On Stitching Christmas Trees

Christmas is coming and the shops are stocked to the brim with shiny things and luxury foods. My pre-Christmas indulgence has been to make small Christmas tree quilts (as a variation on the theme of my tree-stitching obsession). Both happened as if by chance. First the photographs and then the stories:

The first quilt came about because a pile of red triangles accumulated on my sewing table while I was trimming the corners for card wallets in Christmas fabrics. How could I throw them away when they were shouting “Happy Christmas Tree” at me.

Examples of the card wallets made from Christmas fabric.

The idea for making card wallets to sell at the Hogsback Christmas market was prompted by a post by Tierney ( https://tierneycreates.com/2019/10/13/the-madness-returns/ ) on her blog called Tierney Creates ( https://tierneycreates.com/ ). Thanks for the inspiration, Tierney. It was also a good opportunity to use up the Christmas fabrics in my closet!

I arranged the triangles on a background of gold lame and machine appliqued them down without thinking too much about it. Lame (with an umlaut) is surprisingly stable and is (I repeat) my favourite shiny fabric. I also like it because it takes on magical properties when it is hand quilted.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

The second Christmas Tree also came about through a set of happy coincidences. At the Christmas dinner with my quilting group, the QUOGS (Quilters of Grahamstown), I chose the “Secret Santa” gift that was wrapped in lame fabric and this very fabric became the background for the next tree. At the same occasion I was given hand dyed perle thread in shades of red and orange. So, what does a girl do with a piece of gold lame and a skein of red thread in the weeks before Christmas? She stitches a tree.

It struck me that the Kantha stitch called “stepping” could form a nice neat triangle and therefore echo the shape of a traditional Christmas tree. So I drew a triangle onto the fabric and started stitching from the outside, at the bottom left of the triangle towards the centre line and then down the other side of the triangle to the bottom right. And then back up again, row after mesmerising row. I did find that stitching at night under electric light was a little hard on the eyes because of the reflection from the gold lame.

Again, the lame held up against the intensive rows of stitching. It obviously felt different to stitching through soft cotton or silk (in the more traditional Kantha style) but was not unpleasant. I used a very thin layer of batting between two layers of lame. The tree is reversible as the stitching shows on both sides.

I struggled to get a decent photograph because of the reflection off the gold fabric. When photographing it flat in the shade did not work, I tried hanging it up. There was a breeze and the quilt kept moving, which gave me the idea of making a short video. Alas, I have not been able to upload it, so will have to be satisfied with showing a still photograph.

The Kantha style Christmas tree, titled “Happy Christmas Tree #3”

I know I have at least one reader who will have spotted that Happy Christmas Tree #1 is missing from this post. That quilt was made a year ago. I did post a photograph of it last December, but here it is again for good luck and because it’s nearly Christmas.

There’s more than one way to make a zipper pouch

It’s been a time of utility sewing for my Christmas market stall. Thanks to tips and links on some of the blogs I follow I could use tried and tested tutorials to make zipper pouches from fabric. The generous sharing of patterns saved me hours of either searching the internet or trying to design my own patterns through trial and error. So, thank you for the early Christmas gifts, Chela (https://colchasymas.blog/) and Mary (https://zippyquilts.blog/).

On the Zippy Quilts blog I read about making a pouch with all the seams hidden. This seemed (ha!) to me an impossibility so I went to the link Mary provided and gave it a go. It worked! (The link is https://noodle-head.com/2012/06/open-wide-zippered-pouch-diy-tutorial.html ). The tale does not end here. The zip broke as I was admiring my handiwork and pulling the zipper closed on the newly finished pouch. As it turned out, this was a happy accident because it led to the discovery of a new trick. This is to attach the zip on the outside of the pouch. I could not face unpicking the bag, so cut off the broken zip at the seam line and then experimented with attaching the new zip as if it was a decorative tape.

Here are a set of photographs, taken on a makeshift “studio” alongside my sewing machine as I made a new bag using this method, in case someone else wants to try it. (Make separate bags of the interfaced main fabric and the lining, leaving the top open. Nestle them together, right sides facing, and sew around the top edge, leaving a space for turning. Top stitch the top edge. Pin the zip to the outside of the top edge and sew, first along one side and then the other. Cut off the end of the zipper if it is too long, and cover the end with a fabric tab. Sew together the ends of the other side of the zip.)

The finished zipper pouch, with a tab to close off the end of the zip

Then I read about making a boxed purse on Chela’s Colchas y Mas blog and watched the video tutorial, Marcela’s Purse ( https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmWodbepSJoCqECXdyJEOEQ ) This pouch is very neat because all the seam edges are hidden and the boxed shape means that the zip lies flat and does not bunch where it meets the seam line. First I made some as gifts, using Christmas fabric.

Fabric “Christmas Boxes

I made a batch from pretty decor fabric and found that the preparation — the cutting of the fabric and lining, and the application of the interfacing — took almost as much time as to sew them together.

