Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Garden Completicus

Thank you so much for all your gardening advice in answer to the last post - it was so helpful and I learnt so many interesting things. In the comments, Wendy suggested that we bring in the experts, which was a novel idea as we usually do things ourselves, even if that means some trial and error. But, we did unwittingly end up bringing in an expert and that experience now makes me wonder what else we could make lovelier by consulting experts (this could actually be the beginning of an expert addiction).

The Sunday before last, when the intense heat was dramatically broken for a day, we drove off to an independent plant nursery that we'd never been to before. The extreme weather meant that we were the only ones there, so we had the luxury of the owner's undivided attention and, serendipitously, she also happened to be a talented and experienced garden designer; we couldn't quite believe our luck and spent a really happy few hours with her, even though we were all drenched and there was something oddly comic about persevering in discussing plants over howling wind and through lashing rain.

We showed her some photos of the space that we had and she helped us plan out plants for the two diagonal square beds (I felt overwhelmed by the idea of trying to do all of them in one go). She said we should focus on evergreens so that the front garden didn't look bleak in winter and that we could then infill with seasonal things if we wanted to. We started with a Viburnum Tinus standard tree for both beds, which will have clusters of small white flowers when it gets cooler, and then built a collection of plants to go around them: Euonymus Fortunei 'Harlequin', which is a low-lying rambling plant with green and white leaves; Heuchera with big showy red leaves; Pittosporum Tenuifolium golf balls of greenery; Sanguisorba 'Tanna' with heavy dark red heads balancing on wispy stalks; and red grasses that I can't remember the name of. You can see just those first two beds planted up in the photo above.

The following week, we went back to the same nursery to tackle another two beds. This time, we chose different things for each bed so that it didn't begin to look too uniform and formal. In one bed, we created a little box hedge and filled it with three box balls of different sizes to give a cloud effect - I'm looking forward to adding in white cyclamen around those in winter. In the other, at the back right, we chose an Acer Bloodgood tree, which will turn a fiery red in Autumn (we have one in the back garden that my father gave me as a gift and it's a total delight), although it doesn't show up so well in the photo as it's currently a dark purple. Beneath it, we planted Sedum 'Matrona' that has green foliage, red stalks and will be covered in clusters of reddy-pink flowers at some point, so it speaks nicely to the colours of the acer; Teucrium Fruticans, which I had to be persuaded on as it's slightly chaotic before being trimmed back to good behaviour, but has nice grey-blue leaves that make me think of eucalyptus; Cerastium 'Snow in Summer' that will flower next spring; and something else that I can't remember.

Here are a few photos of it once those beds were planted up. My husband has since clipped the hedge, which makes a difference to how neat it looks. The garden designer's suggestions were a long way from the cottage garden style I'd been imagining and asking questions about in my previous blog post, but I love what she came up with. She listened to our likes and dislikes and was able to explain really quickly why certain plants would and wouldn't work and removed the many weeks of indecision and pondering that would have occurred if we'd been left to our own devices.

When I consider that the photo below is what it looked like before, I'm really thrilled. This was a small project in comparison to my husband's last, but felt no less impressive for the transformation it brought. How is this possible when he can't put up a curtain pole without the air being filled with dust and swear words as the hole in the wall gets bigger and bigger? I'm beginning to think he has selective capabilities (Nb. I realised as I wrote that that I do too: although I can make clothing from scratch, I still take jeans to the tailor to be hemmed and my birthday present a few years ago was some curtains made by someone who wasn't me).

I've went along on the trips to buy reclaimed tiles, sand, hardcore rubble and plants, but mostly I've just perched on the oak sleepers now and then with Nell at my feet, chatting to him while he's worked. Nell, by the way, has loved this project and enjoyed trotting up and down the driveway and lying in the sun watching people go by as my husband has tamped down tiles. She seems to sense that being allowed in the front garden without a lead is a privilege that requires best behaviour and she's more than risen to that challenge. When she was smaller she seemed to seek out shade, but as a middle-aged dog, she flops down and lets the sun warm her golden hair, pressing her chin to the ground contentedly and sighing from time to time, following your movements with her eyes.

It's been a project of extremes for my husband: most of the time it's been done in 30+ degree heat...

...but then at other times it's been quite wild and wet and required the wearing of full waterproof trousers; I stayed inside with the teenagers and watched Monty Don's Big Dreams, Small Spaces, as I lack the right trousers and dedication to the cause. 

There are two beds to the right of the path that had some old hebes in that had become woody at the base, flowering only at the outermost parts of each branch. When I rang a nursery that specialised in hebes, the man advised that rather than digging it up and replacing it, we should cut it right back to about 30cm while it's still in flower to try and force it to put on new growth immediately that would tell us if it was salvageable (if you're thinking of doing the same, know that it needs an entire bucket of water over it for the first few days and then regular watering afterwards until it's reestablished). We were excited to see beautiful little leaves forming all over the once-bare sticks within twenty-four hours. On the heels of that initial success, we trimmed back all the hebes that are in the bed in front of our living room window that were starting to show signs of doing the same, which has made it look horribly bare, but will hopefully bring long-term gain. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

In the comments to the last post, Deborah mentioned 'lasagne planting', where you stack several layers of annuals to flower consecutively - I was really taken by that idea and am hoping to make a lasagne in a pot, which I think will be my first foray into bulbs. I'm going to wait until September to pick my bulbs when the new Sarah Raven catalogue might be out. I've grown things from her seeds before (sweet peas and cornflowers) and they've always done well, even if the results were slightly curious due to my refusal to thin them out - you can see their crazy selves at the bottom of this post with my lovely grandmother for scale.

