Sewing In A Time of Social Distancing

My heart and hugs go out to everyone affected, directly or indirectly, by the COVID-19 outbreak, wherever you are in the world. Here in the UK, life has become tinged with a sense of unreality. Mum and I are being careful about staying home and limiting contact with the outside world – although the lovely weather over the last few days has at least allowed us to enjoy lunch in the back garden!

I’m very fortunate in some ways – working from home and being a hermit by inclination anyway have fitted me pretty well for the current social distancing strictures. Plus I have a mountain of fabric and thread to play with! Mum’s enjoying it less (she loves a good shopping trip and she’s missing time with the grandkids), but she’s bearing up well so far and entertaining herself with the gardening.

So what have I been entertaining myself with? Well, I’ve got no shortage of WIPs, UFOs and ideas to get on with so…. obviously I started something new instead! My sister mentioned the Window Rainbows that children were putting up to spread a bit of cheer and for kids to spot when out on walks in their neighbourhood. Who doesn’t like a rainbow? Entranced by the idea, and being fairly recently in the possession of the Inspiring Improv book by Nicholas Ball, I raided my scrap bins and started to make a scrappy improv rainbow based on his strippy circles. For my background, I fortunately chose a white-on-white print that I have vast quantities of, having purchased lots of it for some other project that proved not to merit that much attention. I had a wonderful time cutting strips and piecing the different colours of my rainbow.

Yep, I went for the full seven colours – I am a Rainbow Traditionalist apparently! Pleased with my efforts, I considered where rainbows come from and decided to create some improv raindrops.

Rainbows need sun too, right? And to balance everything going on above the rainbow, perhaps there needed to be something happening below it as well?

…and now you can see why I was glad I’d chosen a background fabric I have lots of! Improv piecing doesn’t come very naturally to my perfectionist, control-freak soul, but I enjoyed making these units a lot. And my inner perfectionist was about to get a thorough work-out during the assembly of all these disparate bits into a recognisable quilt top. The top half was pretty simple to do, no partial seams or anything awkward at all. Even the measurements were mostly fine, somehow I managed to get the raindrops and sun to finish with vaguely sensible numbers.

The diamonds, on the other hand, were a challenge. Having pieced the top half of the quilt to give myself some mulling time, I decided that some of the diamonds were much bigger than I wanted them to be, so I ended up un-picking and reducing the green-blue-purple ones to better match the red-orange-yellow ones. That done, they needed an arrangement. Random? No, I tried it and I didn’t like it. I quite wanted them to look like they were dripping from the ends of the rainbow, but didn’t like it when they were all bunched up close to the ends of it. Eventually, I spread them vertically and used a weight on a string to line up each diamond with its respective colour on the rainbow, and I mixed up the heights of each colour so that it looked more random but still had some underlying order. Perfect.

Joining them, however, was a trial! Because of the way the diamond blocks overlapped, butted up or didn’t quite align with each other, I ended up juggling a few partial seams and finicky measurements as I worked on putting them together. The result, however, is well worth all the fiddling about, I really love how it turned out!

I think we’re going to need a bigger window! It’s a very long quilt top relative to its width, but I think it’ll make a grand wall or door hanging. I’m looking forward to quilting this one, it’s been a really enjoyable and educational make so far and I think we all need some brightness and joy at the moment. Stay well, everyone!

Blast from the Past 3: Emerald Facets

This is a rather bittersweet post because the lady I made this cushion for passed away recently. It was a 90th birthday present for my aunt’s mum, a very dear and talented woman who did a great deal for others both near and far.

From having made her a bed quilt, I knew that she particularly liked blues and greens, and I had been wanting a good reason to do some quilting with dupioni silk, so I armed myself with some packs of 10″ squares from The Silk Route, plus a couple of shot cottons for texture variety, and doodled a pretty straightforward design of squares and half-square triangles.

