honest, by my usual standards it’s remained fairly true to the original idea.

This quilt is half rectangle triangles.  Or isosceles triangles, as the more mathematically minded amongst you will call them.  Why does this matter?  Well, it doesn’t particularly, except that an isosceles triangle cut on the grain of the fabric will have its longest side on the bias.  Which means you’re more likely to pull, stretch and distort it in the stitching.  Really, in order to sew two isosceles triangles into a perfect rectangle, you are best not to guide the fabric *at all* as it goes under the needle.

Anyway, above and right are pictures of the finished top.  I have to say, I’m really pleased with it.  There wasn’t enough fabric to have made it all rectangles, and that would have been far too busy.  So I found some lovely lemon print fabric for the inbetween stripes.  It works well – the colours play gently with the rest of the quilt: it calms it down; allows the prints to sing; and hangs onto the nostalgic vibe I was trying to capture.  Most importantly, Buto likes it.  I haven’t actually stitched her into the quilt – she is fascinated by sewing and sits and watches closely as I pass things through the machine.  She insists on helping arrange blocks, by batting them up and down the bed, and examines every edge and corner closely at all stages.  This one passes her test!

One of my lovely Twitter friends commented that it had gone together quickly, and it has – no more than about 3 days work, in fits and starts.  I didn’t start it until 31st December, and it was finished on 7th January.  In between times, I’ve gone back to work, fettled around with kids and friends, and generally got on with other stuff too.

 It went so quickly because I used a technique called Stack ‘n’ Whack.  This is essentially a production line approach to piecing.  First, you pile up your fabrics, ensuring you’ve aligned selvedge edges, so you can be sure that they are all on the grain.  This is easiest to do on a cutting mat with a ruler grid printed on it. I had made a plastic template for my triangles, but the plastic was only thin, so I simply used the template to line up my cutting ruler, rather than actually to cut round.  (Actually, that’s not strictly true.  I did cut round it for the first few goes, but it wasn’t strong enough to withstand the rotary cutter’s blade and as I didn’t have a spare blade, I didn’t want to blunt the only one I had.  So I lined up the proper ruler…)

 I had 8 different fabrics in this pile, and once I’d flick-flacked the template over two or three times, I had a goodly pile of ‘neutral’ triangles to form the base of my rectangles.  That’s when it’s time to go to work with the pretty patterned fabrics…

 So again, here you’re just lining up your fabrics.  Remember, these were scrap strips of different lengths and widths, so it’s not as neat as the bigger pieces of the neutral fabric, and on some of these fabrics I’m forced to use the unprinted selvedge in order to get a big enough triangle out of the fabric I have.  Note how I’ve used the grid printed on the cutting mat to make sure my fabrics are ‘square’.  That way, I know I’m cutting on the grain.

Just pile the fabrics on top of each other, making sure they all line up at the end you’re going to start cutting from, and not worrying if the far end doesn’t line up.  You’re not bothered with that, at all.

Next, overlay your template.

 Butt your ruler up to the template… and cut!  I couldn’t take photos of cutting, on account of needing two hands to cut and another to take the photo.  But if you’re using a rotary cutter (and you really need to for this method), hold the ruler down firmly with one hand and press the rotary cutter hard into the fabric (to make sure you get through all layers) and roll it along the ruler’s edge.  Two golden rules:  1) MIND YOUR FINGERS and 2) when you’ve finished cutting, retract the rotary blade to its safety position.

Pile your patterned fabrics and your neutral fabrics together, so that the long edges of the triangle (which you’re going to seam to make the rectangles) are together.

 To sew the rectangles, simply pick up the top triangle, and lay its long edge face down over the long edge of the bottom triangle, exactly as they lie in their piles.  So now you have two triangles, right sides together, each with its pointy end at the other’s blunt end.

Using a 1/4″ presser foot, put the fabric under your needle, and lower the presser foot.  Lower the needle into the fabric.  Slowly sew the seam, guiding it gently through the needle with your hand, but being careful not to pull against the needle and feed dogs, or there is a real danger that you’ll distort the seam – remember that you’re sewing on the bias, where the fabric is most flexible (and most vulnerable).

So keep your pace steady – slow enough that you can see what you’re doing and be in control – and your touch light!

When you reach the end of the seam, do *not* move the fabric.  Leave the presser foot and needle down.

Prepare your next rectangle to be sewn, in exactly the same way as before.

This is simply another view of the photo above: if you click on the image to enlarge it, you can see that the needle is all the way down.

 With the first rectangle still in the machine, gently insert the tip of the second rectangle seam under the presser foot.  Be careful not to overlap the two; you do want a *little* bit of space between them.  But not much.

Carefully and gently insert the new seam under the presser foot, and begin to sew – remember, keep your pace steady – slow enough that you can see what you’re doing and be in control – and your touch light!

Try not to guide the fabric too much – if your pace is steady and slow, the feed dogs should feed it under the needle in a straight line and you need not exert much more pressure than a watchful eye…

Keep going like this, feeding one rectangle after another into your machine.  You’ll amass a satisfying little pile of stitched rectangles on the table behind your needle.  You can keep going until you run out of fabric, or run out of space, or run out of coffee, or run out of patience.  Whatever your stopping point, when you’ve finished, you’ll have a happy little bunting of folded-in-half, stitched-up rectangles, joined by short runs of thread.

