Poem #30

Silver Squares

Not really squares, but oblongs
of silvery sheens and bronzed gold,
celestial songs floating 
in the blackness beyond.

Not really silver, but shades
of shiny fabrics and bright beads,
images from golden days
to lighten that blackness.
Silver Squares. 92 x 86 cm

On Stitching Through a Time of Uncertainty

Talk of the COVID-19 virus was in the air when six QUOGs (Quilters of Grahamstown) gathered at my home for a workshop on Quarter Square Circles. It was a good distraction, with much chatting, laughing and humming of sewing machines. The only thing that was different from our previous gatherings was a tacit agreement not to give hello hugs. We noted that, as quilters, we wash our hands anyway.

I can’t but help feeling proud of what we produced — and the pieces are all so very different. Here’s photographic proof, snapped a few days after the workshop when we met again and oohed and aahed over our various creations.

Two completed, large quilt tops

Cut from the same cloth, to make two cushion covers

A work in progress that stunned as all — we did not believe she would manage to avoid upside down or sideways Buddhas in her final arrangement. But she did!

Pinned-up blocks in gentle colours, from two quilters who are making baby quilts

Our group has been meeting for a couple of decades of an evening every fortnight for a chat over hand stitching. Every once in a while we offer workshops to one another when we are inspired by a new design and want to share how to make it. I became interested in circles and stitching curves after doing the Improv Double Wedding Ring class with Joy Clark, and made to Diana Vandeyar’s design. After looking at and collecting images of Drunkard’s Path variations and Modern Quilts with circles, I began experimenting. I soon found that when I tried to cut a curve freehand I ended up with a odd squarish shape, so I made a template to guide my eye and stitched up these samples:

Two colours or many colours?

I used these samples as a teaser to lure the QUOGs for a workshop and a day of sewing together. And I am very glad I did, because it took our minds off the fear and uncertainty that then became a reality with the declaration of a state of emergency and the precautionary measures that have now become part of life. I feel as if I am living in a futuristic novel or movie and find that stitching keeps me grounded.

On Cutting Up a Quilt

Yes, I confess to having done this. And it wasn’t my first garish attempt (which became affectionately known as The Apocalypse) that I cut up. It was a later, more sedate piece, called Partial Fulfilment, that fell under the blade of my rotary cutter. Here is the original quilt:

Partial Fulfilment (205 x 123 cm)

Made in 2008, this quilt was inspired by a detail from a painting by Gustav Klimt titled, in translation, Partial Fulfilment. (The title has also been translated as Accomplishment). The central (loose) panel of the quilt is the fabric representation of the detail from the painting. Beneath the panel was a hand quilted outline of a labyrinth, stitched on a piece of plain cloth. I wanted to use a quilted labyrinth as the background for a tree and, instead of stitching another circle of paths, I used the existing, hidden labyrinth. But that meant I had to cut it out of the quilt. Here is the result:

Tree and Labyrinth (79 x 80 cm)

For the original quilt I had pieced borders to go around the central panel, and got a bit carried away. I do remember enjoying the process of piecing strips and more strips of blocks and then turning them into rows to make a frame. Once I had cut out the central piece for Tree and Labyrinth, I used some of the remains as backgrounds for small trees.

These three Shadow Trees were made in 2014 and each measured 25 cm square, so there was plenty of leftover cut-up quilt to play with and over the next three years I slowly made another six small tree quilts. Each one contains a hand quilted circle, or two. While I was about it I remade the trees pictured above. The plan was to hand stitch the nine small bound quiltlets together to form a small forest of shadow trees. I soon found that this was not going to work because the quilts were not perfectly square and the final piece would distort when sewn together. So I put them away and thought about what what to do next.

My regular readers might remember that I recently discovered the pleasure and quickness of quilting with a walking foot. While the foot was still on my machine I quilted a backdrop for the nine small quilts. I can’t decide what to call the piece (which measures 112 x 112 cm), but think I might settle on City Trees.

There are still a few leftover pieces from poor cut up Partial Fulfilment. But I think it is time to lay her to rest.

On Samplers

A couple of weeks ago I posted a photograph of a kantha cloth stitched during January to record how the earth turned green when the rains finally fell in this part of the word. I called it a sampler and resolved to make one for each month of 2020.

