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.

Hearts

The Covid Chronicle, founded by Wendy Bliss, is a community textile art installation, currently touring in the UK. It comprises about 140 panels worked in a range of textile art techniques and records contributors’ experiences of the pandemic since the first UK lockdown. You can see the work here from today until 19th June, and from July it will be on display at Riverside Studios, near Hammersmith Bridge.

The Hammersmith venue has a huge window space that isn’t suitable for the textile art because it gets too much light, so contributors have been invited to make hearts that can be displayed there a bit like the Wall of Hearts.

I already had a couple of patchwork hearts lying around in a drawer so it was quite easy to put these together.

Patchwork heart on layered background 9” x 12”

I really like layered sheers. I like the way they reveal as well as conceal, the way they cover the background but you can still see through them if you look closely. And of course we are all like that too. Very few people get to see through all our layers.

Layered linens, silk organza and silk chiffon

The other two are slightly smaller, about 6” x 8”, and are made with eco-dyed fabrics from Jane Hunter.

Pair of hearts made from linen, cotton and wool

The white heart is just strips of cotton fabrics pieced together into a heart shape, with some decorative stitching over the seams.

Strip of silk chiffon covering the edge

I really like the scrap of eco-dyed felted wool – it’s quite thick and substantial, I’m guessing from an old wool blanket, and perfect for this. It always amazes me how these orphans and scraps find their home eventually.

Eco-dyed wool with vintage cotton lace and little seed stitches

These will be travelling to Wendy very soon, and if you’re in London in July maybe you could go and visit.

Getting it together

I finished the scraps quilt that I started about this time last year.

‘Together’ – scraps quilt, hand-pieced, hand-quilted

Its working title was ‘All Together Now’ but I found that gave me a constant earworm of the song with the same name, which became distracting, so it had to go. I dropped the outer words and have named it simply ‘Together’. I like the etymology – it comes from an Old English word meaning ‘to gather’ – and that’s exactly what this quilt is. It’s a gathering: of fabrics, of textures, of colours, and of time.

‘Together’ 66″ square (121 x 6″ blocks)

I have a perennial problem with making large quilts. I like working on a large scale, as a rule, but when the thing is finished I have no way of taking a decent photograph of it. I don’t have a wall big enough to hang it on (in any case, there is no hanging sleeve on this one). Usually what happens is we have to move the furniture out of the dining room, lay the quilt out on the floor, and then climb up a stepladder, hold a camera out at arms length over it and hope for the best. Textiles are very difficult to photograph at the best of times and always look so much better in real life.

Seed stitching across the central panel

The quilt is made entirely of scraps and leftovers, hand-pieced over paper using the traditional English paper-piecing method. I assembled the blocks as 6″ squares, using patches in multiples of 1″ (so for example, 1 x 1, 1 x 2, 2 x 2, etc). I then arranged the blocks by colour group, with the whites and neutrals in the centre. The fabrics are an immensely eclectic mix of very modern and very old, plain and patterned, textured and plain-weave. The oldest pieces in it are from the eighteenth century, and they sit happily next to very modern scraps and samples. Most of the fabrics are hand-dyed vintage cotton and linen, with some over-dyed modern quilting cottons. There are a few synthetics and satins in there as well. I don’t normally like shiny fabrics much but I do like the way these little squares catch the light.

The blue corner
The red corner

The seeding stitches in the central panel create circles of negative space. Initially this was just a design decision to disrupt the straight lines created by the square blocks, but now I can see that the circles create little oases floating like bubbles across the surface. I like the way the circles are distinct but at the same time visibly still a part of their foundation.

Lots of seeding
spots of time among seeding stitches

The middle layer of the quilt is cotton flannel rather than traditional quilt batting, only because that’s what I had. I didn’t want to have to buy anything for this one. The backing is pieced together from a vintage silk sari. The quilt is thin but quite heavy.

Quilt back, pieced from patterned silk sari

I am a little nervous about the longevity of the quilt. It’s designed to be decorative rather than functional, but not to hang on a wall. I imagine it displayed on a bed, ideally. I don’t know the remaining life span of the silk backing: silk tends to tear very easily as it ages, and I’m not sure how old this sari is. The quilt isn’t washable, due to all the different kinds of fibre – the very elderly patches will shred, and the hand-dyed fabrics might not be entirely colour-fast. The seeding stitches on the surface would be quite easy to pull and distort accidentally. Its new owner (when I find them) is going to have to be very careful with it. But then, very few things last for ever.

