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

Scraps: a gathering

The scraps build up alarmingly. I have no idea where they all come from. I find it difficult to concentrate on a large piece of work when there are so many tiny bits shouting for attention and I have a couple of large pieces waiting to begin, so I’ve been trying to get the scraps under control first.

The way I usually handle the tiny bits is to arrange them on a base of very lightweight fusible interfacing, iron them down and then cover the whole thing with a sheer of some kind (usually chiffon or organza) and then stitch onto the surface. I think of these as backgrounds for later, but some of them turn out to be quite attractive in themselves.

Short strips of cotton and silk layered under hand-dyed silk organza with hand stitch, 4” x 12”
Fabric collage under silk organza, 5” x 7”

Sometimes I dispense with the sheer covering and just layer the various bits.

Scrap of patchwork covered with vintage hand-dyed cotton lace on hand-dyed linen, 6” x 8”

I have quite a big pile of these waiting, which makes for a nice relaxing evening job – something of a manageable size and scale that can be pieced and stitched while watching (in my case, listening to) TV.

Scraps collages stitched, waiting to see what happens next

Some of these little backgrounds are destined for studies of ancient rocks and monoliths, as an extension of the sketchbook I’m currently working on. This piece is very small, made from tiny layered scraps and a piece of decorative lace that I’ve had for many years:

Tiny monolith, 3” x 4.5”

In the quest for zero waste, I think we’re doing ok so far.

March

Another month on the stitch journal, and in total (as of today) there are now 92 blocks of meditative stitching, each one witnessing the passing of a little more time.

Stitch journal, 31 days of March

I’ve deliberately not added space between the days because in reality there isn’t any. Day turns to night and night turns to day, and it is all just time. I continually find myself thinking these are days of my life that have gone forever. Not in a sad way, just noticing the transience and inevitability of it, the impermanence of living. Every day a bit less life left, but every day a bit more life lived. Philip Larkin (‘Days’, 1953) wrote ‘days are where we live…. Where can we live but days?’

March in progress

I like the way the stitch journal is filling up with these moments, and I like the empty space that stretches ahead.

Looking at it from the other end: April days, waiting

I wonder what this new month will bring. April is the cruellest month, according to T S Eliot. Everything is growing, leaves are starting to burst from their buds, and another cycle of life begins. In the garden my young flowering currant is looking particularly splendid at the moment, and I like to memorialise these little moments of recognition.

1st and 2nd April
April: the beginning

One day at a time, going on.

In the middle

I don’t feel very productive at the moment. It’s not really a question of being stuck, since I think I know where I’m going next in terms of creating a new series of art work. Nor is it a matter of not knowing where to start, because I think I know that too. It isn’t lack of energy or motivation either as I have plenty of both. It isn’t even the unrest and terrible conflict out there in the world, I don’t think. I wonder if it is to do with the season. We have just passed the spring equinox, where day and night are perfectly balanced, and I wonder if the temporary desire to stand still, to look and think for a while, is an expression of that pivotal moment of poise, standing between two halves. I see a lot of people calling this the first day of spring, but in fact the equinox is the mid-point of spring, since it falls exactly halfway between the midsummer and midwinter solstices.

Despite the hesitation in starting something big, I do like to keep busy and I usually find myself in the middle of something. At the moment it’s a useful thing as well as a decorative thing – and it’s interesting that I feel the need to make the distinction between useful and decorative. It’s that old establishment-driven art/craft chestnut, isn’t it, where art is purely decorative and craft is useful. I like to think textiles work confounds that over-simplified distinction.

Anyway, here I am, finally getting to the point after a bit of waffle and introspection. I’ve started making a cover for the stitch journal, which will be a cylindrical bag. I’ve made a start by layering strips of ribbon and tape onto a piece of hand-dyed cotton sheet.

cover for the stitch journal in progress

The strips of silk are from a hank of white sari ribbon that I dyed and ironed flat. I’ve turned the edges under by about 1/8″ and attached them with very simple straight stitches. I will probably go back and add more hand-stitching. It’s an intuitive process, and I will know when it’s had enough.

strips of hand-dyed silk sari ribbon, ironed flat
hand-dyed silk ribbon ready for couching

When all the vertical lines have been attached, I will add this horizontal band of silk expertly and beautifully eco-printed by Jane Hunter:

strip of eco-printed silk by Jane Hunter Textiles – see link in text above

This will keep me busy, while I think about where I’m going next. I find the mind ticks over nicely while the hands are engaged in some quiet stitching.