Having arrived at an arrangement I liked, I interfaced my silk (to reduce fraying) and cut my pieces, making sure to keep the “grain” of the fabrics running all in the same direction. Assembly went pretty well.

Those larger squares were destined for some embellishment, and I had just the thing lurking in my stash – Markal Paintstiks! I created a couple of stencils in Inkscape, printed them onto freezer paper and carefully cut them out with a craft knife, then ironed them in place and had huge fun colouring them in with my shiny metallic Paintstiks.

I was so pleased with how well this worked! The metallic paints looked really luxurious against the silks. After the required drying period and a jolly good press to set the paints, I layered up the quilt with some wool wadding and started quilting. To make the stencilled designs really POP, I used quite dense fillers around them. With the bouncy resilience of the wool, this looked really effective. On the HST blocks, I used a variety of “dot-to-dot” designs, inspired by Angela Walters.

I confess here and now that I am UTTERLY in love with how silk looks once quilted. The natural sheen and shimmer of the silk is really enhanced by the stitching, and the whole effect is just opulent.

Once the quilting was complete, I used a blue Essex linen from Robert Kaufman to make up the cushion back and binding; it was a pleasing contrast to the glossy silk and, I feel, a rather luxurious fabric in its own right as well. To really bling up the back (and make use of some of the small left-over silk scraps), I created a pieced edge on the outer flap of the cushion, and worked out a way to add concealed buttons for the closure:

I was really happy with how this cushion turned out and was proud to be able to send it to such a wonderful person who spent so much time crafting for others. <3

A Little Faith, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pfaff Sensormatic Foot

I love to make Christmas presents if I can. For last Christmas, our Quilt Club decided to try a Secret Santa with a maximum budget of £10. We all pulled a name out of a hat and had to get a gift for that one person. When I read the name I’d pulled, I was really pleased – I’d got Stef, our Fearless Leader and friendly local Rough Collie enthusiast. She has five Rough Collies of various generations, which she shows and breeds and does very well with. I decided the thing to do would be to creep on her FB page for doggy pics, find a nice one and then interpret it in fabric and thread. Result? One unique gift with minimal financial outlay – I just needed to buy a bit more bondaweb!

After looking at several doggy pics, I picked out a photo of Faith (centre, top) as my cover girl – she’s a pretty tri-coloured girl, and the colours and shapes in the photo looked like they’d be reasonably straightforward for a novice threadpainter to interpret.

Figuring out how to get from a photo on my laptop to an image in fabric required some thought and experimentation. I knew I wanted to lay down “blocks” of colour and then add details with thread painting, but how? I explored various different routes, but finally printed a simplified black-and-white copy of the image onto freezer paper, drew around the different tonal areas, then carefully cut out each bit with a craft knife and fused it onto fabric that I’d already ironed bondaweb to. Yes, it was a fiddle! Luckily, my fabric and thread stash already contained all the materials I needed to recreate Faith, all I had to do was audition assorted fabric scraps and FQs until I got a reasonable match to the colour version. As each piece was cut out, I fused it onto a background of lilac batik – it was the dog I was recreating, not what was behind her!

I did make one rather obvious boob, however. I didn’t cross-reference between the B&W and colour images enough, so when I stepped back and looked at my complete fused image, I discovered that I’d inadvertently used a swathe of grey where I needed tan. Ooooops! What to do….?

Markal Paintstiks to the rescue! I managed to mix up a pretty convincing tan shade and applied it over the (thankfully pale!) grey – sorted! Once that was reasonably dry and fixed in place, I cracked on with the quilting, and here’s where the sensormatic foot comes in.

That lil plastic almost-nothing right there? That thing caused me serious conniptions when I first started using my Pfaff QE 4.2 for quilting. I tried a couple of other FMQ feet and finally settled on a hopping foot as my weapon of choice. But I couldn’t find it! I was stuck, needing to get this project finished and I couldn’t find my fave FMQ foot! ARRRRRGH!

