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piece of fiction published in an anthology after making the shortlist, and then winning the Acorn Award given to an unpublished writer of fiction in the Bath Short Story Award.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
A few of the books/products that I link to on Amazon from my blog contain affiliate links and very occasionally, I'll mention a product that I've been given free of charge. I choose the things that I recommend carefully and my priority is to only share things that I love.