Thursday, 28 August 2014

My summer reading

We stayed in the South Downs this summer, which isn't so very far away from where we actually live, but somehow offers a dramatically different landscape: big skies, vast open spaces, hours of walking uninterrupted by roads. Most days we did little else other than planning out a walk (normally with a cake or a pub at its heart) and walking for seven or eight miles. The landscape with either lush green or sparkling gold, as the wheat had only just been cut.

Our evenings were spent eating out at a local pub that did amazing food, which could be reached by walking through some fields and woods…which meant that our evenings were typified by a relaxing meal and then a frantic scurry through the woods trying to reach the other side before the light had faded entirely. Once home we read or played board games. It was a very simple sort of holiday, but utterly restful.

I thought I'd share some of the books I've read this summer, as I've read a lot, largely because I've been going through a Kindle phase, which seems to facilitate more instantaneous book purchasing and quicker consumption of the new books! However, I read a study last week reporting that users of e-readers, when tested, have a poorer recall of chronology within a book, perhaps because of the brain not being able to sense the rising stack of the read pages on the left and the decreasing wedge of pages on the right as they work their way through a book, which would help to give a physical marker of where different events occurred within the book. Occasionally, if I read a book that I think my daughter might like, I lend her my Kindle to read it on…research like this puts me off it becoming her main source of reading material though…I love the idea that our brains are clocking all these tiny details to help process details at a deeper level.

So here are the books that I've enjoyed:

Tiny Beautiful Things - Cheryl Strayed: Last summer, I recommended a book, The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz, which I know many of you bought and loved because I've had so many lovely emails since, saying how much it resonated with you too! (If you missed it the first time, I talk about it at the end of this post). A year later, it's still one of the books that I think back to most often and which is on my to-read-again list. Anyway, Tiny Beautiful Things feels like a continuation in that vein of reading, not least because Cheryl relates to people with the same kindness and empathy that's apparent throughout Stephen Grosz' book (although her language is less formally based in the world of psychiatry and psychology and her writing style more personal and unconventional). Like The Examined Life, Tiny Beautiful Things is not a self-help book, more a study of what it is to be human and why we do the things that we do. It's a collection of readers' letters and the beautifully written, insightful, and empathetic replies that Cheryl wrote during her time as an 'agony aunt' writing the Dear Sugar advice column at The Rumpus. The terms 'agony aunt' and 'advice column' do a complete disservice to the scope of these letters and answers, making the concept of the book seem trite or gratuitous - it's far from it. Sugar walks around a problem and looks at it from angles that at first don't appear relevant but that ultimately make sense of it and give the letter writer a different way of looking at a problem, understanding themselves or the people around them…and as a reader, you're somehow given a better sense and understanding of the world at large, because her replies normally take in some of the bigger picture.

I've always loved psychology books (I did a sociology degree, with some modules of psychology mixed in and have always regretted not doing a pure psychology degree…or just something textile related...). For me, Cheryl Strayed and Sephen Grosz' books feel like a continuation of some of the texts that I read at that time, but with a more commercial, easy-to-read bent. But more so, I find that the more I can understand people and their motivations, the more compassion I'm capable of - it's a way of making sense of the world. I know that many people draw on god or spiritual guidance to find compassion, my own route is through psychology and literature.

Onwards. Do you remember that a few years ago, I recommended R J Palacio's 'Wonder'? A number one on the New York Times Best Sellers List, it's a book that's had incredible success and seems to touch everyone - both young and old - who reads it. There's now a follow-up to it called The Julian Chapter, which tells the story from the point-of-view of the bully, Julian. As it's relatively short, it's only available as a download, so you'll need a Kindle or similar to read it. My daughter and I have both read it now, and agreed that it's just as strong as Wonder.

I've continued to devour what's classified as 'young adults fiction' this summer. I read an article recently that was discussing how many adults are now seeking out YA fiction over and above adults fiction, because it's just so incredibly well written, perhaps because teenagers are a tougher audience to please: whereas adults will often persevere with a novel because of who it's written by or in an attempt to see its literary merit or just because it's meant to be 'good', teenagers are apparently far more likely to just refuse to read it if it's not absolutely compelling. I don't know whether I entirely agree with this, but I do know that I no longer really differentiate between Young Adults and Adult fiction - I'm equally happy reading either, although I do often find the characters in YA fiction to have a more refreshingly honest feel to them. Either way, Out of My Mind, by Sharon M Draper was truly wonderful and the moment I finished it, I passed it straight over to my daughter, who loved it just as much as I did. Out of My Mind is about a girl called Melody, who has Cerebral Palsy, and tells the story of what happens when, aged 10, she is finally given the ability to communicate with others via a computer, shattering their assumptions about how much she really understands. It's about her family and their struggle to get Melody what she needs; her school as they begin a program of 'inclusion classes' for the children with special needs who had previously been unintegrated; and her classmates who, to varying degrees, struggle to accept Melody. Which all perhaps sounds rather earnest and hard work for a fiction book, but although it's a book that takes in all of those things (- wonderfully - and makes them not seem earnest or hard work for a fiction book), ultimately it's a book about Melody herself - a character so fascinating, compelling and likable that it was a book that I really didn't want to end.

