Friday, 23 November 2018

Writing a Craft Book, Part I

I've wanted to post about writing my book for ages, but hadn't wanted to do it before it came out...and then sort of lost the impetus to do it afterwards because it felt such a long time ago, but I'd really hate for all the memories I have of writing it to slowly dissolve, so I thought I'd record them here. I find the processes people go through to do things fascinating - I recently became obsessed with the idea of how they go about recording audio books and all the logistics involved in reading for so long, how many mistakes might be made, how people do accents for so many characters....I still haven't discovered all those things, but, quite by chance, I did end up hearing some tempting bits on Mariella Frostrup's Books & Authors programme on Radio 4. Anyway, I've always been interested in the book-writing process...possibly even more so when I first began writing a book of my own. So for anyone who might be interested, here's my version (if you want to find out more about how I got my book deal, what's in my book, and how I made my book proposal, you might like this post).

I'll break it into snack-sized posts to avoid you missing meals (or a year of your life), covering: A Wobbly Spirit; Time Management; The Book Writing Process; Photography; and Sewing. The latter two will be covered in subsequent posts.

If you like to read on, you may want to get yourself a cup of tea and a's a long one!

A Wobbly Spirit

I think there are probably few authors who stand on the precipice of signing a contract and don't feel even a niggle of doubt over what's to come. For me, I worried that I may not be able to fulfil all the things I'd laid out in my book proposal, not least because so many of them relied upon being able to secure interviews with other people, but I also worried over a bigger question: could I actually finish writing a book? Over a decade earlier, I'd written half a novel and had been invited in to a well-respected literary agency to discuss it. Leaving my babies at home, I had stepped out of my own life for a morning and sat discussing my book in a sun-filled room in their elegant sash-windowed offices, and was told that they loved it and wanted to see more. It's perplexed me in the years since, as to why I went home and never felt able to write another word of that story. Perhaps it was because I knew that I didn't actually want any commitments to distract me from those lovely babies (my son wasn't even two-years-old at that point), or perhaps because I was scared, but for whatever reason, it left me wondering if I was someone who couldn't finish things. Over the course of next decade, I went on to turn down several invitations to write craft books, and even though I always turned down those opportunities for logical reasons (such as not feeling suitably qualified to write a book on dressmaking, or sensing that the publisher wasn't a good fit for me), that too had made me wonder if I was not just someone who couldn't finish things, but also someone who couldn't even start things! I felt if someone were to write me a report card, it would have read: failure to progress.

But, when the opportunity to write this book about English paper piecing came along, enough of the pieces slotted into the right place that I finally felt ready to take a risk: it was a subject I knew inside out; the publisher was willing to embrace my ideas about writing an unconventional craft book; and my teenage children were actively encouraging me to take on bigger commitments, even if it meant stealing time away from them. After five months of negotiations, I finally signed my contract, and felt an odd sense of calm and certainty that I was finally in the right place to be able to change the script that had been running in my head about who I was (or wasn't) and I felt so focused on my book, that any doubts quickly fell away; I simply didn't have time to worry any longer.

Time Management

My primary concern with writing my book was time. For how multi-stranded my book is - including essays, interviews, techniques and patterns - I didn't feel I had long to write it. I signed a contract on 16th September 2016 and had until 28th April 2017 to turn everything in, so in just less than eight months, with Christmas in the middle, these were the things I needed to complete:
  • the research, reading, interviews and writing for the psychology/history essays
  • find and interview people for the Modern EPPers section and then write up those interviews 
  • design and sew all the patterns for the book
  • create illustrations and step-by-step graphics
  • find a suitable photographer, source props/backdrops/location etc, complete the photoshoots
  • negotiate fees and publication rights with museums, for any images I wanted to use
  • work through my publisher's edits from several interim deadlines
  • go on day trips to meet people who I was able to interview in person
  • get permissions forms completed by people whose work was featured in the book
My sister, who works in publishing, had told me at the outset that even if I had to write the whole book in one month, I'd be able to. That may or may not have been true, but it was an idea that I kept in my pocket knowing that creative projects are like water, spreading out to fill whatever shape or size of pot you give to them, so that if I had just less than eight months, it would be done in just less than eight months.

At the outset, I'd imagined that writing a craft book would be stressful and slightly hellish, something worth doing only for the thrill of having a finished book in my hands, but somehow it was just the opposite: totally exhilarating and wonderful. I fell completely in love with the book-writing process and have a distinct memory of climbing the stairs to my sewing room early one morning and realising that I felt overwhelmed by happiness that the day ahead was one of research and writing. I discovered that being surrounded by piles of books, notes, plans, Illustrator files, research and a to-do list to quietly work my way through, is my idea of heaven - it felt like I had finally found my thing, and it made frequently working 16-hour+ days feel like a privilege.

