Tuesday, 22 January 2019

5am Life Wave


Today I'm belatedly sharing a project I started in December 2017 and finished in October 2018. On Instagram, I've referred to it as Rainbow Soup, while the Illustrator file where I originally planned it out was named '5am' (an obvious choice when you open a new document with no idea what you're going to do in there, but it is indeed 5 o'clock in the morning), and in my head its working title was Life Wave.


In early June 2017, my grandmother, who had made relatively regular appearances on my blog since I began writing it, passed away. I've gone to post about it several times in the last 18 months, but somehow found myself unable to, although it's been an odd feeling to leave her death unacknowledged here.


Over the last decade, my husband and I have lost friends and family far too early, so when my grandmother died peacefully in her late 80s, I initially felt comforted to finally be experiencing a natural, age-appropriate death - it offered a feeling of, Ah, so this is how it's supposed to be - sad, full of memories, but not unjust. I had thought that would make it 'the easy one'.


But despite what I'd initially imagined, my grandmother's death didn't end up being 'the easy one' and it took me the rest of 2017 and a good portion of early 2018, not to find my eyes streaming at the thought of her or the mention of her name - it wasn't that I wanted for her to have lived for longer, just that I had a huge ball of weepy sadness inside me over her no longer being here.


So, when I came to designing this piece,  my grandmother was at the forefront of my thoughts and, initially, the great big undulating wave of colour that runs diagonally through the centre of the piece represented her, in all her wonderful vibrancy, the world receding around her. But at some point while I was sewing it together, I gradually began to view the piece differently, and eventually that central swoop of colour began to represent a wider life force - humanity, all of us - and reluctantly, the smaller bits of warmth falling away from it - those three lone orange pieces in the bottom right quarter - came to represent my grandmother (and all the other good ones), like the light left radiating from a star that's already died.


Above is the design I created it in my graphics programme and below is the finished piece.


I much prefer for the creative part to take place on my laptop, and for the making part to be more about following a map - in this case, each individual colour was carefully matched up to my plan - it's fun (for me at least!) to try and spot the pieces where I went off track and, accidentally or intentionally, used a different colour. 


As larger pieces are so expensive to frame, for now it lives in a ready-made one found in the garage that doesn't match its dimensions perfectly (it's too big by one frustrating centimetre...although I'm not about to sew an extra row on to make it work), and it hangs in this room at the back of the house where the light never quite makes it sparkle as it did when it was in my sewing room at the front of the house, so it's a rather temporary resting place, but despite that it feels like a happy, joyful thing.



My grandmother didn't have an easy life, but she was one of the most vivacious and radiant people I've known. She had the ability to make the mundane feel magical, whether that was something as simple as choosing the shiniest fruit in a greengrocers, or racing us to collect a hundred weeds from the garden each evening in our nightdresses, waking us at midnight for feasts (where she would open out the bathroom and airing cupboard doors to create a secret compartment on the landing for us to hide away in), searching gravestones for the loveliest names, telling us stories from her imagination*, floating around her local lake in a rowing boat for hours, where she would regale us with tales of lost loves or the great many ghosts who'd haunted her houses (if she misplaced something, she found it more comforting to blame a ghost than herself and had many furious meetings with them as a result), helping us to create miniature worlds from things she'd saved up in the weeks before our visits, or mainly, just talking in her beautiful voice, which seemed to curl around words as though she was hugging each one of them - she had worked a telephonist connecting calls, which always seemed a perfect job for her.


She created a bubble around the three of us (her, my sister and me; the members of The Magic Circle, who could communicate telepathically by placing a tiny rose button against a circle of card), and when we were together, I always felt anything was possible and and as though the whole world was full of magic; if a little streak of madness lived within her, in grand-mothering she triumphed in using it for good.


(I want to draw your attention to the rosemary plant covered in little flowers from the 5am Life Wave while it was a work-in-progress - she would have loved this photo and it was created in her honour).

Here are a few links to posts where I talked about my grandmother while she was still alive - in this post, I discussed an interview I'd taken part in for a friend's dissertation on special places - I chose my grandmother's house and talked about my childhood memories; a few Christmases ago, I wrote a post where I mention knitting together and how she made me feel whenever she was teaching me; here, I write about her wonderful baking and how she used to greet us when we arrived at her house as children; at the end of this post, I share her (and my own) frank opinions on my neglecting to buy school photographs of my children; in this post about the EU referendum, she plays just a bit part, but her comment made me so proud as she bucked the trend of how many in their late 80s were reported to have voted; in this post my grandmother makes a pertinent assessment on the contents of my brain (it also happens to be one of my favourite posts, although most of it doesn't relate to her); this post shares a photo of my diminutive grandmother (she was well under 5ft) nestled amongst a densely-planted bed of cornflowers; this post shares a story from my childhood where she taught me that small things are just as good as big ones - it is one of my favourite memories of her and it still delights me that rather than simply reassuring me that my tiny gift was just as lovely as the bigger parcel my sister had given her, she stopped to use an illustration I could truly understand, asking if she was not as special as my other, much taller, grandma. She kept the little creatures that were wrapped inside the package I'd given her for the next thirty-five years, and now they live on my dressing table where I see them each morning - it should be an odd thing to have your own gift back, but somehow they feel more like her gift to me.


