Friday, 13 April 2018

Tulips in Holland

Several years ago, I became aware that at some point during spring the fields in Holland are fleetingly striped with glorious bands of colour as hundreds of thousands of tulips bloom. The images of this stayed with me and every spring I've felt quite desperate to see it with my own eyes. The window for this happening changes each year depending on the temperature - sometimes it's early March, sometimes as late as May, so ideally a tulip-viewing trip would be booked at the last minute with an eye on the flowering forecast. However, fitting in with school holidays, we decided to go when we could and keep our fingers crossed. 

It was a decision that didn't entirely pay off, but wasn't a complete failure either. When we visited, some bands of colour had started to appear, but there were still vast areas of green that in a week or two's time will be a deliciously colourful patchwork that I still feel hungry to see. 

We were rewarded with fields of daffodils though...

And perhaps even better, fields of hyacinth whose heady scent was intoxicating. We had hired bikes and were cycling through the Dutch countryside when we saw this and the scent made it feel like an immersive being bathed, or perhaps buried, in hyacinth, with every bit of fresh air eaten up by sweetness. 

I've cycled very little in England because it's such a terrifying experience: the roads are dotted with potholes ready to flip you over the handlebars if you don't have time or space to swerve around them and many English drivers are angry at having to share the road and express this by driving as close as possible as they pass. Given this experience, I was a little apprehensive about cycling in Holland, especially as not wearing a helmet is de rigueur and, added to this, my hire bike seemed to have barely functioning brakes. But the experience was oddly liberating in how incredibly safe it felt in spite of these things and I realised that our bike-unfriendly roads are an entirely cultural creation. I think, in part, the Dutch have achieved this by not only changing the infrastructure (proper cycle lanes on both sides of the road), but also the law: in the Netherlands, if you get knocked off your bike, the law assumes it's the driver's fault; in England it's the driver's word against the cyclist's. It's such a simple change, but the Dutch have forced drivers into caring. 

As a random aside...most people in the Netherlands seems to ride traditional bikes where you can sit up with a straight made me wonder how these have ever gone out of favour here - so much more comfortable.  

We'd heard amazing things about a place called Keukenhof, so we also headed there, but we left with mixed feelings. It's only open for the seven weeks of the year that daffodils, tulips and hyacinth are in bloom and, without the need to focus on year-round interest, the planting is totally magical. If you could visit after hours, I think it would feel similar to some kind of wondrous fairy kingdom. In-hours though, sharing the space with most of the tourist population of Holland, it feels more like a tulip circus and we found the number of people and selfie-sticks overwhelming. It's very commercial. It would be wonderful if they limited the numbers of visitors, but it probably wouldn't be financially viable when they have such a short window for making an annual income.

The photos below were carefully composed to avoid any people in the shot, which probably perpetuates the false internet image of Keukenhof that we based our own trip on. It's nothing like these photos would lead you to believe and if you're planning a trip, I'd probably say that taking to the roads is a better way to see tulips.

Flowers aside, we stayed in an amazing house that we rented through AirBnB. The house was in the centre of Amsterdam, in a gorgeous area known as Nine Streets. It was only a fifteen minute walk to Amsterdam's central train station, but well away from the bustle of that area, set within streets of boutique shops and independent cafes and restaurants. Our apartment overlooked a canal, so it was perfect for people-watching. 

I took this photo from the living room of our apartment and it shows both the inside and the reflection outside merged together - if you have a moment, double click on the photo to enlarge it and you'll see the bookshelves disappearing into the houses in the next street. 

This photo was taken from the same window during the day, albeit in black and white. We didn't have too much time to explore the city, but we did visit the Van Gogh Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, which was showing some work by artists that my daughter is studying. We walked through the central passageway of the Rijks Museum (where we heard a five-piece playing Pachelbel's Canon, which was fairly special) and the architecture inside looked amazing, but everyone else had gallery fatigue by that point, so that's on my list for next time. As is the Anne Frank House. We'd been warned by friends to book early, but my version of early was two days before we left for's a version that wasn't rewarded with tickets. I'm always amazed by how organised other people are. 

The number of bikes in the city centre is just incredible and they seem to have priority over both cars and pedestrians. The bikes are fast and silent compared to cars, so even crossing the smallest road made me check and then double-check. During rush hour, when the offices emptied out for the day, the bikes seemed to move in swarms and I found it fascinating to watch the riders, many of whom looked at their iPhones or ate while they rode. The roads have a chaotic feel to them as a pedestrian, but we never saw any collisions or near misses. 