Next, I read Nina Stibbe's 'Love, Nina', which, in contrast to any of the other books I've mentioned here, is very light-hearted. It's a series of letters sent by Nina to her sister during her time working as a Nanny to the children of Mary-Kay Wilmer, editor of the London Review of Books. It's published with Mary-Kay Wilmer's consent and is just incredibly funny. I read it during our holiday and my husband's most-asked question that week seemed to be 'Have you finished that book yet?' because I so frequently woke him up shuddering with laughter in the middle of the night as I read. In her letters, Nina frequently recorded the dinner table conversations that she'd had with Mary-Kay, her sons, and their regular dinner guest, Alan Bennett, and there's something delightful about her relationship with Mary-Kay particularly. They clearly adored one another, but neither seems to have very many fluffy edges to their personality, so their exchanges tend to have a very amusing formality to them as they discuss all manner of random, but fascinating, subjects.

While we were on holiday I also read the wonderful classic, 'The Peppermint Pig', by Nina Bawden, to my children - we've still got to find time to finish it now that we're home. I remember my own mother reading this to me and my sister when we were children - it's lovely to revisit it.

I also read and enjoyed  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart; Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, by Robyn Shneider; Butter, by Erin Lange (I didn't love the latter quite as much as the others somehow, but it was still very readable).

I'm currently part way through Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild' and Heather Ross' 'How to Catch a Frog' and when I feel like looking at something with more pictures, I'm dipping in and out of Carolyn Friedlander's 'Savor Each Stitch', which is wonderful and very inspiring (even though I'm struggling a bit with the fact that the title hasn't been anglicised for the UK market - I don't normally mind this with the word colour…I think it's because I didn't know that the word savour was actually spelt differently in the US, so it just looks like a glaring misspelling to my unaccustomed eyes). Which brings me onto a conversation we had on Instagram last week when I posted this photo of Nell in a cornfield.

'That's not a cornfield!' a chorus of commenters said: 'That's a wheat field!'. After an Instagram consultation with a real live farmer's wife (who asked her husband for official clarification), we discovered that farmers in England use 'cornfield' as a generic term to describe wheat, barely and oat crops, whereas American farmers would call a wheat field a wheat field. And they'd say that a cornfield contains only maize (corn-on-the-cob), while we call a corn-on-the-cob crop, maize (topically, the children and I went to a maize maze yesterday with friends - it was lovely by either name - cornfield or maize). I love discovering these strange international differences that exist that you have no idea of until you inadvertently use the 'wrong' word. These differences always make me think of my lovely Australian friend, Rhiannon. When I was four, Rhiannon and her family came to live with us in England for a few months (we would later move to live near them in Australia for a few years when my father's job took us there). When Rhiannon and I put our minds together we just seemed to come up with badness. Over the years, together we sprayed our hair green without permission and then wept in the shower together while undertaking vigorous hair washing following parental fury (aged 7), inexplicably painted bookshelves in a mixture of talcum powder and orange juice to 'clean' them (aged 4); broke a neighbour's toilet seat when we climbed out of a bathroom window together (aged 6), plotted against our older sisters who were so incredibly good and lovely; and did all manner of other awful deeds. But as much as we were partners in crime, we were also frequently at war with one another and a pretend game of 'shops' could suddenly cause a full-scale living-room war, when whoever was the shop keeper referred to the pretend money in the till as 'pounds', rather than 'dollars' or vice-versa. When our parents eventually came into the room we would then vehemently hurl our respective country's words of 'Dobber!' and 'Tell-tale!' at one another. We really were beastly and it's incredibly fortunate that we were separated by a vast expanse of ocean for the entirety of our teenage years. I'm pleased to report that whenever we've been reunited as adults, we've found that we're no longer afflicted by badness, although my children do love hearing tales of it.

I'd love to hear your recommendations or your thoughts if you've read any of the books that I've mentioned here. What did you read on holiday?

Florence x

Ps. None of the Amazon links in this post are affiliate links (although there are a few elsewhere on my site), so you may click away freely if you're someone who prefers that bloggers don't share in Amazon's profits. And just in case you're wondering why they're not affiliate links, it's because they take longer to produce and install on my blog and it's the summer holidays, so I don't have time to create them! x

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

In case of [Liberty] emergency, break glass

When I posted these tiny frames filled with swatches of Liberty prints on Instagram a few days ago, Dana (@danahannah310) commented that it looked like the warning boxes that you see on trains and buses which bear the words: 'In case of emergency, break glass'. I love that idea. 

Putting my sewing room together is a slow process, partly because it's the summer holidays and partly because I became a victim of picture-hanging-fear. I have such a terrible track record for creating large craters in walls whenever I try to put a nail in place, that I've become slightly fearful of doing anything which could taint the smoothness of these freshly plastered and painted walls. 

This reservation was only overcome when I started putting small swatches of some of my favourite Liberty print fabrics into tiny frames and fell so in love with what, in my eyes, had the potential to be something akin to having a shop window of Liberty print sweet jars mounted on the wall, that it finally felt I had a project worthy of beginning on some wall damage (that was before Dana had enlightened me to the fact that they're actually safety devices, not sweet jars). 

However, even with a newly acquired willingness to wield a hammer, I couldn't quite imagine how a creature so flawed in DIY basics was going to get nine nails into the wall, all perfectly aligned and inserted at the same angle. I was eventually saved from attempting this by remembering that I had some offcuts from the picture hanging strips that my daughter and I had bulk-bought when we went to the DIY shop and which I'd used in part to mount my design wall with. 

I used a grid of masking tape on the wall so that I could get the frames evenly spaced and only removed it once the frames were all safely stuck to the wall. It feels like a slightly odd thing to 'stick' pictures up in this way - strange in the same way that UPVC windows must have been when they were first introduced as an alternative to wood. Sticking plaster instead of nails? Crazy talk.

The frames are from Ikea, but they're now discontinued, so I'm hoping they might have something similar in the new catalogue when it comes out in August as I'd like to make some more up for other places in the house, because it was so hard narrowing down the fabric choices to go inside...