Quilt label made from embroidered vintage linen, hand-dyed. I really like the way those two embroidered arms reach out to each other.

I did think about whether it needed some sort of additional circular pattern in the outer borders, but in the end I think there’s probably enough going on in it. I’m looking forward to being able to start something a little more manageable.

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

Going straight

I started quilting ‘All Together Now’ with a meandering line, and I thought I knew exactly where it was going.

Wandering aimlessly

This quilt has been very particular from the very beginning about what it wants, but I was just starting to feel that we were becoming friends now that we’ve reached the outer sections. The quilt waited until I had done a fair few meandering lines before telling me that was very wrong and not what it wanted at all. Quite a lot of unpicking and tutting ensued. The second attempt is now well under way, and everyone seems to be happier. I’m now working very simple diagonal lines across each of the 6” blocks.

Diagonal quilting lines across 6” blocks

I couldn’t sew a straight line if my life depended on it, so I use quilter’s masking tape. It’s one of the best things ever invented.

Quilter’s masking tape

I confess I am slightly disappointed not to have more expressive quilting lines to create. It’s one of my philosophies of life that there are already enough straight lines in the world and now here I am, adding to them. There is, however, quite a lot going on in this quilt – there are a lot of colours to manage, with a lot of seams and some very busy seed stitching – and keeping the rest of it simple I think is the right thing to do.

All together now

I started this quilt some time last year, rounding up (squaring up) all the scraps into 6” blocks and then assembling them into a kind of square colour wheel with all the whites in the centre. It’s 11 blocks square, so 66”-ish, all paper-pieced. I had to abandon it when I broke a bone in my right hand in October, but that was no great hardship as by then I didn’t really like it. It also had no name, so I didn’t know what it was trying to be.

In progress
Lots of seed-stitching

Last year I had started seed-stitching the central panel to define the circles, and it quickly turned into one of those things I wish I’d never started. Seed-stitch takes a long time, and there was acres of it. OK, about a square yard. I tend to exaggerate.

Seed-stitching around circles

So since October it has been rolled up in a corner of the room, nameless and baleful, scowling every time I passed it, and now I need to finish it before I feel free enough to start something else. A few days ago I steeled myself to set about finishing the seed-stitching. And what do you know? It didn’t take as long as I thought it would, and it looks OK. The texture is really interesting. The backing is made from a vintage silk sari, and the middle layer is cotton flannel, so it isn’t too bulky but is still quite substantial. It’s surprisingly heavy.

Quilting the edge

And then it named itself: All Together Now. So now I need to figure out what to do with the rest of it. I’ve couched some two-tone silk bourette yarn down to create a couple of borders around the central panel, and I’m starting with a meandering line just to see where it goes.

First line of quilting

Sometimes making a large quilt by hand feels a bit like wrestling with an alligator (no, since you ask, I have never wrestled an alligator). I do feel as if I am starting to tame this one.

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.

Stitch journal cover

I finished the cover/bag for the stitch journal – something to carry it round in, and something to keep the sun off it now we’re heading for longer days.

stitch journal cover, about 15″ long

It’s basically a quilted/lined tube with a circular base and a casing around the top for some hand-dyed ribbon to tie it closed. Initially I was a bit disappointed because it turned out bigger and bulkier than I intended, and the stitch journal rolls up quite small. And then I saw this:

very large industrial wooden bobbin

I bought the large wooden bobbin some time ago with no real purpose in mind. But – what do you know – it fits the stitch journal cover *perfectly*. And furthermore, the stitch journal itself fits the bobbin *perfectly* if I hem the edges:

stitch journal with bobbin, on a roll

So the over-sized cover is actually exactly the right size, I have a purpose for a spare bobbin, and a permanent home for the stitch journal when it’s finished. I don’t know about you but I call that a roaring success. An accident for the most part, for which I can’t take much credit, but a success nevertheless.

a little gentle seeding and running stitch on beautiful eco-printed silk by Jane Hunter Textiles

So I’m taking this as a little life lesson: most things really do turn out OK in the end.

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.