Although I spent the bulk of my time up in my attic at my laptop, there was always something that could be slotted in easily to whatever kind of time I had available outside the attic, and constant multi-tasking became my favoured method of time management: if I was in bed, I could be reading research books; if I was driving, I could be listening to a lecture or an audiobook that might be relevant; if I was discussing Squeebles (the series of educational apps I create with my husband), I could be hand-sewing, and so on.

My aim was to always be ahead of schedule, while also making it feel like life hadn't stopped for book-writing - so I capitalised on every spare moment, but also said yes to doing as many things as possible. Scanning back through my photos from that period are a testament to that - they're full of friends, exhibitions, days in London with my children, dog walks, evenings out, trips to the beach, birthday celebrations, an impromptu trip to Spain to see my sister, even a black-tie ball. I found that I was forced to become more time-efficient in ways that had previously eluded me: suddenly, I was a person who got things done the moment they were put in front of me, bothered to keep a shopping list to minimise trips out of the house, and had a pile of cards, gifts and sellotape stashed in a drawer for emergencies. Most people probably do those things anyway, but I'm not a naturally organised person, so they were all new to me. This change in mindset meant that when I was invited to submit a trio of projects to a book by the V&A in the middle of writing my own book, I unexpectedly felt confident that I could fit that in too - if I just carried on steadily working my way through the to-do lists, it would all be fine.

All this was a lightbulb moment for how, years earlier, some of the mums who had worked in high-pressured jobs when our children started school, were also the ones who always remembered everything and whose children arrived at school in an immaculate school uniform and well-polished shoes; they'd simply become more organised in every department of their lives to make things work. I  hoped that, having finally discovered how much I was capable of fitting into a day, a high level of productivity would be mine to keep forever, but what I found on finishing my book, was that without a deadline looming, the intense need for whole-life efficiency faded and, sadly, I am back to being a slightly chaotic human again...

But it would be wrong to imply that I didn't make compromises with my time while writing my book: I stole a chunk of time away from our family business, and I also made other trade-offs that were less obvious at the time. Although whenever my children walked into my sewing room, I made a point of closing the lid on my laptop to signify that they had my attention, I think my perpetual busyness and the looming of deadlines imperceptibly changed the quality of the time I had with them. It was only after my book was finally handed in and I was lying on the sofa one evening talking with them about nothing and everything, that I realised it's those times when my head is empty and I have nowhere I need to be and nothing I need to do, that we have my favourite kind of pointless and funny conversation, soak up each other's company, or perhaps let any niggling worries that might have been playing in the back of our heads, rise up to the surface to be talked over.

The Book-Writing Process

When I'd imagined the nuts and bolts of writing a craft book, I'd thought that I'd be writing the manuscript and dropping low-resolution images in wherever I wanted them. In fact, you write everything totally unformatted in a Word document and put the file name of any images in brackets.

For me, the backbone of book-writing turned out to be my page plan (and, if the above is anything to go by, also some fudge made for me by our friend Ben - I think I took this photo, along with another of the bare tin, to encourage him to make more - you can see the page plan behind it though). Right from the beginning, I had a plan for every single page of my book where I marked on the page title, any images, and what those images would be labelled as, even before they existed. Once I'd sourced, photographed or created an illustration and had the relevant permissions signed off, I would place a green square in the image's box. When I'd written the text for a page, that too would get a green square over it. When a whole page was complete, it would get a green box around the outside of it - that was always a really lovely feeling! Keeping track of everything in this way, not only kept me organised, but also pushed me forwards. And turning a box to green helped with morale, especially when at times it felt like I was achieving very little. That all possibly sounds quite rigid, but the page plan was a surprisingly fluid thing, changing as my editor and I tweaked things or when my research opened up new avenues or shut down others.

It's amazing how many brick walls appeared in the book-writing process: longed for images that I couldn't end up get worldwide rights for; a quilt that I'd thought was English paper pieced turning out to be hand-sewn; an unreturned permissions form rendering content unusable; a person whose email address I simply couldn't get hold meant that my plan for the book was constantly evolving, which although frustrating in some ways, also made it a more exciting rollercoaster - it was the most joyful thing when someone wrote back and said yes, when a completed permissions form was returned, or when someone answered a question with so much delicious detail that I knew my only problem would be how to fit it all onto the page. At the beginning of that process, I always favoured email over any other method of communication, but along the way, I found that actually picking up the phone and speaking to someone in person is far more likely to move things forward than an email clogging up their inbox and I've tried to do more of that ever since.