And finally, at the end of this post, I talked about her move to a care home, nearer to the area where my mum and I live - I was sewing name tapes into her clothing and feeling nervous anticipation for her as she set about putting down new roots ( totally unnecessarily; she had a wonderful way of magnetising people to her, even when addled by dementia).


Although we held vigil all week, none of us were with her when she died just after midnight, but my mum and I arrived separately shortly afterwards. One of her carers, who knew her well, put bright pink flowers in her hair. We asked if that was a tradition in Hungary, where she was from, and she laughed and said 'No, I did it because I knew Jeannie would have liked it'; and she would have done. After the undertakers had gone, my mum and I lay on her bed not wanting to leave her room and chatted until 5am, watching the light change and hearing the very first bird make a sound to begin the dawn chorus. We held hands and laughed, cried and celebrated what a wonderful life she'd led and how few regrets we had for her - she'd had a marvellous ability to make lemonade from lemons and had been loved for it.


Later, as we drove home in convoy along empty roads, a bird swooped directly in front of my windscreen, loop-the looped, then dived playfully back at the glass once more before flying off - it was so curious that my immediate thought was that it was my grandmother playing with me and when we reached the place where we'd agreed to meet for an early morning walk, my mother asked if I'd noticed the bird in front of my car and said she'd felt sure it was Nannie - I was so pleased she'd witnessed its peculiar movements too. So many friends who've lost loved ones have had odd experiences with birds just before or after death...it makes me wonder if our spirits briefly inhabit them.

I was sad to learn that the poet, Mary Oliver, died last week. It's impossible for me to pick a favourite poem or line - there are too many that I love (a bit like Liberty prints), but a line taken from The Summer Day that always resonates with me for its feeling of immense possibility, is this one: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Thinking of this in relation to my grandmother, I know she will have felt she spent it well.

Florence x

** It was too much to add in brackets in the middle of that paragraph, but those stories she made up usually involved a boy and a girl entering another world through a tree trunk, where they would come across miniature woodland people, sparkly lights, and a banquet of party food. At the end of the adventure they would have to return to the real world, but would usually take some kind of treasure with them...somehow my brain never linked up the dots as a child to notice that the boy and girl who starred in those stories actually shared our parents names! My grandmother had a lightning quick wit - unaffected by dementia - and would have been amused to find I only discovered the link after she'd died when I was talking about it with my sister. As a random aside to that, while I didn't inherit her nimble mind (or, seemingly, even a mid-paced one), what I've realised while writing this post, is that she did impress upon me a love of all things miniature and that I've never really known where that's come from until now.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Templates and Precut Papers for EPP (and, as always, some random thoughts)


Just a quick post to let you know that there are now acrylic templates and precut paper pieces available from Paper Pieces for all the patterns in my book! Although I've always seen scissor-cutting paper pieces and creating my own templates as part of the process, I know for many this is a deal breaker with English paper piecing, so I'm really happy that these are out there. And actually, now I've experienced the ease of having them ready-made, I can see myself becoming a convert too.

I found the process of these pieces being created really interesting and when the samples arrived for approval, as someone new to using templates, I suddenly had lots of questions. I thought I might share a few of them with you here, just because I found it really interesting to discover the answers, and also because it may help you when it comes to using the templates if you're new to them too.

Q1. Does there have to be a brown backing on the templates? I'd find them easier to use if they were clear. This question ended up being a marginally embarrassing one to have asked, as the backings are actually really easily removable to leave beautiful clear templates like the ones at the top of this post - they're just there to protect the templates during transportation (this is similar to the time I was left not feeling overly enamoured by our new bath's lack of shininess, only to discover it had a fine plastic protective coating on it). If you don't fussy-cut fabrics and like a delicious surprise with each cut, you can leave the backing on as they probably give the templates a little more grip, but otherwise, just peel them off (yet to be peeled off in the photo below. Fully peeled in the top photo).


Q2. Why are the ends of some of the acrylic templates squared off, as with the kite shape above? Apparently some templates that go to a point can be really sharp, so PaperPieces cut them off to stop them from poking at people and also to stop them from sneakily cutting free of their packaging! As the squared off bit is so small, it doesn't interfere with using them as you would if they were still there when it comes to rotary cutting around them :)

Q3. Why do the paper pieces have to be on brown paper?  Several years ago, I'd looked into getting paper pieces cut, but I found when the company who cut those pieces for me sent some samples over, the laser had left unsightly burn marks on them and they looked really grubby as a consequence. It turns out Paper Pieces use brown paper for that very reason - although the laser burns are still there, they don't look or feel grubby on brown paper. Such a brilliant solution. (Nb. more standard shapes are die-cut, avoiding burn marks entirely, which is why you'll sometimes see shapes on clean white paper).

