On the Weather

It’s a blustery, sunny, wintry day. The kind of weather I associate with the National Arts Festival which, for 45 years, started on the last Thursday of June in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), South Africa. It is ironic that the weather (often described as unpredictable, changeable) is the one thing that feels the same on this day (today) when the Festival was to have begun, bringing the streets and town to life.

This year, the year of the Corona Virus, is also the year of the Virtual National Arts Festival. While this is exciting and innovative, it does not assuage my forlorn feelings. There will be no fun of the fair on the village green, no tents with stallholders selling their craft, no crowds. Some things have “changed utterly” (W.B. Yeats) as a result of the pandemic. But there is a virtual village green, so all is not lost. I was not brave enough to sign up for it — it seemed too big a step from our “stoep stall” on our front verandah to a virtual platform.

Taking a smaller step, I have been loading images and descriptions of my market wares for a local virtual market called TRADE at Home, which will be happening on Facebook this Saturday (27 June). Thanks to the clear instructions and industry of the organiser, Tracy Jeffery, it has been fraughtless process. This is the second virtual market she has kindly organised to help the local traders to tout their wares.

The Trade at Home virtual market inspired me to create a logo and an advertisement. It was fun — especially when I found I could place the logo inside the advert

FInishing line

Amidst the change wrought by the pandemic, the world continues to turn. The winter solstice happened in the southern hemisphere last weekend, and my June kantha sampler is a representation of this annual phenomenon.

Solstice. Kantha sampler for June 2020 (19 x 19 cm)

To accentuate the shadow I placed a semi circle of patterned fabric from an old cotton sari on the left hand side of the circle that represents the earth. The stitching inside the circle is the “stepping” kantha stitch. The outside of the circle is shadow quilted.

Poem #32

A String of Angels

for Bev

We can’t converse
with the beasts,
and it is only
through a tear 
in the tissue
that separates
the vegetable
from the celestial
that we may glimpse
the angels.

This string
of nine angels
was fabricated
one Saturday,
through a slip
of the rotary blade
(slicing like butter
through nine layers
of sandwiched
fabric squares)
when making
crazy stars.
A missed step,
four cuts
instead of five, and
the star shape was lost.
“Look! They’re angels!”
you said.

This small host
slipped through
a chink in the chain,
waved in greeting
and left their 
shape-shifted imprint
on nine blocks
of mispieced fabric.

On How One Thing Leads to Another

It was my intention to take a blogging break this week. But a series of happy coincidences got me thinking about material for yet another post about scraps. The clincher was when Facebook showed me that I had posted this photograph a year ago:

Honky-Tonk Blues (90 x 90 cm) made for the 2019 Fynarts Festival’s textile art exhibition, Shades and Tones

You’ve guessed, I am going to tell you about the scraps that came from the making of this quilt. It’s a long story, which also has its genesis in the wonderful tutorials and inspiration being offered by TextileArtist.org. This week’s Stitch Club tutor Susie Vickery urged us to embroider in the Jacobean style using plastic. Yes, she did. And hundreds of us have done just that and been surprised and delighted by the results. I decided the time had come to cut up the Liberty of London bag that I accepted against my better judgement (it being plastic) when I bought a roll of fat quarters from that iconic shop. The fabrics were then used to make Honky-Tonk Blues and I stored the scraps in the Liberty Bag. These offcuts were dumped on my cutting table while I stitched Susie Vickery’s challenge.

After that bit of plastic fun was finished, the fabric scraps started talking to me. The previous week, Stitch Club tutor and artist, Merill Cormeau had shown us the trick of stitching small pieces of fabric onto netting in order to make a collage. Given this newly learnt technique, the pile of scraps, and half a metre of newly purchased grey netting in petticoat weight, this is what happened :

An assemblage of strips, from the scraps, between two layers of netting

The next step will be to stitch down all the bits and then to applique on top of the background (there are still the tiny squares and slivers of scraps waiting to be used up!). 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.

