August

Up early this morning, before going to the day job in the office, to sit with the stitch journal for a few minutes to complete the last day of August.

August

I am starting to feel autumn in the air, and I can see the light starting to change. Summer is my least favourite time of year – too bright, too hot, too noisy – so I’m looking forward to a little more quiet and a bit more darkness. I think of darkness as restful, like a cosy blanket or a thick curtain, but I know a lot of people struggle with the shortening days.

We are lucky to have seasons in this part of the world, to move through the months and be able to see the continuing cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Many of the flowers in our garden are just seed heads now, but they contain a whole new cycle of life ready to begin again after the winter. I guess stitches are like seeds too. There is a pun here, right, about sewing and sowing but I think I’ll probably just leave that there.

August, detail

I worry sometimes that the stitch journal will become too busy, too much of a maelstrom of colour and texture, but so far it seems to be still quite cohesive. The colours and textures need quite careful managing but the stitches themselves just seem to happen along and pop out of nowhere.

I’m already thinking about how I will structure next year’s stitch journal and I think it will be different from this year somehow. I may choose a coloured background rather than white. It’s still a way off, so there is time to think about it some more.

August, with a glimpse of September ahead

On Needles

I’m often asked what kind of needles I use, and what size. If you’re new to hand sewing, needles can be a minefield as there are various brands and different sizes within each type. I wondered if it might be helpful if I gather some thoughts, and needles, together this morning.

Birdie is carrying far too many needles at present. He can barely stay on his feet

My favourite needles are made by John James, who have been manufacturing needles since 1840. In my view their needles were better before they developed the association with Entaco, who appear to be overseeing the manufacturing, but they are still good quality needles. You can read about the history of the company here. I am not on commission, by the way – I just like a good needle. What I especially like about this company is that they do a downloadable needle catalogue, showing each needle at its actual size – you can see that here.

The needles I use most often are embroidery needles, and quilting needles. You can buy embroidery needles in a range of sizes; in the picture below you can see sizes 3 to 10 (the higher the number, the smaller the needle). Embroidery needles are sometimes sold as crewel needles – they are more or less the same thing. They have a fine, pointed body with an elongated oval eye which is ideal for stranded cotton (other threads are available – I generally use this kind of needle for my hand-dyed silk and cotton threads). The size of needle you need depends on the type of thread you’re using as well as the kind of fabric you’re sewing on, and the kind of stitch you’re doing. If in doubt, go for matching the needle to the thread. Your thread should go through the eye of the needle comfortably without too much effort. If your thread rolls around in the eye or falls out, you probably need a smaller needle; if it feels too tight (you can sometimes hear it when this happens, and you will feel some resistance when you pull the thread through), then you probably need a larger size. I don’t take much notice of what the size is called, I just use whatever feels right for the thread.

Embroidery needles: from the left (ignore the two random ones on the far left, photobombing – they are a size 5 embroidery needle and a size 24 tapestry needle) – sizes 3, 5, 7, 7, 9 and 10

Quilting needles (often sold as Betweens) are shorter, stronger, and more flexible than embroidery needles. They are designed to pass easily through all three (or more) layers of a quilt, and to enable you to make small, fairly regular quilting stitches to hold the layers together. I often use these for general sewing as well because I like the shorter length. I use mainly size 10 and 11, and I like the Big Eye variety because my eyesight isn’t what it was. These needles also allow me to quilt with thicker threads.

John James Big Eye quilting needles, with grid ruler for scale

For utility hand sewing (sewing seams, piecing patchwork, etc – anything that needs regular cotton sewing thread, the kind that you would use in a machine) I use sharps. These also come in a range of sizes, and probably the easiest way to buy them is in an assorted set so you can choose the best needle for the job. Sharps are flexible, but not as strong as quilting or betweens, which makes them prone to breaking more easily. I generally use size 11 for sewing most lightweight fabrics together (quilters cotton fabric and lighter), and size 7 if I’m sewing thicker fabrics like medium to heavyweight linen.

