Friday, 30 September 2016

Cyanotype workshop with Ruth Brown

At the Festival of Quilts this summer, I had the pleasure of being a student rather than being a tutor.  I spent two lovely days in a class with Ruth Brown of Stone Creek Textiles learning how to cyanotype - a blue photography technique that works really well on fabric and paper.  These are some of the fabulous results.
Cyanotyping is a great way to add images onto fabric.  It was good to learn from an expert and discover how to put the cyanotype on the fabric without ending up with the downstairs loo looking like a blue slasher movie has just been filmed there.  I do seem to get in a bit of a mess.
One of the key things I learned was how well pinned down everything needs to be on the fabric before you expose it to light and you see the fabric turning from green to blue to grey.
If the fabric is not well pinned, you get a fuzzy image, which may be desirable, but you want to be able to control it yourself.
We also learnt how to turn the cyanotype from blue to yellow and brown, through soda ash and tea.  I've still to try coffee, which apparently gives a more purple-y brown.
We also discovered how to add photos by making a negative on acetate.  I also loved the random effects you can get by just scrunching up the fabric and exposing it at different times.
Ruth has a book on cyanotyping which is really comprehensive and I would definitely recommend taking a class with her.  Find out more at

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Free machine quilting of leaves with thermofax

Silver Birch leaf, on a background of free machined sari strips
Free machine quilting seems to intimidate many quilters.  It has taken on mythical proportions of difficulty and some quilters would do anything to avoid it.  I remember when I first started quilting doing everything by hand because every time I looked at the machine something seemed to go wrong.  Now, after years of practice, I don't even notice that I am free machining, it is as easy as straight stitching.
Free machining is where you lower the feed-dogs on your machine and then you control the size and direction of the stitch rather than the machine.  Like most worthwhile things in life, it just takes practice.  The more you do, the better you become.  
I'm currently making a quilt with some leaves on it and this is how I've recreated the leaves.
Silver birch leaves on the scanner
First I went into the garden and picked some silver birch leaves.  I discovered that our tree is a bit diseased and I need to look up why most of the leaves have funny spots on them.

I scanned in the leaves on the computer and then printed them off and traced the outline and some of the veins of the more interesting ones on tracing paper.  I then scanned the tracing in, printed it off on a laser printer and turned it into a thermofax screen.
Stitch'n'tear leaf, machined over
Using some textile paint, I then printed a number of leaves onto stitch and tear, which after the paint had dried I pinned onto the back of the quilt and stitched round the lines.
From the front, stitched and trimming back the excess fabric from the applique
I tried this in a number of different ways - adding fabric on the front, so it was appliqued on with the stitching as well as just the stitched outline.  
Finished leaf - stitched round once in very thick thread
The fabric was then turned over to the front and more machining added.
I'm really pleased with the effect of these and am now piecing together the quilt top to add the leaves too as the samples worked so well.

Only the outline of the leaves were stitched, then the central veins filled in with more machine stitching in different colours and types of thread

A different silver birch leaf, totally stitched in in three colours.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Textile Treasures from the Quilters' Guild

Detail of a 1930s quilt made with an astounding array of dress making fabrics
As part of the C&G Diploma in Patchwork and Quilting, you have to write an illustrated study of British Quilt History.  To help make this come alive, I've borrowed a suitcase collection of historical quilts, called Textile Treasures from the Quilters' Guild to share with my students.  It is amazing what will fit into one suitcase.  It was even more exciting when I was finally able to open it - the case was padlocked and I didn't have the combination to start with!
Visitors to the Open Day
As it was here, I thought it would nice to share with others who may be interested and so I had an Open Day last Friday.  I had no idea how many people, if any, would turn up, but in the end, even in the rotten weather, we had a lovely crowd of about 60 across the day.  The age range was 17-90 which was fantastic, most of us fascinated by textiles, with a few reluctant partners dragged along.
More visitors - isn't my studio really tidy for once!
I've now seen this collection three times and it is amazing the different insights each group has about the quilts.  It can be difficult when you first look at an old quilt to appreciate it and that is part of the beauty of having this collection here - understanding how to look at these historical textiles and learning what we can from them.
Here are some quick points we have learned:

  • some of the ugliest quilts have the most brilliant stories behind them, like this Canadian Red Cross Quilt, which was given to a family who had been bombed out three times in World War II
Canadian Red Cross Quilt
  • some of the hand-stitching is stunning, especially when it has been stitched by candle or gaslight.  And if you look closely enough, not all the shapes are as crisp as they should be.  So quilts were fudged years ago as well and we don't notice it on other people's quilts straight away, nor does it diminish our pleasure of them (there is a moral there!)
One inch hexagon quilt
  • some of these quilts have their small pieces made up from scraps or they have used mended fabric, so nothing was wasted.  I can't imagine piecing two bits of fabric to make a one inch hexagon.
  • on the other hand, some of these quilts were made from new, good fabric as you can still see the glaze on the chintz, which would have washed off if it had been laundered.  
A hexagon quilt, which has been carefully 'fussy-cut'
  • you can learn a lot about printing techniques and chemical development over time by looking at the different printed cottons used.  Green was hard to make, so blue was over-printed with yellow.  Where it didn't line up, you can see the blue and yellow still.
  • fabric doesn't last forever and decay depends on what chemicals were used to dye it.  
  • quilters have always loved the new and 'exciting'
Two North Country Quilts.  The one of the left must have been one of the earliest to use viscose rayon as the fabric
  • just because it is old does not mean it is very good - we shouldn't lose our ability to be discerning when faced with something that has been lovingly preserved over the years.  However, this is a judgement call and we all have different tastes, thank goodness.
Two more of my C&G groups still have to see the collection before I return it.  If you get the chance, I would highly recommend borrowing it and spending time with these historical objects.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Talking Quilts

Talking Quilts Exhibition at the Festival of Quilts
When I visited the International Quilt Festival in Houston six years ago, I was very taken with a project called Quilt SOS, or Save Our Stories, organised by the Quilt Alliance.  It records the individual histories of quilt makers, creating a vast, recorded oral history of US quilt making.  You can access loads of information about it here.
Kate Smith's quilt about her amazing mother
I wrote an article about it for The Quilter and asked the question why were we not doing something similar here?  Well, it turned out that some people were already starting to organise such a project.
Jennifer Campbell Kirk
Led by Pauline Macaulay, and under the banner of the Quilters' Guild, Talking Quilts came into being with help from lottery funding.  Over the past few years, volunteers have recorded and transcribed over 140 interviews with quilters talking about one of their quilts.

And at this summer's Festival of Quilts, there was a gallery of some of the quilts which were the focus of the interviews, alongside some details from their recordings and you could listen to the recordings themselves.
Sabi Westoby
It was fantastic to see this project come to fruition and the interviews on display were just as exciting and interesting as those I had seen in the States.  It is fascinating to discover which quilt the maker chose to share - often not their favourite or their best, but one with personal meaning attached.

As a gross generalisation, the ordinary person, in particular women, can get missed from history, as their lives even to themselves, can seem unimportant.  This project records the history of such people as well as more well-known ones, and it shows that there is no such thing as ordinary, everyone counts and everyone has a story to tell and share...or at least quilters do!

This is a link to the Talking Quilts website, where you can read some of the transcripts of the interviews and listen to the audio.  More are still be added.  It is an amazing project aided by so many volunteers, all helping to preserve the history of their craft.
Alongside the Talking Quilts, there were historical quilts owned by the Guild, also with interesting family connections

Friday, 19 August 2016

Some highlights from the Festival of Quilts 2016

The Festival of Quilts at the NEC, Birmingham took place last weekend.  I went down for three days, but as I had decided to take a number of courses, I only really had 1/2 a day for mooching around looking at the quilts.
As always there were some lovely quilts and looking at my photos this morning, I didn't take many photos this year and I don't seem to have taken photos of all my favourite galleries such as that by Claire Benn and Ingrid Press.  Rather than share full photos at such a small resolution you don't get any idea at all of what the quilt was really like, here is a selection of close ups of some that caught my eye at the Show.
Ineke Berlyn - Pieces of Positivity 2
Edwina Mackinnon - Pathways