In other thoughts, let's talk about contact lenses. I'm increasingly finding it impossible to navigate a station or the underground without my glasses on...or to recognise people until they're a short distance away. I wear my glasses for driving, but generally I don't enjoy wearing them...they make me feel like I'm talking to people from behind a wall and they leave a red mark on the bridge of my nose, which means that once I've put them on I then have keep them on to disguise the red mark. In the house, I can no longer see the faces in the photos on our walls until I'm standing next to them and the spines on the bookshelves are a blur of muddy colours. So, with that in mind, I'm thinking I may switch to contact lenses. My mum and sister have both worn them for over thirty years, but they both wear hard lenses and soft ones seem to be more common now, so my mum said I should ask around to find out about here I am, asking around :) Also, daily wear, extended wear, many options, so much room for indecisiveness. Tell me about your contact lenses - I'd love to hear. 

Just in case anyone doesn't already know about this piece of cleverness, my mum was telling me that her contact lens are built so that one eye's prescription corrects short-sightedness and the other corrects long-sightedness and that the brain then adapts to make her overall vision perfect in all situations. Isn't the brain amazing - that seems totally miraculous to me. 

Florence x

Monday, 26 March 2018

I've Written a Book...

I've just looked up the date and found that it's 23 months to the day since an email dropped into my inbox that was the catalyst for the book you can see at the top of this post. I did consider waiting a month to write this post when I realised that, as it would have so much more symmetry, but impatience seems to have won out.

Before I tell you about my own book, I want to rewind to 2012, when I wrote a post mentioning one about the late Lucy Boston, written by her daughter-in-law, Diana Boston. That biography very quickly became one of my favourite books about quilt-making and it didn't contain a single pattern; I loved it because at the end of the day when I finished my own sewing, I could take it to bed at night and continue to immerse myself in quilting by reading about Lucy's life and the way she thought about fabrics and the way she planned her quilts, which I found fascinating. I spent hours pouring over that book, admiring the beautiful photos of her finished piecing and looking at the trail of letters she wrote about her various quilting projects. It left me feeling that if I ever wrote a sewing book myself, I wanted it to be one that people could 'read', as well as make things from.

Fast-forward to 26th April 2016, when an email landed in my inbox from the US publisher, Fons & Porter (now the Quilting Company), inviting me to write a techniques-based book about English paper piecing, containing 8-10 hand pieced quilts. The email was so warm, friendly and personal that I was immediately interested, but two thoughts rumbled around inside my head that let me know I wouldn't be the right person to write that book for them: for me, sewing is a joyful thing, in part, because of its slowness and so the idea of sewing that many hand-pieced quilts in the space of a year left me feeling unenthused - I'm always in awe of authors whose passion only seems to be intensified by such a prospect, but I was fairly sure there was a danger it would crush mine entirely; secondly, I knew that if I were to put myself through such a thing, at the end of it, I still wouldn't have written the book that I really wanted to write.

So when I replied, it was to ask them to consider my writing a completely different book to the one they'd been hoping for. This was how I summarised what I wanted to do in one of our many emails: I’d been hoping to write a book that would feel a treat to dip in and out of: storied, thought-provoking, discursive, emotive, questioning - not only a how-to around English paper piecing, but within that, also an exploration of ‘why?’ - because it is such an odd thing that we spend so many hours fixating on cutting up small bits of fabric and then sewing them back together again, often even acquiring repetitive strain injuries in doing so. I see this exploration of ‘why?' naturally unfolding over a series of interviews, but also in looking generally around the subject of working with our hands. I then went on to make a very long list of all the specific things that I wanted to write about; several of which relied upon people - many of whom I had no idea if I could even get in touch with - agreeing to be interviewed by me.

Although I had a strong belief in my vision for a book, in all honesty I hadn't expected to find a publisher who would agree to my approach, so I was both surprised and delighted when the acquisitions editor wrote back to say that she loved the sound of it and would like to put it in front of the rest of the team to get their feedback. I feel truly lucky that they were willing to take a risk on what, at that time, was a rather underdeveloped collection of ideas.

So, let me tell you a bit about the book that eventually grew out of those initial emails. The first half is full of discussion, stories and interviews, not just about English paper piecing, but more generally about working with our hands. Amongst other things, it will take you on a journey into prisons to hear about men who hand-sew as a way of creating a new life for themselves; we'll look into why humans are so drawn to symmetry and repeating pattern; I'll bring you with me on a day trip to see Lucy Boston's English paper pieced quilts in person; we'll consider how fabric has influenced the English language; you'll find out how the acclaimed novelist Tracy Chevalier came to write a story about hand-pieced quilts; we'll explore why people feel compelled to sew and what the mental and physical benefits of doing so might be; we'll meet the granddaughter of a man whose individual quilts contained more pieces than I could ever hope to sew in a lifetime; and from there, we'll go on to discuss what drives some people to undertake (and successfully complete) such extraordinary feats of quilting. In my research, I pored over books and papers written by quilt historians, neuroscientists, physicists (Richard Feynman and quilting have more in common than you might first imagine), psychologists and mathematicians, as well as consulting with fellow quilt-makers - the result is an eclectic collection of bite-sized articles and essays (for want of better words - neither of those actually feel quite right), rounded off by a series of interviews where I'll introduce you to some of my favourite modern-day English paper piecers.

