Saturday, 28 January 2017

On Knitting (+ a few questions)


Anyone who has followed this blog over the last decade may recall that my knitting forays have never actually resulted in a finished garment (at least working on the basis that, unless trying to emulate Michael Jackson's one-handed glove wearing, one really requires two gloves to avoid looking like curious creature). It's come as a source of delight and surprise to have not only finished something, but to have commenced a second project!

When my daughter visited the Christmas markets in Germany the year before last, she brought back a beautiful snood for just a few euros. Every time she's put it on since, she's chastised herself for not buying another one in a different colour, so when I was pondering her Christmas gifts this year I decided to buy a kit from Wool and the Gang so that she could make one for herself. Wool and the Gang's branding is so youthful and stylish that I felt confident that one of their kits may be enough to lure her woolwards. (And in a fit of self-gifting, I bought a navy kit for myself, so that we might sit and knit companionably. What a wonderful rabbit hole that proved to be). We both used this kit - her kit used Margaux Red, while mine contained Midnight Navy yarn.

One day over Christmas we pulled out our large balls of wool and began. The wool was vast and our friend, Ben, enquired whether we were using special 'training needles', such was their girth. I guess we were, although I think they're standard for any kind of 'big wool' knitting perhaps. We followed the WATG slip knot tutorial; long-tail cast-on video; then the moss-stitch instructions and then we were actually moss-stitching. The first few rows looked unimpressive and odd, but several rows in, the bumps began to look like a recognisably repeating textural pattern. The pattern included in the kit contained little helpful information for a beginner, so I think the intention is that you supplement it with their videos, which are are wonderfully clear and the way that they're shot makes them feel oddly calming to watch.

We later also discovered the Top 10 Knitting Tips video, which I wish I'd watched first as it's really useful.

One day, we took our knitting over to my parents house and while my sister and mum cooked lunch, my grandmother and I sat and took it in turns to knit a row each on my snood. My grandmother was always a wonderful knitter, but it's a few years since she's picked up some needles and she'd forgotten some of what she once knew. Despite the intense concentration, her face looked so relaxed and happy when knitting again. She mostly always looks happy (she is one of the most sparkly and vivacious people I know) but this was a different kind of happiness; I imagine it's exactly the way I'd look if I was handed some English paper piecing in my late 80s. Whenever it was my turn, she made such genuinely delighted comments of admiration and encouragement that I was cast back to how it felt to be taught something by her as a child - she always had an amazing capacity to teach in a way that never made me feel stupid or aware of her impatience, if she actually felt any.


Every time my daughter and I dropped a stitch, we pulled back all of our knitting and would start again, as neither of us had any idea of how to remedy our mistakes. We didn't really mind this as we were both enjoying the process of perfecting our stitches. Each time we started afresh we made less and less mistakes and on my fifth attempt I had nearly finished my snood, when I realised that I'd done my knit and purls in the wrong order. So close to having a wearable garment, I suddenly did feel quite distressed by this.  I took to the internet and posted the above photo...and later the below photo...and found out bit by bit how to fix it. It's been a while since I was dabbling in an area of craft where I'm a complete beginner, and it was lovely to be reminded anew of just how generous and warm people are in sharing their knowledge - me and my ailing knitting were so kindly shepherded back to a place of hole-free rows of moss stitch!


In the situation above, the piece of advice that seemed to ring clearest to me, was to lay all the stitches flat like 'n's and then to make sure the right hand side of the stitch was on my side of the needle, rotating the stitches 45 degrees. And also that the tail of yarn should end up at the top of the needle.

We've worn our snoods almost constantly and they are deliciously warm and cosy - thicker and warmer than anything else I own. Sadly, my daughter lost hers on a school trip to the Tate Modern last week, so I've ordered some more wool for her so that she can remake it.



I think what worked for us about these kits was that the huge wool meant that it was very quick to knit quite a large area, giving us a sense of instant gratification. Also, mentally, the fact that my kit came with everything I needed in it, made me feel more confident that I had the right size needles for my wool.

I'm doing a lot of sewing for various deadlines at the moment, but I so enjoyed making my snood over Christmas that I didn't feel quite ready to put knitting on hold entirely, so I bought a Joni Kit and I'm limiting myself to just doing ten minutes early in the morning or last thing at night. My husband thinks that taking a break from my sewing by doing more handiwork is a very curious thing indeed, but somehow this time feels like a complete break and is both reviving and relaxing.

And it grows so quickly! I chose the Joni scarf, because it uses the same moss stitch that I was already used to, but with much finer wool and narrower needles, so it felt like a fresh challenge. I also hadn't bothered to find out what 'slipping a stitch' at the start of each row involved for my snood, but decided that I'd learn how to do that (so incredibly simple that it barely warrants the word 'learn'!) and so this time I have a lovely smooth edge to my knitting. The wool for my Joni scarf is wonderfully soft and this bluey-grey is one of my favourite colours to wear, so I'm looking forward to finishing it.

When I ran into problems on my last project, several people suggested using a 'lifeline' so that if I wasn't able to correct a mistake, I'd only ever have to pull my knitting back to the lifeline. This was such good advice. I've repositioned the lifeline every ten rows or so and I've now made use of it once and can affirm that it works like a dream! For the uninitiated, just use a big embroidery needle to run a line of thick thread (or in my case, slim ribbon) through the stitches currently on the needle. This then saves those stitches from unravelling if you need to pull it back later. It's not always the easiest of things knitting the first line of stitches following inserting the lifeline as it's a job to avoid it becoming entangled in the stitches, but other than that it's very simple and works wonderfully (there's a clearer photo at the top of this post).


