On Celebrating Flowers

This weekend we are off to Hogsback to join in the spring garden celebrations. The mountain (as we call it) is always beautiful at this time of the year and the poster below is not a photo-shopped rendition of the spectacular display of azaleas. So if you are in the area, you should treat yourself to a visit. Beware, though, you might fall in love with the place. On Saturday morning we will be at the market, which as moved to the courtyard at The Edge.

Meanwhile, I have been stitching a garden. The quilt is called Rose Garden and grew after attending textile artist Paul Schutte‘s stimulating class, titled Abstract. It was a one day workshop and also a one day wonder! The method requires a lot of stitching and cutting and re-stitching. When I got home I continued to stitch and piece for a good few days and this is the final result:

Rose Garden. Machine pieced and quilted. 72 x 80 cm.

The brief was to use two inch strips from one’s scrap pile, but to choose fabrics which which blended from light to medium to dark in order to get a colour wash effect. Well, my scrap basket yielded a rather garish combination. Others in the class, who used jelly rolls of blended Batiks, produced much calmer compositions.

During the class I was so engrossed in the piecing process of turning strips into triangles and then arranging them into a composition, that I took very few photographs.

Hopefully, these ‘action shots’ will give an idea of the cutting and piecing and planning that filled the day. I certainly had a wonderful time. Paul is a remarkable teacher with a good eye, a warm heart, and a lovely sense of humour. He helped each of us to create the best compositions possible from the sets of fabric we had brought. I can’t sing his praises highly enough — and that’s not because he helped me to iron my blocks because, he said, he does not like sitting idle. This was midway through the class when everyone’s sewing machines were humming away as we pieced the blocks. When it came to pinning up and arranging the completed blocks in the most pleasing combination, Paul was kept very busy giving advise and suggestions.

The above reference photographs were taken during the class. I ended up with a small piece (the individual blocks are 4 inches square, without seams) and decided to border it with the rose fabric that predominated in the piecing. But when I got home I unpicked the border and instead made more pieced blocks, each containing the rose fabric. The result is pictured below. To finish it off I used the same rose fabric for the binding. And now that difficult piece of fabric that has been in my cupboard for a good few years is all used up.

The Abstract class was one of two workshops that I took with Paul Schutte. I will write about the Gaudi class in a future post.

On Lying Fallow

Sometimes a quilt takes a long time to materialise. I wonder why it is that months can pass while a piece lies fallow and then, as if by magic, an idea leads you back to the quilt and it gets finished. Yes, I am talking about myself, but am sure that other quilters have had a similar experience. Even if you think you have forgotten about that half-finished piece languishing in the bottom of a drawer, it seems that it is quietly working away at your subconscious, waiting for you to wake up to its potential.

Mist Rising. 64 x 52 cm

In June 2020 I posted a photograph of the early stages of the work, in a post called On How One Thing Leads to Another. It was interesting to revisit this post and to read my intentions of over a year ago. I had been inspired by an online class with Merill Cormeau, who had taught the trick of stitching small pieces of fabric onto netting in order to make a collage, and so I decided to ‘capture’ a set of scraps between two layers of netting and declared that: “The next step will be to stitch down all the bits and then to appliqué on top of the background… I know this will means hours with a threaded needle. I also know that any non-quilters reading this will think I am a little crazy. So be it.”

Instead of appliqué I used stitch to superimpose a figure onto the background. Can you spot her? And can you guess who she is?

Yes, of course it is me.

The photograph was taken by my Oldest Friend, Maud des Ligneris, who is the same age as I am, give or take five months (ha ha). At the end of 2020 (when travel restrictions were lifted after the hard lockdown imposed to try to curtail the spread of COVID) we went on an Eastern Cape road trip. One of the places we visited was Kasouga, on the wild and unspoilt coastline.

It was a memorable trip and there is something about this image that asked to be stitched down (as it were). To transfer the outline onto the fabric I loaded the image onto my computer screen, enlarged the figure, and then traced around the outline using tracing paper. (I learnt this trick from Merill Cormeau.)

Mist Rising contains a lot of stitches. In fact, there were four stages in the stitching process.