Kantha sampler for February 2020 (27 x 35 cm; 11 x 14″)

And here is my February sampler. The second month of the year brought some searingly hot days and some more rain. The zeros in the number sequence are a representation of the hot sun and the green band at the bottom is for the beautifully verdant vegetation that flourished during the heat and the moisture.

A sampler is “a beginner’s exercises in embroidery; a piece … worked in various stitches as a specimen” (OED). It is an apt word to describe my experiments with kantha stitching. I began stitching on one of those 40 degrees centigrade days and, without much thought, threaded yellow silk and began stitching from the centre outwards to make a representation of the hot sun . The idea was to expand on the circles I had stitched on the January sampler by making a bigger round shape. Because I started in the middle the stitching distorted the cloth as the circle became bigger. As it is a practice piece, I did not unpick to get rid of the bulges. But, for the second circle, I experimented by stitching from the perimeter inwards and got a much smoother result. So, I learnt a practical lesson. (I could not resist playing with the fact that the numbers for February in the year 2020 make a palindrome.)

Now it is March and I am thinking about what to stitch for this month. Meanwhile, I looked further than the Oxford English Dictionary to research the story of the sampler and found a good, comprehensive description in one of the books on my shelf, A South African Guide to Cross Stitch Embroidery by Jan Eaton (Struik Timmins, 1991).


Personal collections of stitches and designs have been embroidered for hundreds of years by both women and children. These collections are called samplers (from the Old French ‘essamplaire’, meaning a pattern which could be copied) and many have survived to the present day, forming a unique record of domestic needlework from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Samplers were worked primarily as a learning process to try out different stitches, techniques and designs which could then be used as reference material. The designs were probably copied by one person and then passed on to someone else, so many of the samplers show similar designs worked in different ways. The earliest reference occurs in 1502, when the account book of Elizabeth of York showed the purchase of ‘lynnyn cloth for a sampler’.

Early samplers show realistic and fanciful flowers, fruit, animals, birds and figures as well as border patterns, and many of the designs were copied from printed pattern books. The samplers were worked on linen fabric or fine canvas using silk, linen or wool threads and used a variety of stitches and techniques including cross stitch, cut and drawn thread work and metal thread embroidery. Later samplers, particularly those from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are worked mainly in cross stitch and show an increasing use of alphabets and religious texts.

During the nineteenth century, the majority of samplers were stitched by children in schools and orphanages as part of their general education. Embroidered samplers were based on the alphabet to give pupils a thorough grounding in the sequence of letters, spelling and also in practical embroidery skills.

Eaton, p. 10-11

Remembering how I hated school sewing lessons, my heart goes out to all those girls who learnt their alphabets by stitching the letters! Personal memories aside, samplers are a rich source of history and stitching inspiration. The V&A website is a good source for anyone wanting to read more about this.

(Delving into this area of stitchcraft has reminded me of my intention to create a little workbook of the embroidery stitches that my (simple) sewing machine can do, with notations of the stitch lengths and widths so that I can use it for quick reference. This would, I suppose, be a kind of sampler.)

Finishing LIne

Merry Go Round (122 x 122 cm, 48 x 48″)

The quilt that I started in a class three weeks ago is finished, thanks to machine quilting with a walking foot. I eat my words about not enjoying machine quilting after my happy discovery of the combination of hand and machine quilting. I first hand quilted around the curves and then machine quilted along the straight lines (in the ditch), then finished it off with a rows of machined lines around the border.

This quilt is Diana Vandeyar’s Improv Wedding Ring design and the class I attended was taught by Joy Clark.

On Cutting Loose

Last week I mentioned the influence Jan Mullen’s book Cut-Loose Quilts (C&T Publishing, 2000) had on my early quilting adventures. Then I started thinking about the quilts I had made, using her cut-loose (stack and slash) method, and remembered the fun I had. It all started 20 years ago (gulp) with the making of a Jan Mullen sampler quilt in the convivial company of our local group, Quilters of Grahamstown (Quogs). We worked our way through the book and made skewed (improv?) versions of traditional blocks, like she had done.

A sideways view of “Dotty Delight”, a sampler quilt, 214 x 147 cm (84 x 58″)

This quilt was made for a child’s bed and is so old that I do not have a digital photograph of it on file. It also does not have a hanging sleeve, so had to be photographed sideways. (I did try to crop and rotate it, but that didn’t work.)