My Kantha Cloth

A short post (or boast) this week on the completion of a Kantha cloth I started a couple of months ago at a class with British teacher, Dorothy Tucker. I wrote about this inspiring class in a previous blog (https://marissthequilter.wordpress.com/2019/09/13/on-learning-the-gentle-art-of-kantha-with-dorothy-tucker/)

Wheel of Fortune. Hand stitched Kantha cloth. 42 x 40 cm.

Now that it is done, I am going to miss picking it up in quiet moments to add to the stitching. Over the months of working on it I have grown fond of Wheel of Fortune and think that perhaps it needs to be framed and hung in my workroom so that I can keep it close by.

The wheels and whorls in the piece are obvious. What might not be quite as obvious is the representation of a lotus flower in the centre of the piece. It is there because Dorothy Tucker mentioned that traditional Kantha cloths always have a lotus at the centre. It is a sacred and ancient symbol. From my skim-reading on the internet I learnt that the lotus grows from mud or in swamps and produces a beautiful bloom, seemingly miraculously. It symbolises spiritual enlightenment and appears in many myths and legends from Ancient Eygypt onwards and is an integral part of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Nelumbo nucifera, also known as Indian lotus, sacred lotus, bean of India, Egyptian bean or simply lotus, is one of two extant species of aquatic plant in the family Nelumbonaceae. It is often colloquially called a water lily.  (Photograph (below) and information from Wikipedia)


On Trees

It has been noted by more than one person that I have a penchant for stitching trees onto quilts. This week I mused on this as I finished a small piece called Tree on Velvet #3, with Rising Moon. There is a simple and technical explanation, which is that trees are easy to represent in fabric and thread. But there is also a deeper, more complex reason, I realised, which dates back to my tree-climbing girlhood.

As the title suggests, this is the third in a series of tree quilts, made to the same size (A4, or 33 x 25 cm) and the same method of hand applique onto a velvet background. The trees themselves are constructed from various evening dress fabrics. Stitching these slippery metallic fabrics onto the equally slippery velvet background is a pleasurable challenge.

The binding was machine stitched onto the cotton backing, folded to the front then hand-stitched onto the velvet because even my trusty Bernina failed to sew straight seams across the slippery velvet. I quite like the slightly wonky effect, even though I hear the quilt police whispering in my ear about a squared-off quilt and perfect corners.

It is very nice that the friend I climbed trees with when we were girls insisted on purchasing the second tree. We lived next door to one another and spent many happy hours up the trees in our respective gardens. This must be when my fondness for trees was kindled. I am in good company. Thomas Pakenham, author of the three best selling books on Remarkable Trees, tells of his dedication and commitment to trees in a memoir The Company of Trees (2015). In his introduction to the story of planting a large arboretum on the family estate of Tullynully in Ireland he writes: “Why did I develop this passion for trees? Like most sensible people I find them irresistible.” (p.1)

Trees are irresistible. They are also essential and have been described as the lungs of the earth because they absorb carbon dioxide. Colin Tudge in his book The Secret Lives of Trees argues that wood, as the first serious fuel, changed the world through the building of ships and ocean travel. “We could say no wood: no civilization.” (p. 6) He adds:

Yet timber is not the end of it. Trees are the source of drugs, unguents, incense, and poisons for tipping arrows, stunning fish and killing pests; of resins, varnishes, and industrial oils, glues and dyes and paints; of gums of many kinds including chewing gum; of a host of fibres for the rigging and hawsers of great ships (whether made of wood or not) and for the stuffing of cushions — and of course, perhaps above all these days, for paper. All that, plus a thousand (at least) kinds of fruits and nuts and — in traditional agrarian societies — a surprising amount of fodder for animals, including cattle and sheep, which most of us assume live primarily on grass…

Tudge, p. 6

His surprisingly list of the things trees are used for reads like a poem. Tudge is also eloquent on the spiritual aspect of trees and so here comes another longish quotation:

Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees. Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque — a living colonade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy … and the roots of this reverence, one feels, run back not simply to the enlightenment of Buddha as he sat beneath a bo tree (in 528 BC, tradition has it), but to the birth of humanity itself.

Tudge, p. 7

I think it is time to go and plant another tree. There is a Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) waiting in a pot to be transplanted into a nice big hole in my garden. According to the The Spekboom Foundation, ‘Spekboom has enormous carbon-storing capabilities. Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is compared to that of moist, subtropical forests. This remarkable plant is unique in that it stores solar energy to perform photosynthesis at night. This makes a spekboom thicket 10 times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than any tropical rainforest. Each hectare of spekboom could capture 4.2 tonnes of carbon yearly.’