In other news, I was featured on Gnome Angel's blog a few weeks ago, for her series on fussy-cutters! You can find her interview with me here. Aside from her fussy-cutting series, Angie's blog is packed full with interviews from some amazingly talented quilters (as well as snippets of her own gorgeous work!), so it's definitely worth visiting if you have an hour or two to spare!

Florence x

Thursday, 31 July 2014

A quilt design wall

One of the things I'd always really wanted when I eventually had a sewing room of my own, was a quilt  design wall. You might remember this photo below from several months ago. After a few days of messing around with the colours and then packing it away again so that the room could be used for other things (like sleeping and getting dressed in the morning!), it somehow never got sewn together as it all felt too much effort. A design wall would have been perfect and made it all so much easier. However, I'm now unsure why I felt I needed to have a sewing room to have a quilt design wall - when I finished making one yesterday and stuck it to the wall, I realised that it would have looked absolutely fine anywhere else in the house as it just blends in with the wall when it's not covered in fabric.

Anyway, not being in possession of that knowledge, when I moved into my new sewing room this week, one of the first things that I did was gather supplies to belatedly make a quilt design wall. If you haven't heard of one of these, it's basically a large homemade 'wall' covered in either flannel or quilt batting, on which fabrics can be placed to enable playing around with the design of a quilt before sewing it together - the magic of it is that you can place fabrics on the wall without the need for pins as flannel or quilt batting naturally 'grab onto' the fabric and hold it in place. If you use polystyrene as a basis for the design wall, it also means you can pin into it, which is what I've done with the paper pieced cogs at the top of this post, which still all have their papers in place, so wouldn't stick to the wall.

I bought my polystyrene in small pieces from Hobbycraft as this was the only way I could find of buying it in England. On the upside, this meant I could make the wall exactly the size I wanted. The polystyrene is about 1"x12"x16" (that's a rough guess, as I didn't measure it before covering it) and cost  around £4 a board as it was on offer as it's being discontinued. I stuck it all tightly together with some white gaffer tape. I then covered my polystyrene in two layers of quilt batting, stapling it tightly in place on the wrong side. Then, for the final layer, I used a brand new white flannelette flat bed sheet from John Lewis. I taped this layer in place with the white gaffer tape as I didn't want staples to scratch the wall. The wall, being made mainly from polystyrene is incredibly light, so I just used Command Picture Hanging Strips to hold it to the wall - I placed about twelve of them on there, and I'm happy to report that the board is still in place this morning. The nice thing about these is that apparently they don't damage the wall if you want to remove them later.

This wall is so soft and snugly that it actually makes you want to cuddle it. Actually, I have to admit that after my husband and I had put it up, we did take it in turns to stand flattened against the wall with our arms outstretched, faces turned to the side, enjoying how incredibly soft the flannel was, especially when placed over a pillow of quilt batting. Wall hugs are a completely unanticipated benefit of a quilt design wall.

The rest of the room is slowly coming together…I'm still waiting for a few bits of furniture to arrive and  it's taking an inordinately long time for me to decide where to hang my thread racks and put pictures up and other inconsequential, but enjoyable, preoccupations like that…but it's getting there and it's pinch-myself-lovely to have a room where I can now store all my things. Once we'd moved all of the sewing paraphernalia up to the third floor, I walked back into our bedroom and had a complete realisation moment of: so this is what normal people's bedrooms look like! No sewing machine, no thread reels hung on the wall, no work-in-progress pieces on the desk. From nearly a decade ago, when sewing was more of an occasional thing for me, I have a memory of how lovely our bedroom at our old house always felt - it just looked so tidy was such an oasis of calm, which I realised I've really missed in sharing our room with all my sewing. And as well as calm, we also have storage! For clothes! And under the bed I can now store shoes instead of fabrics. It all feels quite incredible.

I'm also enjoying having a room just across the hall from my daughter's new bedroom - I'd never wanted to feel detached from the rest of the house if I had my own sewing room and it's actually felt incredibly cosy to be up here together.

Florence x

Monday, 28 July 2014

In which I stick my head above the parapet

Over the weekend I read a blog post by Abby Glassenberg that talked about an issue that had lodged in my head, but which I'd been too confrontation-averse to previously mention anywhere publicly, other than to discuss it with my husband. I had kept wondering though: are other people as shocked by this as I am…but no one had said anything, so I'd assumed it was just me being fussy and kept my feelings to myself.

To give you some background to the brand in question, unless you follow some high-profile designers, you may not be aware of how the popularity of Aurifil has arisen, but Aurifil has quickly gathered a cult status, after being used by dozens of high profile quilters and designers (their piecing work and quilts hashtagged with Aurifil), which quickly trickled down to it becoming widely stocked by independent quilt shops worldwide. To me, this rise of Aurifil is largely attributable to one man - Aurifil's frontman, Alex Veronelli. For those not familiar with his online presence, Alex is charismatic, likable, charming and mildly flirtatious in an inoffensive way. In the predominantly female quilting community, his presence has seemed to seal the deal of making Aurifil's Italian thread a highly covetable item. I don't have a problem with this at all - we are all susceptible to presentation - I'd be the first to admit that when I buy something, I'm often buying into the whole lifestyle of what that product has been packaged to convey (my husband and I laughed over this when we realised we'd bought some dog treats for £5, largely because they had been placed in a small, recycled cardboard box, stickered with an attractive label and postured as organic and wholesome. Lucky Nell! I'm not sure whether she actually appreciated the difference though).

Before I detail what I've found troubling about Aurifil's recent marketing campaign, I feel I should preface this by saying that I've met Alex once in person, albeit very briefly, and he seemed to actually be very reserved and this is borne out by what others have said about him too - all who've come into contact with him seem to say that he's respectful, professional and also been hugely supportive of their work.