The quilt was made from polycotton dotty fabric. I bought all the colours available at our local fabric store and brashly stacked and slashed the different blocks in various combinations of the brightly dotted fabrics. Perhaps it is just as well that the quilt has faded over the years!

After this I toned down my colour palette a little and made four quilts, following the patterns that Jan Mullen called Roman Stripez (p. 24), Log Flowerz (p. 65) Squarez-in-Squarez (p. 67), and Grannies’z Fanz (p.80). Her pattern of flowers using the log cabin method (Log Flowerz) resulted in my favourite quilt, which appears on the opening page of my blog and which I named A Full Bed of Roses (I previously posted a poem about the making of this quilt.)

Paging through Cut-Loose Quilts has stimulated new ideas for quilts and I am now playing with making rings and circles, which might turn into an improv Drunkard’s Path. As noted last week, it was learning how to make Diana Vandeyer’s Improv Wedding Ring that led me back to Jan Mullen’s book. Just for fun, here are examples of their take on the traditional wedding ring block.

Should I confess that I am a little perplexed about the term “improv”? I had noticed it out of the corner of my eye and was aware that it is connected to the modern quilting movement, but had not paid it much attention until recently. To fill in the gaps in my knowledge I did a bit of research and came across a very good article, “The Beautiful Chaos of Improvisation”, by Lisa Hix that conclusively attributes improvisation to the Afro American quilting tradition.

I was surprised that the word “improv” is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, as slang for “an improvisation in performance”. Although the dictionary does not say this, it would be nice to think that verb improvise is closely connected to the word improve. Improvisation is described as “something done on the spur of the moment” (OED).

On the Generosity of Quilters

It’s been a glorious week. Last Friday I did a workshop on the Improv Wedding Ring method. The class was given by the South African artist and award winning quilter Joy Clark in Port Elizabeth. Joy had in turn taken the class with the artist and designer Diana Vandeyar at the 2019 South African National Quilt Festival. Diana gave Joy permission to repeat her class, generously even sharing her notes. Six of us had a very happy, laughter filled and stimulating day with Joy.

This is the quilt that Joy Clark made at Diana Vandeyar’s Improv Wedding Ring class

Joy calmly and clearly walked us through the method and once we had marked our blocks, stacked and slashed them according to Diana’s very clever method, the sewing machines started humming and we (almost) forgot that it was a blazing hot and humid day. The method resulted in nine blocks that could then be arranged in different ways to arrive at the perfect pattern. It took a bit of shuffling until the design clicked into place and there were sounds of “ah yes, that’s it”. Well, mostly. I was not entirely happy with the arrangement of my blocks and so decided not to sew them together and finish the quilt top at the workshop. At home I made another set of blocks and added them to the mix to make a larger quilt. This also means that the piece is about 120 cm (48 inches) square and can be used as a throw.

It didn’t end here for me. I found myself looking at photographs of modern quilts and becoming more inspired. I have previously read up on modern quilting but found the written descriptions confusing (perhaps a reaction to trying to wrap my head around postmodernism in literature). But the QuiltCon and other photographs on the web got me going and so I stitched another 16 block Improv Wedding Ring quilt top. I also got out my copy of the book Cut Loose Quilts by Jan Mullen and am planning to have some fun with improv circles, using her stack and slash method.

My second Improv Wedding Ring quilt, using only two colours to see what the effect would be. My fingers are itching to start hand quilting it.

Diana Vandeyar won two awards at QuiltCon 2018 for her quilts Grandmother’s life on Mars and 713 Lollipop. There is an interview with her on the web that makes for stimulating and fascinating reading.

Poem #29

Singing Strips

Born of the taffeta selvages
(the bright outer edges
salvaged from Shifting Rock Strata)
this quilt sings
of happy surprises.

Pinned onto five strips of black,
the bright bits sat for a while
and then began to sway 
to a melody played by the leftover squares
from that same set of fabric.

The next step
was to line up and layer
the strips and squares,
like dancing girls prancing 
before a black background

Then this impromptu song & dance
shouted for the embellishment
of beads and shiny stitches
and called for a quilted backdrop of gold.
Singing Strips. 116 x 55 cm.


The owner of this quilt calls it Rain Dance. It is a better title and I am very glad this early quilt (made in 2006) went to a good home. It was one of the first quilts that I sold and it seems right to acknowledge its owner for her support of my early stitchings, not only by buying this quilt but through her enthusiastic encouragement. I am grateful.