I have a few questions that I wondered if knitters might be able to help me with. The WATG video tutorials are amazing, but I also always really love having a book to refer to. Maddeningly, I was sent this beautiful book several years ago, but despite having looked on every shelf, I can't find it anywhere. I'm wondering whether to re-buy it, although I think what I'd also really like a book that contains a big library of stitches, as I feel quite fascinated by all the different textures that can be created. As the book is likely to be more for inspiration, rather than practical use (if I find a stitch I like, I'd possibly look for a video on how to do it), I'd really like a book where the emphasis is on it being gorgeous (which Erika Knight's books do seem to be). My local bookshop seems to stock far more sewing than knitting books and I'm finding it difficult to pick on online - do you have any recommendations?

Also, I have become quite obsessed by the idea of creating mittens that look a bit like these thrummed mittens - I love those tiny little 'v' shapes. I wonder though, is there a way of getting the same finish with less bulk inside? And if so, what's it called? I often keep gloves in my handbag and so prefer slimline ones. And would this be running, when one can barely walk?

Thank you in advance if you're able to give any advice.

Wishing you a happy weekend,
Florence x

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

On Wonderful Creatures and Other Things


Looking up at the date on the top corner of my laptop today and finding myself already on 17th January makes me feel that the year has got off to a galloping start. I hope the first days of 2017 have been good ones for you!

Over the last few weeks I've been struggling to find quite the right background fabric for the central medallion of a quilt that I've been working on recently. My husband was stumped by it too so, following an SOS call (in which I dramatically doubted the rightness of every single thing about the entire quilt), my parents came over to help me. They both have a brilliant eye for colour and seem to have a natural understanding of how quilts come together - my father commenting at one point: 'the background fabric here is really a transitional area that needs to create a link between the medallion and the outer parts of the quilt'. At which point we stopped briefly to commend him on his brilliant likeness to a Quilt God. They then went on to assess each option I'd laid out, carefully rummaged through my fabric drawers looking for alternatives and together we narrowed things down to come up with an idea of the kinds of fabrics that could potentially work and even came up with some extra details that I could add in. And gradually I felt my equilibrium being restored. Even though I was frustrated by my own inability to initially see what was needed, it was a really lovely morning and one that left me feeling acutely aware of how incredibly lucky I am to have these two wonderful creatures in my life.

After they'd left, I quickly trawled some online quilt shops looking for things that met the criteria we'd laid out, before dashing out with my husband to walk Nell and buy a celebratory brownie from our local cafe. I so often only buy prints that I've either fallen in love with or which will work well for fussy-cutting, that I'm frequently lacking in essential blender prints, so this little stack that arrived today has left me feeling better-stocked with options. Most of the ones above are either from Sew Hot Fabrics or The Fabric Fox, both of which are quite regular haunts for me.

In other news, yesterday, Fiona (of The Sewing Directory), launched a new website and it's one that I've been silently wishing for, for a long time. Several years ago, there was an amazing site that used to share many of the latest fabric launches - I can't remember what it was called now, but I always loved it and found it a really useful resource whenever I was planning a quilt. Sadly, the woman who wrote it passed it on to someone else when she had a career change and I think the site's focus changed at that point and it eventually petered out - does anyone remember it? Anyway, Fiona's new site, Forever Fabric, is basically just like that original site, but with the added advantage of also telling you where each fabric range is being stocked in the UK and the US. There seem to be a lot more modern fabric collections than there were a decade ago, so it will be lovely to find them all in one place as I often find that if I'm late in discovering a line that I love, by that point many of the prints have already sold out (and by late, I mean about 18 months late, causing me to wonder if I've been wearing a blindfold).

Regular readers may find the brevity of this post alarming. I have to admit that at this point I am wondering if it is actually even possible to press 'Publish' without having written at least 3,000 words, so rarely have I done such a thing. I shall press it and we'll find out...

Wishing you a lovely week,
Florence x

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Gift Ideas


Do you remember the Frances books about a characterful young badger*? They were written by Russell Hoban, a kind and generous observer in the telling of stories that often encompassed Frances' own inner turmoil as she struggled to do the right thing in life. In one story, A Birthday for Frances, Frances bought a Chompo bar and two gum balls for her sister's birthday and then faced much anguish over the idea of parting with them. She wondered if Gloria was too young to eat a whole Chompo bar by herself and while she was pondering this, she absent-mindedly ate the gum balls herself. Discussing her desire to keep the Chompo bar for herself with her friend Albert, he confessed that he bought his younger sister a yoyo, knowing that she would be too short to use it! Frances did eventually manage to graciously present Gloria with the Chompo bar and it's a story that instilled in me the idea that the best gifts are often the ones that you'd really love to keep for yourself. So when putting together a post of gift ideas, many are really just based on things that I regularly use and love myself or which, like Frances, I'd like to keep for myself.


(A note to the mothers on both sides of my family, my husband and also my children: if you are reading, stop right here and press the back button - there is nothing for you to see in this blog post! xxx)

Let's begin with something for stationery obsessives while the lovelies mentioned above remove themselves from the area. I use these pens and propelling pencils every single day and they live in a rope bowl on the corner of my desk. I've accumulated quite a collection over the last few years and this week when my LiveWork propelling pencil broke, I realised that I felt absolutely lost without it and invested in three more in a fit of terror-buying, propelled (oh yes) by the worry that at some point they may be discontinued. They're beautiful to look at, but also practical: the pencils are fine, hard and give a perfect line, so I always use them when I'm drawing on template plastic for my English paper piecing.


