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 row...like 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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