However, a few weeks ago, during the time that Quilt Market was being held in America (a trade only event where designers and manufacturers unveil their new lines to the industry media and shop owners), photos began popping up on the feed of Aurifil's PR woman, showing an ever-growing series of different high-profile women from within the quilting industry sitting on Alex Veronelli's lap, hashtagged with #aurigirl, collected over the course of a few days. After several photos in this vein, I unfollowed the woman who was posting them, as the whole thing felt a bit, for want of a better word, vomit-inducing. I couldn't quite understand what this particular marketing campaign was trying to say to me as a potential Aurifil user…other than that if I used Aurifil threads I could become defined by them and hashtag myself as an #aurigirl and aspire to sit on the knee of Alex Veronelli too… I like the threads and he seems like a very nice man, but as a grown-up woman living in 2014, neither of those things speak to me on a level that feels in line with how I wanted to be marketed to.

In the interests of giving a rounded view - there was one #auriboy and one fantastic photo of Angela Walters, where she'd clearly refused the request and said that he could sit on her knee instead if he wanted. Alex is sitting grinning, while Angela's arms are placed firmly behind her chair, rather than wrapped around him.  Apparently all of these women were happy to take part and most look really quite happy and in the comments to Abby's post, some have said that they still feel completely happy with it. However, for me it's not really about that at all - it's more about what Aurifil are trying to say as a company and what their message is. I don't think there's anything wrong with a woman sitting on Alex Veronelli's knee at all if she's happy to do so…it's more how it looks when seen on mass with the hashtag #aurigirl applied to it - it begins to feel slightly misogynistic and like a collection of 'calendar girl' shots.

Aurifil's other curious marketing campaign is a take on the Ryan Gosling caption pictures that went viral last year. If you don't remember these, people honed in on how generally lovely the actor Ryan Gosling seems to be and began posting pictures of him looking generally cuddly and helpful with lines like: Hey Girl, you carry on sewing, while I make the dinner tonight. Aurifil's take on this has been to post pictures of Alex Veronelli lying (apparently) naked beneath a quilt; lying over a sea of thread cones; or erm, a photo taken from beneath Alex, showing him standing astride something with the camera clearly focusing on his crotch, and asking fans to write captions for the photos. It feels like the sweetness of the Ryan Gosling idea has somehow been lost in Aurifil's translation of it and morphed into something that just feels really quite weird.

I do wonder how much of this is Alex being a good sport and playing along with the ideas that the Aurifil PR department are coming up with for him. Or, when surrounded by a sea of adoring women, whether he's lost sight of what he actually wants to be doing and is just trying to people-please and live up to the Italian stallion reputation that's previously worked so well for his company. Or maybe he's actually happy with this line of marketing…who knows.

Alex's Twitter presence has always been on the risqué side of things - when I first began following him on Twitter about three years ago I was bemused by the jokes that would randomly appear in his stream, until another quilter told me that she thought he consulted a joke book for these. Either way, they were fairly inoffensive and some of the ones that I saw actually made me laugh. However, I tend to use Instagram more than Twitter nowadays, and it seems the jokes now have a slightly more unpleasant feel to them. In her post, Abby sites several examples, but to give you a quick flavour, a recent joke that he posted was "Do you want to know the 'Victoria's Secret'? Their lingerie doesn't look the same on your girlfriend as it does on their models". For those who aren't aware of it, Victoria's Secret is an American lingerie chain. For anyone who remembers the overnight downfall of Gerald Ratner and his chain of jewellery shops in the 1990s, the first rule of business is not to insult your customers. With a list of predominantly female followers, is this really good PR to be posting jokes like this that are at the expense of everyday women?

I generally take the approach of, if I don't like something I ignore it or stop looking at it. However, when a company's whole marketing campaign seems to be based on things that have misogynistic overtones it feels bigger than that and it makes me feel that if no one joins Abby in saying 'hang on a moment - I'd really love you to market your threads to me in a different way' then nothing will change. I think their current marketing campaign currently makes a fool out of its customers.

When I was growing up, I'd always thought that things like this really didn't matter too much. I lived with lots of men at university and never once felt offended by their banter or conversation. In my life as an adult, I'd pretty much thought feminism in England was unnecessary, as the battle for equality here had already been fought and won a long time ago - the people I surround myself with like women and don't see them as anything other than equal. However, a few months ago, I watched a documentary called Blurred Lines, presented by Kirsty Wark. It was one of the most eye-opening things I've ever watched and it completely changed my perception of why saying the smaller things like this aren't okay is really important, even in England where we don't suffer the kinds of horrendous oppression that some other cultures do.

So, back to Aurifil, this isn't an attempt to vilify Alex or Aurifil. It's simply a public request for them to do things differently and make other people aware of what's going on, so that if you feel the same, you can ask for that too. In our age of social media, any mistakes that a company or person makes are painfully clear for all to see - which is quite difficult when we're all human and so do make mistakes. I really believe that it shouldn't be the (in my opinion) error of judgement that's the issue, it's how a company or person reacts to people questioning it that matters. I think that Alex is a brilliant and charismatic front-man for Aurifil, I just wish that they'd market their products to me as though I'm an intelligent consumer, rather than someone who will be swayed by photos of prominent women sitting on his knee with Alex in Father Christmas mode or invitations to catchphrase a man's crotch.