Sharps needles, sizes 7 and 11

Probably the easiest way to see which needles you like, if you’re a complete beginner, is to buy a set of assorted needles and try them all on various fabrics with different kinds of thread.

Assorted needles: betweens, sharps, darners and tapestry

I am very bad at looking after my needles, which is why all these packs look so new. I’ve had to replace most of my needles recently because I leave them out, stuck in pincushions (like birdie), where they pick up dust and moisture from the atmosphere which turns them rusty in the end. They also become blunt over time. I thought it was probably time I made myself a needle case.

Birdie watches with interest. He will not be redundant, but he will have a bit of a tidy-up.

I’ve used a bitty background that I made a while ago – layered scraps covered with a sheer, with hand stitching across the surface. I’ve backed it with some hand-dyed cotton fabric, added a button and a buttonhole bar, and that was a very nice Sunday morning’s productive stitching.

Little needlecase

So there we are: a very quick gallop through some needles for hand-stitching, which I hope has been useful.

Many people these days tend to refer to hand-stitching as slow-stitching (though they’re not necessarily the same thing, as I understand it) and most of us are all about taking time out and slowing down. Needles in the past were valued for their ability to enable hand stitchers to sew more quickly. How times change.

Vintage needles: no friction no stop rapid work!

Matchmaking

I hope no one’s bored with book covers yet. I’m making a cover for a 12” square sketchbook – though I expect it will be more of a notebook, really, with drawings. Somewhere I can jot down ideas and designs for Red Bubble.

Book cover in progress

I’ve always enjoyed seeing red and turquoise together. It started me thinking about the concept of clashing colours, and I’m not sure that I agree there is such a thing. In my experience, you can generally put any two or three colours together and they will sit side by side fairly happily. Red seems to go with pretty much anything; so does purple. I think there is the potential for a problem when you put too many different colours together, but even then you can generally tone them down by adding some black and white.

Front cover, about 12” square

The main problem I’m having is trying to get an accurate photograph. If the red is right, the turquoise is wrong, and vice versa. Suffice to say the colours are richer and deeper in real life.

Moon flowers

The design initially started with the red circle, which is a piece of shot silk from an old sari layered over a circle of felt. I was going for a fairly obvious red bubble, but then the little flowers popped up and it’s turned into a kind of moon flower arrangement. These things happen. I find the thing that grows organically in its own way is usually better than the thing I was aiming for. You just have to trust the process sometimes. The turquoise background is pieced together using strips from the edge of a hand-dyed vintage tablecloth. You can see the creases, which formed the edge of the cloth where the fabric had been doubled. They won’t iron out, and in any case I quite like these scars from a previous life.

And then I found a piece of really ugly fabric. I don’t often have dye disasters, but this poor thing was definitely one of them. Usually you can rescue a disaster by over-dyeing it, but I think this one has been over-dyed a few times and never looks any better.

A dye disaster

But actually it looks ok here. It looks as if it has found its place in the world. Maybe ugliness is as much in the eye of the beholder as beauty. Maybe there is even no such thing as ugly. Beauty is, after all, one of many problematic cultural concepts that just excludes the non-conforming. It’s not exactly a match made in heaven, but then most of us can rub along ok with most people most of the time. Perfection is virtually unattainable. I will settle for OK on this occasion.

The back almost made itself. I already had the patchwork circle, pieced a while ago when I was gathering together some scraps of red print. These are mostly shiny/glitzy silk and satin, fabrics I wouldn’t ordinarily use much. But put them together, cheek by jowl, and they seem very happy.

Patchwork circle, paper-pieced, about 9” diameter

I often think auditioning fabrics to see which of them looks good together is a bit like sending them on a blind date. Sometimes they instantly find true love, and sometimes they never want to see each other again and end up back in the drawer. Eventually there will be something for all of them, even if that turns out to be solitude. Some fabrics don’t need others; they do just fine on their own. Some need company. Sometimes which of them ends up together is more luck than judgement.

Red and gold glitz

July

And that was July. I blinked and almost missed it. Just as well I had the stitch journal to keep me focused and present for at least some of it.