In the second half of the book, there's an extensive techniques section that covers everything from looking at how different shapes tessellate, to how to make your own templates, along with step-by-step instructions and photos walking you through every technique you might need for EPP. The book also takes an in-depth look at fussy cutting and the effects that can be achieved by cutting fabrics in a variety of different ways (there are some fun visuals to go with this bit). Finally, there are three rosette patterns, each named after a place where I've lived, and then a bigger quilt pattern that contains more advanced techniques, including tackling curves.

My book is available for pre-order now through WaterstonesAmazon UK, Amazon US and other places where you can buy books :) I may also stock it on my blog to be sent out directly if there's any interest.
This feels like a long, wordy post, not broken up by many photos, but I'll share more over the coming months. My book is out in the US on 29th May and in the UK on 29th June, which was feeling like quite a long time away, until it received its very first review in a magazine this month and now suddenly it feels like my book may not just be a figment of my imagination and as though there may be a day when it's sitting on the shelves of a real bookshop or quilt store. Above, is the review written by Julie Sheridan in Popular Patchwork magazine - I'm not sure I could ever have hoped for a more generous write-up. Just click on the image to enlarge, if you'd like to read it.

I'll hopefully follow this post up with one about the book writing process as it's always something I'm interested in reading about from others.

Wishing you a happy week,
Florence x

Thursday, 8 March 2018

On Kew and Books

For my birthday treat this year, I'd asked if we could go to Kew Gardens - there were three exhibitions there that I wanted to see before they closed on Sunday (11th March), so in some ways, I am back to my usual thing of sharing the details of something wonderful, just before it's about to disappear...but if you happen to have a spare day before Sunday, then I'd encourage you to go.

The exhibition that I was most excited about was Life in Death, where the artist, Rebecca Louise Law, had strung an entire room with dried flowers and created a meandering path through. My expectations had been high, but the reality of the exhibition made them seem quite flat in retrospect: it was incredible. Rebecca has created a magical world with her work and it felt like a privilege to be allowed to walk through it.

This photo shows the copper wire that the flowers were strung on - knotted and tied to keep the flowers in place. With 1,000 garlands suspended from the ceiling, it was hard not to fixate on how many hours it might have taken to construct.

While some areas offered a rainbow of flowers, other zones were themed by colour.

The shadows cast on the white walls mingled with the etherealness of the garlands themselves and added to the sense of every step offering a different viewpoint.

Although there were other people in the room, their forms were softened by the veil of flowers and the dark figures you can see in the photo above seem to have become a welcome part of the display.

It was maddening to have only brought the camera on my phone along - these photos don't feel like they do the exhibition justice at all. If you go before Sunday, it's worth walking through once with your camera and once without, because the temptation to photograph every little part of it is strong (I actually gave my phone to my husband for safekeeping the second time around because I knew that I couldn't be trusted).

We also visited the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition, which was beautiful. We decided that the early bird really does catch the worm when it comes to photography - there were so many beautiful shots taken in the early morning mist.

We also went to the Orchids Festival. My husband's father was a botanist and, as a consequence, my husband had spent much of his early childhood hunting for orchids on hillsides around the world. Even as adults, he encouraged us to have our eyes to the ground whenever we went on country walks with him. In that context, seeing the orchids en masse meant that they lost some of their appeal for us, even though the range of orchids was impressive.

The Palm House was the unexpected treat of the day and we were both charmed by the building's rusting elegance. As the temperature inside emulates a rain forest climate, it's hard to imagine how the building's decay could be stopped. We took a spiral staircase up into the roof and walked around a balcony where we could see the structure of the building more clearly and look down at all the palms.

I loved the flowers that dotted the framework.

My phone tells me that we walked nearly 15km. It rained on and off all day, but never enough for us to feel like it was the wrong day to visit and there are enough indoor areas at Kew to escape a heavy downpour.

Outside, some early flowers were starting to bloom.

And my husband met and photographed this fine fellow. 

At Waterloo, we stopped at Natural Kitchen to pick up some food to take home for a lazy dinner (if you haven't discovered Natural Kitchen, it's wonderful - lots of vegan and vegetarian food and exceptionally delicious) and I fell asleep reading Shirley Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' (now finished). It came recommended to me by my father, who in his retirement from work is a member of four book groups and a prolific reader. It's an ongoing challenge for my sister and me to discover authors that he hasn't already read and loved, as a memorable introduction merits many Daughter Points. My finest achievements in this area have been Kent Haruf and Nickolas Butler, but I am determined not to fall asleep on my laurels, even though these were considered to be exceptional offerings that could stand me in good stead for at least a decade. The hunt continues.