This isn't a request for people to boycott Aurifil. Their success has been backed up and largely facilitated by being stocked in independent quilting shops, most of which are run by independent businesswomen. If it's the thread that you'd buy anyway, by stopping buying it, quilt shop owners will be left with thread stock that they find difficult to sell. I'm imagining that they don't stock Aurifil on a sale or return basis, so that would seem a fairly awful consequence and isn't something I'd want to be implicated in.

To me, the best approach seems to be to politely ask Aurifil to change their marketing tack - whether that's through writing a blog post or messaging Alex on Twitter or writing to them directly. If enough people let them know that they'd prefer to be marketed to in a more respectful way, then hopefully they'll take that on board.

I'd love to know what you think,
Florence x

UPDATED: Alex responded to me via Twitter this morning with the following comment: Loved your post and its clear storytelling, you're rightly pointing out suggestions that I will make treasure of. This evening, Abby Glassenberg wrote to let me know that Aurifil have now removed the offending photos. What a fantastic result - I'm so pleased.

Thanks so much to Abby for starting the conversation about something which many of us, including me, didn't have the confidence to begin despite feeling quietly offended. And thank you for taking the time to comment on both my and Abby's blogs - I really think your comments made a difference and brought about a speedier result than the lone voices of two women could have done. I'm also personally grateful as I'm not really an 'over the parapet type of person', so your support meant a lot - I'd been slightly afraid that this post could be met by deafening silence or worse, vitriol against me - it was a relief to find that these feelings resonated with you too and that you felt it was something worth discussing. Thank you. x

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Print-on-demand cotton poplin

You may remember that several months ago I ventured into designing my own fabric. My printed results were really mixed and I realised that learning the computer skills involved in creating a print wasn't the only learning curve I needed to get my head around: understanding what will work when printed onto different base cloths is another thing - which is exactly why the ability to buy test swatches of your fabric designs is such a fantastic - and essential - part of the process. I thought I might share some of what I learnt and I also wanted to tell you about Woven Monkey's brand new cotton poplin basecloth, which they can also now print your designs onto (and which I love).

I'd originally had trouble deciding on the scale that I wanted to have my prints produced at - I was torn between tiny detail and a bolder, larger size. For this reason, I created both prints at two different sizes - one where the same portion of the design repeated every 5.5" and another where it repeated every 15". This gave drastically different looks, but even more so when printed on cloth. When I analysed it afterwards I realised that something like a Tana lawn base cloth gives an incredibly smooth, fine surface for printing, which means it can also carry far more detail…however, if you were to put the same design onto a quilting cotton base cloth, some of the detail may inevitably be lost in the tiny holes created by the more open weave structure. This isn't apparent for large scale prints (below, left), but it's obvious with very small scale prints (below, right). The moral of this story is not to expect white pinprick dots to look crisp and well-defined on a very peachy pale background: they'll just make the peachy bit look slightly blurry and faded. If aspects of a design are smaller than a grain of sand, it may be worth considering it as a design more suited to paper than fabric, or scaling everything up a little. For reference, the smallest white dots on the perfectly printed fabric on the left are still just less than a millimetre in size…they're just not crazy-small like the dots that barely show in the right-hand print.

Woven Monkey has just introduced a cotton poplin to their range of base cloths for custom printing. For the uninitiated, poplin is a much smoother-surfaced, more tightly woven cotton than quilting cotton and it's the fabric that I personally associate with making children's clothing as it has a crispness that really lets it hold a crease or stand a little proud from the body (although that's a personal association, as many, including Liberty, use poplin for making men's shirts. It would also be great for skirts). If you're thinking about poplin from a quilter's point of view, its tighter weave makes it more akin in texture to the amazing cotton that Art Gallery Fabrics use as their main base cloth, but with a little extra crispness.

Despite poplin's very smooth surface allowing more detail to be captured in the printing process, I've abandoned my small scale print, as with just a 5.5" repeat, the amount of concentrated detail in it just didn't translate well to fabric. However, I'm delighted with the way my larger scale designs have printed out on to the poplin. I love my larger turquoise sample too - it's about the size of a handkerchief and I'm tempted to do a tiny rolled hem so that it's useable…although that would mean losing the name and print detail, which I felt oddly delighted by. So there's another tip: if you upload any of your own fabric designs onto the Woven Monkey site, make sure you name your file something that you really love. I called this fabric Nellington after our dog, Nell.

Here's some close ups for you, if you're interested in getting any of your own designs printed up. I personally prefer the poplin (which is what's shown here) to the quilting cotton because it naturally shows more detail, however, it's personal preference. If you do happen to get your design printed up on quilting cotton, be prepared for the fabric to have a slightly starchy feel when it first arrives - I hadn't expected this and so found it a little disconcerting, but it's easily removed with a quick wash and I'm guessing is probably just a temporary effect of the printing processes.

Last night we finally finished painting my future sewing room. So like an excitable squirrel (I'm imagining a Squirrel would immediately want to pile nuts up in any new squirrelly accommodation in order to make it feel just right, ditto myself with fabric), the moment it was done I taped my fabric up on the new walls to see how it looked.

It was odd to see how instantly it made it feel like 'my' room to have some fabric in there, even though the floor was still a testament to my wild and rather exuberant painting style (as I write this it's being covered over and hidden forever with a thick layer of carpet and my daughter is distractedly reading a book, waiting for the moment when we can start moving furniture into her new room, where she will sleep for the first time tonight).

Anyway, back to the fabric. You don't actually need any computer skills at all to design your own fabric - painting, drawing, photographs, typography…whatever, it's possible to create your own fabric from any of those things and the Woven Monkey website can take care of your repeats so that you get a well-spaced print. Just make sure you get a test sample printed before ordering yardage so that you can tweak things if you're not happy - Edward, who runs Woven Monkey (and who sponsors my blog!), is incredibly helpful and very responsive to feedback, so you'll be in the safe hands of a friendly human. If you want any inspiration as to what other people are doing with their own fabric designs, you can see this recent blog post here.

