Monday, 11 March 2019

Mud Wall


Let's begin with a random photo of Bella, just because she's nicer than any of the photos that follow - you can really see her age in this photo as although her fur looks quite plentiful, it also like that of an older, shaggier cat, which I find endearing. She's been acting quite strangely since Honey died and I think she may suspect Nell of having eaten her (a not unreasonable assumption from one who saw Honey was there one moment and then gone the next. Although they never actually spent much time together, so it would be a belated loyalty on Bella's part), as the dynamic between them seems to have changed and now when Nell walks past, Bella has begun punching at her with a curled paw, or worse, swiping with claws out. Nell is terrified and we have twice discovered her whimpering in the utility room, too scared to walk past Bella, who seems to enjoy blocking her way like a school bully (as well as drinking from Nell's water bowl, which is like a great lake compared to Bella's own and so is quite a funny sight). It's odd how utterly defenceless Nell seems in the face of an animal that's less than a quarter of her size - there must be much animal messaging between them goes undetected by humans. This is the problem with starting with a random photo...this post was actually meant to be about paint colours.


Finally fully recovered from flu, last weekend I decided to repaint a wall in the kitchen I've always disliked. Most of our walls are very light, but that one was a curious colour I'd mixed up from odds and ends of paint in our garage. Once I'd created my special shade, I enthusiastically daubed it on without waiting around between coats for things to dry, deciding that was probably just one of those tedious things manufacturers like to tell you to do unnecessarily. I was rewarded with a colour that was curiously patchy and later, the effect of two coats of paint drying at different rates meant it actually began to splinter into tiny cracks like baked mud in summer. Essentially, my painting style is the exact opposite to that of my approach to English paper piecing...it's as though the EPP has gobbled up all the patience and care and left me with nothing to offer to a paintbrush. For this reason, I've always left most of the painting to my husband as he is awesome at it, although he refuses to be drawn into anything that doesn't involve cream paint on the grounds that I could change my mind once the colour is on the wall*.

I imagine without evidence you may feel I am hamming up my wall for dramatic effect, so I thought I'd share a photo, even though it pains me. When I showed it to the man in the paint shop he said, 'Oh, I see! You're painting on wood - I'd misunderstood and thought it was a wall,' to which I had to confess that it was actually a wall and that I'd somehow created a cracked woodgrain effect on it. Do feel free to click to enlarge it if you'd like to admire it in its full glory.


Whenever I pondered the problem of the patchy, cracked wall in my head - about once a week for 18 months - I could only see four options: get the wall freshly plastered, tile over the wall, knock the wall down, or move house. But should you ever find yourself in a similar situation (I can't imagine the person who would, but it would be so nice to know of a kindred spirit if that's you), there's a fifth option that costs barely anything: you can sand the entire wall by hand with some 120-grit sandpaper wrapped around a woodblock and you'll end up with the something similar to a freshly plastered wall and feel immeasurably proud of yourself. It took me three hours of intensive sanding and an unbelievable amount of dust to smooth the wall back, but it worked. I was so grateful much of the wall is covered by cupboards, reducing the area that needed sanding.

The other suggestion my paint shop made to me is that you can get a really smooth line between colours if you use non-bleed masking tape, rather than just regular masking tape - it's much more expensive, but I can now see definitely worth it. I also watched a wonderful YouTube video that said sometimes you can get a little channel where two walls meet (we have one of those) and if you paint along that it will stop you from achieving a crisp wall (very true - the cracked mud was far from crisp in this area), so the trick is to actually paint an 1/8" onto the adjoining wall and paint a little way around the corner, in this case onto the cream wall (see the below photo). Anyway, after all that preparation and study, I found myself turning over a brand new leaf and took extreme care with my painting and even enjoyed it. My entire family offered surprised congratulations on its successful completion.


With the relative triumph of the green wall still fresh in his mind, my husband felt it was safe to risk buying me two thick Farrow & Ball books all about painting and decorating for my birthday last week and they are things of wonder. I actually read both of them cover to cover, rather than just looking at the pictures, and learnt so much. They are really nicely written - not prescriptive or rule-based, but full of inspiration and encouragement. I liked also that although they take their paints seriously, they don't seem to take the act of decorating itself seriously and see it more as grounds to have fun and play with colour, confessing to pretty much redecorating their own homes once a month.


While I really loved neutral colours like the ones above and use them pretty much everywhere, my heart does do a little leap every time I see a photo of a room with intense, saturated colour or a beautiful wallpaper and what I learnt while reading these books is that if you have a really tiny room, painting it in neutrals may only draw attention to its smallness or make it feel a bit nothingy, where using a lot of delicious colour and pattern will make that the thing that people notice. This really reminded me of the way my mum decorated when I was growing up, where a small downstairs loo was always an excuse for her to use some crazy riotous wallpaper - I particularly remember her using this red Laura Ashley Floribunda wallpaper when I was a teenager (curiously, my parents now live in a house where every wall is painted white as it suits their architecture best that way, although my mum is still quite dramatic with upholstery and fabrics). But anyway, my thoughts have turned to decorating my own downstairs loo and possibly my husband's small office too, which feel like contained areas to unleash some colour, so I've been having fun ordering wallpaper samples and thinking about paint colours.