My husband is now turning his attention to our back garden, as although he overhauled that several years ago, he has some ideas for a little remodelling in the back corner to give us more space to eat outside and perhaps incorporate some sort of handmade solar-powered water feature.

In other thoughts, you may remember my post about blogging recently. Serendipitously, Abby Glassenberg happened to release an ebook all about blogs and blogging in that same week and when she saw my post she kindly sent me a copy. We've been away (camping with old school friends) and out and about a lot over the last few weeks, but I finally got a chance to sit and enjoy reading it yesterday and can heartily recommend it if you're thinking of starting your own blog or if you're trying to build a business around one. It's called The Creative Blogging Cookbook: What you Need to Know to Grow Your Business Through Blogging. Abby goes through everything you'd need to know providing lots of information, links and references, but isn't overly prescriptive, which I love; the essence of blogs is that they're unique to each author and Abby totally respects that and champions finding your own voice and rhythm.

In finding the link, I happened to see Abby's most recent post on dressmaking, which features her gorgeous garden in the background - I'm always struck by how cramped our houses and gardens are in England by comparison and was left swooning. It's a really interesting post in its own right, with or without the garden stalking.

Is anyone going to the Festival of Quilts this week? It's one of the highlights of my year and I'm hoping to go on Friday with my daughter if I can stand comfortably by then - I was brushing my teeth this morning when I leant forward slightly and felt an intense pain in my spine. It was so curiously painful that I saw an osteopath within a few hours and have been immobilised for much of the day (I've always found walking is good for a bad back in the past, but with this she advised avoiding movement), but I'm dosing myself with Arnica and Neurofen and hoping to still make it - the idea of missing out on all that inspiration would feel quite devastating.

Florence x

Friday, 27 July 2018

I'd love your gardening advice

Long-time readers might remember my God of the Garden (ahem!) post where my husband transformed our back garden (it looks SO neat in those photos - I can't quite believe how much the garden has grown up since then. The laurels at the back of the garden are now over 12ft high and completely obscure the house you can see in those photos - I never really noticed them growing....a bit like the children who featured in that post, who now tower over me as teenagers).

Unfortunately, our front garden was never overhauled in quite the same way. I've noticed online that in the US and Canada, people really use their front gardens and spend time in them, often having a proper porch with seating; in England they generally seem more decorative than functional and so we've always been slightly mystified by the front lawn we inherited twelve years ago when we bought the house. It's was covered in weeds, but even after we returfed it, it quickly became a strange mossy thing that baffled us with its wilful dedication to looking hideous. We used to go on walks and play hunt-the-lawn-that-looks-as-awful-as-ours in an attempt to reassure ourselves that this was normal, but we soon realised that our lawn was unique and that we were quite alone. And this picture was taken before the heatwave began in earnest.

We have a really long, thin driveway that runs the entire length of the house and have always thought we'd pave over the lawn and the path to our front door at some point to make a more usable driveway space, but when we started looking at the gardens we really loved locally, we realised they're all ones that have kept the garden as a garden, so we decided to stay with our impractical driveway and turn the lawn into some flowerbeds bordered by little pathways. After a six year hiatus, my husband felt oddly excited about the prospect of marking out paths and laying paving again.

On the left, you can see the original path from 1927 that goes up to our front door. It's quite cracked, but has an odd charm that would make me sad to dig it up, so we spent a morning at a reclamation yard looking at old tiles that might sit beside it sympathetically. We very nearly came away with some red hexagonal paving bricks that spoke to my love of English paper piecing, until my daughter rightly pointed out that the scale of them was too big for how small our paths are going to be, so we've gone for some old square tiles. They're paler, but I'm hoping that won't matter so much once it's  all planted up.

So, this is our half-finished front garden - I can currently hear my husband tamping down more tiles as I type, which seems a curious activity when it's thirty degrees outside, but he seems to like it. There are going to be four new beds (where you can see the patches of earth). Two rectangles diagonal to one another and two squares. The rectangles measure 0.8m x 1.5m and the squares are 1.5m x 1.5m and it's my job to fill them. My usual approach to planting is based around hebes. I think we have well over 30 hebe of all kinds between our front and back garden and they're my very favourite plant - I love that they're evergreen, low-maintenance and produce masses of flowers a few times a year (we have some that flower in summer and others in autumn and winter). They have served me well as a one-stop plant and have filled the gaps in the back garden. Although I'm keen to continue with this hebe-concentric gardening to some extent, I also feel I could be missing out. So, I have some questions about how I can step out of my comfort zone with these new beds and I'm hoping that the green-fingered amongst you might be able to give me some advice.

As it's a front garden that we'll walk through all year, I want to try and avoid any fallow, bleak periods in my planting, but I also want to celebrate each season with annuals and perennials. And it's here that I'm confused. I'm aware that you need some evergreen shrubs to give a permanent backbone to each bed, but the annuals and perennials bit is confusing me. On our back patio, I plant up masses of pots in spring and summer, but I tend to let most of them lie fallow in winter, save for the odd cyclamen, so I don't feel like I've gathered much experience of in-the-earth planting.