As I store my pens and pencils in rope baskets, it's worth saying that they too make wonderful gifts - you can find my free tutorial here. I have them all over the house. I think it would be quite nice just to fill one with sweets for a Christmas gift!


Above is a peek of what I've bought for my mum, who always wears beautiful scarves and shawls in winter. Like Frances, with her a Chompo bar held tightly in her warm little paw, I'm as excited to give this as I am torn by wanting to keep it all for myself! It's made by Hilary Grant, a small business who makes delicious knitwear up in Scotland, you can find the full range, here.


Several years ago, my husband surprised me with some Liberty print covered magnets for my white magnet board (which my daughter has since appropriated). They were one of my favourite gifts that year - it's often the small but perfectly-chosen gifts that bring the most delight. You can find some similar ones, pictured above, here, if there's anyone in your life who might like them too.


I mentioned these earlier in the week on Facebook (thank you to everyone who has followed/liked my new page - I have surprised myself and found that I actually LOVE being able to quickly post about little things that I've seen or noticed, as well as following other people's pages), but I recently came across these Binding Babies handmade by Doohikey, in Australia. I don't actually have any bias binding that needs holding, but I will make some especially to dress these dolls if they appear in my stocking. They went straight on my own wishlist...everyone has an inner Frances want-monster.


Also, this lamp, which is basically my dream lamp. It doesn't need plugging in, so can be moved around the house; it folds up to be completely flat for travel; can be extended or contracted to be used at any height or angle; is rechargeable with a USB; has an LED bulbs that don't get hot, which means it can be balanced precariously on the sofa without risking starting a fire (yes, I'm the person who you'd want to watch a film beside); has two different strengths of light; is beautifully made. I love it with my whole heart and it has made my eyes feel sprightly and much more youthful in the evenings. I can't recommend it highly enough. I've bought one in black as a gift to my mother-in-law, as she sews in the evenings too, but I think it would be wonderful more generally for late-night readers, woodworkers, crafty sorts and those who don't like to sit in the dark. My daughter wants one purely because of the colour.

Next, scissors. For you or someone else. I am completely obsessed with scissors. Just the sight of them makes me happy: they feel like one of those objects that hasn't changed greatly since their invention and they also carry a delicious sense of familiarity, perhaps because they don't often need replacing, so it's likely that many of us will have grown up with the same pair in the house throughout our childhood. I can still remember the feel of the button on my mother's dressmaking shears that could be pressed in and out to change between blades - so satisfying! And they were so incredibly weighty and shiny enough to see my own reflection in - I often requested to be entrusted with them as a small child - while they were far too big to actually wield properly myself, they were perfect for some early years scissor appreciation. As an adult, I still notice and appreciate lovely scissors every time I pick them up - it is never an absent-minded action - so they feel worth investing in.


I have some Dovo embroidery scissors myself (above) and have bought a similar pair to give to my mother-in-law this Christmas (she sews a lot, so I hope she will love them). They're made in Germany and seem very hard to come by in the UK, but this shop stocks them and they offer wonderful, friendly service. I bought a pair of much larger Ginghers for my mother-in-law a few years ago and also have a pair myself - I'd say that I rate the Dovo scissors more highly, but I think it's probably quite a subjective thing and they're also different types of scissor (my Gingers are dressmaking scissors), so aren't directly comparable.


I shamelessly mention my Three Bears Sleeping Bag pattern every Christmas, just because it makes such a wonderful gift for small children. You can find the PDF pattern here and a guide to stuffing more peculiarly-shaped animals inside it, here. And if you make one, I'd really love to see, so please do email or tag me with it.


Continuing with gift ideas for small children, one of the hardest things about my own children growing older has been leaving behind the books that we used to read together. I am sometimes struck with an unexpected physical pain in my chest when I see a wonderful children's book and realise that I have no-one to read it with. But for those who do, A Tower of Giraffes features Anna Wright's beautiful illustrations (I bought one of her Dancing Penguins mugs for my father a few years ago). This book combines all my favourite things: collective nouns, illustrations that feature swatches of Liberty print and fascinating little details about how the real creatures live. And I've also learnt, courtesy of Anna, that the collective noun for robins is A Bobbin of Robins...isn't that lovely?


Which reminds me of a book that my sister sent to me, which you may like. We'd been to the V&A museum and finished with some time in their shop, where they've curated the most amazing selection of children's books. I was particularly taken with Stina and I think my sister could see that I was having one of those heart-pangy moments over it. It arrived in the post a few days later with some chocolates - I was so surprised and delighted. 


It's a children's story about a girl who doesn't like the cold; she knits warm things and has retreated somewhat from the world, but the story ends as she finds a way to brave the outdoors. It's a delicious book of knitty images, bonkers plans and thoughts about the cold that I can identify with. Knitters will undoubtedly love it, but as I don't knit myself, maybe it will appeal to anyone. 


Persephone books, with their matt grey covers always feel extra special. My favourite has been The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.


If you're already a fan of Persephone books and like traditional diaries, their 2017 version has the first sentence from one of their books on each page, as well as the beautiful end papers that Persephone are known for throughout. I really wish I kept a traditional diary so that I could make use of this - it's beautiful!


Also, my sister's clothbound poetry anthologies that she has created for Penguin - they are so beautiful and make such lovely gifts (if you're keen for it to be clothbound, make sure you're buying the version labelled 'hardback', as they're also out in paperback).