In fairness, as I’ve become more adept at FMQ with the Pfaff, I had been considering getting the sensormatic foot out and trying it again; I don’t like to be beaten by a piece of plastic the size of my fingertip! But I’m not sure whether I would have tried it again so soon without circumstances forcing me. In the event, I saddled it up and gave it a whirl on a test piece and…… IT WORKED. It was FINE! It needs a bit of judicious fiddling with the foot height and tension, but it behaved well enough that I felt comfortable unleashing it on my actual piece.

Although threadpainting is very often done with a free-motion zig-zag stitch, I tried this and my machine just didn’t seem comfortable with the notion, maybe because I couldn’t set the stitch length to zero? In the event, it was quicker to use a free-motion straight stitch and do my own zig-zags, and in fact this worked out better because I could “draw” in the longer hairs of Faith’s coat.

I used a wide variety of black, grey, white, tan, and brown threads in metallic, rayon, polyester and cotton to create the texture and colours of Faith’s coat, layering and blending where necessary. To support the piece, I used two layers of Stitch’n’Tear, which I have now decided is brilliant stuff! Even so, the density of the stitching made the piece very rippled and uneven, so I blocked it by giving it a good soaking and then mercilessly nailing it into shape with T-pins on my design wall – hooray for polystyrene sheets!

By pulling very firmly and using copious pins around the edges of the stitched area, I managed to get everything pretty well flattened out and behaving itself, and it thankfully stayed that way once it was dry and unpinned!

To finish everything off, I layered it with two layers of wadding and a backing of more purple batik (Stef’s favourite colour is purple!), then quilted around the stitched area with a sort of cloudy, flowery filler so that the main design really popped out against the background.

I was extremely pleased with how it came out, and I particularly love that the character of some of the fabrics still peeks through the threadpainting. More importantly, Stef loved it too! <3

….oh, and I did find my other FMQ foot eventually – apparently I’d hidden it from myself in a box of Clover Wonderclips. As you do…!

Blast from the Past 2: A Bit of Embroidery

Mum’s a member of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society, and in April last year they had a stand at the local famer’s market to advertise the organisation. Mum’s a skilled flower arranger, so she somehow ended up with the job of creating a display to attract attention on the stand. In the end she created two striking pieces, one more floral one and another that showcased garden produce and other, more unusual plant life. The floral one was planned to be in a small ornamental wooden wheelbarrow and mum wanted some sort of label or sign on the side of it with the CHS logo. Short of painting one on, I wasn’t sure how she was going to achieve this, but I thought about it and decided that I could make her a fabric banner that could hang over the side of the barrow and show off the logo.

As logos go, it’s quite a busy one! I decided to use a dark green, linen-textured quilting cotton as the background and machine-appliqué for the initials. Then I traced – with some difficulty! – the spriggy flowery bits onto the background and proceeded to “interpret” them in hand embroidery.

Although it’s not something I do often, I rather enjoy a bit of embroidery sometimes! I could do with more practice, really. I have quite a lot of odds and ends of cotton embroidery floss gathered over the years from second-hand shops and left over from small kit projects, so I couldn’t begin to say what colours or even brand(s) I used. I decided the most important thing was to make sure I had enough of a particular colour for whatever area I was stitching, and it all seemed to work out in the end. I was quite pleased with it when it was done!

On market day, I popped along to see the CHS stand, which mum was helping to run, and it looked fantastic! Mum’s eye-catching arrangements were attracting a lot of interest and they’d decided to lay my little hanging on view on the front of the stand.

So it didn’t end up where it was originally intended to, but I think it was a success anyway!

Surprise Success! Shibori Hanabi

My Shibori Hanabi wall hanging was born of a desire to try my hand at shibori with different colours. I started it about 18 months ago, stitching out the design, then “pulling up” each section, dyeing the piece, pulling up the next section, dyeing again… and so on, until the whole design was completely dyed, about 5-6 dyeing stages iirc!