These are the thoughts and questions flying around my head:

  • How can you preserve a space for swathes of annuals like daffodils and tulips, without having large areas of bare soil for the rest of the year? 
  • I've seen some amazing displays bordered by a low box hedge, but I'm not sure I'm disciplined enough to keep a box hedge neat and I don't understand how to plant one so that it all joins together to form a hedge. Are there any other alternatives for less structured gardens that would do this same job? Or some other way of creating a space for annuals?
  • Are there annuals for winter, as well as spring and summer? Maybe this is how you end up without the bare soil problem?
  • Perennials confuse me: you have a beautiful plant and then it dies back and reappears the next year...but that must mean a lot of half-dead looking plants in the long in-between periods - how do you plant to minimise the appearance of the gaps this creates? And how do you decide which season to have your perennial in? Do you plant one for each season in each bed to give a good overall spread, or do you go all out for it looking amazing in one particular season?
  • How do you remember what's an annual and what's a perennial in order to know what to pull up? I'm guessing you must make a plan of the garden to refer back to and update it each time you plant something new?
  • Because of our little paths, I don't want plants that are going to overflow too much, although I do like that slightly messy english country garden look. Any ideas for lovely compact or upright plants? Or just ones that fill a space really nicely without taking over? 
  • If I was planting against a fence, I'd try to do that clever thing that proper gardeners do where they actually think through having tall plants at the back, medium height in the middle and low ones at the front, but these beds aren't quite like that as there isn't a back and I don't want the front beds to completely obscure what's in the back beds and so I feel unsure what to do about different heights. Any thoughts? 
  • Or should I plant low to high and enjoy a different view depending on whether I'm going up or down the path and not worry that the front beds obscures the view of the back beds?
  • Where do you shop for plants? We have an amazing nursery locally that we visit regularly, but I'm seeing all sorts of plant names that I don't think are available there. I'm wondering if there's a good online source where I can fill in the gaps. Is Crocus any good? 
  • It's an odd time of year to be planting perhaps? Lots of the plants I've researched don't seem to be seems like there may be some waiting involved in planning out year-round beds?  
I have a gardening book that I've been pouring over (The Encyclopedia of Garden Design by DK) and the whole of the internet, but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed - sometimes it's hard to root out the answers to specific questions from the masses of information. I've looked into schemes like Garden on a Roll, but I think they give you quite small specimens that really take a few years to grow into the space and I'm impatient and also aware that we may only stay in this house for another four or five years, so I want to enjoy it now. Also, I don't think garden-on-a-roll answers my wish for a mixture of evergreens, perennials and annuals.

I'll leave you with a photo of one of the pots on my back patio that's in bloom at the moment and a thank you for your time if you're able to answer even one of my loopy questions.

Florence x

Ps. The hebe at the top of this post are in a bed to the other side of the path that leads to our front door - they make me so ridiculously happy that if all else fails I could continue to be a one-trick pony,  but I feel compelled to at least try to learn some new tricks...

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Thoughts about blogs

Thank you so much for all the entries on my book giveaway over the last few days. It was really lovely to read all your comments. The eyes-closed-and-pointy-finger-while-scrolling method means that the winner here on my blog was Fran Apolon (do get in touch with your address, Fran), and over on Instagram, @nickifranklin_needlework.

After a bumpy start (you can read more here if you're interested and didn't catch my last post), I'm delighted to say that my book is now finally available in all the usual places. If you'd like a copy and want to shop online, here are a few links: Amazon UK, Book Depository, Waterstones or Foyles, otherwise it's lovely if you'd like to request a copy at your local bookshop or library. I am so grateful to the UK arm of my publisher who went the extra mile to get my book back in stock so quickly. The photo above, by the way, is part of the quilt pattern that features in my book.

Moving on, some scattered thoughts about blogs and blogging. A few months ago, I had an email from a reader that began: "I know housekeeping is something everyone hates but could I put in a polite request for you to check and update the links to other blogs? I just tried out three at random. Only one is still current, with one being a blog that has been removed and another is no longer current." I didn't have time to look into it right away, but recently I took some time out to click through the links in my sidebar. Many of the blog names there felt like old friends and I can still remember a time when they were updated several times a week, so it came as a shock to realise that many hadn't actually posted since 2015.

Many of those bloggers I now follow on Instagram, so I hadn't had a true sense of them going missing (more just a sense of my feedreader having less and less content) but I was sad to realise that one by one so many had abandoned their blogs. It felt like the end of an era realising this. For anyone on intimate terms with every scene of Dirty Dancing (my sister and I spent our teenage years ensuring we were), at this point you can think of me as Max Kellerman, the owner of Kellerman's Holiday Resort standing stage left, saying: You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that's what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days. It feels like it's all slipping away. (But we all know what happens shortly after he utters those rueful words: Johnny Castle comes and takes Baby out of the corner and sweeps Max Kellerman's nostalgia-fuelled misery to one side as the dance floor becomes a wonderous hotbed of wild moves and gyrating dancers of all ages. It has to be one of the best scenes in the history of film-making, even though I can hear my husband in my head vehemently disputing this as I type. But I have never trusted his judgment on this matter; anything that makes your cheeks ache from over-smiling as you watch it has to be good, no?)

But why does it even matter if blogs disappear when the same sense of community and friendships being built across the globe is on offer at Instagram? Well, in many ways it doesn't, but as I seem to have an abundance of thoughts around the subject, I thought I might share some of them here. To clarify, I am a most enthusiastic Instagram user, but as it's primarily Instagram that seems to have taken the place of many blogs (and the frequency of blog posts....I know I used to write more here before it existed), an element of comparison naturally creeps in when discussing this, but it's not intended to an either/or argument...more highlighting why I'm in favour of using both.