Interesting other points of note: 
  • Having never looked into templates properly before, I was amazed to find that you can choose whether to buy acrylic templates with a 1/4" or 3/8" seam allowance on the PaperPieces website. As someone who glue bastes (for English paper piecing, you temporarily wrap the papers with fabric and this requires some way of securing them - this is called 'basting'), I've always preferred a trim 1/4" seam allowance, but on the rare occasions when I've thread-basted, I've found I preferred a more generous seam allowance. 
  • You can also buy the acrylic templates with a viewing window (again with a 1/4" or 3/8" seam allowance); no viewing window (as pictured above); or with no seam allowance at all - useful if you want to hand piece with a running stitch, rather than EPP. 
  • For the three small rosettes from my book, you can buy papers for each block in packs of 1, 6 or 12. Buying in larger packs will allow you to sew lots of blocks together to make an entire quilt. In my book, two of the blocks are the same size and one is a little larger, but here, the three blocks have been made the same size, so that you can sew any combination of them together. 
  • PaperPieces don't breach designer's copyright by providing piecing instructions or diagrams, so you'll need the book to go alongside the paper pieces. 


When my samples arrived a few months ago, seeing the templates unexpectedly etched with Flossie Teacakes was quite a lovely moment. Similar to getting Moo cards delivered, it just feels nice to have your name printed neatly on anything that's one-step removed from yourself, as though you exist in another form, neatly packaged, more professional, and almost certainly more well-coordinated in an aerobics class than the creature that exists in reality (for the record, I no longer attend aerobics classes as it presented a hazard to the other participants to have someone who constantly interrupted the flow of movement from left to right and introduced an unfortunate 'human pinball' element to the workout). If you've never had your own Moo cards printed by the way, I'd advise you to do so, even if you only ever keep them in your own desk drawer and take them out to look at them from time to time - they're the best stationery you'll ever own and that little box full of cards seems to represent so much potential. Whether that potential ever becomes a reality isn't necessarily the important part - it's the possibility that matters. I last got some mini cards printed in 2012 when I ran my little shop site, Made by Florence, and I think I may have just have unexpectedly talked myself into getting another set made (blog posts are always meandering things...who knows where they'll end up).

Doubly exciting for me with my templates was that this was my very first non-paper item I've ever had my name on - it actually says Flossie Teacakes on them, rather than Florence, but it represents the same thing to my mind. If you grew up with a less obscure name than mine, you may have been lucky to regularly find your name on items in gift shops, but I was disappointed at every stand of key-rings, bookmarks and door signs I ever came across. We spent a lot of time adventuring with family friends when I was young, and I was always left feeling wobbly-lipped and covetous whenever the other children emerged from a shop or museum with a named item. If only I'd known that, aged 41, I'd finally get my name printed on a useful product related to my favourite-most EPP, I may have borne it with more grace. As it was, aged 6, I scowled and muttered dark thoughts to the small pig I kept in my bag. I modelled myself on Lotta at that point, so every pig I owned (and as a passionate vegetarian, I kept several) was named Bamsy, just like hers. The Lotta books were the less-well-known series of books written by Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking, and I still adore them now in a way that I never really have with Pippi. Pippi was a different kind of character altogether and I found her slightly baffling, while Lotta's angry-at-the-world, youngest-in-the-family wilfulness was entirely relatable. I often wonder how much influence books have in forming a child's character at that age and if I identified with Lotta and Josie (from The Bossing of Josie by Ronda and David Armitage) because I saw myself reflected in them or, more worryingly, if I grew more like them because I admired them and their bold ways! Later, it was Flossie Teacakes who made an impression on me (that probably goes without saying), followed by Anne of Green Gables, who ultimately proved to be a more levelling influence. Were there any book characters who had a particular impact on you when you were growing up? Or even as an adult?

Florence x

Ps. I've often wondered how I used to write blog posts so often. Now I know: they were shorter. Sorry to anyone who'd braced themselves for reading this with a fresh cup of tea and then found themselves left with a half-full cup.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Adventures in tiny English paper piecing


I'd mentioned in my last post that 2018 was a year for letting finished projects go undocumented and you can probably see from the unseasonal flowers that these photos haven't been taken today. This project was the tiniest piece of English paper piecing I'd ever undertaken - there are exactly 200 pieces squashed into this medallion that has a diameter of 5.5" (just under 14cm).

The pattern for the medallion is based on The Ripple Effect quilt in my book, scaled down by 70%, with a few modifications to allow for the tiny pieces. Unusually for me, I took a lot of photos while I was piecing it together, possibly because it's much easier to photograph things when you only need a tiny portion of your desk to be tidy!

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This was where I started. You can see that the tiny pink diamonds in the photo above were little bigger than the centre of one of the bobbins that sit next to them. They presented various problems...mainly that my usually diminutive glue pen suddenly felt large and unwieldy, but I found that if I could wrap something, then I could definitely sew it. Someone on Instagram later suggested cutting a little moon from one side of the glue, which is a super idea for reducing its girth.

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These triangles are a bit bigger than the tiny diamonds, but you can still get a flavour of the glue pen issue - I wish someone would invent a miniature one.  

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I used a 1/8" seam allowance throughout, but even that seems quite bulky around these pieces. 

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For cutting the fabrics, I used an 18mm rotary cutter (the standard ones are 45mm), which makes a huge difference to how easy it is to cut tiny pieces. 

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Working at such a small scale meant that the production line felt fairly manageable in size - one can sit on a chair with everything nicely in arm's reach, which lends itself worryingly well to watching a boxset. I remember watching Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace while I wrapped the pieces and was totally mesmerised by the unexpected shots of beautiful quilts that cropped up throughout. Although disturbing, it's not nearly as unsettling as The Handmaid's Tale and I'd heartily recommend it (my 17 year old also watched and loved it - I think at the time finishing her GCSE art and textiles coursework, which now seems a long time ago as she's now started her A Levels). 