For the last fifteen years, I've always used Little Greene's paints - they're deliciously thick and have a nice chalky finish, but after reading Farrow & Ball's books about their use of pigment and the explanation of why their paint is necessarily so thin, I'm beginning to wonder if anyone who has used them has noticed the difference? Is it discernibly more lovely? Does it seem to magically change in different lights in a way that other paints don't?


In the photo above, bottom is Little Greene's paint chart, on top is Farrow & Ball's. I want them all.


Before I go, I want to leave you with a photo of the birthday card made by my daughter - my family always make me handmade cards and its become something of a one-horse competition between them, where every year when my daughter's card is unveiled (it's always made in complete secrecy to increase her chances of winning and avoid any copying, which did happen one year), my husband and son end up laughing as they realise that yet again she has blown them both out of the water.


This year, she'd made a pop up card, where inside a heart sprang out of a 3D I love you. All the colours are hand-painted and the words and heart create beautiful shadows. Their cards are always my favourite part of my birthday and I love that I now have so many years' worth of them. The weather was foul on the actual day, so we met my dad for breakfast, pottered around the old bit of town (the bit you'd go to if you're not buying practical things) and then the garden centre, and later that afternoon, my parents came over for cake once our children were home from school. It was a really lovely day and made me feel sometimes the simplest birthdays can be nicest. Also, my husband asked a local cafe to make a birthday mocha cake that's both gluten-free (me) and vegan (daughter) and it was one of the best I've ever tasted - the effect of a cake to make a day perfect can't be underestimated. Which reminds me of the time several years ago when we were considering moving to Winchelsea, only to return to find the village shop had stopped serving fresh cake and, despite it still being the most glorious place to live, we realised the cake had been the main pull for us and neither of us wanted to move anymore.

Wishing you a happy week,
Florence x

* Frustratingly true - when repainting the mud wall I first used Little Greene's Pearl Colour Dark and that was too minty in the afternoon sun for my purposes, so I then had to tape everything up again and repaint it in Little Greene's Normandy Grey, which is the sage green you can see in the photos above. What's troublesome about that, is that my painting had been perfect the first time and a little less so the next time (not much, but enough to make me feel like I want a framed picture of the first attempt even though the colour wasn't right).

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

An Uncertain Trip Around the World


The last time I used the Scrappy Trip Around the World Pattern was in 2013 when I made a Liberty print dog bed for Nell (do click through if you want to see the extreme testing process she subjected that bed to. Oddly, it ended up being the only bed that was truly indestructible when she was a puppy and, despite her best efforts, all those lines of quilting made it freakishly strong. Looking back at this makes me realised what a semi-civilised little creature she's become - she would never try to eat her own bed now).

The eagle-eyed will be relieved to know these finished blocks aren't actually sewn together yet, but it gives you an idea of the World Tour I'm on right now. If I were to send you a postcard at this point, it would probably say that I'm not entirely sure I like the place I've ended up in - I've struggled with this palette a lot, which is a mixture of linens, striped linens and Tana lawn. I chose them because I thought they'd work in the room where I want the quilt to live, which has lots of different shades of yellow and mustard in it but somehow doesn't feel like a room with lots of colour (the colours seem to register as neutrals), so when I chose the fabrics for this I went for far plainer things than I'd ever usually choose for a quilt...which I'm now finding rather dull to sew with. I'd imagined the texture of the linens would soften it all and make it feel like fun to work with, but I'm not sure they've actually had that effect on me.


I'm finding it hard to separate the dullness of the sewing process with whether I actually like it as a quilt. My husband and daughter love it, but I'm finding it more masculine than I'd intended and I'm not sure how to soften it - here a few blocks laid out on the sofa where it will live. 


Despite my making a quilt for this room, it isn't currently quiltless...it's just full of the wrong quilt. I think I've talked before about how my husband favours using the bright red Charlotte Barlett quilt (ignoring that it was made as a garden quilt) claiming it's more comfortable to lie under than any other quilt, but its brightness has the effect of making me feel I've had the colour equivalent of a slap around the face with a wet kipper every time I walk into the room and, even after a few years of seeing it on the sofa, my eyes never seem to adjust to how garish it looks against cream walls.

In the planning stages of this quilt, I realised if my husband were to accept a replacement, it would have to be so irresistibly snuggly that the red quilt would begin to seem almost unbearably scratchy and cold by comparison. Installing a layer sandpaper and ice packs would be one strategy, but ideally I wanted to achieve this feat without causing him discomfort or sabotaging the red quilt for garden use (although the ice packs could totally work in the event of a heatwave).


Just before Christmas, I was ordering some things from Billow Fabrics and decided to put a fat quarter of sherpa fleece in my bag, wondering if it might be suitable as a quilt backing. When it arrived, I found that it wasn't just suitable, but was actually the fabric of dreams. It's incredibly soft and fluid, with very little bulk, but somehow feels spectacularly sumptuous. I feel almost certain that if there is a fabric that can tempt my husband into abandoning the red quilt, it is this one.