The first stage was to stitch down the small scraps that were sandwiched between two layers of fine netting. I did this by machine, using a square grid to make sure all the bits were caught.

Next the netting containing the encased scraps was quilted onto a black background.

Then the figure was embroidered onto a small part of the work, using fine woolen thread and a version of satin stitch-cum-Bayeaux stitch.

Finally I added white horizontal lines in running stitch, again using fine woolen thread.

Last week I took two classes with South African textile artist and quilter, Paul Schutte, and had the time of my life. I have been working on finishing the pieces started in his classes and will write about the experience and the work in future posts.

Meanwhile, today’s excitement was receiving a box of Perle threads from Needle Woman. Perle No. 12, which I use for both kantha stitching and quilting, is not easy to come by in South Africa. So I am extra pleased that this shop in Bloemfontein does online orders and could supply me with a range of colours. And I have a perfectly sized tin in which to store them, thanks to my OF.

On Negative Space

A number of ideas sprung to mind when I first thought about the theme for September’s #areyoubookenough challenge. It was the perfectly respectable four-letter word open. This has so many rich associations that I could have made a tome, instead of my usual six-page concertina book.

(A quick recap for any possible new readers: this year I joined a community challenge for book-makers, which runs on Instagram and offers a new theme and therefore a new challenge each month. Click on the link in the first paragraph if you want to be inspired or know more about it.)

Because I did not have time to make a tome I focussed only on the idea of open space and this is what I made:

Yes, it is both obvious and unsubtle to simply write out the phrase. But the book does play with the idea of negative space and also gave the opportunity to do some calming running stitch. The letters are formed by ‘colouring’ in the space around them with the kantha-style ‘bricking’ stitch on lovely soft hemp cloth, using no. 12 perle thread in a plumish violet (violetish plum) shade. I started stitching the O, which is also the front cover, on the morning of our daughter’s wedding in order to calm myself. The dense, small stitches tell a story!

When I began to think about making an ‘open book’ I jotted down the phrases that popped into my head before consulting my trusted Oxford English Dictionary — just to check that I had thought of them all. Of course I hadn’t! For the record, here is my original list.

As noted before, I have followed the same format of a six-page concertina book for each of my submissions for the #areyoubookenough monthly challenges, and previously wrote about this at length.

The theme for the October challenge is rings. I am looking forward to some more circle-stitching. Watch this space.

Plunge Pool

That’s what I have called my latest quilt — because it has a large grey-blue area that looks a bit like a pool and because I took the plunge and tried my hand at both free motion and dense walking foot quilting.* I told myself I was having fun as I experimented and the phrase “What a lark! What a plunge!” popped into my head (from the second paragraph of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway).

Plunge Pool. 86 x 86 cm (34 inches square)

I wonder if anyone ever uses the phrase “just for a lark” anymore. While my initial intention was to have bit of a lark (a frolicsome adventure; a spree; an amusing incident; a practical joke [OED]) it didn’t turn out quite like this. It did, however, feel like I was playing a practical joke on myself! The time has come to concede that, apart from simple straight line quilting with a walking foot, I will never be a happy or proficient machine quilter.

While I am not pleased with the odd tuck and pucker in Plunge Pool, I am proud of myself for finishing it. The trickiest part was the free motion quilting in the outer charcoal border. I wanted to create the effect of pebbles around the pool, and it would have been impossible to do this with a walking foot. The ‘ripples’ in the pool were created with the walking foot and the sewing machine set to the wavy zig-zag stitch.

In my previous machine quilting attempts (the said straight line quilting stitched from the top to the bottom of the piece) I have tensioned the work by hand quilting widely spaced rows. For this quilt I stitched around and around from the centre and so decided to try the pinning method of tensioning the piece. It didn’t work, even though I pinned it so closely that I used up my whole stock of safety pins. So I took out the safety pins and then tried to tension it by hand-quilting in the ditch of the outer seam, but that didn’t really work either. To hide the tucks that resulted I stitched the water section densely and told myself it added to the ripple effect. Ha!