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I like having everything in one easy-to-haul pot. This was the one I used for this project (although I now have another one that's even better - to be shared at a later date). 

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For the piecing, I used Superior Threads' Bottom Line thread in tiny bobbins colour-coordinated to my project - it's fine and strong. The wrong colour thread seems to show up more at this scale because each stitch is a larger part of the whole, so I found it's worth taking the time to blend them a little more carefully. 

With miniature piecing I've found an appropriate home for my usually irritatingly-dense number of stitches - here, it was actually welcome and worked well. Really dense stitches don't work so well on larger pieces because it takes forever to sew and because it causes an unnecessary nightmare if you need to unpick anything, but for tiny piecing, a greater number of stitches ensures your pieces aren't held together by just one or two stitches, which is a bonus (although no less traumatic to unpick). 

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The photo above and the one at the top of the post show the finished medallion. I thought you might also like to see the back - it's so thick with seam allonwance that it feels a bit like a little mat, but somehow very little of the bulk transfers to the face of the medallion - the main place is where those eight seams join right at the centre. 

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I'd originally planned for the finished piece to go on this peachy coloured backing, but once I'd spent several hours carefully appliquéing everything in place and it was ready to be framed, I stood back and realised the colours of the medallion no longer seemed as vibrant as they had against the pink flowers in our garden...and so I very carefully unpicked it all! With the distance of time, I'm now unsure what I disliked about it, but maybe it looks better in the photo thank it did in person. 

I spent days returning to trial different backgrounds and eventually decided on this blue one. I ironed a very fine, soft layer of black iron-on interfacing to give the fabric a little more stability and all was well...


...until at some point, I pressed it again and tiny black glue dots from the interfacing appeared all over the front of backing fabric. I was devastated, especially as I've used iron-on interfacing hundreds of times and never experienced anything like this. 


If you tap on the image, you'll be able to see the dots in all their vile bespeckled glory! For a while, I tried to live with it and tell myself the dots didn't bother me too much, but when I took it to my sewing group and chatted about it with them, I realised it really did bother me. And also that I wasn't convinced the blue backing fabric even worked anyway. In fact, I found it horrid and the square blue border, which worked so well with the peach background, just faded away against the blue. So all in all, it was an abomination that needed to be hacked at AGAIN with a seam ripper. I'd worried doing such a thing TWICE may leave me calling my sanity into question, but I felt so relieved once it was done that I realised the task heralded the preservation of sanity rather than its destruction. I talked it over a bit more with Carolyn, and she suggested that if I was going to choose a different backing fabric, I could go for something non-directional, which suddenly felt like it made a lot of sense as the circular piecing means the block is non-directional.


After weeks of quibbling over backgrounds, suddenly a choice of two presented themselves and after more consultation, I went with the green. I have no good photos of the final thing - the shade of green seems to change in photos - but I'm actually really happy with it in real life. It sits on a shelf and every evening during dinner my eye catches on it and I realise the combination of colours and piecing just make me feel happy, and even more so beside this beautiful green dish. (The dish was given to me by the editor of a Japanese sewing magazine when she and her photographer came over for lunch one day last year. It brings back memories of a really lovely day and the two greens look deliciously satisfying together - I'm not sure when the photos from that day will appear in the wild, but hopefully at some point during 2019).


One Saturday, when Sussex Sewing Group met up at Pincushion (which, contrarily, is in Kent...it was something of a field day out of Sussex, although closer to home for me), I was talking with Nicky while we shopped and said that I'd changed out the background and it was now finished; she asked if I was happy with it and when I said I was, she spontaneously gave me a huge hug. I was really touched that she instantly understood how much I'd wrestled with this project and saw finally finding the right background as something worthy of such a celebration. 


Even though it sits on the Favourite Things I've Made list in my head, it's a highly flawed item with one shape in particular proving a visible challenge to piece (if you want to see which, it's the outermost round of pale pink diamonds, every one of which is slightly misshapen). I was so sure the piecing could be improved upon, that over Christmas (in between board games and eating chocolate), I started a second version, which I'll share with you just as soon as I get over the obstacle of taking a photo of it finished (I already have a lot of in progress photos to share)! 

Wishing you a happy week, 
Florence x

Monday, 31 December 2018

Goodbye 2018...and my favourite books of the year

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I wanted to write one final post to end the year, mainly sharing the books I've most enjoyed reading, but also a brief sewing-related round up, as I've sewn a lot this year, but have somehow failed to document a lot of my finishes. I often put off sharing a finished photo on Instagram until I've posted about it here on my blog, but with just 21 blog posts written in 2018, there's quite a backlog...I possibly need to find a different system for 2019. 

Anyway, my year began with English paper piecing and has come full circle to end with it, via a detour into piecing with a running stitch. Over the holidays, I've been working on a second miniature version (you're yet to see the first here; to follow, I promise!) of The Ripple Effect pattern from my book and have enjoyed getting up early and coming down to the living room to work on it before anyone else gets up for the day, hence the artificial light in this taken-while-it-was-still-dark photo. 