Finishing Line

While Liberty Lily was a quick stitch, the piece I did from Merill Cormeau’s prompt took a lot longer. The brief was to create a collage as a background for a flower of significance. I chose a plant called Crassula perfoliata (aka falcata) which is endemic to South Africa. It occurs on rocky outcrops in grassland and on inaccessible cliffs. In the wilder parts of the botanical gardens near to where I live it blooms spectacularly every February. Its common names include airplane plant, Buddha’s temple, propeller plant, scarlet paintbrush and sekelblaarplakkie. I could not find any reference to its significance in our personal plant books or on google, but feel sure it has folklore behind it.

On Maybe, Maybe not

As I sat and stitched around the letters M A Y to mark the month many thoughts about this lockdown month and the connotations of the word itself swirled about in my brain. But I will not bore you with my mullings and musings except to say that it seemed appropriate to capture the name in negative space in my kantha sampler for the month of May.

Kantha sampler for May 2020 (23 x 28 cm; 9″ x 11″)

The joy of making a sampler is that one is experimenting and therefore it does not matter if the result is not perfect. And then there are the small surprises along the way — such as the patterns that are formed when the stitching along two angled lines meets. I used the bricking stitch to outline and echo the letters until there was a stitched rectangle around the letters. For the border I used the blocking stitch. (For more detailed explanations about these stitches, please go to a previous post, On Learning the Gentle Art of Kantha with Dorothy Tucker.)

Another small surprise was to see that the back of the sampler spelled the word Y A M (which is the mirror image of M A Y).

Because there is no batting between the layers of cloth there is nowhere to bury the knots, so here is the back view, thread tails and all.

More on Containment

A couple of posts back I announced that I had finished with the the theme of Containment and would not be making any more textile works on the subject. As it turned out, the first exercise in the very exciting Stitch Club series, being run by TextileArtist.org, was to make containers to hold objects. The workshop was run by UK Artist Debbie Lyddon, who is inspired by the Norfolk coast. She showed us how to make containers containing eyelets. The tutorial was much richer than my sparse description and I had great fun painting canvas and then using it to stitch three containers, using cord and wire to stabilise the peepholes and top rim.

Three containers, contained in a little boat

The three vessels of varying sizes contain precious objects given to me by special people. Because they do not stand upright; and because I had seen some beautiful boat shapes made by other members of the Stitch Club; and because I had extra fabric and wire, I decided to make a boat for them.

This photograph gives a better view through the peepholes of the contents : a heart shaped shell, a polished rose quartz stone, and a palm stone.

For the Birds

During lockdown I became more aware of the sweet sound of birdsong and believed that more birds had come to roost in our garden and chorus from the trees at dawn. So I made a quilt to celebrate this.

BirdTree (156 x 114 cm)

And now for the story behind the quilt. The weekend before 27 March 2020, the day South Africa went into hibernation, we were at a supper party where one of the guests was wearing a beautiful shirt. The fabric caught my eye and I rudely asked where he had got the shirt. I learned that it had been lovingly hand made by his wife and so of course the next question was “Where did you get the fabric?” To my surprise and delight she told me that she had bought it out our local fabric store.

I live in a small town and the said fabric store specialises in Shwe Shwe and utility fabrics, so I could not believe my luck when I heard that there was a range of quilting fabrics along the back wall and that the fabric with bright parrots nestling in foliage, which she had used to make the shirt, was among the range. I held my breath until Monday morning and was relieved to find there was still yardage on the roll.

Not being sure of how to use it, but knowing that I wanted to make a tree full of birds, I started piecing the background while I thought about it. By now we were in lockdown and so I used my stash of greens (along with the plain bright green I had bought on that day of the lucky shopping spree) to make pinwheels. Here is a snap of the completed background:

And while I stitched I mulled over how to make the tree. I got stuck on the idea of cutting out the parrots and appliqueing them onto a golden tree. I pinned up some gold Thai silk in the rough shape of a tree, but it didn’t look right. Then, early morning as I was surfacing from sleep and listening to the birds the idea came to me to cut the tree from the fabric, so that the birds were embedded in the tree.

