Thursday, 23 April 2015

Thinking about solid fabrics

One of the things I often struggle with once I've embarked on a project is 'what comes next'. For example, when I've been working on my Passacaglia cogwheels, which are pieced in rounds, I will often take several days before deciding on which fabrics should be used for the next round in a cog.

I haven't used a single purely 'solid' fabric in the cog above, so not only did every print have to work in terms of colour and tone, it also had to have the right type of print to be fussy cut. Additionally, if I'd used a particular shade of pink at the centre and wanted to tie the same colour back in further out, finding just the right fabric was often quite problematic - you just need such a vast catalogue of fabrics to draw upon to do this quickly or to sew exclusively from just one range of fabrics, as some have done when working on the Passacaglia (for example using just Cotton & Steel or just Tula Pink prints - I was trying to work more from my stash, so didn't go down either of these routes). There were other places where I wanted to give a bit of space and calm around some of the busier prints; it's surprisingly difficult to find just the right patterned print to fulfil this need sometimes. In some of my later cogs, when I reached an impasse like this, I eventually ordered a single fat quarter of solid fabric that I thought might work, as with the star points below...but somehow it never occurred to me how useful it might be to keep a stash of solid fabrics and to use them in a more positive way than 'last resort'. 

This idea was only clarified for me when, earlier this year, I was working on Alison Glass' Tessellations pattern. I started off trying to do it using patterned fabrics. I don't have a huge collection as fabric stashes go and I was finding it really difficult to graduate the colours in the way that Alison does in her sample photos. The photo below (taken at night, so it's marginally more hideous than it was in reality) shows how that went. I spent hours trialling different fabrics just to make this small section, until I did what I always do when things feel too hard colourwise; I called for my husband to come and dig me out of the hole I'd got myself into. 

He looked at the photos of Alison's original quilt, looked at what I was trying to do, looked through my stash and just said very bluntly: you don't have the fabrics to do this. I was slightly infuriated by what I saw as a defeatist attitude and so felt inclined to beat him out of my sewing room with a broom; I rarely entertain the idea that I can't do something because I don't have the right fabrics, but rather latch onto the idea that it's not working because I just haven't tried hard enough (which is at times like beating myself with a broom). 

But when I eventually put the metaphorical broom down and gave him the chance to explain himself, he said that he felt I could solve this recurring problem on a permanent basis if I invested in a stash of solid fabrics that could be used in any project and fill in all the gaps that I so frequently found when trying to pull prints together. It's so obvious, but not something I'd ever considered before, but he was so right in how well this could work. 

When I first began cutting up solid chunks and sewing them into triangles of graduating colour, I actually thought my mind may be in danger of popping - it was pure delight to sew unencumbered by the delays that numerous strokey beard moments over fabric choices present. I'd intended to mix the solids in with some prints, but found that I just wanted to have the fun of playing around with pure solids for the first time. 

But however much I love the finished thing, all solids isn't the thing that really makes me heart race. I really do love pattern. So I was determined to include a mix in my next project. 

My yellow daffodils include three solids and two fussy-cut prints - a fairly sparse palette, but one which to my eyes feels right. When I'd finally finished designing the pattern, it would normally have taken several sessions to pick out some fabrics to use. I couldn't quite believe it when just half an hour after completing drafting the pattern pieces, I was cutting up fabric and starting to sew; it was so easy. A true Eureka moment for me. Possibly one that most other quilters were born knowing, but new to me. 

So, let's discuss the actual fabric. Investing in a stash of solids is much less expensive than buying the same quantity of printed fabric, but can still feel very, very expensive when done in one fell swoop (until very recently I've always thought that expression was 'one foul swoop'!). As this was his idea and his treat, my husband laid out certain fabric-buying criteria. His argument was that I should avoid a range with only a limited number of colours, as rather than solving the problem permanently, he felt this could just prove to be a semi-fix. He reminded me of when my daughter and I had spent a few days colouring last Christmas and both found that the set of 36 beautiful pencils which had initially felt like a huge array, often still didn't have just the shade of green or blue that we wanted. This was a slightly problematic idea, as the solids that I really love are Art Gallery Fabrics' Pure Elements range - they have a very high thread count, beautiful colours and just feel really quite dreamy and a complete pleasure to sew with. However, there are currently only 60 colours in the range, so this was ruled out with a heavy heart.

Kona Solids were the obvious choice to go for as the range has the biggest number of solid colours available (over 300), but the base cloth used for these doesn't really thrill me - it has quite an open weave and I find it a little scratchy compared to other brands (it softens nicely with washing, but I really enjoy fabrics that feel lovely at the point of sewing them together and I don't pre-wash my quilting fabrics).

I was told that Michael Miller's Cotton Couture range were really lovely and very similar to the Art Gallery Fabrics solids that I loved, but was warned by some that they'd experienced horrific colour run with these, of quilt-ruining proportions. I was so disappointed as these had initially seemed the obvious choice with the perfect blend of quality and colour range. 

