This week I parcelled up and sent off a quilt. For the description of the contents I used the word “drapery”, to make the contents sound boring in case a would-be-thief in the sorting room was tempted by the thought of a warm quilt in these winter days.
Then I mused on the oddness of that word. My grandmother always used it on her annual Christmas parcel, sent through the post in brown paper and containing items of clothing as gifts for the family. She grew up in Victorian times, and the word “drapery” does have a feel of dark, cluttered, Dickensian rooms.
I have just checked in volume one of my trusted New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and I did not lie when I wrote that the parcel with the quilt contained drapery, for the word is defined as “cloth, fabrics”. And from the late 17th century drapery was used for cloth that draped in hangings, clothing and curtains. (Do any fabric shops still describe themselves as Drapers, I wonder.)
This idle musing on the word drapery is a ploy to introduce my intention to post a poem every fortnight, starting today.
A while ago I wrote a set of poems about quilts I had made. The manuscript has been sitting in a desk drawer (actually a folder in my computer) for the past six years. Thanks to a prompt from a friend and fellow blogger (africadayz.wordpress.com) I have decided to air the poems, along with a photograph of the corresponding quilt. They will appear alphabetically by title, so the first will be A Full Bed of Roses. This happens to be my favourite quilt, which is why it also appears on the opening screen of my blog.
My “garden quilt” has, as is befitting, been a long time in the making. But now it is finished and, unlike a real garden, will not need to be cut back, trimmed, or (hopefully) weeded. I have been rereading poems by Andrew Marvell, who wrote in the 17th Century, and his style has affected my writing. So please forgive the odd flourish and convoluted sentence.
The reason for rereading Marvell was to trace the origin of the phrase “nature’s mystic book” which had lodged itself in a recess of my brain. Google would have been much quicker, but not as much fun or as edifying. The reason for tracing the phrase was my search for a title for the quilt. After conferring with my trusted co-quilters, I have settled on Nature’s Book.
And now for a bit of background. The garden that inspired the quilt exists. It is a public space at the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa. In that space is a sculpture Page by Beth Diane Armstrong (http://bethdianearmstrong.com/), who was commissioned to make it. The garden is indigenous and is alive with birds and plants and, apparently, a snake. The sculpture sits comfortably amongst the thorn trees, aloes, proteas, and other local plants.
Another glorious phrase by Andrew Marvell is “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade” (from “The Garden”). This garden is not a typical English country garden, but it does inspire many “green thoughts”.
The technical background to the quilt is that it was made by stitching down strips of torn fabric. This is a very short description of the hours that went into the making of Nature’s Book. Here is the long story for quilters who want to know the technical details. I wanted to depict the layers that hide and nestle in a garden and to hint at the stories that gardens hold, so I chose to weave rather than piece the fabric. I learnt the technique from Jude Hill’s enchanting Spirit Cloth website (http://spiritcloth.typepad.com/spirit_cloth/) and used a lot of hand dyed muslin from a workshop I did with Angie Franke (http://www.angiefranke.com/) a long time ago. First I tried a sample piece where I stitched through the woven layers, batting and backing in one step. It didn’t work. Too bulky. So I started again. This weaving method gives you three layers – the weft, the warp and the backing onto which you stitch and stabilise the strips. I thought this would be solid enough, but was wrong. So, I then sandwiched the woven top with a fairly thin synthetic batting and a backing cloth and started quilting. That didn’t work either. Too thick. So I unpicked the few rows of quilting I had done and re-sandwiched the piece with cotton batting. That worked! But it took a lot of stitching to get the quilt to lie flat.
To return to Marvell and his inspiring phrase “Nature’s mystic Book”. It appears in his long poem “Upon Appleton House” in the last line of stanza 74 (of 97). So I did quite a bit of reading before a came upon it. This was a good, refreshing experience. For instance, I found that stanza 71 is an apt description of what I was trying to stitch into this quilt:
Thus I, easy Philosopher,
Among the Birds and Trees confer;
And little now to make me, wants
Or of the Fowls, or of the Plants.