Sampler book cover

In the interests of keeping busy, I made a start on the cover for my sampler book.

birdie in his natural habitat

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to tackle the cover. I considered various kinds of needlepoint, cross stitch (really didn’t want to do any more of that) and a variety of seams. In the end I went for my usual style of book cover, which is layers of strips laid on a foundation fabric. I used modern, vintage and antique silk and cotton fabrics, mostly hand-dyed.

cover in progress

I really like old lace and ribbon, but I don’t tend to use it much. I thought this was probably a good place for it.

layered fabrics, lace and ribbon with hand stitch

A couple of weeks ago I acquired a few old wooden bobbin reels – more on that later, there are plans afoot – all of which came with very old dusty thread still in place. Most of the thread was unusable, very brittle from age and light damage. But on two of the bobbins, once the outer layer of damaged thread was removed, the rest of it appears to be sound. I’ve dyed some, and have road-tested the finer of the threads on this cover. It breaks quite easily so wouldn’t be any good for sewing seams, but it seems fine for surface decoration.

vintage cotton thread from an old mill bobbin, hand-dyed

As with the sampler book itself, I found myself wondering whether Ellen Mahon would like the cover I’ve made. I wanted to make it pretty for her.

Hand-dyed vintage viscose ribbon, very soft and silky

I wondered about whether I should label the cover with words, whether I should stitch the words ‘sampler book’ somewhere on it. I decided not, in the end. For one thing I’m not very good at stitching lettering, and for another thing I didn’t think it needed words. I really like the way stitching conveys its own meaning without the need for words as well. I always think hand-stitching is more like writing than drawing. I often find myself recognising artists’ work by their stitching the same way I might recognise the handwriting on an envelope.

Sampler book with cover
Back cover

I hope Ellen would approve.

Colouring life

Difficult to concentrate on anything at the moment with all the conflict and trouble in Ukraine, so I rounded up everything that needed dyeing. It takes days to wind skeins of thread, dye fabric and thread, wash it, dry it, iron it, and unwind all the skeins, but it’s worth the effort.

Pile of newly-dyed fabrics and thread wound into little balls

Most of this is vintage linen/cotton, and the threads are mostly new and vintage crochet cottons. I find they work well as hand embroidery threads.

They look delicious don’t they? Like a box of chocolates

I prefer my threads wound into balls like this rather than wrapped onto thread cards. I don’t like the creases you get when you wind onto cardboard bobbins.

Difficult to get decent greens with procion but I’m happy with these

There is a lot of fabric here. There always seems to be more than I think there is, and it seems to last forever. This is a Good Thing. Some of it will find its way into the shop eventually.

Stitch doodling

It rained a lot today. I spent my lunch hour road-testing some of the threads while the frogs hopped around on the patio. I have plans for some new work, which I will start at some point. I still have a couple of ongoing things to finish first. I added this one to the shop this week:

Make a Wish

It was originally the sleeve of a coat that I was never going to finish but then it took on a life of its own. It seemed to find its own time, as these things do.

Hearts and flowers

Well, it is Valentine’s Day.

‘Have a Heart’, 20.5” x 20.5”

I’m still going through cupboards and finding work that needs to be re-homed, to make some space. This one is a square(ish) cloth made from hand-dyed silk on a vintage damask cloth backing. The heart is hand-pieced, from new and vintage fabrics.

Vintage (1920s) beaded decoration

The background is made from layered sheer and semi-sheer silk fabrics, quilted with hand-dyed threads.

Hand-quilting on layered sheer silk

This cloth is very lightweight as I didn’t use batting or wadding between the layers. It is thin but strong, like love. The heart is pieced and patched, as all our hearts are after a lifetime of love and loss, but somehow all the pieces join together to make a whole.

Love

And talking of sharing the love, I am thrilled to have been featured today on Carina’s blog here. Go and give her some heartfelt appreciation from me ❤️

January, days

stitch journal, January complete. I see Birdie has given himself a comical-looking monocle with an accidental loop of red thread. Always photobombing.

31 little blocks, side by side, one per day. I keep saying there is no plan, but of course there is a plan – the plan is to stitch a little box for every day of 2022. What I mean is, there isn’t a design. There isn’t a design or drawing for each day, I just thread a needle and see what happens. And really, this isn’t true either. It would be more accurate to say that I thread a needle and reflect on where I am in time and space and then translate that feeling into thread on linen. It is mindful, and it is meditative, to witness the passing of time in this way. It means we are alive.

a long day in January

Some days seem longer than others. Some days bring bad news that hangs around for weeks. Some days make you feel lost. Some bring peace.

Some days are blue

The fact that days always have more coming after them I think can bring a helpful sense of perspective – if every day is followed by another, then sometimes the next day can be a new beginning. I find optimism in this stitch journal, and I find myself wondering where I will be in say, May or June, and what the days will bring to me. Or what I will discover in them. Sewing, for me, is always about healing and connection, about anchoring myself to my life with thread, stitching old wounds closed, looking behind and ahead while standing in the present.

January 31st, looking back across winter and looking forward to spring

Tomorrow is 1st February, Imbolc in the pagan calendar. The first day of spring, where hope reaches a tentative hand out of the cold ground, clutching the green shoots of new life.

Sampler book pages

I’ve now compiled and assembled the pages for my nineteenth-century style sampler book that was inspired by this amazing example by Ellen Mahon. You might want to go and get a cup of tea and then make yourself comfortable. There’s a lot to look at today.