Eventually, I settled on Free Spirit's Solids range, which has a softer hand than Kona, a slightly less open weave and a fairly wide range of colours (currently around 170). I usually only order from overseas if I can't actually get something over here, as I feel committed to supporting the UK shops that I very much want to stay open. However, when the fabrics are half the price overseas (half a yard in America is around the same price as a fat quarter over here) and my real-life fabric godfather wanted to buy a bulk order for me as a gift, I felt the need to keep costs down, so we crossed the ocean to Hawthorne Threads

There is so much logic to cultivating a healthy stash of solids, reducing the need to buy so many patterned fabrics, that I'm guessing this is something that many quilters have already done. But in case you've been missing this idea in the same way that I have, and are now thinking of starting a solids stash, there are few other things I'd also consider first if I were doing it again.

Free Spirit doesn't seem to produce a colour card for their range of solids. As computer screens are unreliable for colour-matching, I've since realised that it's virtually impossible for me to order more of one particular colour as I have no idea what the name of each colour is. Working on my Daffodils piece, shown earlier in the post, I'm getting toward the end of the yellows and mustards I've used; this is making me feel edgy as I don't know what colour names/numbers they are. The other issue is that while the UK-based shop, Cotton Patch, stocks some of the Free Spirit Solids range, it doesn't stock all of the colours, which means that I may need to order overseas again if I want to replace particular colours. 

Shockingly, I also found recently that I did not have quite the right yellow when creating the outer section of my daffodils I had to resort to ordering some Kona, which has a wider colour range. Perhaps this means that as you may end up mixing and matching anyway, buying entirely from one brand isn't so important, unless the finish is dramatically different (the difference is much more visible between Art Gallery Fabrics and Kona, for example). 

You might remember that in a recent post I asked what your greatest extravagance was (to which I received 243 answers - I've said it before, but if you have the time, do read through the comments - there's something joyful in reading list after list of things that make people happy!). I asked my husband this question over breakfast one morning. His first answer was the time he gives up to coaching youth football; the amount of emails, preparation and organisation it takes eats into our working week, especially when the summer fiestas are being planned, so he said that it feels like an extravagance that he really appreciates making the time for. His second answer was that it was probably me. At which we both laughed. A lot. Because I'm not sure either of us had ever stopped and thought of his out-of-season Father Christmassing in that way before, but I realised that this is true and dates right back to the first week I met him, aged 18, when he arrived at my door with two goldfish one evening, after I'd mentioned the idea of getting some for my room in our halls of residence. I feel slightly guilty that gifts for him did not naturally make it onto my own list of greatest extravagances, but rather 'having the heating on whenever I'm cold' and other things that make me appear like a selfish wretch by comparison!

I'd love to know how you use solids in your own projects, which range of solids is your favourite and whether you are ever hit by the brick wall of 'what comes next' too and, if you are, whether you have any other routes around it. 

Florence x

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Melanie Colletta

Today, I wanted to tell you about my lovely friend, Melanie Colletta, who has just opened a shop for her beautiful artwork. I've know Mel for over a decade, since her eldest daughter took it upon herself to help my own daughter unbuckle her shoes each day when they arrived at nursery (her daughter was older). The unifying shoestress soon caused us to gather for lunches around our kitchen tables and over the years more babies were added, until eventually there were six children sitting around the table with us. With the busyness of all the children, I didn't actually realise that Mel painted until I'd already known her for nearly five years and I remember being astonished by it, in the way that you can be when you feel you know someone really well and then discover that there are whole other layers there that you didn't know where there, but which are so impressive that you can't imagine quite how they stayed hidden away out of view.

Photos don't capture it to its full extent, but Mel's work just seems to literally glow in a way that, to me, defies having been created with pen, ink and paint; it looks more like she's managed to install some kind of souped-up light-box inside the paper that gives her work an ethereal radiance. However, the paper is of an unsuspicious thickness, but it does have a texture that makes the prints look as tactile and 'real' as the originals. You can click on any of the photos in this post to see them at a larger scale.

I'd actually desperately wanted one of Mel's drawings the moment I first saw them, in part because her style is so entirely in keeping with what I knew my husband would absolutely love, so I was completely delighted when she started selling affordable giclee prints and I was her very first customer. My husband and I chose two prints together (frames yet to arrive, so for now they're pictured in their mounts). Our first choice was the Avenue of Birds.

The second print, Catherine II, shows Catherine from Wuthering Heights enveloped by a tree as she waits for Heathcliff. I love how the two have merged together, leaving no visible boundary as to where one begins and the other finishes. That the tree looks to be swaddling and cocooning her, while at the same time imprisoning her, gives the drawing an intrinsic sadness that I find completely captivating. This is the second of two drawings in the series; the first shows Catherine at an earlier stage, when her arms are less tightly bound within the trunk of the tree. Both leave me not only in awe of Mel's imagination, but also her ability to translate an idea that exists only in her mind's eye onto paper with such incredible skill.

I've never really loved Wuthering Heights and it's possibly my least favourite classic (it's one of my sister's favourites though, so even though I don't love it myself, I have a second-hand fondness for it) and my husband has never read or seen Wuthering Heights, but we both fell in love with this image and the intense pencil strokes it's created with.