Increasingly, I'm trying to think of things not in terms of how much instant enjoyment something might offer, but more in terms of the residual feeling that doing that thing leaves me with. When I think about it in those terms, the things that leave me relaxed, happy and fulfilled can actually be boiled down to a relatively simple list: spending time with family and friends, walking Nell, reading books, writing, sewing, photography, eating scrambled eggs at my favourite coffee shop, listening to podcasts and audio books, cooking, pottering in the garden, and yes, writing my blog and reading other people's blogs too. Although I really love Instagram and social media while I'm actually using them, the residual feeling they leave me with is of having done things fast - as though I've attended a big party where I've stopped to talk to people for a few minutes, while flipping backwards and forwards simultaneously having different conversations with other people also at the party. It's fun, but its freneticism means there will probably always be room in my life for slower-paced mediums, like blogs, too.

In terms of how I view people's work on Instagram, while it's a delicious pool of awe and inspiration, it's also easy to scroll past something never knowing the meaning behind it, the process or journey the maker went on as they made it or what was going on around them as they sewed and what they were thinking, simply because it isn't the right medium for sharing the whole story. Without those things, I think the work seems to lose some of its value for the onlooker. There might be clues in the photos surrounding the picture of their finished quilt if you stop to click through to their profile and look, but it's harder to link all those things together from the default scrolling position. Divorced from these things, it's easy for amazing works of art or beautifully crafted clothing to carry less weight and for us to be less invested in their story as an onlooker. When people make things, it's all the geeky details that I want to hear about...somehow that doesn't happen in the same way on Instagram. To me, the mixture of words, photos and more words offers another layer that invites people in a little more.

I also think blogs offer something special in terms of their format - the banner, side bars and layout make every blog unique - when I arrive at one it feels like I've called in at a friend's house where I'm fondly familiar with their sofa and wallpaper...they might not have updated those things for over a decade, but there's something lovely in that. With Instagram, our photos sit within their brand's framework of evenly spaced squares against a white background - it's enormously appealing from an aesthetic point of view, but doesn't offer the same feeling of visiting someone's house.

And in terms of being the actual poster, I love spending an hour or two writing a blog post - thinking back over a project or formulating my thoughts into some kind of order that's fit for sharing with others (debatable at times, but I try). I rarely know what I'm going to write about when I sit down, so it's always a surprise to find out what's been sitting in my head bubbling away without my even realising. And sometimes, I'll wonder when something happened and search for the answer on my blog and in rereading the old post I'm reminded of a thousand tiny details that would have been lost forever in the sieve of my memory had I not recorded them here.

And then there's the issue of ownership and control. On Instagram, I've chosen to follow particular people because I want to keep in touch with what they're making and what's happening in their life, but invariably Instagram allows only a limited number of those people to show up in my feed and when they do the content is often several days old (it's strange to see people hopefully placing their vote two days after election results have been announced). When I check into someone's profile directly, I often find I've missed the most amazing things because Instagram's algorithm has chosen not to show it to me, which seems a real shame as it stops me from building up a complete picture of who that person is and how their projects have unfolded and developed.

My feeling is that the main issue with blogs is that it's more time-consuming to leave a comment - I'm guilty myself of leaving so many more comments on people's instagram photos than on blogposts...I wish the blogging platforms would make some changes to simplify that, as I'm sure that's part of the problem. A case in point is the giveaway at the top of this post: there were 444 entries over on Instagram and 107 over here on my blog.

I know services like Bloglovin' allow people to comment within their blog reading platform, but I'm not sure that's a solution - it's not always easy to keep track of comments there and it feels sad to take the conversation away from the home of the actual blog - I love the conversations that begin in the comments section here and I like that they're all still there for people to read through when they look through my archives, rather than split up over different locations that aren't a part of my blog. And how to keep up with replying to comments on all those possible platforms too?

So, with that rather random collection of thoughts on the page, let's return to talk of the sidebar and the original request for housekeeping. My links list has always been divided into four types of blog: quilting, dressmaking, general sewing goodness, and 'other things', so I set about visiting each blog in these sections and deleting them from my sidebar if they hadn't posted for several months. There were some that were harder to do this for than others...and I actually allowed myself to leave two in there, on the basis that they are pieces of history, excellent resources irrespective of how recently they've posted, and also because I'm not willing quite yet to let go of the idea that they might actually return to their blogs. By the end of this exercise, some of these sections had only one blog left standing though.

But when I stopped to think about it, I realised that many of my favourite bloggers were still writing on blogs that I'd somehow never added to my sidebar, so I started putting them in and it was one of those strange mind webs where more and more names popped into my head and I discovered that many had blogs I either didn't know about or wasn't following in my feedreader. If you want to take a look at my links list now (scroll down all the way past the patterns and tutorials in the left-hand column), you'll find it updated with so much goodness and I've added in a little widget that shows when people last posted so that you can also see instantly if there's anything new. When I first started blogging, I actually used to use the links list on my blog in place of a feedreader (I don't think such a thing actually existed until about eight years ago...or maybe I just hadn't discovered them).

So, although so many blogs have disappeared, there are still lots of good ones around and I've noticed an increasing number of people saying recently that they've realised they're missing writing their blogs and are thinking of starting them back up again. It feels like Johnny Castle really could be about to burst through the doors and take Baby out of the corner.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this (although I'm not sure I can enter into a reasonable debate about the merits of Dirty mind is not for changing on that).