But when I went order some more I found it had all gone and didn't seem to exist elsewhere in the UK - if you wish to create a visual image to represent the inner workings of my head on discovering that, just picture The Scream and you're pretty much there. I got in touch with Jenny and found she hadn't been intending to get any more in stock until next Christmas (more Edvard!), but she very kindly offered to order a roll in for me so I could buy some without waiting all year. In case you're wondering, she did this without my relaying the tale of my husband's improper use of the garden quilt or my conveying any profound desperation in the email - it was just exceptional customer service - I was so happy!

I'm imagining using it without any batting, as I think the sherpa will fulfil the purposes of batting and backing in one, which makes it extremely cost-effective. I'm not sure what it's going to be like to work with in terms of quilting - I worry it may be a little eel-like, but I'll report back. Either way, at this point, I'm very excited about it! Does anyone know how much cuddle fabrics shrink? Should I wash it beforehand, or will it be fine to wash afterwards with just a normal amount of welcome quiltcrinkle occurring?

If you haven't come across Billow Fabrics before, do go and take a look - they have lots of lovely linens (including Liberty linen, which I've only just noticed!), a wide variety of cuddle fabrics, gloriously coloured wool felts, and Liberty fabrics (which was probably what I was ordering when I spotted the sherpa).


So, this is currently what's on my design wall. Just getting to this point has taken me forever...but maybe that's because I had the remains of flu while sewing these blocks, so was sewing a line and then resting, sewing a line and then resting - I didn't remember this being a pattern that takes long to come together. I can't decide if I love it or am just a bit meh about it...if it ends up being the latter then I may be posting about it in a few years time and, as with the red quilt, trying to make a replacement for it, but finding nothing can compete with the softness of the sherpa fleece and therefore being stuck with it forever...

Finishing all the uncertainty with a flu update: nearly three and a half weeks later, I still have a cough, but I think I may finally be nearly better! I started the new week feeling really quite perky, evidenced by cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming before 9am! Extraordinary scenes with or without the remains of flu in my case.

Wishing you a happy week,
Florence x

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Public Quilt Photography


I rarely venture into public places to photograph quilts for my blog - I've always tended to be more of a covert, indoor sort of quilt photographer; my own back garden or my parents' house reserved for those times when I've wanted to go wild and step my location up a level (I wonder if you realised you were experiencing the deluxe option on those occasions?).

Writing my book forced me to venture outside, and I found my eyes started to hone in on possible photoshoot locations: old barn doors with peeling paint work, drystone walls, or weathered gate posts, the sight of one appearing like a mirage in the distance causing me to up my pace and race toward it (some would say scuttle, but it's not the style of the dash that's important). I hadn't imagined venturing out with a quilt after my book was finished though, yet it seems a switch has flipped within me, and I've unwittingly joined the league of quilters who take their quilts out into the wild to photograph them. On country walks, I now notice an attractive wall and feel a yearning to bring a quilt back next time to drape over it - possibly a relatively normal thing within our community, but I suspect a distinctly odd thing within the context of the wider world.


Despite my husband being a relaxed accomplice in this activity and our route being largely unpopulated except for sheep, I felt oddly self-conscious - as though I were a burglar stealing photos. If someone was sighted in the distance, I felt compelled to stuff the quilt hastily back into the rucksack and then loiter until the person had passed (possibly worse than just being the oddball taking photos of a quilt - when you're waiting to do something until someone has gone, it is almost impossible not to look shifty).

I suspect it may all feel more normal in summer when a picnic blanket is a legitimate thing to take on a walk, but as there was still snow on the ground in the more shaded places on this walk in January, it would have been hard to carry off...



The photo below is from the same walk - unlike the quilt, Nell could not be packed away into a rucksack and her love of wallowing in mud means people often actually gasp when they see her. It's lovely though, as people only ever seem to gasp in delight, rather than revulsion, and I love seeing how much people love dogs and accept their odd ways. I sometimes wonder where the people are who don't like dogs (so essentially, where was I, pre-Nell? For newer readers, I haven't always loved dogs - you can read about how Nell ended up coming to live with us here). Maybe they're not on muddy walks in the country, but are more pavement-dwelling...


Below is a photo from another walk that feels worth including while on the subject. She is like a hybrid animal, halfway between a dog and a pig, dropping to her stomach to commando crawl through mud the moment she sees it. Initially, I feel the pain of knowing how hard it's going to be to clean her when we get home, but once I've resigned myself to that, it's the most joyful thing to watch. 


For reference, this is what she looks like before she's found a patch of mud. I didn't know it was possible to feel so much love for a creature's jowls, but this photo fills me with fondness for her saggy cheeks.


One day, I might undertake some less covert quilt photography as a social experiment to discover if quilts could actually cause strangers to come and chat in the same way that Nell does...I don't imagine the world loves quilts quite as much as dogs, but who knows what surprises might be in store. Anyway, back to the quilt.