One of the things I loved most about researching my book, was that it changed the way I read. When I was reading books that I thought might be relevant for the psychology/history sections, it was with a highlighter in my hand, ready to suck information and quotes from the text - it's a much more active way of reading and my brain felt alive (as in actively alive, as opposed to dormantly alive), and I was taken back to my studying days when I was writing essays and dissertations.

So, let's talk about the structure in the process. Every craft book is probably different, but mine went something like this: for my first interim deadline, I had to deliver a Contents page, three essays from the history/psych section, some of the techniques section along with the relevant photography, and three of the Modern EPPer profile pieces. I found it really helpful because the feedback I gathered at that point let me know whether I was on the right track for the rest of the book and gave me some confidence in imagining what response certain things might receive from my publisher.

At this point, in theory, I should have been handing these in to my acquisitions editor (the editor who originally commissioned the book), but during the first three months, my original acquisitions editor was made redundant and then her predecessor handed her notice in. I liked both and had found each easy to work with, so I was unsettled by the changes, but the benefit ended up being that I was handed over to my content editor, Jodi Butler, sooner. In many ways, meeting her earlier in the process made everything feel more streamlined later on. So, my interim deadline was actually pretty stress-free, although Jodi did let me know that to avoid being edited too heavily, I might want to keep my sentences shorter. I practised writing in short sentences and each time I finished a section or an essay, I'd send it over to my mum and ask her to be ruthless in pulling me up on any sentence that felt convoluted. In some ways, I found this tricky - to me, it often felt like a practice that broke up the flow of the writing, but the end result was that my words were only very lightly edited, which I was grateful for.

The next deadline required a lot more content, which I found surprisingly invigorating; in my work on our educational apps and my own pattern business, I rarely have any external deadlines (unless it's for a magazine article or interview) and sometimes that can make things feel quite undefined and boggy. It usually takes about six to eight months for us to develop an app and when we're only answerable to ourselves, there's very little to break that period up, other than a beginning and an end - the inbetween is really just an endless slog that requires a lot of self-discipline. So, I enjoyed the feeling of being answerable, having external goals, getting feedback, and the rarity of working with someone outside my own family.

From recollection, I think shortly after that deadline, it was my Author Review Week - a week that's earmarked for the edited manuscript being returned to the author, who then has a week to go through the edits and respond to or discuss any points that have come up. This round of edits comes back as a PDF with all the content on the right pages,  but with no images in place, so I still didn't have a sense of it being an actual book.

As my publisher is American, Jodi had changed many things to fit in with US phrasing (I hadn't realised there were that many differences until seeing my own writing altered) and while I was happy to accept that my book would use US English spelling, I really wanted the phrasing to feel like my own, so there was lots of discussion around those things and ultimately it was a really interesting process and I felt happy with the outcome. Very early on, I noticed that Jodi peppered her emails and feedback with emoji - not the yellow sort, just text-based emoji - and I quickly realised that it was a great way of implying tone and often avoided words, a question or a comment from being misconstrued, which was important when discussing changes or difference of opinion - I now regularly use them myself :)

The text was also finely combed through by a technical editor, Jean. Jean checked everything from each measurement being correct, to whether my patterns came together easily, sewing up her own gorgeous versions, complete with additional embroidery - it was so heartening at that point to see that she'd not only tested them, but actually enjoyed making them enough to add embellishments! She also checked that dates, places, terms and words were all correct, often coming up with such obscure, tiny changes, that I could tell she'd researched things to a reassuringly thorough level. I then had the opportunity to mark up the PDF, answering any questions, clarifying points, and accepting or rejecting any changes that had been made. I'd assumed there wouldn't be much leeway here, but actually, in most cases if I didn't like a change, my editor was happy to compromise, discuss things, or even revert back to what I'd written originally. A few years earlier, I'd read a post by Fiona (who has written a fantastic series on the process of writing a craft book) mentioning how exhausting it was to end up arguing over a single word - for some reason that aside had lodged in my brain and I was relieved to find I  enjoyed the editing process and the author review week, although that's not to say my book wasn't completely without stress...