Florence x

Friday, 29 June 2018

A book give-away

IMG_6347 (1)

As I posted on Instagram earlier today, my book has been available elsewhere for a month now, but today it was finally published in the UK, which feels special for me because of it being my home country. My husband and I celebrated with a trip to the park at lunchtime where we sat and ate feta and olives in the sunshine and bought cake to take home with us.  

I've been surprised and in turn totally delighted by the love and support my book has received from our creative community over the last month - the generous words, reviews, emails, messages and the pictures of it arriving in people's homes have made me pinch myself with how incredibly lucky I've been to have had such an enthusiastic initial response to it - I am so grateful.

Here in the UK, people have shown their support so wholeheartedly that I know many who pre-ordered are now receiving emails from Amazon saying that they're not yet able to fulfil those orders. I'm so sorry for this delay - the copies that came over on the boat from the US were very quickly spoken for (so many thank yous!). However, the wonderful UK branch of my publisher have taken the step of printing locally to fulfil the rest of the preorders as soon as possible, with hopefully some to spare for regular orders and the good news is that those freshly-printed copies were due in their warehouse today and I'm told that it should be back in stock at Amazon for fulfilling orders next week. Apologies and huge thank yous if you're one of the people who kindly pre-ordered and is now being asked to wait a little longer - I'm so grateful both for your order and now your patience. 


While we wait, I thought it might be fun to do a giveaway. I'll be giving away two copies - one here, and one over on Instagram. You can comment on either post or both for a double chance of winning :) No hoops to jump through - just leave a comment and I'd be happy to post to anywhere in the world. I'll announce a winner early next week.

Wishing you a sunshiniest of weekends, 
Florence x

Ps. I've heard from a few people overseas who are having a difficult time getting hold of a copy too, so just as a quick fyi, at the time of writing in Australia Can Do Books have stock; in America, Barnes & Noble have copies; and the UK-based Book Depository ship worldwide and also show stock (I know someone in Scandinavia who ordered from them and magically received her copy a few weeks ago, even though it wasn't released in the UK at that seems there is no fathomable rhyme or reason to it...although their despatch time is currently listed as being a few days). If you're a quilt shop or independent book shop who has stock, do let me know (along with what country you're in) as it's always handy to have somewhere lovely to direct people if asked - a direct message on Instagram is easiest for me to keep track of, but otherwise email is fine. x


Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Exhibitions, films and magazines

There are so many exciting exhibitions on at the moment that I thought I might share a few here, but first, for immediate sofa-based consumption, The Quilter, the quarterly magazine produced by The Quilter's Guild for its members. The magazine is always packed full of interesting articles, features and news about quilt-related events and shows, but being a Guild member is also an investment in our country's quilt-based heritage and sustaining the collection that the Guild holds in York. Since 1979 when the Guild first began, they've been buying quilts to bring together a collection of over 800 today. It feels important that not only does the UK have some central point for curating a history of our quilting, but also a place that works to preserve those examples and uncover some of the history behind each piece. When I was researching my book, I spent an afternoon at the Guild's headquarters in York, studying some of the quilts alongside curator Heather Audin, and it's quite a dreamy place and Heather has so much knowledge to share - from memory, I think they hold regular study days where people can go and look at the quilts.

One of the quilts that the Guild owns is the 1718 Coverlet, which contains the oldest known example of English paper piecing in The British Isles. It's currently being displayed at The America Museum, where I just happened to be recently as my daughter and I had gone up to Bath for a few days as a post-GCSE treat. The museum has a shuttle bus that takes you up from the centre of town and it's a gorgeous location with amazing views from the back of the building.

The coverlet is displayed on a raised platform on the floor, presumably to avoid stressing the fabrics by hanging it, and it feels a very unusual way of viewing a quilt in a museum, but really quite lovely and intimate. The quilt is covered by a sheet of plastic to protect it from light and fingers - I've never actually touched a quilt in a museum or exhibition, but it's an exercise in self-restraint...a momentary slip in concentration and I could quite easily imagine my hand being sucked down into the quilt-stroking vortex.

The blocks in the quilt are placed with vertical symmetry, with each block mirrored across onto the other side of the quilt, although there's no symmetry top to bottom. From this viewpoint, it was interesting to look at which fabrics had deteriorated on one side and to see that the same was usually true on the other side.

The central fabric on these blocks had sadly worn away on both sides of the quilt to reveal the papers beneath - it was quite thrilling to see some handwriting on one of them though. And look at all those little stitches.

These circles have such perfectly smooth outlines and gorgeous colours too. It's amazing to think those stitches were made 300 years ago - the fabrics are still so vibrant. It's rare for this quilt to make an outing as it's so fragile, but to celebrate it's 300th anniversary it will also be on display at Festival of Quilts this year in August, where the Guild will also be sharing some replicas of the coverlet made by its members. I'm so looking forward to seeing the reproductions (and relieved to have already seen the original coverlet in a deserted room, as I imagine it will be swamped at the festival - worth a trip to Bath if you're nearby).

Upstairs at the American Museum, the quilts are hung in enormous frames that you can flip through, or creak through...they are heavy and with each turn sound like an unoiled door opening, which is quite atmospheric.

This was my favourite quilt - a Grandmother's Flower Garden from 1840 - the colours are beautiful and I love the way that they've pieced the borders.