Give me but wings as they, and I
Straight floating on the air shall fly:
Or turn me but, and you shall see
I was but an inverted tree
(An inverted tree was a widely used metaphor in the Renaissance (footnote to the poem). Watch this space – my fingers are itching to stitch an upside down tree.)
To end, a musing on the word Nature. It is another BIG word and books have been written about what it is, or isn’t, in the human imagination. Here’s part of the OED entry: “The inherent or essential quality or constitution of a thing; the innate disposition or character of a person or animal or of humankind generally.” Indeed, it is a very big word.
It is a grey, windy, wintery day and I was wondering about keeping this self-imposed Friday blog date. Afterall, there is nothing much to report – no new big work completed or profound musing on life and the universe. But there are some bits and pieces to write about and I did skip last week, so here goes…
A while ago, when extolling the joys of hand quilting, I posted a photograph of a piece I am working on. Well, I am still working on it. I am stitching a garden and, like a real garden, it seems that it keeps asking for more work to be done to it. (Do other gardeners also marvel at the perfect gardens pictured in magazines?) Here are a few more teasers, with the hope that when it is finally finished and I show you the complete quilt it won’t be a let-down.
The garden quilt is taking its time partly because every so often I get bored with it and make something else. For instance, this notebook cover made from silk brought all the way from India by one of my quilting friends as a gift.
The embossed snakelike shapes are part of the fabric. I was writing notes on life and the universe in one of those plain Moleskin soft-backed notebooks and this piece of fabric was just what was needed for a bright and comforting cover. I quilted it with gold thread to add to the luxuriance.
Should or shouldn’t I display a new, wonky, quirky small quilt? It’s called Christmas Buddha and owes its existence to a photograph in a book by Antony Osler called Stoep Zen: A Zen Life in South Africa. (Jacana 2008, reprint 2016). The photograph is of a statue of the Buddha in a niche, surrounded by fairy lights and flanked by two brightly burning candles, as a celebration of the day and of Christmas. After this description, I will have to show you a photograph of the quilt. To see the real photograph, you will have to find the book.
The cover and the small quilt were made from scratch, in between stitching away at the garden quilt. And in between these, I finished a crocheted cushion cover. I have been working on this for about three years, so it is a great achievement! The wool is the most beautiful hand spun and dyed mohair, produced by Adele Cutten on her farm in the Eastern Cape. (The website is at https://www.adelesmohair.co.za/) It took me so long to make partly because the wool is very fine (sock wool guage) and partly because of the three row granny squares. The cushion now sits on our bed and it is both lovely to look at and lovely to lean against.
Last, but definitely not least, is this remarkable candlestick holder, turned by Andrew Stevens for our Victorian bathroom. It is made from solid Burmese teak reclaimed from an old citrus sorting machine, and from a piece of an old railway carriage. Isn’t it magnificent.
It happened by chance that I began to make trees from textiles. One day, while tidying up after finishing a quilt of appliquéd stars, the pointy leftovers suggested that they could become leaves. And so I made my first of many trees. That first tree has since been converted into a cover for my ancient back-up Bernina sewing machine.
Gold Tree #1
Now that I have dredged up a photograph of it, I am a bit sorry that I refashioned it because it started a chain reaction. Recently I finished a task of posting the photographs of all the quilts I have made onto a Pinterest page. This reminded me of just how many trees I have stitched. First Tree ( left) was made in 2012, followed soon after by Gold Tree #1. I remember the pleasure of the making of this second tree. The foliage is from a lurid piece of gold and black evening fabric that transformed beautifully into exotic fronds and filigree.
Next came Four Seasons – four individual small tree quilts where I experimented with different foliage, at the expense of the trunk and the bark which were made from gold lamé and are quite flat and textureless.
During that year we had a memorable trip to the Richtersveld – a semi-arid region in the north eastern part of South Africa, stretching into Namibia. It is an ancient and mesmerising land with strange, hardy vegetation. The Quiver Tree or, in Afrikaans, the Kokerboom is particularly fascinating and I was inspired to make a stitched representation of the tree.