My family have a small mountain of lovely presents accumulating on top of my wardrobe, but when 2016 has been a year filled with humanitarian crisis, I've felt drawn to try and incorporate a few gifts under the tree that acknowledge this in some small way. I tried to choose charity gifts that would reflect my children's own passions, because I think they'll be really delighted by it that way, so through Save the Children, I've donated money to pay for a football to be given to a child on my son's behalf and an art set for a child in a refugee camp on my daughter's behalf. And I've also bought my husband a goat, not because of a secret goat fetish, but because I know he'll love to think of it at the other side of the world providing a family with milk and goaty cuddles (and possibly all manner of entertaining goat mischief). The goat in question was half-price, which is a slightly curious idea for a charitable gift, but I was able to make an additional donation at the checkout to negate that.


I'd really recommend Save the Children (certificates left and right of the photo above) if you're donating a gift on behalf of a child or grandchild, as while ultimately it's about how the money is being spent, the presentation is perfect and is likely to appeal far more in terms of looking thoroughly gift-like. It also came with a second print out that contains a really engaging image of a child receiving an art set/football and a little information about what their lives are like and how the gift will make a difference to them. For putting charity gifts under the tree to work well, rather than feeling overly wholesome and self-righteous (I think it's a horribly thin line), I really think it needs to make the donating recipient's heart leap almost as much as the actual recipient's. I feel happy that I believe these really will.

Note that the certificates don't come with Liberty print post-it notes embossed on them - they were just placed there temporarily to cover my children's names.

If you have any of your own recommendations for interesting things that you're buying for others or enjoying yourself, I'd love to hear, as I still have a few gifts left to buy.

Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x

* After going to the cinema one night, a friend and I sat chatting in my car when, around midnight, we suddenly saw a badger appear from the passageway between two houses and then waddle off down the pavement. I haven't actually seen a live badger before (just many dead ones on the road) and so wasn't quite prepared for how adorably they walk, how wonderfully vast their bottoms are, or for their propensity to use pavements in a human way. It was a wonderful sighting. I'd always thought Frances was a bear and hadn't noticed her badgery stripes until revisiting the images just now, but being able to now tie that in to my recent sighting, I don't feel too distressed by her change of fur.
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Friday, 2 December 2016

Small-Scale Sewing, Large-Scale Tidying, Choosing Fabrics & a Facebook Page


I've been working on the same English paper piecing project for months now, but recently I've had a short break to tend to some piecing in Liberty Tana lawns, a snippet of which is shown above (frustratingly, both are for different projects that I can't share here until next year). The change of project gave me that feeling I have in the depths of winter when I've been wearing the same jumpers in rotation for months and then someone hands me a new one to wear (I'm not sure who that nameless jumper-hander is...in reality it's likely to be a delivery driver as it's probably one that I treated myself to). But either way, like the jumper, the sewing project was shiny and new, and therefore invigorating.

This diversionary project was at a much smaller scale than my current one and that brought an interesting revelation with it: it produces a very diminutive pile of off-cuts and fabric debris. Afterwards, it felt like tidying up the desk in a doll's house. (Which incidentally, does the fascination with those ever go away? We had one that was handed down and it had tiny light bulbs suspended from the ceiling of each room controlled by miniature switches on the walls. I haven't seen it for years, so I'm imagining it may have been lost in a house move, but I think I could still happily spend hours decorating one - I may keep that in reserve as a project for when I retire...a mere twenty-five years away).


Although the cutting table by-products were small in scale, the room was in just as much disarray as with any other project while I was deciding on what combination of fabrics to use. My parents happened to pop over and ventured up to the loft to see me one day when Tana lawns were strewn across the floor and their lovely faces looked discretely aghast, as though they'd just discovered that the messy teenager who they believed they'd said goodbye to twenty years ago was still actually alive and well. I realised the difference is that the messy teenager didn't care who saw the mess...the grown-up version felt slightly mortified. I'm not sure that people can comprehend the way that fabrics can quickly snowball into massive piles all over a room unless they sew themselves. Every time that I tidy my sewing room (which is often as I like to at least start with a blank canvas), even I lose the understanding of how it happens! But even with the best intentions, I find it almost impossible to tidy-as-I-go. For me, creativity has an element of 'mad professor' about it that doesn't seem to combine well with the neat-freak that lives in me the rest of the time. 


The fabric-choosing process is something that I've been thinking about quite a lot recently. In every other area of sewing, I feel completely happy in my own company barely noticing the hours drifting by, but sometimes when I fail to find a combination of fabrics that work well together after several hours of trialling them, I can begin to feel oddly lost and lonely in the task of chasing that elusive well-balanced combination. I'd been discussing this with my sister shortly before embarking on this project and once I'd begun she very kindly appeared at the end of my phone as a sounding board and not only analysed every combination that I ran by her, but also texted over images of swatches that she'd found online of possible alternatives that might work. On Sunday evening my mother joined in too and I finished that weekend of choosing fabrics with my sanity thoroughly intact. I think there's a case for there being a website dedicated solely to the process of assisting other sewers in choosing fabrics. Typing that, I'm suddenly remembering a book by Arabella Weir that I think came out about 15 years ago, entitled Does My Bum Look Big in This? This website could be something more along the lines of Does My Quilt Look Good in This? And unlike the first question, where the only answer is 'No, your bottom looks awesome in everything you put on it', posters on the site would be actively hoping for constructive criticism and honesty. 