We were also fascinated to find that each individual hexagon wasn't individually wrapped and pieced - in many places two or three hexagons were combined, which you can see in the photo above. It seemed quite ingenious and I couldn't stop looking at it and hunting out the combined pieces, but when I thought about making some myself this way, I found it would feel like cheating. Looking at this weird moral quirk objectively, I realised that it's based purely on an inexplicable 'instinct' as I have no idea who or what it would be 'cheating', particularly when surely it's just actually a new elongated shape in its own right, a bit like the body of a caterpillar. As an aside to this kind of over-analysis, last night at my writing class we were looking at the Myers Briggs questionnaire with the idea that you could complete it on behalf of one of your characters and in doing so get a firmer idea of who they are as you consider what their response would be to each statement. One of the statements to be agreed or disagreed with was something along the lines of: I believe that everything can be analysed. Typing up this post just now and realising that I'm even analysing why I wouldn't combine hexagons, I guess that one is curiously strong in me. The website we used in class wasn't great, but if you're interested in doing a personality test yourself, my husband and I have done this one before and found the results freakily accurate, so much so that our children ended up doing it too and really enjoyed it.

Onwards. Also in Bath, Kaffe Fassett has just opened an exhibition at the Victoria Gallery entitled A Celebration of Flowers. Kaffe had asked that people didn't take any photos inside the exhibition, so I don't have any photos of my own, but he shared this one on his Instagram feed and it gives you a sense of the vibrant colour. The walls had been repainted to Kaffe's specifications in delicious shades of pinks and greens and they really set off the quilts beautifully.  I don't feel I can look at Kaffe Fassett's work without learning something new about colour every time, although the quilts I loved the best were actually made by Kim McClean using Kaffe Fassett's fabrics. Most of Kim's quilts in the exhibition were English paper pieced and they were just exquisite - I'm quite traumatised that I don't have photos of them to re-study them at home (although that's one of them in the background to this photo). This exhibition is so worth making a very long pilgrimage for and it only costs £4.50 to get in and children go free. It's small, so entirely doable in fifteen minutes if you have your family in tow, but they will probably be the best 15 minutes of your day.

We stayed at a really lovely hotel while we were in Bath and that was wonderfully quirky and eccentric in its decor. This was a mural painted on the wall in the bar...

And this was on our bedroom wall, by a local sixth form student, Jamie Mount, aged 17. Our bedroom was up in the attic and really lovely, but even with a Dyson fan we nearly melted and died in our bed at night (it was only about 18 degrees during the day, so I think this may be an all-summer issue). If you're considering staying, it would be worth paying a bit more and going for a room on a lower floor. All guests were free to raid the larder, which was a small room full of soft drinks, sweets, brownies and a freezer full of ice-cream...this detail and the amazing art all over the hotel somehow made up for overheating each night.

It was worth taking the stairs rather than the lift as the staircases are covered in treats. 

We liked these framed pom-poms.

We went to an amazing vegetarian cafe called The Green Rocket a few times where we had wonderful salads and cakes; we also visited The Boston Tea Party for scrambled eggs and had pizzas at Dough Pizza. I can't eat gluten and they had four types of gluten free base, which seemed quite incredible. I went for the gluten free hemp base topped with aubergine and gorgonzola (my own combination, but a winning one) and it was one of the best things I've ever tasted. My daughter said her full-gluten version was amazing too.

One evening we went to the Bath Thermae Spa. The lilac woggles, which people place beneath their arms to enjoy floating around with, are in very hot demand and waiting for a woggle to be abandoned is an amusing situation: both us and others we noticed, watched furtively, not wanting to look too desperate and then not wanting to appear too fast and grabby when one does finally become free, but underneath feeling so very keen to have that damn woggle! We were privately scandalised by one woman who saw fit to hog a woggle beneath each arm when all around her people stood utterly woggleless. Surely there is a clear woggle etiquette. This is only the second spa I've been to and I think ultimately although I find spas fun for very brief periods, I really like to either be 'doing' things while relaxing (i.e. hand-sewing) or to do things to relax (i.e. the hand-sewing becomes the vehicle to relaxation). Passive floating just makes me feel restless. My daughter seemed to feel the same, so we were both ready to relinquish our woggles long before our two hour slot was up and went off to forage for pizza (using a knife and fork: curiously relaxing).

Back in London, at the always wonderful Fashion & Textiles Museum, Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern. I'm really looking forward to visiting this one.

Then over at the V&A, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up. I am more than a little in love with Frida, so I'm really excited about this one. I really enjoyed watching the eponymously named film about Frida's life too (trailer here), although discovering what went on behind the scenes of that movie when the Harvey Weinstein scandal unfolded left a bitter taste in the mouth and took the edge off the movie. You can find Frida in stunning quilt-form here.

Finally, coming full circle to finish where we started, back on the sofa, here's an interesting talk about how our clothes are made and whether we have anything to feel uncomfortable about within that, given on the TED stage by Patrick Grant.


Patrick mentions a few things within the video that you might like to take a look at if you're interested to find out more: his maverick clothing factory, Community Clothing (with gorgeous raincoats); a film called The True Cost about the cost of the fashion industry in terms of human lives; Machines, a film by Rahul Jain, which goes inside a sweatshop in India. I haven't had a chance to watch more than the trailers for the latter two yet, but I'm steeling myself to watch them soon.