And so my tree stitching adventure continued. Here is a photographic record of it.
A series of small tree quilts in 2012. I was on a roll that year!
Crumpety Tree and Gold Tree #2 in 2013.
Three small quilts in a series called Shadow Trees, and a larger piece, Tree and Labyrinth in 2014.
Tree for Hannah and Wedding Tree in 2015.
Green Tree with Birds in 2017.
This week’s musing : why this almost obsession with stitching trees? I tell myself it is because they are easy to construct and do not require sophisticated drawing skills. But it is more than this. As a girl one of my favourite books was Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree. The idea of a magical world in a tree caught my young imagination. At that time I also climbed trees and well remember the exhilaration of reaching the highest possible branch and the feel of the rough bark on my hands and bare feet. Then, as a young adult, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ents in The Lord of the Rings also caught and stayed in my imagination. Trees are special. Perhaps the need to stitch them is a kind of iconography?
Colin Tudge wrote a love-letter to trees. That is how one of the reviewers described his book The Secret Lives of Trees. How They Live and Why They Matter (Penguin, 2006). It is a book that is more than well-worth reading. He combines no-nonsense science with good writing and provocative ideas. For instance, he claims that “The human debt to trees is absolute” (p. 5) and goes on to argue that our brains and our dexterity evolved simultaneously – long, long, long ago when our ancestors spent some 80 million years in the trees. While up there, our dexterity and hand-eye coordination evolved because of having to cling to the branches. He concludes: “In short, without trees our species would not have come into being at all” and adds “Perhaps that is why we feel so drawn to trees” (p. 7).
P.S. The Pinterest page referred to earlier is called Quilts by Mariss Stevens.
Do you carefully tie off the loose ends and then thread them through the eye of a needle and stitch them into the batting of your quilt? Not I, said this slapdash stitcher with a sigh. It takes too much time, takes one away from stitching that next section, from finishing the piece so that you can see what it will look like. But this does mean that sometimes the stitching comes undone.
And yet I know that careful and accurate stitching pays dividends. At the very least it means your quilt will hang square and true. And at the very most, you will produce a masterpiece. So I try to curb the impetuousness that leads to fast and slapdash sewing.
I was reminded of the importance of precision while reading Pam Holland’s book The 1776 Quilt. Heartache, Heritage, and Happiness (Breckling Press, 2007). She documents how (and why) she re-created an old quilt made by European soldiers in 1776. (The original quilt is held in a small museum in the town of Bautzen in East Germany.)
What a remarkable story, and what a beautiful book. Pam Holland also generously shares her designs and methods, so it is also a superb practical guide. Here is one paragraph to convince you that it is indeed a remarkable story and feat:
My passion for the quilt became an obsession that saw the last stitch placed on 27 May 2003 – a total of 9586 hours, or 818 twelve-hour days. There are lots of stories associated with the making of the quilt – many sleepless nights, help of friends and family, days of 4:00 a.m. starts and midnight finishes. I worked methodically through the designing, drawing, appliquéing and piecing of each block, and I documented each step. (p. 15)
I read on Pam Holland’s blog that she is re-creating the Bayuex Tapestry.
Reading (actually, pouring over) The 1776 Quilt reminded me of a workshop I did with South African quilt teacher Marilyn Pretorius. Yes, we did slip away our loose threads under her tutelage. But, more important, we learnt how to cut absolutely accurate blocks and to then stitch them down perfectly. There were no short cuts in the making of this bag.
Marilyn Pretorius’ design of the bag, and her course notes for the making of it were both impeccably precise. This is not to say that there was not room for individuality. Her design for the large blocks at the bottom of the bag was of a snowflake, but she encouraged us to create our own pattern by cutting shapes into a folded piece of paper, to the size of the block. I found myself cutting out a paper doll. The cords we had learnt to make (by twisting together different threads) made perfect skipping ropes for the dolls.
As usual, I checked the word in my faithful OED. Precision is defined as exactness; definiteness; distinctness; accuracy. Spot on!