When I was out on a dog walk with my husband today, we ended up discussing the different rating systems we've been using for reviewing books and it left me interested to hear how others might be doing it. Here's how my own idiosyncratic system works:

The ratings I leave on Goodreads tend to be very different to those I'd leave on Amazon: on Amazon, when I rate something (relatively rare, but I still have a mental structure in place for it), I'm basing my star rating on whether I feel the book is a good, well-written book and fulfilled the promise of what it was offering. When I consider that my rating has the capacity to reduce the average star rating for a book at its point of sale, it seems unfair to rate it for something that's beyond the control of the author. By this I mean that if the book is autobiography when horror might be my preferred genre, or if the book is chick-lit, when I might favour literary fiction, it seems churlish to lower its rating on this basis (I should say that these are ridiculous examples - horror particularly would never be my preferred genre as I am such a scaredy cat). To me, the structure for reviews on Amazon makes it feel like it's less about what the book meant to me and more about my - still subjective - idea of whether something is good for the type of book it's intended to be (and if I didn't like it at all, then generally I wouldn't review it - I tend to only review the things I really loved on Amazon).

On Goodreads, I use an entirely different system, because of the way it's set up. Here, I've always felt that the idea is to create a personal bookshelf of what I'm reading and rate the books on it relative to one another according to my personal taste. So on Goodreads, something getting a lower mark because it doesn't fit into a favoured genre etc, feels more valid. As an overarching theme to my reading, I crave stories that offer a deeper understanding of people and what it means to be human and consequently, only books that fulfil this at some level tend to elicit a four or five star rating (for my mum, she's always looking for books that offer redemption - I expect everyone has their themes). When I was discussing this with my husband, I realised that - rightly or wrongly  - I haven't felt uncomfortable about giving a book a lower rating on Goodreads because in my mind it's not a reflection on the book itself, but more a reflection of what I'm seeking in a book generally and to what degree the book has succeeded in offering me this. I'm wondering whether most people are assuming this?

When it comes to written reviews, I'm probably more likely to write about a book here on my blog. The past month has been more about reading than sewing and as a result I seem to have made my way through quite a lot of books. In brief:

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett - my father bought me this in paperback as a Christmas gift last year, but I was struggling to get through it as I tend to read more on my Kindle, so that I don't disturb my husband by putting a light on. I really wanted to finish it though, so in the end I bought a copy on Kindle and then proceeded to romp through it - it's wonderful! A series of essays, that have all previously been published elsewhere, on a diverse range of subjects. Everything from the love of dogs, to training to join the LAPD.

The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson - I actually listened to this book on Audible, rather than reading it. I chose it because it's set in Rye, which is an area I love and know well. The story and characters were engaging, but ultimately, I probably didn't fall in love with it in the way that I do with some books.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson - this is a modern classic, first published in 1962, and probably fits into the Mystery genre, which isn't my normal stomping ground. It's a curious and unique book that I feel pleased to have read, but something about the writing or story left me feeling quite detached and I failed to become lost in it at any point.

A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler - I absolutely loved this book. It felt like it had so much to say about families and how they work. The characters were all flawed, but hugely likable - my favourite kind. Since reading it, I've often found my mind distracted by wandering around the rooms of their house (which features quite heavily in the story) and thinking about the lives of the people it contained.

Back When we were Grown-Ups, Anne Tyler - Continuing with the Anne Tyler theme, this book was more of a mixed bag for me. I loved the characters and the relationships that the book explored, but I struggled with some of the peripheral content - the central character organises a lot of parties and I found the details of those slightly excruciating and tiring to read about.

How to Break up with your Phone, Catherine Price - I pre-ordered this book after seeing the reviews. It's the perfect book for anyone who finds themselves taking their phone out to fill in a spare minute while waiting; opening Instagram for a few minutes and looking up to find twenty minutes have passed; or starting the day by reading the news in bed, when actually a book might be a better start. I've been guilty of all of these things. I enjoyed this book, which isn't saying that you should throw your phone out altogether (for photography, texts, listening to audio books, using an online shared calendar, banking, planning journeys and a whole host of other things, my phone feels indispensable and isn't something I want to forgo), but instead shares ideas of how to stop it being such a time sap. I've previously struggled with how to separate out the bits of my phone that I find useful and the bits that were stealing my time - this book has all the practical answers and a wealth of information into clever settings and apps to help. It also shines a much-needed light on how utterly bizarre the role of the phone has become in our society and why it's worth taking steps to change that. For my own part, I've had more free time since I read this book, which is a delicious luxury that I wouldn't want to unwittingly give up again. I haven't followed the 30 day plan that the book includes, but instead I've pilfered many of the ideas from it and instigated them straight away. It's an excellent resource and worth the cover price.