The pages are about 7″ square, and I’ve chosen to use cotton rag paper, 150gsm. I like the handmade look and the ragged edges. I also chose to stitch my samples to the paper as I didn’t like the glue stains that you can see on some of Ellen’s pages.

I kept my title page as close as possible to Ellen’s, in appreciation of her skill and dedication. It’s worked in cross stitch on 32-count even weave linen with one strand of DMC thread, and it has a drawn thread hem around the edge.

I felt a bit like a schoolgirl again, stitching this. I hardly ever write my full name on anything.
Ellen Mahon’s title page, worked on finer linen than my sample.

Pages 2 and 3 are based on plain sewing, which would have taken up most of a nineteenth-century needlewoman’s sewing time. Clothes, sheets, towels, table linen, curtains – all would have been made entirely by hand before the arrival of sewing machines. On page 2 I have included a sample of cotton flannel hemmed with herringbone stitch, and a sample of pleats and gathers, stitched to a plain cotton cuff. The hand-worked button holes are functional but they ain’t pretty. I’ve added some etched mother-of-pearl buttons and a packet of vintage needles. The modern tape measure ribbon is a bit corny but I like it. Page 3 includes a selection of fabrics and trims that might have formed the basis for making clothing.

page 2: plain sewing
page 3: fabrics and trims. Ribbon and lace, vintage thread card, with a piece of Victorian wool paisley and some French ticking

Pages 4 and 5 focus on darning and mending. Page 4 is a set of darning samples; on page 5 I have attached a very ragged fragment of 19th-century linen to show mending and patching. If you lift the paper you can see the vintage darning needles.

page 4: darning samples on 32-count even weave linen
page 5: mending and patching

Pages 6 and 7 are all about patchwork. I really like patchwork. I like the way lots of fragments can make a whole, the way lots of years make a life. I’ve used some of the treasure from my little collection of antique fabrics, including a fragment of unfinished patchwork made by someone probably in the later 19th century. The fragment still has the papers attached, and I’ve used some of the papers from other fragments on the page too. You can see that one of the papers has come from a letter that has been crossed (written across both axes of the page) to save paper.

page 6: fragments of patchwork in progress; the large sample was made in the 19th century and still has the papers (from letters and envelopes) left in
page 7: fragment of 19th-century quilt, hand-pieced and hand-quilted from fine wool fabrics. My sample, made from triangles, is made from vintage and antique cotton fabrics.

Pages 8 and 9 show samples of clothing. The shirt is made from vintage cotton, and I’ve also attached to the page some vintage/antique samples of (I think) French printed cotton. The fabrics have come from a sample book as they still have their labels attached. Page 9 is an 1850s-style day dress, made from a vintage silk sari. I’ve added a fragment of block-printed cotton to suggest a shawl, along with some hand-dyed silk ribbon and lace that might have been used for trimming.

page 8: sample shirt, with vintage fabrics and linen buttons
page 9: 1850s style flounced day dress, made from vintage silk

Pages 10 and 11 show samples of tent stitch needlepoint on canvas. All the designs were taken from mid-nineteenth century sources. It’s really amazing how the designs come to life when you see them in thread on canvas. The tiny samples were stitched on 40-count silk gauze; the larger one on page 10 is based on a sample in Ellen Mahon’s book. The thread-wrapped card is made using some of the threads I used on page 11, mostly hand-dyed cotton and silk perle.

page 10: tent stitch needlepoint on canvas
page 11: 9 samples of needlepoint from Mrs Henry Owen’s The Illuminated Book of Needlework (1847)

Pages 12 and 13 are both worked in counted cross stitch on 22-count hardanger fabric. The red work sampler is inspired by those worked in the Bristol orphanages from the 1860s onwards. The alphabet sampler takes the alphabet and numbers from the anonymous The Workwoman’s Guide (1838) and the floral band motif from the Antique Pattern Library.

page 12: red work counted cross stitch on 22-count hardanger fabric
page 13: alphabet/numerical marking sampler, counted cross stitch on 22-count hardanger fabric

The final page is based on simple hand embroidery, designed by Sarah Bland in the mid-19th century. I’ve used a vintage cotton handkerchief as the background, and I’ve attached a Victorian mother-of-pearl thread winder. The embroidery samples are worked on silk taffeta and 22-count hardanger fabric.

page 14: hand embroidery samples

The book collectively looks pretty much as I imagined it. There is still quite a bit to do – I need to sew the pages together, back to back, so that it works like a book, and then I need to bind the pages. I will probably need to use felt spacers between the pages in the binding margin to prevent the samples getting too squashed – the day dress in particular is worrying me a little because it is very bouncy and sits quite high off the page. Then of course I will need to make a cover for the book. But most of the work is done, and I am pleased with the result. I made most of these samples in the evenings, which is when women would probably have sat down to sew, after all the chores of the day had been done. I am used to sewing by hand – I sew every day, and I don’t use a machine – but even I am amazed and impressed by the sheer amount of work that it would have taken to clothe a family in the first half of the nineteenth century.

detail from page 2. I am particularly pleased with that back stitch.