Florence x

Ps. Yes, dear readers! I have contact lens and I'm so grateful for all your input in the comments on this post where I was pondering them. I have an astigmatism in my left eye, which meant that they had to do all kinds of weird things to get them to work for me, first with a differently-shaped contact lens that felt hideously uncomfortable and then by compensating within the prescription to allow me to wear regular ones, but they really do work and I feel I've been given the gift of sight. It's always a shock at the end of a day wearing them to take them out and realise that that gift isn't actually permanent or truly mine to keep. I don't wear them every day, as they throw my near vision out, so if I'm having a day at home on my laptop or sewing, then they I leave them out, but they're fun for going out into the world with. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

My Favourite Podcasts (with info for podcast novices)

When I posted last week about my interview on While She Naps, I said that I'd hopefully put together a round-up of some of my other favourite podcasts soon. For me, a mere eight days later doesn't constitute 'soon'; eight days from thought to action feels more akin to having time-travelled into the future like a bolt of lightning - I'm quite surprised to find myself here. But self-surprise aside, before I dive into sharing my favourites, I thought I'd explain a bit about what podcasts are, because I suspect there are probably many people who are yet to be indoctrinated into the wonder of them, perhaps because they don't know how to go about listening to or finding them.

What is a podcast?
Just as blogs offer a way for people to self-publish their written thoughts, podcasts offer the same opportunity in an audible format. Although different mediums, blogs and podcasts have a few things in common: both are free for readers and listeners and both have, in my opinion, a welcome informality and diversity that comes from the content being largely uncensored and self-published. It's not just independent people that have podcasts though - just as many big businesses now have blogs, plenty also create podcasts. What separates podcasts from radio is that you don't have to listen live as things are broadcast - you can listen anytime and enjoy plundering the archives if you find one that you fall in love with. Many radio programmes are now also produced as podcasts shortly after being broadcast live.

How can I listen to one? 
You can actually listen to most podcasts just by visiting the podcast creator's website, which may feel less overwhelming at first if you find technology intimidating. But, if you have a smart phone or tablet, you may prefer to download a podcast app, which allows you to subscribe and listen to a vast array of podcasts through one app and which will automatically update each time a new episode is published. It also allows you to listen on the move - I often play podcasts on my phone when I'm cleaning the bathroom, making dinner or sewing in bed on a Sunday morning.

Downloading a podcast app
Apple has its own podcast app, which you can find here (in order to download Apple's podcast app, you'll need to click that link from your iPhone or iPad, as the app isn't available on a computer). If you have an android phone or tablet (or if you don't like Apple's own podcast app), I believe there are lots of other apps for listening, here are a few that I've seen frequently recommended: Stitcher; Acast; Overcast. Once you've downloaded a podcast app, from within that you can search for things to listen to and, with one tap, subscribe to any that you'd like to keep up to date with.

So, let's get started on some podcast recommendations. Each podcast title is also a clickable link for instant online listening, but you can also subscribe or find any of them by searching for the title in whatever podcast app you use on your phone/tablet. I've divided the podcasts into categories (like a game of Trivial Pursuits): Reading & Literature; Thought-Provoking; Interview; Storytelling; Agony Aunts (yes, really!); Documentary; and Other Podcasts of Note.

Reading and Literature

World Book Club (produced by BBC World Service)

This is probably my favourite podcast - I listen to episodes from the archive back-to-back and it's as comforting and delicious as a plate of macaroni cheese with little gem lettuce (a childhood favourite...the cool crispness of the lettuce is so good against the soft warmth of the pasta). An author takes questions about one of their novels from an invited audience and over the course of fifty-three minutes discusses everything from their writing technique and work processes to where they drew inspiration from; what they felt did and didn't work; or how they felt about particular characters. Very often, I haven't read the novel in question, but this doesn't seen to matter - it's invariably a conversation about the way people think and act, alongside some fascinating insights into an author's writing life. My favourites recently have been: Celeste Ng, Ann Tyler, Tim Winton, Anne Enright and Margaret Atwood.

The Penguin Podcast

This is a relatively new one to me, but the moment I discovered it, it headed pretty much straight to the top of my list of favourite podcasts. Published fortnightly, it features conversations with well-known authors about objects that have inspired their books, often interviewed by someone famous in their own right.


Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell

There are now two seasons of Revisionist History available and it's one of the most well-researched and fascinating podcasts I've found. Malcolm chooses an event, saga, story or idea from history and then explores every facet of it through a mixture of interview, research studies, experiment and his own insights, to see whether our perception of it is actually correct. There's a strong focus on psychology: how people think, why we do certain things (there's an obvious common thread in the podcasts I enjoy). One episode that sticks in my head particularly is Blame Game from Season 1, but they're all excellent.

TED Talks
I imagine TED Talks need no introduction, but just incase, TED offers a stage for short talks given by a range of talented people, who between them delve into every facet of our world to offer a greater understanding of it - gobble these talks up and feel your mind growing. A few that I specifically remember enjoying over the years: Amy Cuddy's Your Body Language May Shape who you Are and Susan Cain's The Power of Introverts.

Sincerely X

Created by the aforementioned TED, this is a selection of stories they wanted to share, but which were too sensitive, painful or potentially damaging to reveal without the umbrella of anonymity. Longer and more storied than your average TED talk.


The Turnaround with Jesse Thorn

I found this podcast fascinating! In each episode, Jesse interviews a well-known interviewer (yes, you read that correctly) about their career, technique, research, and interview style and the conversation is often interspersed with anecdotes about their experience of interviewing particular people. In theory, this podcast shouldn't be of interest to anyone other than those who interview people for a living, but somehow it's completely compelling.