The Creative Writing Course Book, Julia Bell & Andrew Motion - At the start of this year, a friend and I enrolled on an creative writing class at the local adult education centre and I've enjoyed it so much that I bought a few books to supplement the course and I've been working my way through the exercises inside. I'm not sure which book I prefer yet, so I'll withhold judgment until I've finished working my way through the other one.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett - Ann Patchett is one of my favourite writers and I'm currently listening to this one on Audible. It's set in the Amazon rain forest and I'm finding the atmosphere and storyline somewhat claustrophobic and stifling, which is making me love it a little less than her other books, but I'm keen to see it to the end despite that. It feels a little like cheating to add it to this list when I haven't yet finished it, but as I'm two-thirds of the way through and will probably finish it before the end of the week, so it's going on to avoid being missed off at a later date.

I'd love to hear what you're currently reading and what your own system for rating books is.

Florence x

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Rainbow Soup and Other Thoughts

The photos in this post may well give the impression that I'm merrily making rainbow soup, throwing all the colours into the pan willy-nilly, but it's not actually going to be a soup at all. Once the pieced blocks are all arranged, it will be more akin to a tart where the chef has spent quite some time carefully considering vegetable placement.

I'm colour-matching each piece to a plan that I drew up in Illustrator, which is somewhat time-consuming and constraining at times, as I only cut the pieces during daylight hours as it's hard to get a completely accurate colour match in synthetic light, but I love working in this way. It means that the creative part of the process takes place on my laptop, so the cutting and sewing part is an entirely meditative thing, free from stressful pondering, seam-ripping or fabric wastage. I know that playing with the actual fabric is meant to be the relaxing, artistic part, but for a long-term project, I like to cling onto the security blanket of knowing exactly how the final version will look. I also really love messing around with things on a computer screen, so this way it means the whole process is enjoyable for me.

This piece was partly inspired by my mother-in-law asking me a question about something that I was already feeling. She was standing in our hallway one day, admiring a piece that hangs on the wall there, and said 'Do you ever feel like doing anything freer and less structured?' I feel compelled to say, just in case anyone reads her question in the wrong way, as it's easy to misunderstand the tone of things when they're written down, that I'm lucky to have a mother-in-law who's both lovely and incredibly artistic, so this wasn't a criticism, just an open question as part of our on-going conversation about all things textile-related.

Her question tapped in to how I'd been feeling at that time though (it was several months ago now). I'm naturally drawn to order and structure, but I had started to experience a feeling that's similar to when I've been wearing the same shoes all day and my toes crave some room to stretch and wiggle and feel the ground (actually, make that a carpet. Nell has brought about many positive changes in me, but there's no need to sink one's trotters into the mud in midwinter, just because it sounds like the right thing to do). This project has really cured me of that tight-shoed feeling and also breathed fresh air into my love of English paper piecing.

It's amused me though that even when working on something that's visually far less structured than my usual style, I can't actually break away entirely from a love of order...from the way that I've drafted this pattern and am then using it as a map, to numbered storage systems. It seems to prove that no matter how you might try to run away from yourself, the fundamental essence will still be there!

To keep things in order, each set of pieces is numbered and stored carefully in its own compartment until they've been sewn together. I've tended to spend a day cutting enough pieces for several blocks and then pieced them together slowly over the following evenings. It's been an oddly enjoyable process for something that's so repetitive and I've looked forward to refilling the box with fresh pieces and then watching fully-formed blocks take over each compartment all over again.

When I come to piece a block together I lay out a block, referring to my plan to see what should go where...then it's just a case of slowly stitching them together while devouring endless episodes of Grey's Anatomy.

Once a new row has been completed, it's then pinned onto my design wall. The final thing will be made up of two different blocks - I decided to create the main blocks first and to only begin on the secondary blocks that will connect them once I'd finished. I'm excited to have now finally moved onto sewing these connecting blocks, although I do feel a little sad to have left behind this stage of the project - I've really enjoyed it. Without the interconnecting blocks in place, it's still not really apparent where I'm going with this, but it's all matching up to my plan, so we can rest easy! Phew.

I love this photo of the fabrics glowing in the late afternoon sun.

In other thoughts, yesterday morning brought what felt like quite shocking news about Freespirit/Westminster Fabrics being closed by its parent company, Coats. Freespirit is home to virtually every one of my favourite designers: Anna Maria Horner, Amy Butler, Kaffe Fassett, Tula Pink...the list goes on. There are many different types of print that make up a healthy fabric stash, but to me, these names represent the beautiful, painterly end of things and my stash would feel a less joyful place without them in it. They and their designs are all so well loved that I feel sure this will eventually be a catalyst for new adventures and that (so many fingers crossed) their fabrics designs will become available again through different sources. What a loss though, and so sad for the many people working behind the scenes who have lost their jobs. For now, it's taking considerable amounts of willpower not to panic purchase my favourite prints. The Craft Industry Alliance blog has shared a little more detail about Coats' decision - the comments are interesting to read too, although largely speculative.