Part of the ‘tuck and pucker’ problem was that I used a double layer of batting because I wanted to create more loft so that the flowers in the quilt would pop out. The flower sections are hand quilted and I started stitching by hand, from the centre, before attaching the walking foot for the water section.

So there you have it. Meanwhile spring has arrived in this part of the world and I have gotten a lot more satisfaction by planting vegetable seedlings and seeds. This week I was delighted by the delicate blooms on the Iphigenia bulbs that come up year after year in a corner of my garden. The clivia also make a cheerful show every spring. Here’s proof (clivia on the right):

I will be taking a bit of a break from blog writing as we have the excitement of a family gathering for the wedding of one of our daughters.

*just in case a non-quilter is perplexed by the phrase “free motion and dense walking foot quilting”

free motion quilting is a bit like free wheeling in a motor car, where you disengage the gears and then all you have to do is steer the vehicle

a walking foot is a special attachment for a sewing machine, which causes the foot to ‘high step’ across the fabric so that the pressure between the foot and the cloth is reduced and therefore the fabric does not pucker as one stitches through the three layers of backing, batting, and the top of the quilt

Baby’s first yoga mat

Baby Bauhaus. 96 x 96 cm (38 x 38 inches)

My good friend The Artist named this quilt. Now that I have read up a little on the Bauhaus Movement and philosophy I take it as an even bigger compliment. Thank you Catherine Knox.

One of the articles I read online, titled Get the Look by Cate St Hill, notes that while the Bauhaus design movement is more than 100 years old, it is still fresh and contemporary. She writes; “The Bauhaus was an art school that was established by architect Walter Gropius in Germany in 1919. They wanted to bring together architecture, interior design, crafts and textiles and put it on the same level as fine art – unifying creativity and modern manufacturing.”

Claire St Hill explains that the designs were made to be functional, practical, useful and simple, often before their beauty was considered (the principle of ‘form follows function’). Bauhaus designs are defined by a lack of ornament, the use of clean lines, smooth surfaces and geometric shapes.

And so this very practical, floor quilt for an infant to practise push-ups while lying on the tummy has been dubbed Baby Bauhaus. The baby-to-be’s mother asked that it be made in black and white with definitive shapes. That’s why I pieced the most basic shapes of the circle, square, triangle and diamond. And, because it will be used as a kind of a yoga mat, I sandwiched the quilt with two layers of batting for a bit of extra softness.

I had thought to machine quilt it for durability, but after I had tension quilted around the shapes and along the seam lines I decided to rather retain the soft puffiness of a sparsely hand quilted piece and merely added a row of shadow quilting around each of the shapes. I know that it is not perfect, but I also know that the baby will focus on the shapes and not the seam lines!

Isn’t the fabric that I used on the reverse side amazing! It is a 2015 Andover Fabric, designed by Libs Elliott and was a surprise find at my local, very basic fabric shop. The binding is also an Andover Fabric, from the same consignment that ended up in this small town in Africa.

The piecing of the shapes for the quilt was not as quick and easy as I thought it would be. The square did go together smoothly, but I got the size wrong and had to make another. When it came to the angled lines of the triangle and diamond I struggled a bit and, again, had to do some adjustments. I confess that, for the circle, I admitted defeat and appliquéd the shape onto the background.

Finishing Line

The sub-heading is a little inaccurate, but the photograph below is to show what else I have been making.

Note: I did not make the bunny, but did knit his waistcoat (from Perle No. 8 cotton).

‘A River Runs Through It’

After a happy holiday in the Western Cape I returned to a long list of things to do. The making of a book for the August #areyoubookenough community challenge was on the list, but kept getting shuffled down to the bottom. It wasn’t the lack of an idea for the theme of winding that kept me from starting the project, but rather lack of concentration and inclination. Then, on the second last day of the month I was jolted out of my distraction by An Illustrated Love Letter to Rivers, written by Maria Popova and included in her digital newsletter BrainPickings. This love letter is also a review of a book by Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller, Monika Vaicenavičiene, titled What is a River?

I was so enchanted by Popova’s review (treat yourself and click on the link above to read it) that I shuffled my plans for the day and started to make the book.

