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.

Stitch Journal FAQs

I don’t know what’s happened on Instagram but suddenly I am inundated with lovely messages and many questions about the stitch journal. Where did everyone come from? I will try and answer everyone but in the meantime I thought a post covering the most frequently asked questions might be helpful.

I should point out that I did not invent the concept of the stitch journal. Claire Wellesley-Smith writes about it here, and you can read more about it in her book Slow Stitch. I decided, at the end of last year, that I would like to try a stitch journal myself. For me, it’s somewhere to place a few stitches every day, a contemplative practice to mark the passing of time, and an opportunity to reflect on anything that might have happened that day. I try not to be too literal with it – I prefer a series of abstract marks that suggest a feeling or thought – but sometimes a pictorial image just happens.

Here are some of the questions I’ve been getting, from those who might be thinking of keeping a stitch journal but don’t necessarily know where to start. The answers are not definitive, this is just how I’ve gone about it:

(1) What are you stitching on?

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to find a vintage/antique French metis sheet and I had been saving it for something special. Metis is a cotton/linen blend (I think linen warp and cotton weft) and has a lovely hand. The cotton gives it softness, and the linen gives it strength. It seemed the perfect ground for recording the passing of days, stitching the present onto the past – because most of us are a product of our experience. You don’t have to find vintage linen; any medium weight cotton or linen would be fine. Denim or canvas are probably too heavy and tough to stitch comfortably; something like a medium weight calico (this is a UK term, I think calico is referred to as muslin in the US) should be fine. My advice would be to avoid anything shiny, slippery or too textured.

antique French metis sheet

(2) How big is it?

I tore a strip from the length of the sheet which is about about 10″ wide (this includes a narrow hem down both long sides, to stop the edges fraying too much). The length is about 7 or 8 feet. If you are working with modern fabric, you can piece shorter lengths together to make it wider or longer. You can make it any shape or size, whatever is most practical for you.

(3) Are you stitching on more than one layer?

No, I am stitching on a single layer, just the sheet. If you are using a lighter-weight fabric then you might want to back it or line it. I wanted the back of the stitches to show. I think there is a very moving sense of honesty in the other side of hand embroidery and for the purposes of this piece I didn’t want to hide anything.

(4) Do you use a hoop or frame?

I rarely use a hoop or frame; I prefer to hold the work in my hands. If you are a novice embroiderer, you might find an embroidery hoop helpful as it will keep your tension more even and help to prevent puckering. I’ve been sewing by hand for a long time now and generally have a fairly good sense of tension. Having said that, I do pop the work in a hoop if I need both hands – French knots, for instance, are easier in a hoop. There are lots of online tutorials on how to use a hoop and how to work various stitches.

(5) What kind of thread/needle do you use?

I use a variety of thread – stranded cotton embroidery floss (the only type I will use is DMC – cheaper embroidery floss shreds very easily and doesn’t have the same texture), fine cotton embroidery thread, fine crochet cotton (you can often find this in charity shops; it dyes beautifully) and fine perle-type thread in silk and cotton. I dye most of my threads myself with procion reactive dye. I like variegated and space-dyed threads because of the unpredictable colour variation. I choose a needle to fit the thread – embroidery needles, crewel needles, and standard sharps/quilting needles are all fine. Your thread should pass through the eye comfortably but not too loosely.

OK, my threads get a bit tangled. Don’t we all?

(6) How do you decide where to stitch?

I designed a block template for each month when I first started the journal. The template is about 10″ wide by about 8″ deep, divided into 30 or 31 blocks to give one block per day for each month. I’ve designed the template so that the blocks tesselate slightly because I wanted the days to follow each other in a logical order, but also to fit together without any space between. Days don’t have space between each other; time just goes on forever without any gaps. I’ve also made the blocks different sizes because some days feel longer than others. Of course you can make your own template, and you can make the blocks any size and shape you want. You might want a space around your days – entirely up to you.

If a month has only 30 days, I don’t use the first division between 1 and 2. I stitch the days in the order they are numbered, because I want each day to follow the next and to share a border. February is slightly different, of course, so you can choose which blocks to miss out/merge together.

Monthly template, adaptable for 30/31 day months

Every month I trace the template onto the next section of sheeting, directly below the preceding month, and stitch the outline with basic running stitch. I have chosen a different colour for each month. I usually work a whipped stitch around the border of each block every day as I complete another section.

Template transferred to fabric with running stitch outlines

(7) Do you plan what you’re going to stitch?

There is no plan at all, this is completely intuitive. I choose a colour, thread a needle, place a stitch, and see where it goes. There are some completed blocks on the journal that I don’t like, but then there are some days I haven’t liked too so I feel this is a fair reflection of life, warts and all. I’m not trying to make a beautiful thing; I’m trying to make an honest record of time passing. Occasionally if something wonderful is happening in the garden (for instance, one of my favourite plants is flowering) then I might stitch an approximate pictogram that represents it. I generally allow between 10 and 30 minutes per day, depending on other commitments. Mostly the blocks are abstract shapes and lines, which I find more meaningful. Again, it’s all very personal, so you can plan as much or as little as you like, and you can make it as figurative or as abstract as you prefer.

(8) What are you going to do with it?

This strikes me as a slightly strange question. A stitch journal, as I understand it, is a bit like a visual diary. If you keep a written diary or journal, then it exists as a record of moments in your life. You don’t necessarily ‘do’ anything with it when it’s finished, nor does it have a functional purpose as an object other than being a reference point on which to fix your experience. This piece, when it’s finished at the end of the year, will be a completed object, not functional but with its own purpose as a visual witness of time passing. I have a previous post here where I think about how I will store the finished thing.

Plans for storing the stitch journal when it’s completed at the end of the year

I hope that this has been useful. If you’re thinking of starting a stitch journal yourself (or any form of daily stitch practice) then you can do it any way you want to, in whatever way best fits your life. You’re welcome to use or adapt my template if you want to; if you’re posting your work online or on social media, please do credit my design. You can start any time you want to, you don’t have to wait until the 1st of January – that’s just an arbitrary date that we have culturally decided is the beginning of another year. Any new beginning starts with a moment, and that moment can be now.