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In many ways, 2018 has been a wonderful year for me - my book on English paper piecing was released, and I also had my first piece of fiction published in an anthology after making the shortlist, and then winning the Acorn Award given to an unpublished writer of fiction in the Bath Short Story Award. It has been my longest-held dream (pretty much since childhood) to write and have that writing published, so both of those things felt magical to me.



But despite lots of wonderful things, 2018 has also been a hard, bleak year for me, dealing with things that were, and still are, largely beyond my control. I'm trying to muster that 'fresh new sheet of paper' feeling about the coming year, but my experience of the last one is that sometimes you don't get a choice about the paper laid out before you...the only thing you have any control over is your response to the inkblots and trying to salvage the space that remains between them for joyfulness. That's not a new experience, but I think my optimism for laying out a fresh sheet of paper is somehow feeling more dented this year. Either way, that old adage of Jane Brocket's about preferring to leave personal things to be discussed around the kitchen table, rather than on a blog, is one that has always felt very true for me, but in the interests of authenticity, it feels important to acknowledge, albeit vaguely, that life has felt far from shiny this year. 

Reading and listening to audiobooks have been a source of much joyfulness though, and so I thought I'd share some of my favourites from 2018 here, just in case you'd like some bookshelf inspiration. I set myself a Goodreads Reading Challenge of reading 40 books this year and surpassed that by reading 44, which delighted me, even though I'm not quite sure why. Here are my best of the best: 

Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman - This came recommended to me by Kerry at the start of the year and it's a book that I've carried with me and is still a favourite nearly twelve months later. It's a story that manages to be simultaneously both funny and heartbreaking with a deliciously eccentric heroine. 
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett - Given me last Christmas by my father, a fellow Patchett fan, this is a collection of her essays. which have previously appeared in newspapers and magazines. All wonderful. 
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler - I adore Anne Tyler's writing - she has a way of creating very ordinary, almost dull, characters and then making the reader care deeply about what happens to them. I think I've read five or six of her books and this is by far my favourite. Despite the title, there's no sewing involved. 
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou - How had I got to 41 without reading any Maya Angelou? She is a magician with words, writing about the most gruelling subjects with a lyricism that blows me away. 
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris - This book was inspired by a Holocaust survivor's story relayed directly to the author, and it's perhaps a will to stay faithful to his account that means it's a story told with little to soften the very factual, sparse writing style, despite it being marketed as fiction. It is gruelling and horrifying, but the central character has a relentless optimism that made it feel easier to read than it might have done otherwise. 
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry - I'd implore you not to be put off by how thick this book is - it's a magnificent read filled with wonderful characters set in 1970s India (and for dressmakers, tailoring work features quite heavily in it). It's not a happy book in terms of what happens to those characters, but there's a joyfulness to their experience of life all the same and I loved it completely. This would make it not only into my favourite books of 2018, but of all time.
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng - I also read Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You this year, but it's Little Fires that makes it into my favourites list. Celeste Ng is one of my favourite writers - I love the way she draws characters, the way she writes about their creativity, and the insights she gives about the way families work.
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones - This comes near the top of my list of favourites, with wonderfully complex, likeable characters and a compelling storyline. 
A Place For Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza - I love books that follow the same family through several decades giving you a sense of why people become who they are and how their experiences shape them, and this does that wonderfully. 
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd - I only discovered Sue Monk Kidd this year and then read two of her books back to back and loved both. Set in the deep south of America, it's a story of both slavery and humanity. The next book I read by her, The Secret Life of Bees, I loved even more - the writing was delicious and, even though it tackles difficult subjects, I found there's a warmth and glow to the characters and sense of place that made me feel as though I'd been transported into a honeyish cocoon.
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini - Khaled paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the landscape and culture of Afghanistan - I felt completely immersed in it as I read. It's a beautiful and painful story of regret, brutality and, ultimately, redemption. 
Becoming, Michelle Obama - I listened to this as an audiobook and am so pleased I did. Michelle reads it herself and I loved her voice almost as much as I loved her and her story.
Educated, Tara Westover - The memoir of a highly unconventional, at times abusive, upbringing and Tara's incredible determination to get herself out of the situation and ultimately become educated. I enjoyed it hugely, although found some bits of it tricky; although I have little sympathy for them, it feels a very exposing book for her family when the events within took place relatively recently. 
Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue - The story of a couple from Cameroon trying to build a better life in America. The characters are all wonderful and highly believable and the story raised some interesting ethical dilemmas. 
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro - I really surprised myself by enjoying this as a large element of it is dystopian (I don't usually like anything not set entirely within the bounds of reality), but Kazuo writes about things with such realism and somehow dances around the dystopian elements without going into too much detail to explain them, that I found I loved it. I then read his Booker prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, which I also enjoyed, but not quite so heartily. 

If you have any recommendations that you think I'd enjoy, do let me know. In the meantime, I'm wishing you a year of contented stitches, good books, and moments of joy dotted as liberally throughout your days as possible, 

Florence x

Monday, 17 December 2018

Writing a Craft Book, Part II: Photography

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Now you've had time to refuel after the epic that was Part I of Writing a Craft Book, I thought I'd post Part II, this time focusing entirely on photography. I'd implore you to keep some form of sustenance to hand while reading, although in reality, Part II is quite a concise offering relative to Part I, so that suggestion may just be incitement to needlessly litter your keyboard with biscuit crumbs. (Nb. although if you're planning to do so anyway, I feel compelled to tell you about this beautiful HAY laptop brush - my husband gave me one of these last year and I'd initially thought it was a rather strange gift, but it's actually proved to be a really wonderful way of keeping my keyboard fully functional, despite my love of at-desk-nibbling). But onto the book photography...