You might remember that I hand-pieced the quilt and wrote a tutorial for making one here. At that point, I hadn't quilted it though. Quilting has never been my strong-point - while I feel like a confident piecer, when it comes to quilting I still feel like a beginner. I'd always imagined my quilting skills would improve with each quilt, but if anything they seem to get worse - I fail to see the quilting pattern that will take the piecing to a new level and lack the skills to execute my quilting with any kind of style, so I consulted Instagram to see if people who have more prowess in this area could help me.


Imagine putting such a question out there and being told by a friend who lives a few streets away that she's written a book exclusively about hexagons, including ways to quilt them, and that she'll pop over the next day to drop it in for you? That actually happened to me, in the form of Carolyn, who has actually written over a dozen books, which is possibly why I'm not familiar with all of them.


This quilting pattern from her book, Hexagon Happenings, was the one that jumped out at us. I don't have any interspersing triangles in my quilt, but we decided I could use the pattern on the hexagons alone.


While Carolyn was here, I asked which thread colour she'd use for the quilting. I'd been expecting her to say something like grey or dark blue, which were the only colours I could imagine sinking in to so many differently coloured prints, but she surprised me by taking an olive green from my thread rack. The minute she laid the thread across the fabrics though, I could see how well it went with them. It didn't blend away, but it seemed to stand out in a way that made the fabrics look even more lovely. For me, it was a fairly mind-blowing moment and it's caused me to look at thread colour slightly differently since, feeling that these details are all things that can be lovely and celebrated in their own right - they don't have to be something that blends away (if you ever get the chance to take a class with Carolyn, leap at it!I feel sure it's these tiny things that are actually the game changers).


With a quilting pattern and a thread colour decided, Carolyn left me to my own devices, and I had the rare experience of diving into something decisively, feeling sure of my choices. The template in Carolyn's book was for a different size of hexagon, so I redrew it on my computer (it would probably be quicker to just mess around with scaling up by different percentages on a photocopier, but I love that kind of laptop work, so was happy to redraw them) and then made a template using a sheet of plastic - it was painstaking work and took a few hours, during which time I variously felt like a surgeon and a psychopath to be brandishing a scalpel so intensely. It turned my head inside-out deciding which bits of plastic to leave joined so that the template would hold together even once the quilting lines had been cut out, but I eventually got there and was pretty pleased with my work!


I transferred the lines onto the quilt about three columns at a time using a Sewline pencil filled with ceramic leads. I switched between leads to mark the fabric, using a mixture of pink, white and green - whichever showed up best on the fabric. The action of the quilt rubbing against itself seemed to remove the lines at just the right moment and I needed to do very little work to remove them, but equally they stayed long enough for me to quilt over them. They don't rub off everything though, so it's worth exercising some caution and testing them on your fabric first if you're going to use them.

I then played around with free-motioning the design on some offcuts, which was fairly disastrous, so in the end I kept the feed dogs raised and used a regular foot (my machine has integrated dual feed, so I don't need a separate walking foot). For such a twisty-turny pattern, it actually worked surprisingly well and, incredibly, I also really enjoyed doing it (incredibly because I often find machine sewing quite dull, as I don't like the way it ties me to one location).


I'm now going to put on my boasting hat, so brace yourself. I think such a thing is meant to be reserved for the arrival of grandchildren, but I feel compelled to put it on for my first-born nicely quilted quilt, and say that I think I might have gone from utterly useless to pro in one quilt under Carolyn's expert tuition. If I never manage to quilt anything as nicely again, I'm fine with that, because this can be my one shining example of Quilting That Actually Looked Good. I love everything about it - I like how it's softened the columns of hexagons; how it's more complex than anything I've done before; how there aren't too many obvious mistakes; and how the olive green thread looks like a perfect but unexpected choice.


Here's another photo of it from a different angle.


It should be said at this point that I somehow messed up my binding - I don't know how, as I've never done this before, but it's slightly wider on the back than the front, which drives me nuts and I think I may have to unpick it and redo it - you'll note that the boasting hat has now been taken off: pride, fall. Whatever. (As an aside, isn't pride comes before the fall the most loathsome expression - it's the kind of saying that sucks the joy out of life. I'm pretty sure I can remember Rachel Lynde saying it in Anne of Green Gables and it feeling like a prime example of what a sourpuss she was, although I think she eventually redeemed herself. I would never think of that expression in relation to anyone else, so I'm unsure why I allowed Rachel Lyndeishness to pop into my head for myself just then).


This is my favourite photo of my quilt, taken as a gust of wind made it billow out, but thankfully it was spared from the mud patch below.

On flu-recovery update: I was off the sofa and had two days where I returned to normal day-to-day activities, which was really lovely, but I now have an annoying cough and feel out of breath doing even the simplest things, as well as looking like someone has sucked all the colour out of my cheeks and replaced it with something grey. Will I ever be well and look normal again, I wonder? A friend left a stash of treats on my doorstep to aid recovery and thankfully I've found I've been able to nibble on them without having to use a nebuliser though. Phew.

Do let me know your thoughts on public quilt photography, and also dogs vs quilts if you have any insight with the general non-quilting public, or your own thoughts on the matter.

Florence x

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Thoughts around Paperclips


You may be forgiven for wondering if you've stumbled upon the Country File blog - this little face was the first thing that leapt out at me when I went into my folder to find a photograph to illustrate this post - it was taken a few weeks ago on a walk with my husband, but bears no real relevance to what follows (especially as it exists outside).