In other news, I was talking to someone recently about Facebook. I don't really love Facebook as a platform so I've never given it too much thought, but when he said that having a page was a really good way to document things that: a) didn't merit a whole blog post b) weren't necessarily visual enough to want to put on Instagram and c) required more words than Twitter allowed, I suddenly realised that he may have a point. I barely use Twitter because of the 140 character limit as it's too time-consuming trying to work out how to convey a message while still maintaining basic levels of grammar and punctuation and I probably only post a photo to Instagram once or twice a week. So, if you'd like to follow my new Facebook page, you can find it here - I'll probably be posting about fairly random stuff (I know I'm tempting you with my focus and clear vision for my page!) - I'm guessing it will be a mixture of sewing, books, news, podcasts, films and generally things that I've seen and found interesting and I will also let you know when there's a new blog post up here. 

Despite having run a Facebook page for Squeebles for several years, there are still things that I found confusing about the set up process for my own page - like why it says that I'm not permitted to have an @username and why it won't let me change my page name from what sounds in retrospect rather long and convoluted...but I'm going to ignore those things for now. 

Finally, thank you so much for the interesting conversation following my recent post about needles - I have ordered some Bohin needles to trial at one commenter's suggestion and will report back! But otherwise, I'm still happy with my John James, even though one poster raised concerns that they're actually made in China! This was rather crushing news, but when I phoned and asked, John James said that they still make many needles types in Redditch, so not everything is outsourced at least. 

This weekend, I am nursing a cold, so will mostly be sewing and watching films or listening to audio books. If you have any recommendations, please do leave them in the comments. 

Which reminds me, while sewing the pieces at the top of this post, I watched Somerset Maughan's The Painted Veil on iPlayer and it was wonderful and would possibly go down on my list of top ten films. As per the trailer, the first portion of the film depicts a relatively shallow and formulaic life, but once the location has shifted to the site of the cholera epidemic things seems to completely change - the scenery is stunning and atmospheric and the on-screen chemistry between the characters is incredible and the storyline totally captivating. Sadly, it's now fallen off iPlayer, but it is available to buy for a little over £3, here, if you're interested. 

Wishing you a lovely weekend, 
Florence x
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Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Hand-Sewing Needles for English Paper Piecing


I recently decided to do some research to make absolutely certain that I was using the best possible needle for my English paper piecing. For several years now, I've been incredibly loyal to Clover Gold Eye appliqué needles, enjoying how fine and smooth they are, while inexplicably overlooking that their spiky little eyes had a habit of tearing up my finger tips whenever I forgot to use a thimble. Added to this, I am a piecer who instinctively gives a slight tug after each stitch to make sure that it's definitely secure and this habit was not endured well by these needles; snapping in half and losing part of the needle, until my husband unwittingly relocated it with a body part, was a regular occurrence, often accompanied by incensed accusations of carelessness. So there was definitely some room for improvement (on the part of the needles and the wife). 

Being a superficial creature at times, I began my research by going straight for the needle that was most aesthetically pleasing. Tulip Hiroshima needles come in divine cardboard packaging and the needles themselves are contained in tiny cork-stoppered glass test tubes, which will give those prone to flights of fancy all the propulsion needed to indulge themselves in delusions that they are in fact working in a sewing 'lab' rather than a room. As I took them from the packaging, my white lab coat and safety goggles may almost have been visible and the bunsen burner in my heart was certainly aflame with some ferocity. 


I tried the piecing and appliqué needles, although in reality I'd very probably prefer the milliners needles. In terms of stitching, they were a pleasure to sew with and left my finger tips unpunctured and feeling springy, however, I did find that they bent incredibly easily over the course of an hour's sewing. As these Tulip needles are eye-wateringly expensive, costing £5.65 for just six needles, I'll be reserving use of them for high days and holidays...and those days when one's spirits just need the kind of boost that can only be brought about by a new lipstick or a beautiful test tube full of sewing needles. Tulip's presentation is, without doubt, the finest amongst sewing paraphernalia that I've ever encountered and I know from discussions with other sewers that many people use them as their staple hand-sewing needles, but because my own sewing technique seems to cause them to bend, for me they'll have to be more of a birthday or Christmas wish-list item.

Just in case you're wondering about different types of needles yourself, it's probably worth saying at this point, that most people seem to prefer a longer needle for english paper piecing (although that's not true of everyone), making either a milliners (also known as a straw needle) or an appliqué needle a suitable choice. Milliners needles are just like 'sharps' needles (commonly used for general sewing), but longer; appliqué needles also offer extra length while having a fine point to minimise how much the fibres of the fabric are pushed apart as the needle enters. For my own sewing, my latest research seems to suggest I'm better with a slightly thicker milliners needle. 


Next, I trialled some John James milliners needles. From an aesthetic point of view, with their workaday black and yellow packaging, John James offers the least appealing packaging out of everything I tried so it pains me to say that it was love at first stitch. They glide through the fabric, leave my finger tips feeling sprightly and over many hours of stitching suffered no breakage and relatively little change in shape (the needles that is, although thankfully the same goes for my fingers). They cost a thrifty £1.65 for an envelope of 25 size 10 milliners needles and have the appealing heritage of being made in Redditch, England, a place steeped in centuries of needle-making history. 

Hiroshima also has a history of needle production dating back 300 years and produces over 90% of Japan's needles. These details may seem irrelevant, but in the cases of both the Japanese Tulips and the English John James, I really enjoy using a product that has roots, uses traditional manufacturing processes and that has not been outsourced to China in a cost-cutting measure. John James themselves have been around since 1840.