Stitch journal, July 2022

As always, it’s still made of mostly very simple stitches – running stitch, couching, blanket stitch, chain stitch, herringbone and fly. I’ve used a wide variety of threads, from very chunky perle no. 3 or 5 to very fine silk sewing thread. Some days are light as a feather, and some days really weigh you down.

Stitch journal, July (details)

Lots of summer colours in this month. Parts of July have been almost unbearable, it was so hot. The heat was suffocating.

Stitch journal, July (detail)

Summer is my least favourite season but I have tried to find something to love about each day. I think that’s what keeps most people going. And that’s all the stitch journal is ever going to be, of course. Just a record of days passing, with needle and thread as witness.

Stitch journal, July (detail)

Yesterday was World Embroidery Day (how do these things come about? Who decides?)

I turned yesterday’s block into a little embroidery sampler. It was that kind of day.

A sampler block on the stitch journal for World Embroidery Day

Tomorrow is 1st August, in the pagan calendar Lammas, which marks first harvest and the start of autumn. It may still feel like summer, but seasons and weather are not the same thing. Already I can see the light starting to change as nature prepares to move us from one season to the next. And there is space on the stitch journal to take another step forward into a new month.

In the zone

I experienced a proper state of what psychologists call flow this morning – utterly absorbed and focused on making these little samples, I somehow lost two hours. I quite like it when that happens. You literally lose yourself in something while time rolls on without you. You come back to reality slightly dazed, feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle.

I really like this Klee painting, ‘Oceanic Landscape’ (1929) and have been drawing tree shapes with watercolour. I love the simplicity of these shapes – just a few very easy lines that nevertheless unmistakably say ‘tree’

Oceanic Landscape, Paul Klee, 1929 – sketchbook page

Of course I wanted to see how these would work in fabric and thread. The first sample is layered sheers and silk net on a scrap of very soft brushed cotton.

Little fir trees, stitched area about 3” x 4”

The second is a scrap of vintage linen/cotton sheet, painted with watercolours and then stitched. You can see the imprint of the embroidery frame which kept the fabric taut just while the paint was drying. I will soak and stretch the creases out at some point.

A row of little trees, painted area about 3.5” square
Birdie is looking a little scruffy this season

This sketchbook (so far) is just for me, and just for fun. I’m not sure it’s leading anywhere, although really everything is good practice for something.

Two stitched samples inspired by Klee’s Oceanic Landscape

I’m having a few days away from the day job next week and am looking forward to a break. I have a strong need to paint – who knows where these directives come from? I think it’s probably important to listen, in any case – so will be on paper for a while. Just to see what happens.

In between days

The last day of June, and another month on the stitch journal.

30 days in June

A little handstitching every day, reflecting on the time that has passed…

Days in June
Days in June
Days in June

…and on the time to come. July will be with us tomorrow.

Between: June and July

E for Evolution

Evolution: an evolving cloth

I pick this cloth up from time to time, usually when I don’t know what else to do or, in this case, while I’m thinking about how to start some new work. I started this one a couple of years ago, as a kind of map. Then it became a kind of journey.

Then I looked again at the embroidered E in the corner, and renamed it Evolution, since it never seems to know what it wants to be.

E for Evolution. Hand-dyed vintage handkerchief.

It was always intended to be a very lightweight bed cover for those awful hot summer nights when no one can get any sleep. The backing is a large vintage tablecloth, onto which I have randomly layered pieces of hand-dyed lawn, cheesecloth, and muslin – all ultra-lightweight, semi-sheer fabrics to add colour without adding too much warmth. I made it a bit bigger at some point by adding a 10” border of brushed cotton to either end so it’s now about the size of a single duvet.

This is the reason it used to be called ‘Map’

At some point I applied a ragged row of circles across it and then realised they looked a bit heavy. I’ve cut the centres out of the bigger circles and am stitching the edges under to form rings. Better, I think.

From circle to ring

It has a long way to go, and there is no plan. I often think life should come with some kind of handbook so we all know where we’re supposed to be going. I think most of us haven’t a clue what we’re doing here and are making it up as we go along. Some people manage to make it look as if they have everything under control, which can be quite unsettling for the rest of us.