I subsequently got a couple of books on shibori and discovered a lot of things I’d had to teach myself through trial and error!  I had no idea what, if anything, would remain of my original stitched design when I unpicked the shibori stitches, but in the event I was really pleased with how the different shapes came out, and the different colours were apparent, too.

For the backing, I used a “chunk” (technical term!) of cotton fabric that came from mum’s stash, mostly white but with flowers printed on it. It went through all the same dyeing phases as the shibori piece did, so that the front and back would tie together well.

I made a start on the quilting, using Glide thread, and was finding it an interesting but concentration-intensive process to define the shapes and textures left by the stitching and dyeing. Then other, more pressing projects popped up and I set it aside for some time while I focussed on other things. I did briefly toy with trying to finish it for the FoQ, but it was not big enough for the standard categories and I didn’t want to start adding borders where not needed, so I shelved that idea.

A couple of months ago, however, someone posted on the UKQU facebook group about the Scottish Quilting Show having extended the entry deadline and out of curiosity I checked the website to see what the categories and rules were. The lower size limit for “standard” quilts was smaller and I realised my shibori piece would be suitable – if I cracked on with quilting it! One entry form later and I had a month to finish the quilting and get it to the organisers by the Feb 25th deadline. I was also looking after my post-operative brother-in-law while mum helped my sister with her two small children; it became quite a challenge to sneak in quilting when I could! Somehow, though, I managed to get it finished and decided to face it instead of using a binding, a technique I’d never tried before! I love how it looks, though.

Proudly, I bundled it up and posted it off, and was relieved to get the confirmation of receipt email. I didn’t hear anything subsequently and family commitments made it impossible to get up to Glasgow to attend the show, so it wasn’t until someone very kindly posted some photos from the show on FB that I learned that it had been placed 2nd in the Contemporary category! I’m thrilled and I’m really looking forward to getting the judges’ comments back along with my quilt.

Blast from the Past 1: Ty Cyw Cushion

“Ty Cyw! Ty Cyw! Tumty-tumty something-something TY CYW!”

Ty Cyw is a Welsh-language children’s entertainment section on S4C, and when she was younger it was one of my niece’s favourite things to watch when she visited Nanny (my mum). It translates as “Cyw’s House”, Cyw being a white cartoon chicken who lives with a variety of other cartoon animal characters and some live-action human friends, and they all have jolly japes together. As kids’ TV goes, it’s pretty cute and inoffensive – and it’s probably improved my Welsh a tiny bit, too! For my niece’s birthday a few years ago, I thought it might be nice to make her a cushion with Cyw on it, so I found a nice screen-cap of a waving Cyw and set to work!

The nice thing about this cartoon style, from a crafting point of view, is the fact that it’s all composed of simple shapes! I decided to use raw-edge machine appliqué and it was very easy to draft a pattern and get started. Somewhat unusually, I decided to use some specialty synthetic fabrics to add texture and interest.

I used a shiny stretch synthetic velvety fabric for Cyw’s body, gold stretch lamé for the legs and beak, and some shiny metallic red…. something…! for the comb and wattle. The background was crafting cottons that I already had in my stash. It was a bit of a battle to get the bondaweb fused to the synthetics and then to get each piece fused down without causing too much heat damage to the synthetic fibres. The strange red stuff proved the trickiest in this regard, but eventually everything was stuck in place and I could zig-zag around everything to make sure it was secure – important since the synthetics show a tendency to try and peel away from the bondaweb if I wasn’t careful!

Once everything was firmly attached, I quilted it quite lightly and cushion-y-fied it with some super-cuddly flannel for the back:

Nia was thrilled, and Cyw now has pride of place on her bed every night! <3

Festival of Quilts 2019, Entry 2 – Twinkling Stars

This entry had a double deadline – the Festival of Quilts and an impending new niece or nephew due at the end of July! The design was one I’d already drafted but not made, and I’ve been itching to stretch my “modern” wings a bit, so when I learned that the FoQ entry deadline had been extended I picked up all my courage and entered a quilt I hadn’t even started yet. Because that’s a sensible thing to do!