I then turned my attention to establishing exactly which size of needle I really preferred and dispensing with my mixed pack, ordered three tiny envelopes directly from the John James website in sizes 9, 10 and 11 (for the uninitiated, the number on the needle pack refers to its size, often both length and thickness. Generally the bigger the number, the smaller and finer the needle. So a size 5 needle will be bigger and wider than a #10). Until this research, I'd had a habit of picking up whatever Clover Gold Eyes my local shop had in stock between a size 9 and 11, so I was keen to know what my ideal needle length would be. I spent a completely unnecessary few hours swapping over the needles as I sewed, because it was easy to conclude almost immediately that the #10s felt (to steal an expression from the mouth of Goldilocks) 'just right', with the #11s feeling just a bit too long and unwieldy and the #9s feeling just a bit too small. I'd imagine that what feels just right may well have a lot to do with hand size. 


In the interest of thorough research though, I decided to also try out Jeana Kimball's Foxglove Cottage milliners needles as these were recommended to me by two sewers whose product recommendations are always excellent (thank you, Kerry & Lorena). I found these were almost identical to the John James needles and didn't bend too much while sewing. In side by side testing (I threaded one of each up and swapped between the two) though, the John James felt 'right' to me in a way that I couldn't actually pin down. The Jeana Kimball needles cost £3.25 for 16 - a little more expensive than the John James, but still very reasonable and the increased cost is possibly down to the packaging which, as it's more travel friendly, is very welcome (in this context, 'travel' doesn't necessarily involve leaving the house, but also refers to moving from one room to another or even shifting in one's seat and thereby upending all items not fastened down). The John James envelopes, which threaten to deposit needles all over the house, are a point of irritation and require constant vigilance on my part...(when I remember I will transfer them to a needle pot, but I'd wanted to keep them all their labelled packaging during my testing). 

It's now about six weeks since I began this research and I'm aware that it may seem like a rather curious (and possibly completely obsessive) journey to embark upon, but I can't tell you quite how lovely it is to sew without punctured finger tips and uninterrupted by daily games of Hunt the Needle after one snaps in half and propels itself across the room, so I'd encourage you to embark upon your own research if you're not 100% delighted with your needles.
Florence x

Ps. This post doesn't acknowledge the horror of the Trump election. But it feels necessary to say that I have not sewn on and trialled needles regardless. I have sewn on and trialled needles with a head whirling with thoughts or while having conversations about little else. I am sending cuddles to anyone feeling as horrified and stunned as I am - 2016 has been a shocker of a year between this and the EU referendum, hasn't it.  

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Oh, the Horror

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I'm so sorry to have left you on tenterhooks for quite so long as to how the camping went! Some of you may have imagined that I had been swallowed up by the vastness of that which shall be known as 'loaf head' (you may have to go back to the last post to understand this, but in brief it is the effect where one's hair magically rises like a loaf in the absence of a hairdryer, until it is so big that one is incapable of passing through doorways). However, thanks to your wise owl suggestions, that fate didn't befall me and I quickly realised that a plait could contain all my problems (or in my case, the strange self-supporting hair style that I'm able to create by essentially folding my hair in on itself) and all was well. Thank you! 

Although, irritatingly, Mr Teacakes was right again. To add to the list of things that I had previously told him that I absolutely didn't like and have since been converted to (iPhones, Apple Macs, dogs, places without pavement), there is now camping, which I loved! It is so annoying when someone else seems to know your own mind better than you do and I truly went with a determination to outsmart him and find the whole thing absolutely hideous, but three days in I realised that I was waking up in our tent with a ridiculously big smile on my face feeling utterly relaxed and happy and I had to admit that I was totally smitten. From the first meal that I cooked on our little trangia, I could taste the wonderfulness of the experience. Although, we went in a large group of twenty-two, made up of old friends and their children, and I'm sure that they played a major part in my conversion (one of them also lent me his spare camp bed after the first night when I'd found our sleeping mats to be really uncomfortable and that too made things much happier). 

On arriving at a campsite with incredibly basic facilities, it seemed the most natural thing was to immediately text a graphic photo of them to my mother. However, this didn't go entirely to plan. After sending the text I turned my phone off and didn't look at it again until I turned it on again twenty four hours later. When I went into my text messages what I saw horrified me to the point of standing up, clutching my head, and wailing with a level of remorse only witnessed prior to this in Anne of Green Gables when Anne realised that a mouse had drowned in the pudding sauce after she'd accidentally left the lid off. Instead of texting my mother, complete with kisses and a photo of the very primitive facilities, I had actually texted the man who we'd left laying some flooring for us while we were away. I think the man may have been rather taken aback by what an affectionate and personal turn my texts to him had taken and I never heard back from him, nor did he return at a later date once we were home to fit the skirting boards that he'd promised, instead delegating it to the kitchen fitters who'd originally contracted him. I am still mortified by this, although I'm grateful that he managed to stay around long enough to fit the flooring beautifully irrespective of how unnerved he clearly felt. 

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At this late point, I feel I should draw your attention away from my texting misdemeanours back up to the top of the post to admire the swatches of Liberty prints that were sent to me yesterday - won't those birds be perfect for some fussy-cutting. They are all prints from the Garden of Dreams range, based on the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, which I actually remember having myself as a child. Curiously, I can't find these in the UK, but they do have them here and here in the US. 

Finally, I'd like to share with you my latest method of storing fabrics for English paper piecing:

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My supply of squares is running horribly low in this photo, but will soon be replenished after an intensive cutting and wrapping session. It makes it so much quicker to find the square I need when they're all sorted into colours like this. 

I hope you've had a wonderful summer - thank you to the lovelies who emailed to check whether I was okay. I currently have my hands, head and most of my waking hours wrapped up in a project that won't see the light of day until next year, but rest assured that I am most definitely alive, well and inadvertently sending inappropriate texts to people. 