During the contracting phase, my publisher and I had had very different ideas about the title - I'd been totally against using Flossie Teacakes in my book title as, to me, that didn't feel in keeping with the content, which wasn't about me at all, but more about turning the spotlight on others. But neither could we agree on an alternative that everyone liked, so for that reason, we ended up having it written into the contract that the book would be called Flossie Teacakes' Guide to English Paper Piecing; the guide to paper piecing part being something that I could live with, and the Flossie Teacakes part being what my publisher was keen to include from a commercial viewpoint.

However, we didn't contract a subheading for the book and when I found that it was to be Exploring the Fussy World of Precision Piecing, I was devastated. My publisher's aim (titles are decided as a team, rather than just by the content editor) with this was to include the word fussy so that it showed up in search engines when people googled fussy-cutting, but when used alone, in England at least,  fussy is a derogatory term, suggestive of nit-picking and pettiness. It suddenly felt like the book I'd worked so hard on and poured so much love into, was going to go out into the world with a subheading declaring its own awfulness. This was the one of the few points in the process where I felt truly stressed, so I felt hugely relieved when they eventually agreed to change it to Exploring the Fussy-Cut World of Precision Piecing, the addition of the word cut making all the difference to me (and I love the term precision piecing, so I'm pretty happy with it now).

In the end, on the cover both Flossie Teacakes and the sub-heading are much smaller anyway, leaving English Paper Piecing as the dominant part of the text, which I love.

I haven't mentioned the contract much, partly because it's different for every book and every author, but contracting things in that are important to you, seems like a useful thing to do. So, for me, the inclusion of the history/psych section was a key to my agreeing to write a book and I wanted to protect it from being edged out by more conventional techniques/patterns content - for that reason, my publisher was happy to reassure me by contracting in a set number of pages for that section.

One of the fun things that I learned how to do while collating all the photos and illustrations to send over to my publisher for my final deadline, was to make contact sheets - they're a good way for everyone to look over the photos and quickly see which image is being referred to in the text, as well as looking over all the possible shots for the cover and interior. There was something really lovely about seeing all those photos appearing in miniature and to know that everything was finally in the right place.

When it came to page layout, I was keen that every page should have something on it that made it feel special, so one of the things that I did was create little hand-sewn page borders. When all the content was sent to the art department to lay out the book, I also sent a mock-up of how I was envisaging the page borders being used, which you can see below.

It wasn't until the last set of photos and the very last piece of the manuscript was turned in, that the art department set to work. A few weeks later - or maybe a few months later, I can't remember now - I was sent a file containing some sample pages showing the direction they were going in with the page design and also a possible front cover. This was really the first time I actually believed it would ever be a finished book and I was so happy when I saw what Pamela Norman, the interior designer for the book, had done.

The page borders are dotted around throughout (placed horizontally, rather than vertically), and she'd also picked up on that idea and cut out stars and other shapes from my sewing and added them in all over. She'd used a grey woven background on many of the pages and then added in a faded floral image on others. Seeing her design was one of the highlights of writing a book - it felt like she'd absorbed my initial idea and then just made it so much more lovely than I'd ever imagined. I feel incredibly lucky that Pamela had interpreted what I was hoping for so well and then added in her own wonderful flair.

Those page borders ended up being a blessing and curse though. What I hadn't realised when I'd sewn them all together, was that the rights around fabric usage change if you're just using the fabrics to make your book look nicer, rather than to illustrate a technique or a pattern. Very suddenly (just a few weeks before it went to print, with one of those page borders even featuring as part of the cover design), my publisher decided that best practice was to get a permissions form signed by every single fabric designer whose fabrics appeared in those page borders, which left me trying to find the relevant email addresses for everyone from Kaffe Fassett to Liberty of London and then asking them to sign something allowing me to use their fabrics in that way. I ended up having so many lovely conversations with people as a result of this and many were impressed that my publisher was at pains to respect their copyright, but it was also a sticky part in the process, in part because I found it excruciating having to hassle people and send countless follow-up emails as the deadline loomed, when I knew they were busy. I very nearly abandoned the page borders entirely, but eventually, where I was unable to get a permission slip signed - mainly because I couldn't get in contact with the person - I very carefully removed that designer's fabric and sewed something else, that I could get permission to use, in the hole it had left and then resubmitted an image of it.

The period between handing my book in and it finally being published felt interminable and as though the book may actually be a unicorn, existing only as a sparkly figment in my imagination. Has your book come out yet, friends would ask; I started to feel like a fantasist when I told them again that it would be a while yet. If you'd like to read about when it did finally appear on my doorstep, a few weeks prior to publication, you can read this post.