Helen Cowans - Forgotten Women of the Land

Leah Higgins, winner of the Art Quilts Category - the breakdown printing was beautiful

Cas Holmes - Unfolding Landscape Summer Verge

Laura Kemshall, Winner of the Quilters' Guild Challenge.  You can read about this amazing quilt and her new processes on her blog at

Ruth Singer with her winning quilt in the Fine Art Quilt Masters category

Monday, 15 August 2016

Italian sketchbook

Coliseum, Rome
On holiday we took minimal luggage as we were travelling everywhere by train and had to carry our bags a lot.  Minimal means different things to different people.  For me, it meant few clothes, books on Kindle on the iPad rather than paperbacks, a little bit of hand sewing, full SLR camera, sketchbook, pencils, pens etc.  
Archaeological Museum, Florence
I greatly enjoyed having the sketchbook with me, especially as it was so hot - sitting drawing/doodling was more relaxing than trying to pack in seeing too many things.  It also kept me occupied on train journeys and in the evenings. 
Large tomato from the market
One of the nicest things was sketching in a museum with the kids.  When they got bored, they headed off with the camera whilst I continued sketching.  We have some interesting photos from these museums! 
Large, fresh porcini mushroom from the market
These are a selection of some of my more successful pages.  No, I am not going to share the terrible drawing of Mount Vesuvius looking like a pair of boobs! Even the kids noticed it. 
Stones at the Forum, in Rome
I think this is important to mention as so many people get intimidated by the beautiful work that others share and imagine that all of their work is amazing (I can be just as guilty of this too).  It's useful to remember that what people choose to share is selective and to get to the good drawings, most artists have to plough their way through lots of dross too.

Half a Roman streetlight - I ran out of time to finish it

Based on the crenulations at Sirmione

Based on the millefiore patterns in Murano glass

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Out & About: Mitoraj sculptures at Pompeii

Sculpture by Mitoraj at Pompeii
The blog has been quiet for a few weeks as we were away on our summer holiday.  Rather than our normal family camping trip, we decided to do something different this year and we spent three glorious weeks in Italy visiting some of the major cities - modern and ancient.  
Richard standing next to one of the sculptures gives you a sense of scale - he is 6foot4!
We took rather a lot of photos - the numbers increased hugely increased whenever one of the children borrowed the camera.  Over our three devices I think we have around 4,000 photos.  The number is going down as I remove all the photos of the kids' feet!
Not one of the kids' feet!
One of the highlights of the holiday for me was a visit to an incredibly hot Pompeii.  The visitor facilities were sparse, which was a positive thing, rather than turning it into a theme park.  The main facility was plenty of water taps, which we made good use of refilling our water bottles.
Looking up at one of the Mitoraj sculptures
Fitting in with the ancient town were a number of monumental sculptures by Igor Mitoraj.  They fitted in so well that it was only on a second glance that I noticed they weren't from Roman times (maybe I was a bit hot and tired... or had had too much to drink at lunch prior to visiting!).  The sculptures were generally of parts of the body - never complete - and sometimes with an unexpected disconnected head, for example, in the fold of a shoulder blade.  
Another Mitoraj sculpture

I found these pieces intriguing and when we got back home, I tried to find out a bit more about Mitoraj and the exhibition.  There wasn't a huge amount on the web, but these are a couple of quotes from his 2014 obituary in the Guardian, which echo why I found the work so exciting:

Rupture & fragmentation became metaphors for the passing of antiquity, but could also stand for the nature of time itself and indeed the whole human condition.

Quoting Mitoraj directly, it said:
I feel that a piece of arm or a leg speak far more strongly than a whole body.
Given that I have spent so much time making work inspired by ancient sculptures, it is fascinating and exciting to see work which is interpreting similar ideas more deeply and in a totally different way. 

Another Mitoraj sculpture, this time besides the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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