Empty space, ready for the next adventure

I’m guessing this isn’t going to be finished in time for this year’s hottest nights in a month or two, though it is functional in its present form. In an emergency it would do.

In progress

May: stitch journal

Another month gone, and another 31 blocks on the stitch journal.

31 days of May

Time is flying. There is really not much more to say about that.

Summer colours
Hand-dyed threads, simple stitches

I ended with a square for no-mow May. We did this last year too but this year seems to have brought lots more buttercups and daisies, the prettiest of flowers.

No-mow May

I like the way we stand between, sometimes – between day and night, between the old month and the new. Standing still for a moment, to look back and then ahead. A bit like pausing before crossing a road. So onwards, into June:

Goodbye May, hello June

A long life

This is not what I intended to start right now, but I’m really intrigued to know how long it will get, and how long it will take.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A while ago two things happened that made me stop and think: I read a statistic that the lifetime of a person who lives to be in their early 80s amounts to around 30,000 days. That strikes me as much, much fewer than you might expect. Life is short, even when you get to be old.

I also very luckily found a collection of antique and vintage clothing online that included (hand-stitched!) christening gowns and home-made vintage lingerie. One of the items was a silk petticoat, pre-dating elastic because the waistband was made from lingerie tape, but machine-sewn. It was simply made: a narrow A-line skirt constructed with French seams, and a flounced frill around the hem. The silk is very lightweight and billowy – similar to fine habotai.

Vintage silk petticoat, deconstructed

I wonder (and this is just a hunch that feels ‘right’) if this might be a post-war silk parachute that has been repurposed by a resourceful stitcher in the late 1940s.

So I ended up putting those two thoughts together – taking something from around 80 years ago that has potentially saved someone’s life, and using it to make something that signifies an octogenarian lifespan. There is something quite incredible about launching yourself out of an aeroplane with only a gossamer-thin canopy of worm-spit between you and the ground.

A Long Life, conception stage

So the result is a very, very long cloth, just 6” wide, with bits of vintage silk parachute/petticoat applied to a strip of brushed cotton (for stability and softness) on which I intend to place 30,000 stitches.

Vintage silk, machine-stitched seam

I’m keeping as much of the original sewing as possible.

Back fastening, vintage silk petticoat

I have no idea what 30,000 stitches will look like but I’m looking forward to finding out.

April

The last day of April completes another month on the stitch journal.

April, complete. This section approximately 8” x 10”

April brought us news and worries of various kinds, some it partially resolved and some still ongoing. Daily stitching in a designated place like the stitch journal has helped to bring calm and focus, and to get a sense of the bigger, wider picture.

Early April

Each block is about an inch and a half or so, thereabouts. I don’t plan the stitches or draw a pattern, I just choose a colour and let the needle carry the thread wherever it needs to go. Some blocks turn out to be quite literal or pictorial, like the rapeseed fields and the lilac. Most turn out to be a little more abstract, which I prefer. I like the way abstract marks can mean more than one thing, and the way they can mean different things to different viewers.

This section turned into a triptych of days: part of a bigger picture

A few people have asked what this is going to be, or what I’m going to do with it, and the question puzzles me a bit. To me, the stitch journal is a kind of visual diary, so it’s a bit like asking someone who writes a diary what they’re going to do with it or what it’s going to be. The answer in both cases, I think, is that it already is something. It is itself, a visual record of my voyage through a year, and that’s enough for me.

Late April

In the pagan calendar, the first day of May brings the start of summer: a season of growth and expansion, of colour and light. Everything in our garden has already grown enormously this last week or so. The hedges have grown more leaves to hide and protect the birds’ nests. The insects are multiplying to provide food for foraging animals, flowers are producing nectar for the bees and pollinators, tadpoles are swimming in the pond, and the circle of life is all around. Everything is connected, and everything depends on something else for its survival. I love being part of this beautiful pattern. And so May lies ahead in the blank space that is the future, and this particular future starts tomorrow.

May is waiting
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