It's half-term here this week. We've been on long country walks and, on rainier days, decamped to strange places with wall-to-wall trampolines (along with the tiny twins of the Twin Peaks quilt); met up with family and friends at various points to eat scrambled eggs in our favourite coffee shop; rewatched When Harry Met Sally with my mum, sister and the joyful creature that I mentioned in this post (yes, it seems there are babies everywhere in my life right now! Also, it's funny how much some films date visually - we were shocked by how overtly 1980s When Harry Met Sally now looked); spent a lovely evening looking at our friend's daughter's beautiful textiles coursework, fuelled by prosecco and pizza; and I've also sat stitching with my daughter at times. It's all been quite low-key, with lots of work fitted in around the edges, but I love these kinds of holidays where there's no real plan.

Finally, Valentine's Day. There are so many things that I'd like to go back and tell my younger self (really, I think I could write a whole book on the subject), but one of them would be not to be quite so quick to pour scorn on Valentine's Day. As an 18 year old, I was quick to dismiss it and although my then-boyfriend-now-husband tried to circumvent my stance by arriving with goldfish (complete with awesome tank, gravel and interesting rocks), rather than roses, even that failed to thaw my cold anti-commercialist heart. As I sat chatting with friends today and Valentines plans cropped up in conversation it suddenly hit me that I'd really rather ruined the path to an extra annual day of fun all those years ago. In 2008, we briefly attempted to try Valentine's Day on for size, which was fun, but somehow didn't break down the years of anti-valentine that had accumulated. Damn that foolish young thing who inhabited my mind back then! How do you feel about Valentine's Day?

Florence x

Ps. Last year, someone I'd recently interviewed over the phone sent me a signed Valentine in the post (amazingly, it arrived on my doorstep on February 14th, even though it had come all the way from America - she's a magical woman, so I guess that's the kind of thing that would happen). There was something so lovely about receiving a non-romantic valentine from another woman. I've since discovered that the practice of celebrating girlfriends in this way is called Galentine's Day - such a sweet idea. I might do some Galentining next year.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Vintage Home BOM

You might remember that at the end of this post, I mentioned that Jo Avery would be doing a block of the month quilt pattern, called Vintage Home, which unfolds over the course of twelve issues of Today's Quilter, revealing a new piece of kitchen paraphernalia each month and that Jo had invited me and a handful of other bloggers to sew along with her. I claimed February, whose theme is storage caddies, mainly because I'd requested a month that wouldn't challenge my foundation paper piecing skills (which are minimal), but also because I am one of those curious people who loves decanting things into pots different from the ones they originally arrived in, so as a theme, it appealed.

I hadn't actually realised that decanting things into different pots and tins wasn't something that everyone did as a matter of course until a few years ago, when my mum was working in my kitchen and commented on it as being a trait I must have inherited from my grandmother. Since then, I've been scanning family and friends' houses for signs of decanting and found that it is indeed a rarer activity than I'd initially assumed, unless decantment is a guilty pleasure that they're hiding behind cupboard doors. I wonder if it's a thing more likely to be something that makers do though, as though we've subconsciously decided to replicate the joy of the button tin (even in a blind rush mid-dressmaking, opening a button tin still registers with me as feeling totally magical) in every area of our lives? I have a sense of this being a feature of photos I see posted online, at least in people's sewing rooms. 

Anyway, upon realising that decantment wasn't a universally-experienced habit akin to breathing/having a shower/wearing shoes, I began to wonder if what I was doing was just one step away from putting a knitted doll cover over loo rolls (for the uninitiated, Google images can enlighten you). Was it really pernickety to be putting everything into nice tins? I decided that if most people didn't do this, then maybe I should trial it to see what it was like. I packed away several tins and began to leave washing tabs, dishwasher powder and teabags in their branded packaging. My main conclusion: it was certainly quicker. 

Since that time, I've not really reinstated receptacles in those areas, although I miss them, so maybe I should. When I stopped to think while writing this post though, I realised that in the intervening years, I've transferred my obsession onto baskets, which I love and which, on analysis, maybe feel a bit more carefree for their lack of lid: Oh look, a basket that I can casually sling things into! I have water hyacinth baskets and coloured woven boxes for dog toys; laundry; electrical leads and camera paraphernalia; my hairdryer, brush and other hair-related things; table tennis rackets and balls. And then handmade rope bowls everywhere, which hold pairs of glasses, photos, pens, loose change (not mixed - each has a dedicated purpose...there is no need to go completely mad just because a basket doesn't have a lid).