A view of the inside of the folded out concertina book (6 x 30 inches)

The book is based on a memorable visit to the Mbhashe River in rural Transkei. It is a representation of a meandering section of the river, dubbed the Collywobbles. For a stretch of 64 km, the river winds through rugged terrain and ravines that it has carved out of the surrounding cliffs over millions of years. Then it straightens out and flows into the Indian Ocean. The high cliffs are an important breeding colony for about 200 pairs of Cape Vultures. The Mbhashe is one of the major rivers in the Eastern Cape Province. It flows in a south east direction from the Southern Drakensburg (Wikipedia).

When I first noted that the August AreYouBookEnough theme was winding I immediately thought of this river and looked online for topographical photographs. I realised that I would not be able to copy the course of the river and the contour lines into a neat rectangular accordion book. The meanderings of this fabricated river come entirely from my imagination.

It is fortunate that August has 31 days! I cut the fabric and started sewing the book on the 30th and finished it the following afternoon, just in time to post photographs on Instagram. What a whirl I had. This was my first solo sewing session on my brand new Bernina 435. It did take a while to convince my muscle memory that the reverse button was in a different place (for example) but that was the only glitch. What a beautiful machine. And it is also so very clever — for example it always stops sewing with the needle down in the work (if you ask it to, that is). This was such a boon for this particular project as it made negotiating those twists and turns of the contour lines so much easier. Another thing that I relish is the way the machine responds to the foot pedal and stitches at a snail’s or a hare’s pace, depending on how much pressure is applied.

This is the eighth concertina book I have made and it has taken me this many tries to tweak the design by adding an extra page when cutting the cloth. This was then folded back to make the back cover. For the previous books I had to appliqué a square of fabric onto the verso side of the book to create the cover. It was so much easier to just fold back and stitch down the page. It also created the bonus of a pocket, where I can store notes or related items. Another advantage of adding that extra page is that it brings the number of pages to an even number (eight). This means I could fold the book in half and quarters to get the folding lines for the concertina book. So much easier than measuring each page.

The back cover cum pocket

From the photographs it is obvious that I added a layer of blue beneath the main fabric then cut away a winding section of cloth to create the river. I did first draw the wavy tramlines onto the fabric and hand stitched along either side to keep the layers in place before I cut away the greenish fabric to create the river. I added a layer of batting and used beautiful soft hemp cloth for the backing. I decided that the river would look more ‘watery’ if I hand stitched this section.

On Monday morning, as I sat down to stitch this book I thought about how lucky I was to be starting my week like this (and not behind an office desk). This started a train of thought on the nature of luck and how it comes in fits and starts. So I thanked my lucky stars for the streak of luck that has recently come my way and continued to stitch.

My dear friend Asta has donated a treasure trove of fabric to me. It took a day to unpack, fondle, and fold it all and I was repeatedly amazed by the bounty and beauty of the cloth. Lucky indeed.

As Good Luck Would Have It

It’s been a whirlwind week. It began with a call from Bernina. The stars had smiled on me and my name was drawn for the first prize in the final round of the Bernina Quilt for All challenge. The news preceded a planned trip to Cape Town and so we arranged that I would collect the machine while in the big city.

photograph by Schauneen Fletcher

Yes, that’s me, grinning from behind my mask as I learnt how to operate my brand new Bernina 435 at the Bernina Claremont branch where Schauneen Fletcher patiently showed me how to operate this jumbo-bobbined, self-threading machine. She smiled at my exclamations of delight when I learnt that this magic machine can, literally, sew by itself (so long as you first tell it what you want and then push a button). Never again will I have to draw 20 buttonholes of equal length on the garment and eyeball when to stop, turn the knob, and then continue sewing along the other side of the line. But it is the array of stitches and functions that really excite me. I am looking forward to setting the machine up in my sewing space and spending many happy stitching hours with her.

I fear I may have bored my regular readers with repeated posts about the making of Round the Garden, the quilt I made in response to the Bernina round robin challenge, which ran from January to June this year. I wrote about it here, and here, and here, and here. I know I am repeating myself when I say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable challenge and that I learnt more than a trick or two while constructing the monthly borders. Thank you Bernina!