You've made it to the end of part 1! Practically a whole book in itself. I'll hopefully post the remaining parts in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, I'm wishing you a happy weekend and hoping you enjoyed hearing some of the details of how my book came together,

Florence x

Saturday, 3 November 2018

A Book Review: Wabi-Sabi Sewing by Karen Lewis

When I was on Karen Lewis' printing course last year, she mentioned that she was writing a sewing book based around the Japanese wabi-sabi ethos, which felt oddly serendipitous as I'd been listening to a podcast about wabi-sabi a few weeks earlier, so actually knew what this curious term meant and had already fallen for it as a concept. Wabi-sabi is rustic design; a joyful acceptance of things changing as they age; it's breaking a favourite plate and then gluing it back together and painting the crack with gold to make the imperfection a joyful thing (it has its roots in a buddhist approach to life). What I hadn't done up until that point though, was link it with sewing, so it was interesting to hear how Karen saw the two things coming together.

Within the context of textiles, Karen writes in the introduction to her book that to her, wabi sabi evokes the idea of using the fabric we already have and using a bit of that and that when we run short, celebrating the results of hunting down mismatched yet treasured scraps. She goes on to talk about finding delight in the uniqueness of hand stitches, worn fabrics and visible mending. It's a delicious approach and the pages that follow are full of gorgeous projects with a wabi-sabi aesthetic - flying geese that aren't all travelling in the same direction and seams that deliberately veer away from sterile precision.*

The result is a book that's textured, organic, tactile, all presented with Karen's trademark laid-back, effortless style in a colour palette that many people who already follow her work will probably recognise as hers: blues, greys, mustard yellows. Karen has a gift for combining fabrics and its on display throughout the book: Outback Wife designs on vintage barkcloth, combined with Karen's own modern screen-printed fabrics; denims combined with floral cotton prints - her fabric choices always seem both unexpected and perfectly right (perfect probably isn't a word that I should be using when reviewing a book about wabi-sabi, but whatever, I'm something of a shameless fan when it comes to admiring the way Karen uses colour and pattern).

My favourite project is Karen's own jeans that she's wabi-sabied. If you'd said to me: would you like to wear a pair of jeans that have stitching and fabric patches on them before seeing these, I would have said 'no', but somehow Karen demonstrates how to do these things and make them look as though they've just been taken off the rail in Anthropologie. I have an absolutely favourite pair of jeans that are showing signs of distress and when the knees finally wear through, this is what I'll do with them - it's even introduced an element of excitement to this happening, rather than the intense panic I felt previously.

I've made some of the coasters from the book, as the last ones that I made, back in 2010, are looking a bit tired (I love being able to look back and find out how long ago something happened....I'm now amazed they've survived eight years of daily use so well).

When I was putting something away this week, I spotted a box of samples that have accumulated over the years and it seemed in keeping with the wabi-sabi approach to use them for my coasters. The chenille swatches are all from random places and the prints are samples that I bought from Abigail Borg's website a few years ago when choosing some fabric for cushions - I'm so pleased to have finally found a use for them that means I can see them everyday.

I enjoyed hand-stitching with Karen's words in my head about each stitch being different - it's liberating to sew when it's not just okay if they're that way, but actively encouraged if its to reflect the book's ethos properly, although oddly, my lack of worry somehow seemed to make them more even than they would be normally.

And here they are (below) in their home on the coffee table, possibly for the next eight years. The one at the bottom left now has my daughter's cup of tea on it - oddly satisfying as the mug fits really nicely onto the central square and then looks as though it's being framed by the triangles around it. 

Knowing that I was going to be writing about it later in the week, Karen's book kept wandering into my thoughts and when I was drying my hair one morning, which is a prime time for random thoughts, I found myself thinking about the dichotomy between her earlier career as a maths teacher and her later career in sewing, which, even prior to this book, has always been defined by an experimental, wabi-sabi spirit. We're all a mass of interesting contradictions, but I felt fascinated by how a very mathematical, logical brain came to be drawn to delight in a lack of structure when it comes to sewing, but what Karen told me made sense of it and was doubly fascinating: I actually think that my logical brain enables me to see random in an organised way, if that makes sense. When I look at a wonky line my brain wants to level it out and when I see random layout my brain can organise it into still randomly placed but balanced.

I realised that I house a similar contradiction - having been fairly poor at maths when I was younger, when it comes to sewing, certainly the English paper piecing patterns that I design are characterised by a fundamental desire for mathematical order and precision, focusing on degrees, angles, rotation and symmetry. Although I have no clever insight to offer as to why.