Since I've been working on my passacaglia quilt I've become obsessed with prints that have symmetry so that they can be fussy cut easily. For this reason, I'm thinking about attempting a print that's less random instead of pursuing Nellington any further - I'd quite like a small bit of self-designed fabric to feature in my quilt.

Anyway, quilters, I'd love to know - do you have any thoughts on using cotton poplin in a quilt? I think in the last few years people have been mixing substrates more - certainly a lot more linen has been making an appearance - but what do you think about poplin? If it's pre-washed I'm imagining it shrinking at a different rate from the quilting cotton wouldn't be an issue…any other thoughts?

Florence x

Monday, 21 July 2014

More Passacaglia cogs

I have a few more cogs for my Passacaglia Quilt to share with you. This one is my favourite of the two as aqua and pink feel such easy colours to work with. When I make a cog with these colours I have a restful sense of being at home, in an unchallenged, slopping-about-in-my-pyjamas sort of way. Although, the dash of very dark green in the star points did feel like a brave venture to finish with.

By contrast, this apricot and aqua cog felt like more of a challenge, but was perhaps entirely appropriate as it's so sympathetic to the bare plaster which I photographed it on and which was monopolising our days at the time it was being made. 

We've now moved on from plastering to actually getting our hands dirty ourselves! Since Friday, I've spent pretty much the entire time painting the loft and daubing myself in paint. This photo was taken at the start of day 3. I'm such a chaotic painter that the only way to try and contain the mess normally is to also don a shower cap and plastic gloves along with these old summer pyjamas…unfortunately, England's current humidity levels meant that the wish to remain unsplattered by wrapping myself in plastic was overwhelmed by the desire not to actually cook myself, even though I think if I had chosen that route it could have passed as an all-weekend Bikram yoga session, as the combination of heat and the bendiness required to paint sloping walls would almost certainly qualify - they are, unexpectedly, far worse than ceilings with a higher frequency of paint-in-eye.

I have just one wall left to do before we're ready for carpeting tomorrow, shortly followed next week by the arrival of much of the Ikea catalogue. After promising myself several years ago that I would avoid Ikea in the future, I have found myself magnetised by the simple, clean-lined whiteness of it all and how incredibly affordable it is when you find yourself faced with the need to buy several items of furniture at one time.

This photo was taken during the final week of work, when we had six or seven workmen from different trades in everyday - it was incredible quite how much they got done each day. I've never had building work before that didn't involve several days' wait as different trades came and went or those frustrating days where for no apparent reason suddenly no one arrives at all…but somehow the man in charge of our loft seemed to have everything planned like a well-choreographed ballet performance and less than six weeks after it was put up, our scaffolding is gone, along with the men who seem to have broken my fear of heights by imploring me to climb it. This week, I stood on a bar stool to change a light bulb - a task which normally induces vertiginous sickness and requests that the children don't ask me questions incase multi-tasking causes me to fall - and realised afterwards that I'd done it without any sense of panic at all.

This week I will have to delay any more English paper piecing until I've made a roman blind for my daughter's new room. I really dread making any sort of window covering and it's at these times that I temporarily wish I didn't know how to sew so that I'd be able to justify outsourcing the task; I find the maths for roman blinds and getting all the folds to cascade in just the right way to be a real headache, but I'm keeping in mind what a good feeling it is to sometimes put my sewing to such practical use. I've made some before, but it feels curiously like starting afresh - my mind is a blank slate when it comes to remembering how on earth I did it. Luckily, after several hours of staring at paper, YouTube tutorials and feeling disbelief at the numbers I was churning out for the folds, I found The Roman Blind Wizard and used a free credit to let it calculate the measurements needed. There's a brilliant YouTube video which talks you through how to fill in the slightly complicated-looking form and I've decided to trust that the measurements it's come up with are right, on the basis that the woman who did the demonstration video for the calculator had a kind, reassuring voice and spoke as though it would definitely work. I'll report back on whether this was good rationale.

Florence x

Friday, 11 July 2014

Cogwheels and loft rooms

Despite the blog silence over such matters, I've been beavering away on the cogwheels for my Passacaglia Quilt in the evenings, finding that fun can be had in purple horses' heads as well as pink!

The purple cog was a real challenge for me - it's not a colour that I'm naturally drawn to. Someone said to me that you should try to do one thing each day that scares you: so I've been working with purple and climbing up to the top of scaffolding for our loft conversion, even though I found the colour initially difficult and even though I have the kind of fear of heights where I feel so convinced I'm going to fall that I want to just jump off to get the inevitable over and done with. Reader, I actually like the purple cogwheel and I've been up and down the scaffolding several times and am not writing this from a hospital bed. I'd call that success all round, although I don't feel scaring myself in these ways is truly necessary every day.

I think this fresh aqua and pink cog is my favourite so far. 

I find the  intensity of the midnight blue fabric completely thrilling. Here it is when it was still a work in progress. 

I'm now starting work on a grey, coral and aqua cogwheel. I feel slightly nervous about this one as my daughter really doesn't like the colours and I usually find that she has a knack of being right about things when it comes to colour. I'm persevering for now on the basis of scaring yourself apparently being good for you (was it you that said that, Kerry?)…but I'm willing to let it go if it turns out not to be quite right and just reap the terror benefits instead. What I really do love about it though is that the Anna Maria Horner print looks like the the swimming hats of synchronised swimmers when cut like this - it's actually echinacea. 