Today marks the first day since the 10th February that I've been outside, having been bedbound, or more lately sofabound, for ten whole days with flu. I slept through the first three days and four nights, only waking to drink water and shiver dramatically with audibly chattering teeth. On the fourth day, I managed to stay awake for longer than five minutes and lay in bed doing nothing other than thinking r e a l l y  s l o w l y about things like how they get the plastic coating onto paperclips (my main consideration was how they coated them with no blobs or missed bits, or whether the coating was actually a pre-formed tube that was carefully slid onto each paperclip). I then moved on to thinking about how they get the led into pencils. Thoughts like these entertained me for at least twenty-four hours and were interspersed regularly with the conviction: I'm going to look this up on my phone and find a video that shows how it's done once I'm well enough to hold my phone.

On the fifth day, when I was well enough to hold a phone, I realised I'd enjoyed not holding one so much that I didn't want to start again, and reached instead for my Kindle, where I spent the next five days devouring books in-between extended catnaps. Here's what I read:

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund - this book was incredibly beautifully written - there were certain sentences that made me stop and reread them over and over for how perfectly formed they were, my favourite being 'Winter collapsed on us this year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed.' But actually, as a novel, I didn't really enjoy it - the motivations of the characters felt too exhaustingly far from a place I could relate to in order to warm to any of them and the bleak confusion of it all matched my fluey-state and made the story feel like part of a bad dream (this was shortlisted for The Man Booker in 2017, so others clearly felt differently).

Next, I read Life Drawing, by Robin Black, a recommendation from my dad, who'd read an old review of it in the Guardian online and texted to say he thought I'd like it. I really love books where a good part of the narrative is based around the character's creative process (I loved Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere for this, and Anita Amirrezvani's The Blood of Flowers did it excellently too). Life Drawing centres around painting, but for some reason that part of the book didn't engage me in the way I'd hoped, although I did enjoy it generally and the last quarter was a page turner.

My next choice was Convenience Store Woman by Murata Sayaka, the much talked-about translation set in a Japanese convenience store. It's a quirky story that makes some interesting comments about life and the way we are as human beings, and I liked the central character who struggles to fit in with society's expectations, but found a storyline with a co-worker who went to live with her felt implausible, and ultimately it stole away some of the book's credibility for me.

I then read half of two different books, and gave up on both of them, so they'll remain nameless, but at this point, I was feeling I'd had only one true hit and several misses and semi-misses and should avoid choosing any more books, but then the next one was a corker. The moment I started reading Natalie Hart's Pieces of Me, I sank into the writing and knew I wanted to stay there for longer than the pages of the book would allow. It's a love story set between Iraq and America and shows the effect war can have on the psyche of those who fight in them.

Next came Meg Wolitzer's The Female Persuasion, which I chose because it came really high on the Readers Choice Awards 2018 on Goodreads. The overarching theme (as you might imagine from the title) is feminism, which is unpicked and dissected through a myriad of different storylines within the book, but the bit that really carried me away are the wonderful characters Meg creates, so richly drawn that I felt I knew them. She also writes brilliantly about being young and idealistic and trying to discover who you are. I've added several of her other titles to my 'To read' list - have you read any of them, and do you have any favourites?

Finally, on day nine of my extended stay in bed, I started reading The Leavers by Lisa Ko, which I'm yet to finish, but it's excellent so far and centres around the life of an illegal immigrant and her child.

In between all that reading, I also watched some good things on television. On the recommendation of a friend, my daughter and I watched the BBC three-part series of Andrea Levy's The Long Song, which was excellent, if disturbing (it centres around slavery in Jamaica). We also tore through the new Amazon Prime series, New Amsterdam, which is set in a New York hospital (think Grey's Anatomy, but better), and we're enjoying watching each episode of Cold Feet as it arrives (Monday evenings). 

I picked my husband up from dropping his car in at the garage this morning at 8am and we stopped in at a nearby supermarket to do some food shopping. It felt quite odd to be out in the world and by the time we arrived home forty minutes later, I felt ready for another lie down. I'm hoping to have the energy to see if a sewing needle weighs too heavily in my hand this evening...

As a flu-related footnote, I can tell you that keeping one's skin in a stable environment (with none of the indoors/outdoors shenanigans that normal life requires) does amazing things and it feels weirdly smooth and seems to require no moisturisation or any of the usual things it cries out for - if only I could stay indoors forever. The last time I had flu this bad was at the turn of the millennium when it stayed for three weeks - I remember dragging myself into work half-delirious several times (I worked for a paper and regularly started my shift at 4am and am sure I nearly died on a London bus going into work early one January morning), but being sent home each time, and there too sleeping through several entire days...it took me weeks to feel normal again, but when I finally did, I found that all the extra sleep left me feeling super-charged, so I'm excited to get to that point again...

I'm also relieved to have started reading again as I didn't read a single book for the whole of January, which felt like an odd thing indeed. What are you reading or watching at the moment? 