So anyway, do go and buy Karen's book or ask your library to order in a copy for you - it's lovely.

Other random thoughts from my week:

- As I write, there's a blackbird scratting moss from the roof and causing it to slide down my skylight window that I'm sitting beneath. Leading me to think: How can such tiny feet be so loud? What is it doing? Is it building a nest? I don't think this is nest-building season, but is now the time when I should wedge Liberty print offcuts in between the roof tiles? It would be easy to do from my sewing room window and my husband would never know (he has previously raised objections), although we discussed this option over lunch, so he now does know. He seemed in favour of this approach over leaving them in the garden, where the birds will be tempted into closer proximity to our cats and the fabric has greater potential to blow away and become litter.

- I think of myself as being incredibly sensible, but a friend recently revealed that while in my company, at various times she has smashed her glasses, received a speeding ticket, and broken her ankle. I was quite shocked to be the common factor in all this destruction, so we are meeting for a #safetysummit and I am keeping all my fingers crossed that the #safetysuit I'm fashioning for her from egg boxes (very good for protecting and insulating) will lead to an outing without incident.

- I visted a new sewing shop last week and it was lovely, so I thought I'd share it here: Pincushion is in the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells - it's an excellent source of Liberty prints (at very reasonable prices, purchasable in small quantities) and inspiration, as there are quilts draped about all over the place. I swooped upon one of the quilts in particular as it looked deliciously puffy and light and when I asked Jenny what the batting was, she said it's just the regular polyester that comes on a giant roll - years ago, I think this had a reputation for bearding, but I'm wondering if technology has come on since then - any thoughts? I'm desperate to try some as the look and feel of it was somehow far lovelier than a regular quilt (I often use Quilter's Dream Puff, which is also a poly, but this looked and felt nicer than that).

- I ordered some dried craspedia (aka billy buttons) last week and have since become quite addicted to it as it has the most amazing smell - like sticking your head directly into a pot of Manuka honey - I return to it several times a day for a fix. I'm now keeping my eyes open for a handmade ceramic vase for them - do you have any recommendations for independent ceramicists who sell online?

Wishing you a happy weekend,
Florence x

* Nb. when my sister was reading something over for me recently, she said that she'd noticed I always put things in threes, so as a fun exercise I'm experimenting with weaning myself away from this quirk, but goodness, it almost feels physically painful to just write two things in a unexpectedly putting a three-fingered glove on and finding I must wedge two fingers into one finger hole. The weaning hasn't been entirely successful anyway - there are three options (naturally) for how it goes: sometimes I try to put just two things, which feels odd and unbalanced and leaves me wanting my old glove back; sometimes I wilfully ignore the fun exercise and write three things, which now feels deliciously deviant; sometimes I probably don't notice what I'm doing and, on those occasions, will have almost certainly written in threes again; I think my brain naturally thinks in trios.

Ps. The photos in this post are slightly yellow-toned as they were taken during golden hour as I was in a mad rush to photograph them before it got dark, but the light was actually too golden. I've edited them to try and make them look more normal, but it seems there's no eradicating the jaundice completely.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Tutorial: hand-piecing a hexagon quilt with a running stitch

It's come as quite a shock to me to be hand piecing a quilt by any other method than English paper piecing; the last time I tried sewing with a running stitch was back in 2013 and I've always retained memories of enjoying that experience, but for whatever reason I've never really dabbled in it again until now. But, I've been happily hand-piecing together hexagons since the late August and I wanted to share some of the things I've learned and do a quick tutorial on how to make a similar quilt (or a completely different-looking one - as long as you're using hexagons, this tutorial will work - I'm aware most people may not want same-colour rows like I have here). It's written very much from one new running-stitch piecer to another, but if you're an old hand and have things to add, I'd love to hear in the comments.

I began by drafting a much more complex design, but when I started to cut out the pieces, I realised that the self-made templates that I usually use for EPP just weren't working so well for hand-piecing and that continuing down that route would make me fall out of love with hand-piecing with a running stitch before I'd even picked up a needle. So, I stripped things back to basics and went with a shape where I could use a pre-cut template, which now feels like the right decision as I've loved every minute of making this quilt so far and will undoubtedly have more patience when I eventually return to those self-made templates.

Note that I refer to sewing with a running stitch as hand-piecing for the duration of this tutorial, which shouldn't be confused with English paper piecing.

I made my quilt with the same fabric used in each column, but you can mix it up completely, or do columns where you change the fabric of every other hexagon...whatever you fancy. Let's begin.