Because my daughter and I have a slightly guilty habit of absolutely LOVING studying the house renovation details of others, I'm going to assume that others might too and share some of our own loft progress, also known in my own head as 'Dreams can come true as part of this is a sewing room' and possibly in my daughter's head known as 'Dreams can come true as my new room will actually have space for a full-size single bed!' (the latter, while true, reminds me of Monty Python's wonderful Four Yorkshiremen sketch - if somehow you've missed this - although I've never knowingly met anyone in England, at least, who has - please do watch it as it's utterly brilliant. And I defy anyone not to adopt a simple Yorkshire-accented 'Luxury!' as part of their lexicon after seeing it. One word that can convey so much). Anyway, back to our loft. It's all slightly curious as, while I've no idea how long the finishing-off aspects will take, so far everything has been far faster than my wildest expectations allowed me to hope for. In less than three weeks the dormer window was built, the building was watertight again, all the windows went in and a staircase was finally installed last week, which means that I can stop going up and down the scaffolding entirely. This week it's all being plastered, and at the weekend I'll actually be painting walls. Next week will be about bathrooms, radiators, lights and plug sockets and possibly having some doors hung. The staircase going in feels like a real landmark, as even though in reality there's a lot to do still, in my head it feels like it's nearly finished. The photos below are from several days ago now. The side with the sloping roof will be home to my sewing room, while the flat roof side will be my daughter's room. 

On the night the staircase was installed, we took a snackish dinner up there and sat and ate it surrounded by power tools and piles of plasterboard, just because we could (as scaling scaffolding really only lends itself to stashing the odd toffee in your pocket and is less conducive to transporting a feast of houmous and crudité). The smallest cat is equally excited and has been sighted on several occasions testing the stairs out for stability and frequently wearing a veil of dust as a mark of her adventuring. I am convinced that she has been smiling, which is unprecedented in one who normally wears a small, anxious face at all times. My son has even taken to doing his homework sitting on the unfinished stairs because it's apparently more peaceful than the rest of the house.

In non-loft-related news, my lovely friend, Lisa (also known as 'the bag lady'), has recently brought out some children's sewing patterns. You can find them here. They are EXACTLY the type of thing that I would have wanted to dress my own daughter in when she was younger - I'd be tempted to try and wedge her little legs into them now if she wasn't already taller than me. The patterns are graded to fit 2-6 year olds.

Right. I'm now going to return to the job of nursing my hangover, which is the result of an evening of giggling on the sofa with my best friend while drinking something lovely. So far an early morning walk in the rain and a large plate of scrambled eggs and spinach haven't quite returned me to my normal self. I think it may require some chocolate.

Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Magazines and apps

Just a very quick (edited: it didn't end up being so very quick after all) post to say that the new issue of Love Patchwork and Quilting is out now. I'm so pleased to have my fussy cutting featured in their Love Life pages as these are always the pages I turn to first, so it feels incredibly lovely to have my own work in there! Admittedly, these pages are actually right near the front of the magazine, but if they were near the back, they'd still be my first port of call! I've discovered so many good things in those pages.

As always it's a really good issue. I've fallen in love with Jo Avery's cushions and I'm tempted to make some for my sewing room once it's finished, which doesn't seem so very far away! We have now have a fully waterproof roof, shiny new windows and finally, today, a staircase, which feels hugely exciting! More on that in my next post…but I can't believe quite how much has been achieved in less than three weeks! In the time it's taken our carpenters to build the shell of an entire loft and install a new central heating system, I've managed to sew just one more cogwheel for my Passacaglia Quilt (more on that next time too!)…I'm not sure what to make of that apart from: Goodness, I am SLOW!

Although in fairness, we've worked so hard over the last few weeks, that by the time the evening has come, some nights I've just fallen in to bed, unable to do another thing. We've just released a new Squeebles app! If you have primary school aged children, you might like to read more about our latest educational app, Squeebles Maths Race, here or watch a demo video of the app here (listening to your own voice is always a traumatic experience, isn't it. I asked my daughter whether I actually sound like me. Disturbingly, she said that I do).

Anyway, the fact that I sound like a boy aside, it's an app that I feel really proud of. With all of our apps we agonise over how to get it just right so that it challenges more able children, yet encourages younger or less able children. To date, we've always avoided any element of competition in our apps because, in general, learning feels like something that should be done at a child's own pace to be enjoyable. However, a lot of teachers and parents have told us that for some children competition is actually hugely motivating. So, in the background to the other apps we've been creating over the past year, we've also been discussing how to make this happen. We finally came up with what is now Squeebles Maths Race. It's a one or two player game and in two-player mode, the app allows two children of very different ability levels or ages to have a fair race against one another, because each child races to the finish line answering maths questions tailored to just the right level for them. In this way, two siblings can have a completely fair race where they both have an equal chance of winning. We've played this a lot with our own children while we were trialling the app and so I can also say it's great for parents to play against their own children too…although speedy mental arithmetic has never been my forte, so the disparity between our playing levels isn't quite as great as it could be! It's our first app that allows two children to use one device at the same time - touch screen technology is perfect for this! As always, our apps are entirely self-contained: they have no in app purchases, no public leader boards, third party advertising or links off to the app store.

While we're on the subject of apps, the non-Squeebles app that features most predominantly in my own life is Apple's own podcast app. I subscribe to everything from Radio 4's Woman's Hour and Desert Island Discs podcasts to Richard & Judy's Book Club discussions; TED talks to Thread Cult (the latter offers wonderful podcasts about sewing and textiles). It's revolutionised those days when I seem to spend all afternoon walking to and from different places to drop the children off or when I repeatedly forget to buy things from the supermarket - I now relish the idea of a walk alone. They're also great to sew to though as they're completely engaging, yet don't require you to watch anything. I love that I can now listen to all my favourite programmes at a time that's convenient to me. Do you listen to podcasts? Do you have any on your list that you'd recommend?