When a publisher is in another country, as mine was, there's always the option to send things over to them to be photographed, and even the step-by-step photos can be shot at their end if the author provides enough samples and information about what each image should include. My publisher didn't suggest this way of doing things though, and I was relieved, as I think I would have found it odd to see someone else's hands demonstrating things and I can imagine getting the images back and finding subtleties about the way the pieces were positioned while being stitched, or the position of a needle, just felt slightly wrong for what I was hoping to demonstrate. (As a side note, when I contributed projects to the V&A book, an illustrator drew step images based directly on construction photos I'd taken as I was sewing - this was a really stress-free way to work as my reference photos didn't need any careful staging and I was delighted by the finished illustrations, however, this wouldn't have worked for a technique-heavy book where the step images really needed to be in the form of photographs).

With my publisher* over in the US, they were happy to leave choosing a photographer up to me, with portfolio shots and a quote for the work being sent over for their approval . I was pleased to have so much freedom, although finding a photographer was fraught. I was initially hoping to find someone who was also a stylist, so that I could get their help with staging the shots, but it seems a rarer combination than I'd imagined and I eventually gave up on that idea. I spent days trawling through websites, panicking because I was losing so much writing and sewing time, trying to find someone whose portfolio tallied with the kind of images I wanted, who had their own studio, had previously worked on books, and who wasn't at the other end of the country. In desperation, I wrote to the most well-connected local person I knew (thank you, lovely Anna), who'd worked widely on local and national magazines, and she came up trumps with a list of three possible photographers, one of whom, Roddy, had worked on several craft books with a local craft publisher. (*When I read this post back, I realised I use the term 'my publisher' throughout - I think because when I first started writing they were called Fons & Porter and, just before publication, changed to The Quilting Company - this seems to have led to some kind of short-circuit in my brain, where I can now only refer to them as 'my publisher'...I'm going to try using their actual name in future posts, while also hoping that neither of my children ends up ever changing their name by deed-poll, because it may require a long transition period where I call them only 'my child').

Although I took quite a few of the photos myself, I was really aware I had a finite number of days with Roddy and if I didn't come away with the images I wanted from those days, then it could make or break the book. For this reason, I spent a lot of time beforehand mocking up the shots, so that I didn't waste any of the time I had with him. One of the main things to think about, was what kind of background my images would have - over the years, I've often photographed small items on my desk chair, which is covered in a silvery grey linen (see the image below), and my inclination was to source a larger piece of that material. However, when I ran that idea past my publisher, they pointed out that another EPP book on the market already used a linen backdrop and we were keen for the book to be original. I was disappointed to lose the texture and warmth that linen offers, but having looked into all kinds of other backgrounds, I eventually settled on plain white for the step-by-step shots.

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Because my book had images coming from so many sources, old and new, I worried it may feel quite scattered visually, so I wanted to use the Techniques and Patterns sections to try pull the book together and give it a sense of identity. I decided to do this with colour and for the majority of my images, I attempted to stick to using shades of pink and turquoise. It was only when I saw the book all put together, right at the end of the process, that I realised that probably wasn't necessary as the page designer, Pamela Norman, had done a lot to subtly pull things together and give a feeling of cohesion (not all books have a Pamela working on them though, so it still seems like a good approach to think those things).

For the techniques photos, most were taken at the photographer's studio - the majority shot in one day. When you're showing something at five or six stages of construction, there isn't actually time to sit and hand-sew your way through those stages, and even if I just needed to glue things down, could I really be sure I'd do it so neatly under pressure that I'd want it photographed? On that basis, each piece had to be created at each different stage beforehand and then individually labelled, so that on the day, I'd know exactly what I needed to do  - how I should position my hands on it, or what angle it should be photographed from. I kept all the samples in a huge ring-binder, filled with plastic pockets and inside that a series of plastic bags.


In each pocket, I included the samples (often with a pre-threaded needle attached to each piece), the text that would be going alongside each shot in case I needed to refer to it, a photo of the shot mocked up at home, in case I forgot what it was that I was meant to be doing, along with a tiny version of that particular page on the page plan so that we could label the file names correctly as they were shot.

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There was something incredibly satisfying about putting that folder together and ticking things off lists, but it didn't seem to make the photography day any less frenetic - we raced through the shots, barely stopping for lunch. One of the things I hadn't realised beforehand, is that a professional photographer's flash is so bright, that it makes it irrelevant whether it's night or day when you're taking the photo - the flash means the lighting will stay consistent as you move through the day. But even though we could carry on working after the light had gone, we still hadn't quite got them all by the end of the day and when I arrived home in the dark that night in the pouring rain (it was also freezing, as it was January) with my car piled high with ironing board, samples and props, I was so tired that I was more ready to collapse into bed and sleep for a thousand years than unpack the car.