Wishing you a lovely week, 
Florence x

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Very Best of Shelves


In my last post, I briefly mentioned 'the very best of shelves' and, probably lured by the mention of plastic golden retrievers, there was a request from Caroline to see it. So, here it is, along with a full inventory of the area, and a backstory for each item. Note that some of the items I consider to be an integral part of the shelf's contents, are too big to fit on the actual shelf.
  • Beginning at the very left of the above photo, there's a black Rifle Paper tin, full of recipe cards. Only one of those recipe cards has ever been filled in, but I like to keep it on my desk as one day I might add to them and it's good to have some untapped potential sitting in front of me. Also, I like the pattern on the outside, so there's really no pressure over whether my potential in this department is ever unleashed. Win win. 
  • Resting on top is a pink rag-paper envelope, complete with gold hand-printed patterning and glorious tassel. I bought this in a shop in Rye nearly a decade ago (I think the shop was called The Paper Place and it was a real treasure trove). I'd intended to give it to someone in the form of gift packaging, but several years on I still haven't been able to part with it, so I think we can probably call this mine now. 
  • In front of the tin is a Liberty print postcard. I rarely buy fabric online from Liberty as they only sell it in hard-to-afford one metre cuts (they sell in 1/2 metres in-store), but just occasionally there's a need for it, and I'm always excited imagining which postcard might be included with my parcel, although last time there wasn't one and I was crestfallen. This one (above) was a real joy though as it's one of my favourite prints.
  • Moving onto the actual shelf, this section is like a miniature memorial garden of EPP rosettes that didn't make the cut. Front left is a rejected centre to this piece, while back right is the sun-bleached rosette that didn't make it into this piece
  • The wooden doll was a gift from my mum a few years ago - it has a slot cut in it so bias binding can be wrapped around it for storage, but I don't actually have any binding that needs storing due to being an ill-prepared sort of creature who makes binding up several days after I first needed it, but I love the doll all the same so it lives on the shelf. If you do have binding that needs storing, then you have admiration and you can find your own Binding Baby storage here
  • Behind that is the stretch limo of postcards (fitting for the very best of shelves) featuring dresses on lovely ladies, from the Orla Kiely exhibition at The Fashion & Textiles Museum. A friend and I took our daughters there for an afternoon and the postcard is a memory of a lovely day and a souvenir too, as Orla Kiely has sadly since gone into administration. 
  • My children created this Lego sewing machine for me as a Christmas gift back in 2010. It came in a handmade box with step-by-step instructions on how to put it together and nearly made me cry with its loveliness. It is one of my most treasured possessions. 
  • The tiny wooden pig has kept me company since I was four years old. I was, and still am, quite crazy for pigs and it's their lovely faces that caused me to stop eating sausages (and all other meat) in my first year at primary school. I decorated the walls of the bedroom I shared with my sister with pig posters and cards, and on outings wore a woollen cross-body handbag with a piglet knitted onto the front. The tiny wooden pig was nestled inside that bag, amongst a collection of boiled sweets that slid out of their wrappers during a holiday in Greece - I can still remember the trauma of realising the wool had been made sticky and sugary; the bag never felt as nice after that and I always dreaded putting my hand in to get something, when once it had been such a delight...but either way, the wooden pig survived its time in the woollen pigsty unscathed). 