Florence x

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Sewing with knits: books, patterns & fabrics

Last month, Colette Patterns sent me a copy of their new book, The Colette Guide to Sewing Knits, to have a look at. I have a few books about sewing with knits, but nothing quite like this: it not only covers how to sew with knits, but also features incredibly in-depth instruction on how to use your overlocker, cover-stitch machine or even a regular sewing machine when sewing knits.

When I bought my overlocker, I was given an entire day's lesson on how to use it by an elderly lady at my local sewing shop. She was one of life's absolute treasures and her calm guidance was just what was needed when first learning to thread up a machine that uses four reels of thread, two needles, has an inbuilt butcher's knife and seems to overlock faster than the speed of light. She spent the day getting me to sew up and label samples where the looper tension was set wrongly, or the needle tensions were off, so that once I was at home without her by my side, I'd be able to look at my sample and work out what was wrong. She also showed me how to overlock with regular fabrics or with knits and what the best settings on my machine to cope with these different fabrics might be; how to negotiate an armhole so that the blade doesn't cut through the fabric; how to change the thread without re-threading the entire machine; and how to clean the whole machine when the inside looks like small furry animals have taken up residence. When I read through the Colette Guide to Sewing Knits, which is written by knitty expert, Alyson Clair, my first thought was that it was the next best thing to having my lovely teacher sitting next to me. It's also a blessing to have all the essential notes written down and laid out clearly on fully-formed, bound pages…rather than the scribblings on dog-eared bits of paper that I made myself during that lesson.

When I first heard about the book I must admit that I did think: how is this the 'Colette Guide', if it's written by Alison Clair? Well, the photography is all done by Colette and is very much in keeping with their style - for title pages and garment photos, it fits in with their usual dreamy, slightly sensual pastel palette, while the technique steps follow the clear, uncluttered style of photography and illustration that you find on the Colette Patterns blog. The book is actually edited by Sarai Mitnik (founder of Colette), so again, it feels just like one of their garment patterns, in that it covers all the small details, doesn't assume any knowledge, but also stretches a more experienced seamstress by going into the kind of detail that gives you the tools to aspire for perfection in your sewing. It's actually a brilliant combination of the expertise of someone who has worked with knits for years and understands everything about them, and the trustworthy, clear style of instruction that you'd expect from Colette Patterns.

The book doesn't include any garment patterns, it's very much an instruction manual for the practice of sewing with knits. It will tell you everything from how to shop for knits, from what thread and needles to use; how to cut knit fabrics to how to stabilise a waistband. Really nothing is left to chance - it's the only book you'd ever need on sewing with knits, no matter what type of machine you're sewing with. And those trouble-shooting samples my sewing teacher got me to make up so that I could find out what was wrong when my overlocker was having a tantrum? They're all in there!

If you're interested in buying a copy you can find it on Amazon or direct from Colette Patterns. I highly recommend it.

I thought that while I was reviewing the Sewing Knits book it might be a good time to share some suitable knit fabrics and patterns with you. The Monetta pattern, above, is still on my long list of things I'd like to sew. The way my weeks are panning out at the moment, I'm thinking it may be a winter version though, in which case I'd possibly raise the neckline at the back a little.

I love boatneck tops. V-necks have a habit of making me look and feel inexplicably hideous the moment I put them on (not from a body perspective, more because I think my face somehow doesn't suit that neckline). I find boat necks seem to be much more flattering, so this new pattern, the Brigitte top, from Tessutti, which is available as a paper pattern or a PDF has also been added to my mental list of 'must makes'.

There's also Tilly's Coco pattern, which also has a delicious boatneck, but offers a slightly less figure-hugging fit than the Brigitte. Again, it's available in paper or PDF form. Tilly's pattern has the added bonus of a dress pattern and a funnel neck top too - both specifically designed for knit fabrics.

So, on to some knit fabric choices. My sponsor, Dragonfly Fabrics has a fairly extensive range of knits in stock at the moment, with lots of different weights and drapes to choose from. These stripes would be perfect for any of the patterns above. The top four are Campan, while the bottom two are organic cotton interlock. The Campan feels like a better choice for summer - it feels slightly lighter and as though it has better stretch recovery, although either option would work well for autumn/winter (but even then, my preference would be for the campan). Dragonfly fabrics has these stripes in a huge range of colours in addition to the ones shown here. You can see the Campan in action in combination with Tilly's Coco pattern over on Jane's blog.

The next two photos are a mixture of viscose jersey and bamboo jersey (see labels). They all have a really similar feel: fluid, drapey, incredibly soft to touch. The viscose feels very slightly thicker and more stable to sew with than the bamboo, but it's only a slight difference. I've sewn with bamboo jersey before when I made this dress. It's an amazing fabric - it feels incredibly luxurious and always reminds me of the feel of those really lovely pyjamas made with cotton modal. However, while it flows over your curves and doesn't cling to them, because it's quite a thin fabric, it does tend to show every lump and bump, so if that's something that bothers you, consider your pattern choice carefully or plan strategic use of underwear without visible seams to give a smooth silhouette.  

I think that's probably enough knitted fun for one day.

Florence x

Ps. I'm really sorry to write another post before responding to all your really lovely comments to my last post. I'm struggling to juggle things at the moment and not quite managing to get to everything - it feels like it might be a bit like that over the next few months as we have quite a lot on. Please forgive me. x