I’ve have Ideas for Moda’s ombre gradients and some solid navy fabric for a while, and decided to use the ombre to my advantage to create a gradient effect for the stars by selectively cutting different areas of the ombre for the piecing. The bright colours really zing against the navy blue, and I also happened to have some reels of Glide thread that were a great match for my fabric choices. A competition quilt from my stash? Perfect!

Piecing went really smoothly and and the gradient effect worked out really nicely.

I was really pleased with the colours and scale of the three stars – even if the colours got murdered by my mobile phone’s camera! Quilting was a further challenge; I confidently did some Angela Walters-inspired dot-to-dot motifs on the star elements, but temporarily stalled on what to do in the rather extensive negative space of the background!

After much brain-wracking, inspiration struck one night while I was falling asleep – circles! Using my IDT walking foot, I quilted concentric circles that radiated out from each star, mostly in navy-blue Glide thread but with some orange, green or blue circles as well, to match the stars. The backing is a print of cartoon jungle animals, found by mum “in case you hadn’t thought of something for the new baby yet” (eye-roll!), but had oranges and greens that went really well with the fabric on the front, so that worked out well.

I was pleased with how well it looked among its fellow competitors!

I received scores and comments from three judges for this quilt, all of which were really positive and encouraging. While I was at the FoQ, I also did some shameless loitering near my quilts and had some really lovely interactions with other show visitors, who were all really kind about my work. It’s now with its new owner, my little nephew Aled who was born on my birthday!

Festival of Quilts 2019 – Entry 1, Birds Of A Feather

Douglas Adams famously noted, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Me? I’m with ol’ Douglas part of the way – I do love a deadline. They help me focus and give me a specific framework to manage my time around, and as such they’re pretty important in my day job. I’ve also learned that I like a deadline in my crafts, too. Without a date or an event to aim for, I am quite capable of meandering off and being distracted by something else that’s caught my fickle attention. All hail, then, the imposition of Crafting Deadlines!

Consequently, last year I pulled on my Big Girl Undies and decided to enter the Festival of Quilts show for the first time. My reasons? 1) Getting something FINISHED (yay deadline!) and 2) getting some impartial feedback. Of my many UFOs, I selected the Paper Crane blocks from a Craftster block swap as my target project. I’d made the extra Cranes and filler blocks, everything was layered up ready to go, and I’d even made a start on the quilting, so really all (ha!) I had to do was quilt each block and assemble them into the finished quilt. Additionally, as a project that has involved other peoples’ effort, I felt it had greater priority than some of my other WIPs.

Having entered it into the Group category, I squared up to the quilting; matchstick quilting and dot-to-dot designs on the Flying Geese blocks and four different “elemental” inspired designs (water, air, fire, earth) for the background around the Cranes, which had already been ditch-quilted. I also had three slightly smaller Cranes made in error by one of my swap partners; she made me three more the right size, but the “wrong” ones were so pretty that I wanted them to be part of the quilt as well, so I used them on the back of three of the Flying Geese blocks and also quilted around them so that their shadows appeared on the front of the quilt.

Once all the main blocks were quilted, I turned my attention to the setting triangles needed to square it up. To enhance the Japanese/Oriental feel of the quilt, I decided to use a bamboo leaf motif, and spent quite a lot of time hand-appliqué-ing an awful lot of green leaves onto cream backgrounds!

How good is that fabric? It was a very fortunate find at Calico Kate in Lampeter, just perfect for my bamboo leaves.