**For reference, the templates I used (discussed below) gives a hexagon where each side measures 2" finished. I'm using 400 hexagons placed into 20 columns, with 20 hexagons in each column, which will give a finished quilt top of approximately 58" wide x 67" high (despite it being 20 hexagons x 20 hexagons, it won't make a square quilt because the height and width of a hexagon isn't the same).**

1. My quilt is made from Liberty Tana lawn, which is quite a fine fabric. So that the fabric plays less beneath the pencil when I'm marking on seam allowances, I used Mary Ellen's Best Press, which is a starch alternative (I usually use Soak's Flatter spray, but I wanted something that would make the fabric a little stiffer for this project).  

2. Let's talk about templates. Years ago, my friend Lorena who does a lot of hand-piecing, specifically recommended Marti Mitchell templates to me for hand-piecing with a running stitch and now that I've used them I can see why - Marti's templates are really thick, making them easy to cut around speedily with a rotary cutter and the slightly rough underside stops them from sliding around on the fabric. She also punches holes in each corner, so that you can mark the seam allowance easily and the templates have the grain line marked on too (although with a hexagon, four sides will always be left on the bias). My hexagon comes as part of a set of shapes (set G) that can be combined together.

So, with all that said, place your template on the fabric and cut around it with a rotary cutter. The photo above doesn't show it, as it was controlling the camera, but you should place a firm hand on the template to keep it in place. I prefer small tools, so use a 28mm rotary cutter instead of the standard 45mm, but either is fine.

3. Next, make a mark in each hole to indicate the seam allowance. I tried to keep the pencil straight up when doing this to increase accuracy. 

I experimented with what to use to mark fabrics and found I liked Sewline's pencils best, which have a ceramic lead - it's easy to poke through the holes to leave a nice, visible dot, and it's also capable of drawing a crisp line. I experimented with lead colour and found pink shows up on nearly everything, with grey being a good alternative on pink fabrics. I seem to remember being told years ago that a silver gel pen will also do a nice job - it will, although not on Tana lawn as the fabric is fine, so the ink will bleed through. I used a short 1" wide ruler to join the dots up. Again, it's possible to just eyeball the seam allowance and sew dot-to-dot, but I like having a line to sew on. 

Here's the fully marked hexagon (above). 

5. Place two hexagons with the right side of the fabric together. Place a pin to line up the two dots at each end. Check that it's going through in exactly the right place on the reverse side too - don't worry if this means the edges of your fabric don't line up perfectly as it's more important that the sewing lines are correctly aligned. 

I place more pins along the sewing line, making sure my seam allowances are carefully lined up with the pin going through them on both sides.

Here's the reverse side too. I am possibly over-photographing here, but this is the kind of detail I wanted to see when I was first piecing my hexagons, so I'm offering it up for the delight of fellow show-me-every-detailists.  

6. It's now time to begin sewing! I messed around with needle size, experimenting with much shorter needles that I've seen some hand-piecers using, but I preferred a slightly longer straw needle, possibly because I'm so used to using them for EPP that they now just feel right in my hand. A shorter needle felt fiddly to me. 

Start stitching at your first dot by making a few securing stitches (sewing over the same stitch a few times) and then sew along the sewing line until you reach the end dot - you don't sew the seam allowances down for this.

I imagine everyone develops their own stitching technique that works for them, but when doing a running stitch, I tend to keep my needle still and use my finger beneath the fabric to move hills and valleys of fabric onto the needle, before pulling it through. Sadly, I can't photograph myself doing this, but the hill and valleys comment will probably make sense once you start sewing yourself.

Here's a finished line of stitching. You only need to leave a short tail of thread at each end.

Initially, I found my workflow felt quite stop-starty, taking pins in and out of my pincushion constantly, but then I went to Sussex Sewing Club and sat next to my friend Carolyn, who has years of hand-sewing experience, and she let me borrow her 'finger pincushion' for the day and it transformed things for me. I'm right-handed, so the pin cushion sits on my left index finger and transferring pins and needles in and out of the cushion now barely interrupts my stitching (imagine my right hand holding the needle in that photo). Carolyn shares a pattern for this finger pincushion on Page 24 of her book, The Handmade Quilt, so the moment I got home I made one of my own. I pieced one of the simple quarter-square triangle blocks from her book first, so that I could incorporate two fabrics into my pincushion, although it's a ten minute make if you skip that step. I am really, really happy with this little thing - I think I may make several more so that I have a whole wardrobe of them. 