There was only a 1.2 per cent chance that my name would be drawn for the big prize, as the names of 88 quilters were “put in the hat”, as the saying goes, for the lucky draw. The draw took place live on the private Quilt for All Facebook page. This was where we all posted photographs of the progress on our quilts, round by round. By the time we reached the final challenge, which was to quilt and bind the piece, there was a strong sense of community between the entrants. The challenge was efficiently run by Linda Venter, special project co-ordinator for Bernina South Africa, and the Facebook page was smoothly managed by Loretta Grové.

For instance, one of the participants asked how many people had taken part, and Lorette replied that there were 168 entrants at the start of the round robin challenge, and that 93 people entered their completed quilts, five of which were disqualified because they did not follow the specifications (which, I must say, were very specific). This is how I know that my name was one of 88 in the lucky draw.

My new, state of the art, Bernina will not feel lonely as it will join a family of three other faithful Berninas — my 1008, which I bought in 2000; my late sister’s 730 which I use for heavy duty sewing and sentimental reasons; and my mother’s 807, which she recently passed on to me as she no longer sews on it.

The title to this post comes from Shakespeare:

You shall hear. As good luck would have it, comes in one Mistress Page; gives intelligence of Ford’s approach; and, in her invention and Ford’s wife’s distraction, they conveyed me into a buck-basket.

— from The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Finishing Line

Tree for Rachel. Hand appliquéd and hand quilted. 27 x 25 cm. (11 x 10 inches).

Tail Piece

Because I am missing our big dog Huxley and also to show that I sometimes sew something other than quilts, here he is in his new pyjamas, “customised” from an old polar fleece jacket, made by my mother on her Bernina.

More On Nostalgia

Sometimes an idea just won’t go away until it is addressed. For a long time I tried to ignore the idea to make a second wedding dress quilt. This year I gave in to it and made a textile work from the silk scraps and trial bodices of a real dress that I stitched in 2015.

Wedding Dress #2. 195 x 94 cm.

This piece was part of my recent virtual exhibition even though it wasn’t quite finished. Now that I have added the finishing touch of a pair of shoes (can you spot them?) it is time to tell the story behind the work. In December last year I wrote about the nostalgic exercise of turning the 25-year-old silk scraps of my own wedding dress into a textile work. This is, I think, what prompted me to carefully save the leftovers after making my daughter’s wedding dress. I stored the long triangular scraps from the cutting of the full skirt, along with the unused bodices, in a bag and put the bag into a cupboard and out of mind. Then the package of silk scraps surfaced and the idea of making Wedding Dress #2 began to gnaw at me.

I knew I had a piece raw silk that would be perfect for the background This fabric was given to me by my good friend Asta some years ago and had been waiting for the right project. I even had an old lace mantilla that would work well to emulate the original overlay to the dress. So, all I needed to complete the materials were a set of cotton threads for the quilting of the piece. Once I had purchased those there was no excuse to continue to ignore the thought that would not go away.

First I machine-quilted the brownish raw silk in organic lines with my walking foot and changed the colour of the thread every so often to give a more textured effect. Then I set about appliquéing the dress onto this quilted background by hand quilting the white silk onto it in close rows of stitching.

In process photographs of (left) the machine quilting of the background and (right) the hand quilting used to appliqué the shape of the dress onto the background.

After the dress was secured onto the background I added the lace overlay over the main bodice, also by hand quilting it in place. To demarcate the edge of the original neckline I stitched around the neck and armhole edges in brown quilting cotton and shadow quilted this line over the extra bodices. Here are close up photographs to illustrate this:

The skirt looked too short alongside the stack of three bodice shapes, so I added a frill of bridal netting to emulate the stiff petticoat that was part of the original wedding dress.

The dense hand-quilting of the skirt right to the edge of the piece has distorted the perfectly squared-off background. So be it. Another lesson learnt.

Making this piece took a long time. It contains many rows of slow, thoughtful stitching. I am glad I made it, and that it is now complete.