Anyway, I think, wherever my experiments have led me over the last few years, I have a fundamental delight in storage tins and baskets, so onto Jo's lovely patterns for this month: storage caddies. There are actually two patterns (see Jo's blog for the sugar caddy) - here's my version of the tea caddy. 

Faced with a list of squares and rectangles to cut out, I find I often make mistakes while measuring, so before I began I quickly drew up and labelled little templates on my computer for all the pieces needed (just as easily done with paper and pencil though), so that I could relax and not have to think too much while cutting the fabrics.

This is a sweet pattern, as there's room for some fussy cutting, as well as combining lots of patterns and prints. My main prints are Anna Bond for Cotton + Steel, with the plain fabrics being Cirrus Solids from Cloud 9 (they're shot with a different colour on the warp and weft, to add a bit more interest).

Piecing together the smaller squares and borders, my feed dogs kept attempting to eat the fabric and, for reasons which will be explained later in the post, I felt too muddy-headed to investigate or change over to my single stitch plate, so it was more easily solved by starting off each line of sewing with a small piece of tissue paper beneath the fabric, which could then be torn away - it's a quick fix if you ever find your sewing machine doing the same (mine doesn't usually). The pattern was fun to sew and it was easy to piece together just by following Jo's photo, although of course, there are full instructions. 

Returning to the muddy-headedness, I had been racing to finish this before the migraine, which I could feel hovering menacingly in the wings, crashed in. The moment I'd finished sewing, I went to bed, where I stayed until the next day.  I usually really struggle with migraines because I'm not very good at doing absolutely nothing, but I'd happened to read Kerry's post that morning, mentioning that she was listening to the audio book of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, so I downloaded it and then lay in the dark drinking it all up. Eleven and a half hours later it was finished. It is both incredibly funny and painfully sad and, having listened to it is an audio book, like Kerry, I felt the narration added a lot to it too. I now feel like I would have missed a whole layer of it I'd read it as a book - it must be such a nice feeling as an author when your book is narrated by someone capable of adding an extra dimension to your work. 

I think an audio book's strength is partly in the narration, but also on how easy the story is to follow when you can't flip back a few pages to check the name of someone or, horrors, if you zone out for a moment and realise that you've missed a paragraph or a whole page's worth of reading! 

Have you listened to any good ones lately? 

Florence x

Ps. Kerry did the previous month's Vintage Home BOM quilt along, which you can find here, if you'd like to see her lovely fabric choices. 

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Twin Peaks Quilt

I made this quilt last December over the course of a really joyful, if slightly frenzied, few days. Every now and then it feels refreshing to cast off the coat of my own self (my regular coat being cut for a person who is slow and purposeful, whether cutting fabrics or sewing pieces; ponderous and unhurried whether deciding upon a pattern, choosing prints and colours or laying out pieces) and try on somebody else's coat. I'm not sure who the coat belonged to, but while I wore it, I sewed like the wind and didn't stop to question anything, so I'm a little reluctant to give it back.

I think this wardrobe change was brought about by having just a few days in which to make this quilt. You might remember, back in this post, I talked about how helpful I found it to put parameters around a creative project (in that case, matching the colours of the project to favourite paintings), and here, I found the same goes for imposing a seemingly unrealistic deadline on myself (through circumstance, rather than choice).

So, December: a friend was expecting twins and I'd been aware that her baby shower was approaching (baby showers very suddenly seems to be a 'thing' in the UK - I don't think I'd ever been to one before last summer, even though I know they've had them in the US for years), but then suddenly it was on top of me and just a few days away. When I stopped to think about what I wanted to give her, it was (unsurprisingly) a quilt. Or ideally, two quilts, but for me that would have moved things into the 'potentially inducing a total breakdown' territory, rather than the  uncomfortable 'seemingly unrealistic' category. So, in lieu of two quilts, I decided that making sure both babies were represented in the quilt in some way was the next best thing, so I called this the 'Twin Peaks' quilt and every triangle of fabric is repeated in pairs.

I sewed it together using Thangles (they're foundation paper piecing in its simplest form - you just machine-sew on the lines and then tear the papers away, but you're never piecing more than two pieces together per strip, so it's really simple). They speed up the sewing and ensure all your points meet up perfectly. I bought a selection of Thangles in different sizes years ago from M is for Make and have used them several times (to clarify: they're not reusable, I've just used different packs from my selection a few times!), and when I've gone to link to them, I've seen that they're now in the sale and a few sizes are completely sold out. Cue some panic purchasing on my part before sharing the link; if you'd like some, proceed calmly to the emergency exit shoot, where many of the oxygen masks have already been taken.

Here are some of the pieced strips, hanging from my chair, with numbered Washi tape stuck to each row to keep them in order.