I lost sleep pondering some of the details of this unknown land of photography, such as how I could get a completely flat shot of the finished quilt, which is what anyone making it would want to see. I wanted to get it perfectly flat on a wall with no hanging equipment showing and no wavering edges that would look odd once it was cut out from its surroundings, but couldn't actually remember whether there was anything in Roddy's studio that we could hang it from. But in the end, Roddy's assistant actually managed to take that shot from directly above, with the quilt on the floor, the camera hoisted up on a ceiling-high tripod. Here's a shot of the quilt being photographed in the studio.


And here's the resulting flat shot, as it appeared on the page. One of the many things I learnt during this process - which I think is an inherent part of writing a first book - is that when it comes to it, things are usually always more easily solved than I might have anticipated. I'd assumed that I needed to work out every last detail for myself, but actually, if you're working with someone who is good at their job, they'll often naturally do that for you with very little trouble.

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The non-techniques-based photos needed to be more atmospheric than the clean, easy-to-see techniques shots, and I wanted to find just the right backdrop for them. My father and I met up for long country walks and assessed hills, trees, old sheds, and outbuildings for their backdrop potential. We had a lovely time, but nothing felt quite right.


Finally, I woke in the middle of the night and realised that actually, the place that really would be right had been under my nose all along: my own parents' house. They were happy to open up their home to me and I spent a lot of time moving their furniture around and deconstructing things - I'm grateful that they only ever seemed delighted and amused by this. I didn't grow up in that house (they moved to it when I was about 25), and on the days I spent there, I'd often stop and photograph parts of it and it was only then that I really fell in love with it as a building - there's often a feeling that everyone should be putting down their cameras and seeing things with their own eyes (and in many circumstances, I agree), but for some of us, we only really start to truly see things when we pick up our cameras, and on those days I noticed all sorts of things, not just about the building, but about the way my mum had made their house into a home and arranged the things that she'd brought back from travelling, like these beautiful old keys.


For the main quilt, I wanted to send my publisher lots of different options (in no small part, because I felt totally out of my depth when it came to styling the shots, so I decided that giving them lots of images may mean they'd find something usable in there). One of the shots that I really wanted as an option was the quilt hanging from these rafters - they'd planned to photoshop the hanging spotlights from the photo if it ended up being used.


The image below gives you a sense of the mezzanine room I was standing in when I took this shot, which you'll need to know about in order to understand the story I'm about to tell.


Getting the quilt up onto the roof pole involved standing on a chair, with the half-wall only coming up to calf-height, and reaching up, looking over at the floor below. This was more problematic than it might first seem because of something that had happened nearly fourteen years earlier. One Sunday morning, I'd taken my daughter on a roundabout at the local swing park - I'd always loved rollercoasters, so we were both thrilled for my father to spin us as fast as humanly possible, but after several minutes of violent spinning something odd happened to my sense of balance and I came off green and feeling violently unwell and, ever since, even sitting on a swing with my feet on the ground and moving gently back and forth, sets of the most awful feeling of vertigo and sickness. Bizarrely, it also altered my ability to cope with heights and simple things, like standing on a chair changing a lightbulb, are a challenge unless I keep my head perfectly still (I actually feel nauseous just writing about it).


With this in mind, standing on a chair, barely protected held in place by a low wall, and looking down on the floor below (see the photo above...it's so far down!), while trying to attach an unwieldy pole with a quilt hanging on it to another pole, wasn't my ideal location. So, each time I climbed up onto the chair, I'd have to stand doing breathing exercises or trying to mentally gather myself to regain my sense of balance before I could move. It was a truly terrifying experience and every time I did it, I imagined my parents arriving home to find me having plummeted to my death, ruining the careful progress my father was making on his jigsaw laid out on the covered snooker table below.


For one reason or another, we never actually ended up using the near-death-quilt-in-the-rafters shot, even though it was an image everyone liked, although I did use the same hanging equipment to suspend the quilt from their parents' roof, so it wasn't an entirely fruitless thing. You may be imagining an even greater level of lunacy at the mention of a roof, but the roof over my parents' front porch is actually very low and I was able to reach it just by standing on a chair (which, because of the uneven stone paving slabs did have an alarming wobble, but I at least had a full height wall to flatten myself against for that experience).

My favoured quilt suspension method ended up being a wooden pole in a quilt sleeve, supported by some S hooks that I'd sprayed black to match the metal suspension pole in my parents' room and also the guttering on their roof. I'd also sprayed some enormous silver clamps black, but they were abandoned during earlier quilt-hanging trials.


Whenever my dad was home, he spent hours happily moving furniture or plant pots, or just keeping me company and chatting. After a few false starts because of poor weather, on the third of the photography-with-the-actual-photographer days, which took place at my parents' house, my father was also my right-hand man and helped to stage the photos that we took in the woodland around their house - he was the one who suggested this lovely shot, which features on page 4 - who knew that he'd end up being the stylist I'd originally hoped for!


At one point, we were hanging a quilt over a gatepost and Roddy asked us to turn around, and he then took several impromptu shots of the two of us and sent them on to me afterwards - I'm hugely grateful to have those, as it captures the fun we had together in those days, even though how tired I was at that point shows on my face.

Here are a few of the images that never made it into the book. They have a lot of empty space at the top, so that if they ended up being used as cover shots, there would be a natural place for the title to slot in. This was one of the unexpected things about shooting photos for a book - you need to know beforehand exactly where they might appear in the book to compose them in the right way.