This bright idea spurred me on to finish machine quilting the background. I then constructed the tree shape and hand appliqued and then quilted it in place . The branches looked bare, so I machine appliqued a flock of parrots onto the tree top and also machine stitched around the edge of the tree trunk and branches to contain the fraying. To my surprise my open toed foot glided smoothly over the surface and did not pucker the quilt.

There was not enough yardage of the plain green for the back of the quilt and, because the shops were shut, I had to make-do with the fabric I had to hand and pieced the backing from the leftovers.

The back view of BirdTree

To end off this post, some musing on whether the birds are in fact flocking to the town and singing their hearts out during this time of decreased human activity and movement. A bit of research, via Google, has shown that my ears have been deceiving me. It seems that I have been hearing more birdsong because there is less mechanical noise.

According to British ornithologist Sue Anne Zollinger it isn’t true that the birdsong has increased. In an article published on NPR this ornithologist from Manchester Metropolitan University explains that because there is less noise pollution during lockdown, the birds have less noise to compete with and are, in fact, singing more quietly than they used to. Zollinger said: “We know from some earlier studies in the city of Berlin that birds sing quieter on the weekend mornings during the time that’s normally rush hour than they do during rush hour during the week because the noise levels are lower,” she added. “And that’s probably what’s happening now.”

Another article in the Irish Times states that people are asking if the lockdown has produced more birds. “The answer is no,” says Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland. “The number of birds is the same as it has always been. It is just people are more aware of them than they have normally been.”

People are not only noticing the birdsong, but are also watching them. The New York Times reports an increase in the number of birdwatchers in a beautifully illustrated article. Closer to my home I know of two friends who have formed bird watching groups and who are watching online talks on birds.

On Containment

Containment is the title of a series of small textile works that I have stitched over the past weeks. The name came to me as I was walking our dog and enjoying the new (curtailed) freedom of being allowed to exercise within a 5 km radius of home in the early morning.

The eight works in the Containment series, in A4 format (30 x 21 cm and 21 x 30 cm)

As usual, I double checked the meaning of the word in the The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and was gratified to find that it is a perfect description of the situation that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought upon all our lives:

containment n. the action or fact of containing or holding; restraint; esp. the action of preventing a hostile force etc. from expanding into other areas: M17

The M17 indicates that the word that came into use during the period 1630-1699 and I wonder whether it was first used to describe the measures taken against the “hostile force” of warfare or plague. Perhaps both? The root word, contain, has a lovely family of meanings, including to enclose, to restrain or control, to restrict, limit or confine, and to keep within certain boundaries. Before leaving this wordplay, here is an uncanny quotation from Edmund Spencer (1552-1599), cited in the OED: “To contayne the unruly people from a thousand evill occassions”.

The first piece in the series was made in response to a prompt from Anne Kelley on the TextileArtist.org community stitch challenge (which I keep mentioning in this blog). Because I had enjoyed stitching a tree of flowers, and because there was more of the overdyed fabric used for the background and more of the braid I had cut up to use in the piece originally titled FlowerTree, I decided to try another one, and then another, until it became a series.

Containment #1 (30 x 21 cm) and Containment #2 (21 x 30 cm)

In making the second piece I did not have to think too hard about the size, fabric, shadow stitching, or the decorative machine stitch used for the edging, as I simply repeated the techniques used in the previous piece.

By this time I was on a roll and remembered a box of shiney bits and pieces that I had collected previously. It contained fat quarters of Indian fabrics, sequins, beads, ribbons, etc. and I opened the box and started to play. The vase of flowers in Containment #3 was modelled on a previous piece I had made after watching Cas Holmes give her tutorial on the TextileArtist.org stitch challenge. Next, a piece of salvage from an African wax print fabric that was in the box became a tree trunk and the paisley shapes from the edging of some Indian fabric made interesting leaves. To add to the theme of Containment, I used the scraps to patch together a large garden pot to hold the tree. To mute the vibrant reds a little, I over-stitched the whole cloth with plum coloured thread, using the wavy zigzag stitch on my Bernina. As I stitched I sent off thoughts of thanks to Anne Kelly, who had introduced us to this method of over-stitching.