Pile your rectangles up, and cut their joining threads.  Give them back their individuality.  No, that’s getting silly.  But you don’t want a spiderweb of joining thread, so simply snip your rectangles apart.

Now you’re going to press your seams.  I’m not a huge fan of ironing.  It rarely happens to my clothes.  But I promise you, 9/10 of a good sewing project is in the cutting and the pressing.  Very little of it is how well you actually sew.  So press your seams.  It makes your work look professional, and only you will know about the mistakes, then!  In patchwork, we don’t press seams open like you do in dress-making.  To one side or the other… They’re much smaller than a dress maker’s seam, and this makes your work more durable.

Once they’re pressed, you want to trim them.  The finished piece will work much better if all the rectangles are the same size.  I came unstuck at this point, because my printed fabrics were not of an even width to start with, if you remember, but even so I was going for as close as possible to 5 1/2″ x 2 1/2 “, which would give me a finished 5″ x 2” rectangle.

And here it is.  Stitched, pressed, and trimmed.  And because you’ve stacked, whacked and chain pieced them, you’ve done about 40 in the time it would take you to do 5 if you cut, stitched, pressed and trimmed them individually.

Hung Parliament

Ha!  Do you see what I did there?!  I’m a little bit pleased with myself :-))

So, these are two little owls.  They’re made of commercial felt, based on a picture I glimpsed on a website somewhere, and I genuinely can’t remember where, but I think the person who posted them had taken the idea from the Christmas edition of Prima magazine, because I’ve seen something very similar there, too.

Apart from it being nice to sit and sew something cute(ish) in front of the TV of an evening, these have been an experiment in hand embroidery.  The blue one was my first attempt, and not terribly satisfactory.  The purple one has, I think, got a little better…. I will probably make a few more, since they only take a moment or two.

And, of course, it’s Christmas.  This year, we have unearthed our advent calendar.  The children and I made this when they were really very small.  The background is a log cabin quilt: a number of ‘shades’ of white log cabins built around a traditional red centre, with the tree made up of green log cabins.  The hanging has 24 star shaped gold buttons, and the numbers are either baubles, stars or Christmas stockings, cut out from red felt. 

I sat the small children – Dan and Daisy – down with some squares of white felt, and a red fabric pen, and let them draw Christmas pictures.  I guess they were two years and one year old, at the time – possibly three years and two years, but whatever.  Then I cut the shapes out of red and decorated white felt, and stitched them together with a decorative machine stitch.  And Moo, who would have been eleven or twelve, wrote the numbers on, in gold silk paint.  We used it every Christmas from then until we moved to this house, when it got lost and I thought I must have thrown it out by mistake.  I was heartbroken to think I’d lost such a treasure.  But it was unearthed when I emptied a storage crate, earlier this year – I think we’re all very happy to see it, and it certainly feels more like Christmas, to have it hanging in the living room.

 It’s Daisy’s birthday at the beginning of December, and so we can’t start Christmas until that’s safely over (apart from the advent calendar!)  So on Sunday, with birthday festivities firmly behind us, we put up the Christmas tree.  It’s a plastic one – but the children wanted a recyclable tree (in fact, they wanted to recycle last year’s cut tree, which is behind my shed in a very brown, dead condition, but I drew the line, there!) 

Every year, I practise letting go of my control freakish design prejudices, and absent myself from the tree decorating.  Left to me, it would be themed and minimalist – perhaps no more than lights and some angel hair – but the children still enjoy loading it with the baubles we’ve accumulated over the year.  So I poured myself a gin, and left them to it… They haven’t done badly, I have to (grudgingly!) admit.

I think the fact that I’d spent the weekend on a meditation retreat at a buddhist centre in Derbyshire definitely helped with the letting go, too!

I’ve finished off the decorations, this year, with some heart-shaped fairy lights over the fireplace.  I quite like these, actually – they may stay.  I might even make more owls to hang amongst them, in the manner of bunting.  Although, of course, when I finally get round to ordering some more firewood it will probably be way too hot there for anything so meltable.

And that’s it for Christmas decorations, chez nous – I’m not a big fan of the season, and we’re the wrong faith for the celebration.  I will bring some mistletoe in on the 21st as part of our solstice celebrations (not that we’re that faith, either, but why would you miss an excuse for mulled wine and sausages cooked on the barbeque??). 

But Christmas *is* an excuse for Christmas markets.  On Sunday, I found myself with some time to kill and so I headed to the Manchester Christmas market.  We lived in Manchester for – oh, about 20 years, and so it’s a bit like homecoming to wander around the city centre.  The market there is much bigger (and better) than the Birmingham equivalent, and has German, French, craft and art sections, as well as the obligatory gluhwein and nyummy continental food!  I grew up in Germany, so always enjoy the opportunity to stock up on German delicacies – lebekuche, and gluhwein and bratwurst – just scrummy!  This year, I found a fabulous stall (from Hebden Bridge of all places) selling Polish earthenware pottery.  The shop is Polkadot Lane, and I really defy you to click on that link and not want to buy *all* of it!! I constrained myself to the mug above, and a glorious earthenware yorkshire pudding dish, decorated with forget me nots.   Tomorrow is my first morning at home since I bought the mug, and I’m sure my coffee will taste extra delicious, drunk from such a beautiful vessel!!

And finally, here’s an utterly gratuitous photo of one of the cats.  Because hell, it’s my blog and I can if I want to!!