I started by sewing all my hexagons into columns. I sewed 20 columns containing 20 hexagons in each, so my quilt contains 400 hexagons in total. Sewing things into columns is really easy sewing and a happy way to break yourself into a good rhythm for hand-sewing.

I know lots of people don't press the piecing until it's all joined together, as you need to the nudge the allowances up again at the ends to sew through them, but I chose to press my hexagons at this point as it's easier to press these all down now and at least give the seams the memory of which way you want them to fall, than do it from scratch once they're attached on all sides, when it can all get a bit finger-burny. It's personal preference though (I really love everything to be pressed, so my personal preference is always going to be to have everything nicely flattened as though a steam roller has passed through).

Above is one column of steam-rollered hexagons (although actually, I always press with a dry iron, so imagine the roller powering through with no steam at all).

7. It's now time to sew the columns of hexagons together. This bit is a little trickier than piecing the columns, but really not much once you've done it a few times. The key thing to remember, is that you're never sewing a seam allowance down like you might with a machine-made quilt. 

The photo above shows the wrong side of the fabrics and how the hexagons will fit together. Note that in both columns, I have my seam allowances pressed downwards. You can actually have them in whatever direction you want, but for consistency later, I like mine to all go in the same direction. 

In the photo above, I've started to pin the first two sides to be sewn together, placing the fabrics right-sides together. You can see on the left hand side, I've folded aside the seam allowance and the fabric of the hexagon that's not being sewn together, so that I won't accidentally sew any part of that hexagon into this seam - it's now safe to place the second pin through the other other dot. Remember - you don't want that pin to go through even the tiniest bit of the fabric of the surrounding hexagons, as it will lead to puckery points on the right side of your quilt. Likewise, not placing your pin in just the right place (on the dot you've marked, or right at the top of a sewn seam allowance), will lead to undefined, soft points at the corners of your hexagons. 

As before, I then place several pins in between to make sure my stitching lines are perfectly aligned. 

Now, simply sew between the dots, as before, making securing stitches at the beginning and end, but there's no need to cut your thread at the end of a line of sewing, as you can carry on sewing the next seam with it once you've aligned them. 

You'll come across two types of seam when sewing hexagons - (a) those where you can just turn the fabrics, pin and carry on sewing and (b) those where you'll need to pass the needle through a few pieces of fabric to get your thread and needle into the right place. We'll tackle both below - let's start with the former. 

(a) Simply turn your fabrics so that the new seams to be sewn are aligned and pin in place, being sure to exclude any fabric or seam allowances from surrounding hexagons (you can see in the photo above, that the turquoise hexagon on the right of the photo is being kept out of things). 

The photos above show this seam pinned and then sewn, with hexagons to either side folded away so that they don't interfere with your line of stitching. 

Now, let's tackle (b). 

You can see above, that I've pinned my next seam, but that the needle and thread are stranded on the wrong side of the seam, where you left off sewing earlier. 

This doesn't involve a complex rescue mission - you just need to pass the needle through the exact point where the seam allowances converge. I pass it through to the back of the seam I want to sew (above) and then bring it through to the front, one stitch ahead of the dot, which puts me in the right position to sew backwards and do a few securing stitches.  

It's now just a case of continuing to join the other twenty columns of hexagons together. 

When you've finished a few columns, you might like to explore how to press the hexagons.  

Above, is some piecing with only that first seam line pressed down from when they were individual columns.

With a little coercion, you'll find that the seams naturally fall so that at the point where three seams converge, a little hexagon is created from a small diamond of each fabric. Although it's a bit of a fiddle to press them this way, it will mean that your quilt top looks perfectly smooth and free of lumps on the front side, but more importantly, it's just totally thrilling to press them this way - it makes me so happy to see these little hexagons forming. You can use a tailors awl to minimise finger burning.

I try and press my seams in the same way across the quilt so that there's a pattern to my pressing.

Here's how my pressing looks across a bigger area. The two horizontal seams are always pressed downwards and the top two sides of each hexagon are pressed outwards and the bottom two seams are pressed inwards.

And this is how that looks from the front. And below is a close up. 

I haven't actually finished my quilt top quite yet, although I'm not too far off - a week if I sew quickly and a year or two if I become distracted. 

In the meantime, here it is looking like a curtain with the sun shining through it. 

And here it is, sunless. 

Nine million photos and hyper-detailed instructions later, I think we're finished. I hope you find this tutorial useful if you've got to this point. 

Florence x
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