So many shots had little details in them that stopped them from being straightforward. For this one, below, I'd sourced some antique printing press letters but, like most things used for printing, the letters appear as a mirror image, so we spent a while setting up this shot so that it was just right for Roddy to later edit so that in the final photograph the letters are the right way around.


 Above is the original shot and below is how it eventually appeared in my book.


I was really aware that when I sent back my images, my publisher may not actually like them, so planning shots before the photographer came was useful, as I was able to gather their feedback first. I'd really wanted my mum's much-loved rocking horse, Christmas, to be a part of the book - to us, his face is so soft and gentle - but the feedback was that they found him quite creepy. I was mildly devastated by this slight against a family member, but the interesting thing is how differently people see the an image and I was relieved to know in advance, as Christmas would have been one of the main features of the final photoshoot otherwise.


Notwithstanding rocking horses, a book feels like a good place to preserve special things, one of which was a piece of fabric sent to me by a lovely fellow quilter, Judy Newman, after I'd admired it. I loved it so much that I worried I might cut into it and ruin it, so pinning it down forever in the pages of my book, meant even if I did later ruin it, I'd still have it in some way, so I enjoyed working it into this photo that would illustrate the Fabric and Language essay.


Another was a photo of one of our cats, Honey, asleep on my daughter's quilt in her room, as this was such a familiar sight for me - over Honey's lifetime, I took nearly 3000 photos of her, most of them against the backdrop of my daughter's bedding. I was unsure when I submitted this if my publisher would accept it, as it had been snapped on my phone, but I was delighted when it made its way in, and with no visible loss of quality in the finished book. 


There was also a pin cushion that I'd saved from my maternal grandmother's sewing box when we were emptying her house to move her into a nursing home nearby. Its covering was a badly worn dark green velvet, so I re-covered it with something similar and it now appears in the photo beneath the dedication, which makes me feel that my grandmother is in there too (she actually features in the story in the opening paragraph on page 15).


As I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of photography by others featured in the book. A few shots are by professional photographers, such as Julia Hedgecoe and Tommy Hatwell; there are also images from museums and galleries; others from long-admired fellow quilt makers; and some, from my own archives. I asked all the quilt-makers who feature in the Modern EPPers section, to send me high-res photos of their work and was totally delighted by the images that came in, and again, how Pamela arranged them on the page. The image below shows the pages featuring Dittany Matthews' work.


For the illustrations and diagrams in the book, I played around with creating both hand-coloured and computer-generated infills for the shapes, but in the end, an uncluttered solid colour felt like it worked best.


And any samples I created followed a similar colour scheme. 


One of the unexpected challenges of writing a book was computer storage space. My publisher had asked me to shoot any photos I was taking myself in RAW format, so I switched over and shot that way for everything, because I never knew quite when something book-related might pop up in front of me and because it felt like a hassle to switch between the two. The problem with this approach was that every photo I took during that period - including each random image of a sunset, dog, cat or child  was VAST, weighing around 20MB. Add to that the Adobe Illustrator files I was creating for all the diagrams and illustrations, and I had a problem. 

I had a folder on my computer entitled 'Book', which I would regularly save out to our external hard drive, but, anxious that I might accidentally overwrite a file that I needed at some point without noticing, I started to save out new copies of this folder each month, so that by the time I finished eight months later, there were 8 files on the hard drive: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3 etc, each one weighing gigabytes, rather than megabytes. My computer seemed to creak under the weight of just one book-related folder and I regularly had to clear other things off to make space for it. 

Filing has never been my strong point, and a more logical person would have easily found a simple way around all this, but I really just wanted to get on with the fun things, so although the trouble that my monster files created continued to spiral, I could sleep easily, because my files were not just backed up, but hyper backed up! I remembered this today, when we realised that our hard drive was full again - don't worry, I told my husband, I can just delete another one of my book folders and instantly free up 15 gigabytes. It is such a nice feeling to no longer need to worry over those files. 

I think that's it for the photography side of things. I'm planning a post about the sewing at some point, if you might be interested. 


It's now December 17th, and I may not get a chance to post again before Christmas, so I'm going to leave you with a picture of the sleeping bag I recently made for my niece's first birthday (modelled by my daughter's old bear). I can't quite believe it's exactly a year since I wrote this post - but that little baby is now a funny and sweet almost-toddler, and it's now hard to imagine a time when she hasn't always been here. When I gave her this sleeping bag on her birthday, there was too much excitement for her to grasp quite what it was for, but when we Skyped a few days later, she showed me how it worked and then rested her head on the floor next to it to demonstrate her bear sleeping (Skyping with a child is a bit like watching one in a school play - that thing of being able to see them, but for them to be simultaneously unreachable, somehow makes your heart feel like it might explode with all the love that can't be expended in cuddles).  If you're interested in making your own sleeping bag, available in three sizes, you can find the pattern here, along with a blog post about creating bedding for animals with tricky proportions here - they make wonderful gifts! 

Thank you so much for reading along for another year and always rising to the challenge of working your way through an over-long blog post - I'm so grateful for your comments and company. For now, if you celebrate it, I'm wishing you a truly wonderful Christmas and hoping it's a time of all the best things for you. 

With love, 
Florence x
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