Florence x

Monday, 22 August 2016

Notes From My Summer

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I'm not sure how so many weeks have passed, but it's been a busy summer and suddenly the evenings are getting dark early and it doesn't feel too long until it will be over, however, we have a few highlights still to come, including going camping with several other families to celebrate a friend's 40th birthday. My husband tells me that like dogs, iPhones, areas of land not covered by pavement, wellingtons and numerous other things that I've previously claimed not to like and then subsequently learned to love, the same will be true of camping. Our four-day camping adventure will take place at a location that proudly distances itself from any form of glamping; I'm not sure why anyone would actively choose to cut themselves off from a hairdryer, but if I find enlightenment on that then I'll report back on my return. I generally read while drying my hair, so it's not a mirror and styling brush event, but if allowed to dry naturally my hair has a propensity to sneakily rise like a loaf of bread left to prove until it has doubled in size and inhibits my passing through doorways easily. I've yet to formulate a game plan to try and avoid the loaf effect, so please do share any tips the you might have if you're a more experienced camper who harbours a love of creature comforts and normal-sized hair (I know that not everyone has hair that expands alarmingly with natural drying, but I'm assuming there must be someone out there like me). Not washing it isn't an option, due to my dislike of it not feeling clean being greater than my fear of being Mrs Loaf Head, although that may be subject to change once showering facilities have been sighted, which are apparently 'basic'. There's a temptation for my face to become fixed in Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' pose at this point, but for the thought that the company is guaranteed to be lovely. 

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Earlier in the summer we spent a dreamy week in the Cotswolds (with electricity and hairdryers in every room) where my parents joined us for a few days too. We spent the time walking, eating ice-cream, pottering around pretty villages and generally watching the sky change (pictured above). I also fitted in plenty of sewing in the evenings. We then spent over eight hours winding our way back home through the countryside to avoid the motorway. My husband map-read me on a surprise detour when he noticed that we were only twenty minutes away from a village where I'd lived as a four, five and six year old, before my family moved to Australia. In my head, this place has existed as a thing of perfection: it's never raining there and everything about it is idyllic. It wasn't raining when we visited, but seen through an adult's eyes, it didn't actually possess any particular charm either. The sundial in the front garden that I sat skulking beneath with a small suitcase on the occasions when I decided to 'leave home' was gone; the roses that my sister and I used to make litres of precious perfume from every summer seemed to have disappeared and there were no small children swinging on the large wooden gate that spanned the driveway pretending it was a horse, which is what we seemed to spend most of our days doing for the time that we lived there. Even the dilapidated farmyard opposite our house, which had been been the home to many chickens scratting about, had left to make way for an estate of new houses. It's good to have removed the rose-tinted glasses that my six year old self created and to know that I can cross this off my list of 'Perfect Villages That We Could Move to When We Are Older'. 

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Our house has spent the summer being turned upside down as we had some electrical work done and decided to replace the wooden work surfaces that we had put in eight years ago that haven't fared particularly well - somehow, this resulted in an entire ceiling and wall being replastered, floors being ripped up and other unexpected delights. My father came over and helped me repaint (my husband had injured his back lifting what he thought was a suitcase of clothes into the car, but what was actually a suitcase filled mainly with hardback books - the surprise of this unexpected extra weight seemed to throw his back out and left him unable to paint). Only people who know my father well can truly appreciate what a sacrifice helping me paint was, but I felt incredibly touched and we merrily splattered the old work surfaces with paint anticipating that they'd be gone within a week...several weeks later we are still surrounded by paint splattered surfaces as the whole thing has a slightly mañana time scale to it, due to there being so many other things going on at the moment and because it's taken forever to decide on basic things...like what we want to replace the work surface with (finally chosen samples seen above). My mother left the pink roses for me to arrive home to on August 1st and they have somehow looked wonderful until August 19th, making them the most joy-giving flowers imaginable as well as providing welcome visual distraction from the paint-splattered surfaces for over a fortnight. 

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Other lovely things from my summer have been suddenly spotting this drain cover on a rainy street that I've walked down many times before - this may well reappear in quilt form at some point. And Rifle Paper's long-awaited fabric line finally arriving to keep my favourite notepad company.

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I raced up to Birmingham one day to visit the wonderful Festival of Quilts - it was a complete delight (both the people I met and the quilts), although I realised when I arrived home that I'd missed several quilts that I would have loved to have seen - I find the layout is quite confusing and the display of quilts feels to be mixed closely around the retail areas, meaning it's easy to lose focus and to be sucked away into the heavenly vortex of quilt-related pop up shops that exist there for the four days that the festival is on. The quilt below is from the Splendid Shreds of Silk and Satin exhibition, curated by Tracy Chevalier, which celebrates Charlotte Bronte in quilts. It's sewn by the Totley Brook Quilters group as a modern interpretation of an original quilt created by the Bronte sisters. Gorgeous.

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My favourite exhibition was a small display of quilts from Kaffe Fassett's private collection - these quilts were breathtaking, especially for anyone obsessed by English paper piecing.

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Loveliest of all the lovely summer things though, was my girl asking if she could do some English paper piecing. I was busy at the time, so she made her own way with sewing the pieces together, having seemingly picked it up by osmosis. I'm so pleased that I couldn't actually be in the same room to make 'helpful suggestions' as she probably had far more fun working things out for herself and perfecting her technique - while the first flower has more visible stitches, those on the half-finished yellow flower are barely perceptible - I remember being completely delighted by working out what I needed to do differently to achieve that. 