Mel's prints start at just £10 (I think that's around $15USD) and she ships worldwide. Please do go and have a look at her beautiful new shop if you have a bare spot on your wall and like what you've seen here - it comes highly (and very fondly) recommended by me!

Florence x

Ps. Mel's shop, The Hallelujah Tree, is named after the Jeff Buckley song, Hallelujah, which happens to be a favourite of mine too - the singing starts around 1m20 in the linked video. I've heard my husband play this song so many times, that I've realised re-listening to this now, that it's ruined the original for me slightly, as I prefer my husband's version (possibly in the way that any happily biased wife might).

Saturday, 4 April 2015


I've wanted to work with some curves in English paper piecing for so long now, and last month, I finally launched into designing something where I could use them and I'm finding these flowers so incredibly joyful to make! They were inspired by some new bed linen.

A few months ago, after over a decade of having completely plain white bed linen, I suddenly craved some colour, quite unexpectedly, triggered by walking past some cushions and throws in John Lewis (which makes me think it is probably not safe for my bank balance to walk past things in future). I've never owned any of these curious bolster cushions before and chose them purely for the colour and then was delighted to find that there's a practical reason for their existence - they are so comfy and supportive to rest against when reading or sewing!

I've read so many research studies over the years saying that changing things - whether it's the route you take to work or the order that you get dressed in - is good for the synapses in the brain and I now feel convinced that a complete change of bed linen colour every decade is the same. Every time I walk into the room I feel surprised and delighted by the splashes of egg-yolky yellowness*, doubly so on realising that my book cover matched the bed linen!

Our bedroom is very plain, even with the newly acquired spatterings of egg yolk and I decided that I wanted to create something in a similar palette to hang on the wall. The duvet cover has a few panels of interlocking flowers embroidered onto it, which you can see below - so I decided to base my design on this.

It hasn't really ended up being the same, but it's definitely a nod to the original inspiration.

I'm planning on releasing this as a pattern, just as soon as I've finished sewing it together myself (which is proving to be very slow, not because the piecing is overly time consuming, but just because I've been working really long hours over the last month), but the Easter holidays have already offered up some time for sociable hand-sewing while watching this wonderful film (no knowledge/love of golf required - it's just wonderful in its own right) with our children and then catching up on the televised election questions and debates in the evening.

Finally,  I feel curiously compelled to talk about emoticons as there are 300 new emoji soon to be released with iOS 8.3 (that's the iPhone operating system, but I'm guessing similar are available on other devices?) and I feel bizarrely excited by this! I was very late in embracing emoticons, mainly for slightly snooty reasons of feeling that they didn't look pleasingly designed and also because whenever I saw those garish yellow faces (pictured below - alarmingly similar in colour to my current sewing project!), it just made me think of the 1980s acid house smiley face and I couldn't quite work out what its relevance was in 2014. And then there's the whole thing of why use a picture when there are so many wonderful words. But regular exposure therapy and stuffing yourself into 140 characters on Twitter on a regular basis changes that slightly. I now love how much a simple picture can convey and there's a whole new satisfaction to be gained in trying to communicate an entire message solely through the use of pictures in a text - it's like a game of Pictionary being thrown into your day at random times.

I would say that I am now a relatively enthusiastic user of them when texting, most especially with my daughter, husband and sister (I have also found that sending my husband a picture of a single smiling poo with no accompanying words after a disagreement is actually far more effective than an apology for quickly restoring equilibrium - pictured above). However, I do have all sorts of inexplicable self-imposed rules for appropriate usage of emoticons stored in my head. I read yesterday that they're likely to become more widely used by businesses in the coming years, which feels like an odd thing. What do you think of emoticons? (nb. I've found that calling them 'emoticons' rather than 'emoji' in front of a young person may elicit much snorted laughter and scoffing. There is nothing like having a teenager in your life to make you feel very, very old). I think they're possibly very much like Marmite (emoticons, not teenagers).

And if you're wondering why a smiling poo exists in the emoji keyboard, I read yesterday that a pile of poo is considered good luck in Japan and that at the time that Apple created the first set of emojis they were trying to break into the Asian marketplace.

Florence x

* Colour link memory: when I was about ten, my aunt bought me an umbrella in exactly this colour and I always remember her saying that she enjoyed the thought of people watching an egg yolk scuttling along the road from an upstairs window. As an adult, I am on the QV** for a sighting of a moving egg yolk out in the street, but am yet to see one. I'd quite like to.

**I know shamefully little French beyond GCSE level, but being 'on the QV' is one of my favourite family expressions for being hyper vigilant at all times, taken from the French words 'qui vive' which translates literally as 'who lives', but which essentially means to be on the lookout and question 'Who goes there?', I think it may be a relatively common term in English language now, but I personally hadn't heard it until my sister jokingly said it in conversation several years ago when posing for a photo where she was peering out at something suspiciously and announced to me that she was on the QV.
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