Desert Island Discs 

Probably one of BBC radio 4's best-loved shows, each week Kirsty Young interviews someone well-regarded or famous about their life. Episodes that have stuck in my head: David Nott, a vascular and war surgeon; John Timpson - I found it eye-opening to discover that this chain of highstreet cobblers is run in such a maverick way; Mary Berry; and Judith Kerr.

While She Naps

Abby Glassenberg has been interviewing creatives since 2014 and I'm still enjoying regularly dipping into the archives. It's tempting to pick out the names that I already know, but on the occasions where I've just plumped for someone from a different creative discipline (illustration/embroidery), I've always enjoyed listening just as much. Abby is not afraid of asking her guests hard questions (eep!) and I found this interview, where she chats to the wonderfully talented Luke Haynes about using uncredited female sewists in the making of his exhibition quilts, thought-provoking.


This podcast is an offshoot of the annual Blogtacular event, hosting an array of interesting guests talking about creative businesses, blogging and social media. It's somehow accessible and fascinating listening even for those who don't tend to think those things through in an intentional way (I'd include myself in that). Kat Molesworth is an insanely knowledgeable interviewer, so the discussions often wander off in unanticipated directions, which I love. I really enjoyed Kat's interview with Kate O'Sullivan and through that I discovered her podcast, A Playful Day, mentioned below.

A Playful Day

Kate's interviews cover a diverse range of subjects from parenting a child with autism, to exploring day-to-day life for a couple running an organic vegetable farm. The interviews are thoughtful and personal, with Kate and her interviewees discussing what lies beneath the glossy surface of life.


The Moth

The Moth invites regular people to tell true stories in front of a live audience at venues around the world. There are stories that will make you laugh and cry and there's a delicious diversity of voices, which can feel refreshing if you've found yourself in a Radio 4 listening-spell (that's always a good spell to be in, but sometimes a change is nice...I begin to crave different voices if I listen to too much Radio 4).

Kind World

When the news is particularly bleak and depressing or if my spirits are feeling fragile, I put on an episode of Kind World. Often less than 10 minutes long, this bite-sized podcast tells true stories of kindness and compassion. Occasionally, they can begin to wander toward saccharine, but mostly they just make my heart feel nicely warmed.

Modern Love 

The Modern Love podcasts asks famous actors to read aloud stories that have been previously been published in the eponymously named New York Times column and, following that, shares an interview with the writer of the story. The 'love' covered in the stories is varied: familial love; love of animals; romantic love, lost love, self love...

Agony Aunts

Dear Viv

As children, when my sister and I bought our weekly copy of Jackie Magazine, the first page we'd turn to would be the agony aunt column. When I outgrew Jackie, I later transferred my affections to Sally Brampton's wonderful and insightful advice column in the Sunday Times. I always loved reading Sally's responses - she refused to put herself on a pedestal and frequently referenced her long battle with depression in her answers (Sally very sadly took her own life in 2016), but the advice she gave was invariably brilliant and I enjoyed reading her column to discover the unique and intelligent angle that she'd come from in attempting to help a reader solve a problem. I stumbled across Viv Groskop's agony aunt podcast by chance (I think I found it through the online magazine, The Pool, where she also writes) and have found it an oddly comforting thing to listen to. I'm aware that may sound like a curious statement, but it's the solution, rather than the problem, that I'm interested in. Viv has a down-to-earth and friendly tone that makes her enjoyable to listen to and by the end of an episode, it feels like she's taken something that initially felt scratchy and uncomfortable and repackaged it into something that the person can hopefully deal with, whether through acceptance or change. There's something lovely about finishing an episode feeling equilibrium has been restored, even though the reality is unlikely to be so easy. In a similar vein, Dear Sugars by Cheryl Strayed is wise and funny.


This American Life

I think this was one of the first podcasts I listened to and I still love it now. It covers everything from bizarre quirky news stories to culture, politics,'s really everything and anything. The show's host, Ira Glass, tends to introduce a subject and then explore it through a series of interviews and observations. It's brilliantly researched and produced, and the archives could keep a person entertained for years. This episode about a blind man who navigates the world by clicking his tongue was incredible. I think this extended episode, where This American Life spent a month at a car dealership was the first I ever listened to and it just felt so different and extraordinary that I was previous interest in car dealerships required.

Fresh Air

The award-winning Fresh Air podcast describes itself as 'a weekday magazine of contemporary arts and issues, the show features intimate conversations with today's biggest luminaries', which sounds about right. I often find interesting things on here.

Other Podcasts of Note

The Crafty Planner; Death, Sex & Money (I'm excited to listen to their recent interview with the author Tayari Jones as I'm currently reading her novel, An American Marriage); Woman's Hour; Ear Hustle (recorded inside a prison - eye-opening); Happy Place with Fearne Cotton; BBC World Service 100 Women; Hidden Brain; InvisibiliaSoul Music; Strangers (this is no longer being made, but has a fantastic archive); Loose Ends with Clive Anderson; All in the Mind.

Rather than listening to all of these regularly, I go through phases where I'll dip in and out of each podcast and listen to a few episodes back-to-back. Or I'll have a podcast break altogether and focus on an audiobook, and come back to find hundreds of new episodes to choose from - there's no real rhyme or reason to my listening...which is really the beauty of the podcast format.

I'd love to hear what you've been listening to - whether any of your own favourites are here or if there are any that you can introduce me to.

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.