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I hope you're having a happy August, 
Florence x

Monday, 25 July 2016

15% Off English Paper Piecing Patterns

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Happy Monday to you! In an uncharacteristically short post (my interlude with brevity is only likely to last a day - normal loquacious service will be resumed shortly), I just wanted to let you know that my English paper piecing patterns all have 15% off this week - just use the code SUMMER at the checkout until 31st July. Find them here, here and here.

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Wishing you a lovely week, 
Florence x

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Random Thoughts and Recommendations

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Thank you so much for all your thoughts on my last post - it was comforting to know that so many others out there were feeling similarly crestfallen. If you're still feeling glum, do have a look at Nina's comment, which includes some proactive and positive suggestions. 

Returning to some sewing, look at these gorgeous flowers, above, that Cvitron has been creating using my Perpetual Spring EPP pattern! It quickly became apparent watching Christine's Instagram feed that there were more whole flowers accumulating than are needed to make a wallhanging, so I'm excited to see this pattern made up on a grander scale than I've attempted myself! Any thoughts that English paper piecing is a slow process will be dispelled looking at Christine's progress - you can see more of her gorgeous work over on Instagram

Enormous Strawberries

In other matters, I have been eating absolutely vast strawberries this week - look at my hand for scale! Aren't they amazing?! And they had none of the usual blandness that can come with larger strawbs, but rather, they were the juiciest, sweetest things imaginable. I would very much like to say that I grew them myself, but I shall refrain from letting my farm girl aspirations influence my ability to write truthfully. 

There are a huge list of fruits that I can't eat due to food intolerances although strawberries aren't one of them, but I have been avoiding them for the last few years simply because they make my teeth feel too sensitive when I come to brush them later (which has always seemed odd, as I don't suffer hot/cold/sweet foods tooth sensitivity...it's just fruit). Anyway, I have recently changed my toothpaste and was delighted and amazed to find that I can now eat strawberries with no pain at all. Any small new addition to the 'Things I Can Safely Eat' list is nothing short of life changing for me, so I'm thrilled. Without wanting to seem like a toothpaste advert, if you're interested, it was this one, bought only because the shop I was in didn't stock my usual Sensitive toothpaste and we were running out, but I will now buy it in industrial quantities. 

Fellow dressmakers may be as blown away by this tiny video from Colette Patterns as I was, which shows how to turn a strap in less than 30 seconds, with none of the usual sweary wrestling match. I want to make something with tiny straps now so that I can experience the joy of this first hand.

If you'd like something wonderful to listen to while you're sewing this week, then I'd really recommend listening to the surgeon, David Nott, in his appearance on Desert Island Discs. It's often the less well known interviewees that make for the most fascinating castaways and he was just so inspiring and humbling when he talked about his annual missions to war zones where he works on a charitable basis as a surgeon. You may need tissues. Discussing it with a friend when I snuck out to join her for breakfast earlier this week, we were both surprised that his view of what was truly remarkable in his extraordinary life was finding a woman who fell in love with him. We also both felt that listening to it had completely changed our perception of the Queen (in a positive way).

I really enjoyed reading the late Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night recently (an author actually recommended to me a few years ago by a reader of this blog - I'm so sorry I can't remember quite who, but thank you!). It's a wonderful story with engaging characters and a very unusual premise for the storyline. Both of my parents have also now read and enjoyed it, so it's a recommendation from three. If you're already a fan of his writing, you may enjoy this feature in Granta Magazine from Kent Haruf on his path to becoming a published novelist. 

In other thoughts, we booked to go away in England rather than abroad this summer and on the basis of our weather so far I'm now feeling slightly glum about that. It's a rare thing for our family to make any plans at all until just before they happen and this has been a lesson in why I do prefer to live that way - I'm not a person who knows what I'm going to want to do in a few weeks, let alone a few months time and I'm now cursing myself that earlier in the year we had a momentary desire to plan ahead and then miraculously found the efficiency to act upon it! I am really craving some sunshine to warm my bones (and does anyone else really love touching the top of their head on a blisteringly hot day and finding that their hair has retained the same amount of heat as a loaf of bread fresh from the oven? I do. I also love this on my children's heads too. I've also suddenly realised that I have a habit of putting these weird asides in brackets as though by excluding them from the flow of the rest of the post, they may seem more like a small, incidental passing thought than an firm indication of my own self, in case there isn't a single reader who shares such a thought. Even being aware of that, I find myself unable to take it out of brackets. You can mentally remove them if you wish and then tease me for having odd thoughts in the comments)! It seems increasingly to be the case that global warming means we don't really have a summer anymore... just a period where the temperature rises mildly while it continues to rain and a winter also sadly lacking in any extreme other than rainfall. 

Finally, moving on from my quintessentially British grumbling about weather, I have a new sponsor to introduce. If you ever play around with the idea of designing your own fabric, Prinfab not only allow you to have it printed on a variety of substrates, but you can also sell your designs through their site, like an English version of Spoonflower, which sounds fantastic! 

Do feel free to leave any of your own random thoughts or recommendations in the comments. 

With midweek good wishes, 
Florence x

Ps. While on the subject of random recommendations: my sister bought me this after I borrowed some from her when we went away together earlier in the year. It really does work. This year, I have the softest feet I've ever walked on (also, returning to bracketed thoughts about how the sun changes the feel of things: when you've been in the garden for hours barefoot on a hot day and then walk back into the house and the normally-fairly-unremarkable-feeling-carpet suddenly feels like velvet! I love that too).
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