The plastic golden retrievers are now in view, but I'm working up to them in order, so don't skip ahead in the excitement! 
  • This is just one of the many conkers my son has given me over the years, usually with a characterful face drawn on. This one has the wondrous addition of small fangs and is probably about six years old now. My very favourite one, which looked like a small baby, I carried around in my handbag for years until it disintegrated, so I'm enjoying this conker while I still can.
  • I bought the EPP printing blocks as a photo prop for my book and liked them so much they made their way onto the shelf. And as I've linked to everything else I've mentioned, here's a link to my book šŸ¤—!
  • The small blue business card bearing a rabbit (just in view) was sent with an order from Chloe Giordano's lovely shop - do go and have a look - her embroideries are divine. I've bought several of her cards and they always feel like a real treat to send to people. I also had one framed as a Christmas gift for my mum. (I love beautiful business cards - the one on display changes fairly frequently, but this one is a favourite). 
  • Finally, yes finally, we arrive at the plastic golden retrievers! The items that truly make this the very best of shelves. My husband bought the larger one for me while passing through Fenwicks' toy department. I don't think he really expected me to treasure it in the way that I have, but I loved this curious gift and liked imaging what might have been going through his head when he chose it for me. I still haven't quite worked that one out, but noting its success, a few years later he bought me a golden retriever puppy to go alongside it. His mission is now to buy curiosities that will be considered special enough to go on the the shelf. I'm not sure how he could beat this offering though. If Marie Kondo were to put this plastic duo in front of me and say 'Florence, do these dogs spark joy in you?', I would say 'Yes, Marie, joy by the bucketload,' and put them straight back on the shelf. 
  • You may have noticed the die-cast Mini just peeping into shot. Cars don't feature heavily in my thoughts, but I do love very small ones with beautiful design features - pastel-coloured Nissan Figaro, tiny Fiat 500s, old Morris Minors (we had two in succession when I was growing up - one of which had a rusty hole in the floor covered with a mat to stop the air rushing in around my father's feet as he drove, and both of which made a cosy whining noise as they turned into our drive, which we called its 'home-time noise' as it never happened at any other time - it must have been something about the speed of the engine and the angle of the turn that produced the sound. We then got our first modern car, an Alfa Sud, another awesome small car, which I remember us all being astounded by because it had a push up sunroof and went a LOT faster than the Morris). As an adult, I've always loved Minis for the position of the headlamps, which look like eyes, and the beautiful round dials inside, so this die-cast one was a gift from my husband a few birthdays ago (I think he always buys this type of gift as a little extra or a stocking filler, not realising that they're actually the main event). 
  • The other printer's block letters were a gift from my sister and they can be a bit of a mystery as most people think they read if, which I quite like as 'if' is a word that has so much possibility, but actually its our initials: Ian and Florence. 
  • Moving along the shelf, we come to this appliquĆ©d version of me, beside the doll version of me, which is all very me-centric. I first bought one of these handmade dolls as a gift for my sister - her one looked just like her, in that it had blonde hair instead of brown - and I liked it so much that my husband bought a dark-haired version for my birthday. It arrived with this gorgeous little panel with my name stitched on! They're made by Just So Sara - do take a look at her shop if you'd like your own me-centric doll. 
  • Hidden behind the doll (who is clearly far more adventurous when it comes to hair accessories and spends longer in the gym...which wouldn't be hard as I don't spend any time in it), is what my daughter and I like to call 'the stolen tin'. This was a gift given to my daughter by my mum years ago, but we later agreed that I appreciated it far more than she did, so would become its caretaker. Here was the conversation we had while tidying her room together one day that enabled the theft: Do you really love that tin? - Erm, yeah, it's nice - Just nice? - Mmm, yeah, it's okay - Oh, because I actually reeeealllly love it - Do you? - Yes, I think I like it a lot more than you do. Do you want me to have it for you? - Okay, you can look after it then). It's now filled with carefully cut fabric flowers ready to appliquĆ© in an emergency, which makes me sound like the kind of person who would have pre-made bias binding to hand after all, doesn't it! Also the kind of person who shamelessly steals things from her daughter's bedroom...don't worry, I think badly of me too.
  • Moving onto the desk, we have a beautiful turquoise tin that, when turned, plays music and the horses go around the merry-go-round - a gift from my mum. I really love music boxes and this one feels extra special as she bought a matching one for my sister, who is my merry-go-round riding companion in life (literally - as adults we've leapt on them together in Spain, France, Russia, and around the UK)
  • Below that, a Diptique candle with a scent called Baies, a gift from my sister after we'd been to one of her scans while she was pregnant. It's entirely coincidental that the name of the candle is one letter short of the word 'babies', but I always read it that way as it felt so in keeping with the day. It smells amazing, by the way, although nothing like babies.
  • On top of the candle sits a tiny swatch of Liberty silk that Alice Caroline included with an order. It shows barely any of the print, but the exquisite turquoise background and the tiniest bit of petal creeping in make this one of my favourite fabrics ever, so the swatch lives in the shelf-overflow area (sadly, they didn't have a larger piece for me to buy). 
You may have noticed one limitation with the shelf, and that's that it's just below the point where the roof begins to slope, so all shelf items are limited to being about 5" tall, but I quite like the challenge of that. The items on the shelf get shuffled and edited quite frequently, but I'm actually going to put a second shelf up next to it to make one long shelf, and although bigger isn't always better, I have hopes that it may become the very best of the very best of shelves.

Thanks so much to Caroline for inspiring this post. 

Florence x

Monday, 28 January 2019

Broken China


I started this project in August 2017, when I made just one pink flower rosette. At that time, I had vague plans to turn it into something, but only in the way that I also have vague plans to build my own house one day; really I was happy to keep it on my shelf of small things, which contains the gift of two plastic golden retrievers from my husband; a Lego sewing machine; several printer's block letters; a tiny wooden pig I've had since I was four; a die-cast model of a Mini; a shrivelled conker with a face drawn on it that my son gave me several years ago; and a few postcards - it is the very best of shelves (how could it not be with two plastic golden retrievers on it!?).


Anyway, last year when my sewing room was being photographed for a magazine, I decided I should actually have something, anything, on my design wall and the flower rosette got taken off the very best of shelves and put on the very worst of design walls, where two skylight windows directly opposite aggressively bleach the colours from anything that's placed on it (there was a reason it had been empty before the photoshoot). But afterwards, I so enjoyed having all my works-in-progress pinned up on the wall, that I decided to take a risk and leave them there - it was October and heading towards a dark English winter and I thought the damage was likely to be minimal.


This was the result - the rosette at the bottom of this photo is the one that I made in 2017...the top three are the ones I made in 2019. Sadly, the difference in colour meant that 'Rosette Mark I' has had to be returned to the very best of shelves and couldn't be incorporated into this piece. This doesn't really explain how I have gone from having only vague plans for this, to re-sewing it and then making many more until I had an actual 'thing'. I'm not sure I actually have an explanation for it, so I'm looking forward to a built-by-me house also magically appearing some time soon too.