I think the only thing I had to order for this quilt was a little extra linen (I used Essex Linen, in Flax), but everything else came from my stash. When it came to wadding, I considered piecing some from offcuts, but when it's a shared quilt for two babies, I thought it may be nicer to make something that they could lie on rather than under, so I wanted to make it thick enough to provide adequate padding for their heads if it were placed on the floor. I've had a super-soft fleece blanket in my cupboard since my own children were small - for some reason, it never got used and I've saved it, thinking it would make a lovely gift for someone at some point. Well, it has, although they'll never actually get to see it as it's safely tucked away inside the quilt!

Taking a small thought-detour: this great beast of a sofa takes up nearly a whole wall in our back room and it's perfect for afternoon naps (ever since I've known him, my husband has had a twenty minute sleep in the middle of the day, even when he used to work in an office). We don't currently have a dedicated quilt for it, although my husband's favourite is the red Charlotte Bartlett quilt and he often leaves this sprawled over the sofa once he's got up. It's an upsetting sight. Not because of the sprawling - which I actually like seeing, because it means that my quilts are in use - but because the colours, which in the garden feel vibrant and joyful, suddenly feel jarring and shouty in this plain room. It's impossible to convey quite how horrible it looks when not surrounded by other similarly bright things and while it isn't ideal to compare oneself to a bull, its redness does make me feel like going on the rampage. 

About once a week, we have the following conversation:

Me: Do you have to use the red quilt inside?
Husband: Yes, no other quilt is as comfortable. It's one of my favourite things. I have no idea why you don't like it.
Me: I do like it, but only in the garden. It wasn't meant to be used indoors.
Husband: Why do we have to have different quilts for different areas? Why can't I just use my favourite?
Me: Because it makes me feel cringe when I see it inside, because it makes my quilt look ugly. I'm going to make another one that you can use in here.
Husband: I won't use it. You'll never make another one that I love as much as this one. It's softer and nicer to lie under than all the other quilts.

Anyway, when I went to photograph the Twin Peaks quilt, I suddenly realised that linen will make everything right - it seems to temper down any colour or pattern that it mingles with...meaning that I could still use lots of vivid, colourful prints...but they'd be less...violent. Although there's a niggling voice at the back of my head presenting the following concerns:

1. My husband will almost certainly say that it's not as comfortable and may continue to use the red quilt.
2. He may use the new quilt, but will never love it as much as he loves the red quilt. And then there will be a subtle, but fundamental shift where he stops loving the things I've made because I've been so bossy about the hows and wheres of using them and wrenched away his favourite.

The whole idea of No.2 reminds me of a poem by Brian Patten, Angels Wings, which had been one of our favourites when we were teenagers. When I reread it just now, I think I've changed my mind slightly about what I think the poem is saying, but then we felt it was about wanting to change all the little bits of someone that annoy you, only to realise that you've lost the very essence of them in doing so. Either way, it's a beautiful poem. Although to clarify, it's not actually that my husband annoys me by using the red's that the red quilt annoys me by being so red when it's inside the house. There could be a case for a chameleon quilt that changes to its surroundings.

Anyway, back to the Twin Peaks. I sat on the sofa hand-stitching the binding down with a racing heart - I don't think I've ever sewn in such a rush before and it made it clear to me (if it wasn't already) what an unfit candidate I'd be for any kind of sewing race, because I just kept telling myself: the time doesn't matter, you just need to make a quilt that will last for years, while accidentally stabbing at my fingertips over and over and trying not to hyperventilate. I considered going on time, but empty-handed, but in the end  texted to let my friends know that I'd be half an hour late. Although I then added a few minutes on to take some photos and package it up, because obviously, it doesn't exist if it hasn't been photographed. In seriousness though, I sometimes feel so attached to quilts, that I'm not sure I could go through with parting from them if I hadn't photographed them first, so while this may seem a loopy thing to spend time doing when already late, to me, it was the only way I could let it go! I say this as someone who is rarely late.

My friend's reaction on opening it was possibly one of the sweetest I've ever had when giving someone a quilt. Her lovely face was instantly flooded with tears and another one of our friends took a really beautiful photo of her at just that moment and I feel so pleased to have that as a reminder. I was really blown away by her reaction - it's feels a privilege to make something that means a lot to someone.

Her two babies have now arrived safely in the world and I'm so excited to meet them!

One of my favourite parts of this quilt is its binding - despite the stress of its application - Liberty Betsy is one of my very favourite prints.

The next day, when I was tidying up from making this quilt, I posted this little bird's nest of scraps on Instagram and someone unexpectedly told me that she could use them for her appliqué, even though they are barely any size at all, so they were posted off (minus the bits of paper from the Thangles) and it's made me happy to think that nothing went to waste with this quilt.

I'm off to bed now with a new book that my mum chose for me. What are you reading at the moment?

Sleep tight,
Florence x
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