My Favourite Thing

What do you think that may be? Stitching, of course. To be more precise, stitching is high on my list of favourite things. In answer to a challenge put out by Brother, I entered a quilt in their competition with the theme “my favourite things” and I am pleased and proud to announce that it was one of the five finalists in the South African section of the competition. This means that it will travel to Japan to rub shoulders with winning quilts from other participating Brother group companies from around the world in the 19th Annual Brother International Quilting Contest to be held in December.

Turkish Delight.

The first and second prizes were won by Tilly de Harde, one of South Africa’s most accomplished textile artists, for her works Fantasy Garden and Zentangle Owl. The third prize and fan’s choice went to Elsje Jansen van Rensburg for Birding is My Passion. The photographs of these quilts are from the Brother website (https://brother.co.za/brother-quilting-contest-2019/ )

I named my quilt Turkish Delight after the hand dyed silk embroidery thread from the Cameleon Threads range (https://www.chameleonthreads.co.za/) that I used to quilt some of the piece, and because Turkish delight is one of my favourite sweets. Then there was also the word “delight” itself, which is a lovely, strong synonym for “favourite”. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means “great pleasure”. And when I heard that it had made it to the finals I certainly felt “highly pleased” (OED).

My quilting friends rather rudely referred to it as “the needle” when they saw it as a work in progress on the pin board. Their comments were justified as the needle is about 60 cm long and 10 cm wide.

The needle is made from silver lame. To stablise it I backed the lame with iron-on Vilene and then satin stiched around the edges by machine to stop the metallic fabric from fraying. The remainder of the stitching was done by hand, except for applying the binding. For this I used one of my favourite Kaffe Fassett striped fabrics.

Apart from the stranded silk thread, I also used silver metallic thread on and around the needle and House of Emrboidery hand dyed perle thread for the quilt’s background cross hatch quilting . Here is a close-up of the needle to give a better view of the stitching.

Stitched beneath the needle are the words “for me, stitching is like breathing” . This is a quotation from Judy Martin’s blog Judy’s Journal ( https://judys-journal.blogspot.com/ )

At Last

A quilt I have been working on — off and on — for years is now finished. I felt like throwing a party. It has been a bit of trial, this quilt, and I did find myself thinking “never again” as I stitched towards the finishing line. I could not even find a title for it and began thinking of it as Nameless Tree. In desperation I asked the the woodworker for suggestions and he came up with Autumn Shade.

To celebrate I scrabbled through my fabrics, pulled out a set of Kaffe Fassett “dotties” and started sewing houses. Here’s a snap of the work in progress.

Instead of a celebratory tipple, the beginning of a set of houses for a new village

When I was a new quilter and doing a workshop with Sally Scott (http://sallyscottsart.wordpress.com), I remember her saying that surprising things can happen if one pushes through, past the difficulties or blocks (as in writer’s block!), when piecing a quilt. Autumn Shade was so long in the making that there were a few twists and turns along the way.

It started with an idea. I had signed up for a quick scrap quilt class with Doortjie Gersbach, called Mile-a-Minute. It was to make skewed log cabins to use up scrap strips. Her example was a nice bright quilt of many colours and broad strips. I decided I wanted to make a background for a tree and so would use my blue scraps in thinner strips to create a dense background. It was a bad idea because I soon ran out of blue scraps and, when it came to hand quilting the background, the many seams behind the thin strips were hard on the fingers.

I had bought a pack of Bali fabrics in beautiful blues and greens to supplement my blue scraps. While the effect was lovely, the close-weave of the Bali fabrics also made the hand quilting difficult. But, the kit of Bali fabrics had two pieces of brown shades, and the one was perfect for the tree (I had initially intended to make the tree from one of Kaffe Fassett’s striking fabrics in pinks and maroons). I cut the fabric into broad strips and used raw applique to make the tree. Then I close-quilted it with perle thread and some strands of gold. It was hard work to stitch through the dense Bali fabric and the closely-pieced blocks beneath the appliqued tree. It didn’t help that the backing of the quilt was also pieced from the scraps. (I wrote about this in a previous post https://marissthequilter.wordpress.com/2019/08/09/on-being-held-hostage-by-scraps/).

A close-up of the tree-effect of the brown and gold Bali fabric, and to show the dense piecing of the background blues

It’s hard to know when to persevere and when to give up, because there are times when a piece just does not come together. In this case I am glad that I gritted my teeth and stitched on. The second piece of brown fabric in the pack of Bali’s was used for the binding. In both cases there was just enough of the brown fabrics to do the job. I hope you are still reading, because here is a photograph of the tree. It measures 118 by 82 cm. Thank heavens it wasn’t bigger, otherwise it may never have been finished.

Autumn Shade

This post is a day early because I am retreating to the Karroo for a long weekend of Zen skies and silence.

Poem #25

Jacob’s Ladder

Banded rungs 

of fabric steps 

rising to greet 

the angels

It was so clear

in my mind.


In the stitching

the central silver strip

shifted to one side,

mocked my motives.


As clarity slipped

I mused:

Why call the angels

to a wrestling match?