All I can say is that I have enjoyed making all the little components for this piece immensely! It's a project that's seemed to have a wonderful rhythm to it and hasn't been in danger of stalling at any point once it go going again, even if at times I have become distracted by photographing the various components hanging on teacups...


...and resting on my palm. For me, a project is only really worthy of the label Extreme Fun, if it has been as much fun to photograph as it has to sew. This one was.



I wrote in my book about particular fabrics having a habit of reappearing over the lifetime of a stitcher's work, and the ones here are favourites that often seem to creep into mine. There is something about these china blues, alongside my very favourite shade of pink, that I can't get enough of. A few people on Instagram commented on it looking like pieces of broken china and that's what it reminded me off too - both in colour and in how fractured the pattern looks, hence the name.


Moving onto the vital statistics: in total, the finished piece measures just less than 8.5" square and contains 408 pieces. The pieces don't feel anything like as small as those in my Miniature Ripple Effect (which crams 200 pieces into a circle measuring 5.5"), but a few were still challenging - most especially those pesky little plain blue triangles. The pattern for the main pink rosettes is from my Eight Dials English paper piecing pattern, but I designed a different block to link them all together, so the end result looks very different.


I have really small hands (and badly-maintained nails, I now see), but this maybe gives a vague sense of scale. Random question: are the joints on the hand that you sew and write with far bigger than those on your other hand? I haven't worn rings for years*, but on the rare occasions when I try them on, I've realised I can no longer get them over the finger joints on my right hand, although they still fit loosely on my left. It's odd to think that all those little stitches may be like body-building for fingers! If you're wearing one, do let me know (although please forgive me if this results in you having the ring sawn from your finger in Casualty).


As if the first wasn't enough (the fun just keeps on rolling), I have a second random question I've been pondering and would like to consult with you on. I like to leave the papers in place when my English paper piecing will be framed (rather than used as a quilt) - it gives the finished piece stability and avoids the shadow and indent of seam allowances being visible through the fine fabric. I use medium-weight card for my pieces when they're this small, but even with that extra density, the card sometimes wrinkles and start to show wear under the heat of an iron (having already been stressed by gently folding it while sewing the pieces together), which is frustrating when my piecing itself has been painstakingly done, but the end result is impacted by the paper within failing and causing an uneven finish.

For this project, I've focused on flattening it beneath a big hardback book more often than pressing it with an iron, but it feels a real compromise - I LOVE pressing things with an iron! I thought of making the paper pieces from thin, heat-proof plastic (templar), but I know the points would end up damaging the fabric once it was wrapped around it - lawn is fine and plastic is just that bit more spiky than card and it would be a disaster. And sanding the plastic first isn't an option at this scale - the smallest amount of sanding would alter the shape. So, my question is: do you have any other ideas of things I could use to wrap my papers around? I need to be able to iron it, bend it, wrap it, and preferably print on it too. I don't think there's a viable alternative, but I'm so often surprised by the ingenious suggestions I receive when I ask a question here or Instagram, that I thought I'd ask anyway.

I feel set up for the week after watching nearly five hours of TEDx talks with my parents on Saturday - I'd thought I'd struggle with so many hours sat with still hands, but it was the most incredible event, full of stories and ideas. We laughed, were inspired, and even cried a little too - admittedly, we're an easy-to-cry family, but I can't imagine many people in the 1000-seater theatre hall who didn't sit in the dark with tears silently streaming down their face as they listened to Sophie Sabbage, who lives with terminal cancer, talk about the way we handle grief and loss - not just in relation to death, but also lost friendships, lost hopes etc - it was one of the most moving and impactful talks I've heard - I'll share a link when it comes online, but in the meantime, if you're interested, Sophie's book, Life Shocks, looks excellent.

The rest of the weekend was spent with my son listening to episodes of The Moth, the podcast of The Moth's live storytelling events, while I sewed and he did his GCSE Art coursework, and playing board games with my husband and a friend. My weekend activities feel serendipitously appropriate given that National Storytelling Week began on Saturday (TED and The Moth, not the board games), although I didn't realise until this morning.

I hope you're having a wonderful start to the week. It is crisp and chilly here, and I have all my fingers crossed for snow (the type that is a foot thick, stays for weeks, and then disappears overnight without any slush or ice, at exactly the moment when everyone has had enough of it - some would say, the very best of snow).

Florence x

* There are so many times when the other thoughts around the thought I'm writing about, end up being too cumbersome to fit neatly in brackets and so have to either be lost or moved to the end of a post. But the * is to say that, mostly, I like my hands to feel entirely utilitarian, and don't even enjoy wearing nail polish. This feels quite odd when I'm a ridiculously sentimental creature - so should enjoy wearing rings - and also love all other forms of make-up, so should enjoy wearing polish...but both just feel irritating when I'm trying to bake/sew/type/clean etc. Any ring/polish preferences of your own? That makes this a post of three questions! Feel free to answer any of them, or just make up your own if you want to chat about something entirely different in the comments. x

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

5am Life Wave


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

Florence x

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