It seems like a sideways (landscape format) phase then took hold. The last full moon was in my birth sign and so I paid extra attention when I saw a remarkable photograph of it on Gerry Gericke’s Facebook page (all her photographs are astounding). I asked her permission to use it for inspiration, and Containment #5 was the result, even though there is a nebulous connection with the theme. A friend, who saw my request for permission, asked me to tell her how I would create this close up of the full moon in cloth and so I took a series of photographs as I was making the piece.

Containment #6 was also made from Indian paisley shapes, cut up and reconstructed. This seemed like an appropriate place to use some of those sequins.

I used the last of the flowers from that bit of Indian braid, bought in Southall, to immortalise (ha) the arrangement of nasturtium flowers blooming in our autumnal garden. The vase is made from two layers of fine bridal netting and the leaves and stalks from a scrap of roughly spun wool. And the last piece in the series is for you, Chela, and your delightful post Morning Meditations, about the seven coffee mugs that parade through your week. In comparison, I boringly have one favourite mug, and this is a wonky representation of it.

Did I mention coffee? Until next week, may you feel contained and not constrained.

On Going to Market while Staying at Home

One of my much-missed activities during these lockdown days is the Saturday morning crafters’ market at Hogsback. The memory of green grass and lazy, friendly conversations with other traders and customers has become a pastoral idyll for me. Before I lapse into maudlin verse, let me announce an exciting virtual morning market that will take place tomorrow (Saturday 16 May) where you will be able to browse from the comfort of your couch.

photograph courtesy of Tracy Jeffrey, from the TRADE page on Facebook

This is the brain child of Tracy Jeffery who started a collective called TRADE two years ago to promote her upcycled handmade items under the label of Kisma Kreative. She generously took other crafters in Grahamstown/Makhanda under her wing and there will be a range of items at the virtual market — from fresh baked goods to works of art.

My craft market stock is locked up (down?) at Hogsback but I will be trading with items I have made recently : a set of A4 textile artworks; draught excluders from Shwe-Shwe fabric and one-of-a-kind calico totes containing a hand-stitched kantha circle.

Fabric scraps make excellent, solid stuffing for these fabric sausages that keep the draught from creeping in under the door. Following my quilt-making spree during lockdown, my scrap bag was overflowing so I decided to put the offcuts to good use and make Shwe Shwe draught excluders.

Next week I will write about the series of textile collages I have been making. The title of the series is Containment and I have not yet come to the end of ideas for more pieces on this theme.

My regular readers will know about my obsession with the ancient Bengali stitching tradition called kantha. The circular kantha patterns have been used to give a distinctive edge to a calico tote. The bags are lined, with an inner pocket.

On “The Cruellest Month”

April was a month of surprises. I will not write about this momentous climacteric that we are living through but about my quiet stitching adventures. My April kantha stitch sampler will remain a personal memento of this time while the world we live in and on will apparently alter irrevocably because of COVID-19.

Kantha sampler for April 2020 (22 x 41 cm; 8.5 x 16″)

Unlike the samplers I stitched to mark January, February and March of this year, this one has insisted on being given the name of Twenty-One. It does feel a bit like a ‘coming of age’ piece, but that is not the reason for the 21 stitched circles. The number became significant when, on 27 March, a 21-day lockdown was instituted in South Africa. Then, on day 14, this was extended to 35 days, thus returning us to the beginning of another 21 day period. So I decided to stitch a circle to mark each of the 21 days until the end of lockdown.

As mentioned before, kantha has three main stitch variations — bricking, blocking, and steppping. Because I did not want each circle to be the same (even though the days at home had begun to feel that each was the same as the one before) I had to find ways to vary the effect. That was fun — one can vary the stitch length and change the orientation of the stitching from circular, to horizontal, to vertical, and even to sideways! I used a metallic thread for the central block in order to mark it and then surrounded it by four traditional “stepped” kantha circles which make a whorl. But even these did not turn out exactly the same. That is the joy of hand stitching — it is mostly always unique and therefore full of surprises.

“April is the cruellest month” is the opening line of the first section of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. The section is (uncannily) titled I. The Burial of the Dead