You may notice that I cheated a bit with my setting triangles, which perhaps wasn’t the best decision ever made, but by this point the end of July was bearing down upon me with speed and I was just determined not to hear that “WHOOSH” sound. Each block was quilted with an overall pattern of elongated leaves, then the triangles were cut apart, trimmed to size and arranged around the quilted blocks.

Finally, to assemble the quilt, I used a modified version of the sashing tutorial by Leah Day on Youtube. On the back, I used narrow strips of cream Sevenberry fabric, which has the most fascinating woven texture, and on the front I used a lighter colourway of the leaf fabric, to really bump up the bamboo look. To maximise the effect, I even used Markal Paintsticks to stencil joint lines on each strip.

To make them really stand out against the background, I also fused a narrow strip of wadding down the centre of each strip, then hand-appliquéd each strip into place over the joins in a basket-weave arrangement. The quilt’s binding was more of the textured cream Sevenberry fabric. I should note that my Uncle had his 60th birthday party in the middle of July, and as I was the only person from my corner of the family even remotely able to go, I had to get my quilt into a “hand sewing only” state and then take it to the south of England to help him celebrate. I was not too proud to pull out the quilt and do more hand-stitching on it while chatting to the other guests! Luckily, as generations of stitchers before me have found, hand-sewing can be pretty sociable and everyone was charmingly interested in what I was doing and why. Finally, the last stitch was made and the hanging sleeve attached, then I rollered off as much dog hair and lint as I could find and parcelled it up carefully, ready for hand delivery to the NEC.

After a few days pottering around Birmingham’s museums, I finally got to see my work hanging in the Festival of Quilts!

So, aim 1 achieved – quilt finished and entered! Huzzah! What about aim 2? Well, I have to say that I was nervous when I opened the envelope with the judges’ feedback in it, but in fact what I found therein was very fair and encouraging comments and scores that, based on the very high standard at the FoQ that year, seemed entirely reasonable. I did get dinged a little over those setting triangles being a bit wibbly! However, in truth I’m not sure how much was due to bias effects and how much was down to having folded the quilt for delivery. Now that it’s on my bed, keeping me cosy in all this rough weather, it’s impossible to notice any wobbles. For me, entering a quilt show is very much an opportunity to learn, both during the construction phase and from the feedback afterwards. I can say for sure that it was a really positive experience that I am looking forward to repeating this year!

First Quilty Publication – Cattitude!

Despite my near-total radio silence last year, 2019 was actually a pretty positive year for me, quilting-wise. One of those positive things? I submitted an original design to Make Modern magazine and got accepted! The staff at Make Modern were lovely and made my first publication a really smooth experience, I can’t thank them enough for taking a chance on an “unknown” like me. <3

Splash page from Make Modern Issue 32

The design itself came about when I was looking at well-established blocks of four cat shapes sitting around a square, with their tails entwined. That was all fine and good, I thought, but what if there were MOAR! CATS?! My fondness for an equilateral triangle is well-documented here, so I opened my trusty Inkscape and set to doodling. The resulting design is Cattitude, six(!) cats sitting around a hexagon formed from their entwined tails. It’s foundation-paper pieced and works best with “reads-as-solid” or solid fabrics. My first version was pieced with Liberty prints, which I love but not all of which were strong enough to really “sell” the cat shapes, so during my submission I suggested that I could remake the pattern (another good opportunity for testing!) with different fabrics, which the Make Modern staff agreed was a good idea.

The original “Cattitude”

Luckily, I already had a FQ bundle of the delightfully zingy Quantum by Guicy Giuce for Andover, and we agreed they would be just the thing for the remake. It was a good call – I love the cheery freshness of Cattitude version 2.0!

Somewhat unusually for a cushion pattern, I used a piped edge on both the original and the remake – a bit more effort, but I firmly believe that the finishing details are what really makes a good design. I also suggest the use of left-over scraps to make a fun pieced cushion back:

Cattitude – and many other beautiful modern patterns! – are available now in Issue 32 of Make Modern magazine. <3