Monday, 26 March 2018

I've Written a Book...

I've just looked up the date and found that it's 23 months to the day since an email dropped into my inbox that was the catalyst for the book you can see at the top of this post. I did consider waiting a month to write this post when I realised that, as it would have so much more symmetry, but impatience seems to have won out.

Before I tell you about my own book, I want to rewind to 2012, when I wrote a post mentioning one about the late Lucy Boston, written by her daughter-in-law, Diana Boston. That biography very quickly became one of my favourite books about quilt-making and it didn't contain a single pattern; I loved it because at the end of the day when I finished my own sewing, I could take it to bed at night and continue to immerse myself in quilting by reading about Lucy's life and the way she thought about fabrics and the way she planned her quilts, which I found fascinating. I spent hours pouring over that book, admiring the beautiful photos of her finished piecing and looking at the trail of letters she wrote about her various quilting projects. It left me feeling that if I ever wrote a sewing book myself, I wanted it to be one that people could 'read', as well as make things from.

Fast-forward to 26th April 2016, when an email landed in my inbox from the US publisher, Fons & Porter (now the Quilting Company), inviting me to write a techniques-based book about English paper piecing, containing 8-10 hand pieced quilts. The email was so warm, friendly and personal that I was immediately interested, but two thoughts rumbled around inside my head that let me know I wouldn't be the right person to write that book for them: for me, sewing is a joyful thing, in part, because of its slowness and so the idea of sewing that many hand-pieced quilts in the space of a year left me feeling unenthused - I'm always in awe of authors whose passion only seems to be intensified by such a prospect, but I was fairly sure there was a danger it would crush mine entirely; secondly, I knew that if I were to put myself through such a thing, at the end of it, I still wouldn't have written the book that I really wanted to write.

So when I replied, it was to ask them to consider my writing a completely different book to the one they'd been hoping for. This was how I summarised what I wanted to do in one of our many emails: I’d been hoping to write a book that would feel a treat to dip in and out of: storied, thought-provoking, discursive, emotive, questioning - not only a how-to around English paper piecing, but within that, also an exploration of ‘why?’ - because it is such an odd thing that we spend so many hours fixating on cutting up small bits of fabric and then sewing them back together again, often even acquiring repetitive strain injuries in doing so. I see this exploration of ‘why?' naturally unfolding over a series of interviews, but also in looking generally around the subject of working with our hands. I then went on to make a very long list of all the specific things that I wanted to write about; several of which relied upon people - many of whom I had no idea if I could even get in touch with - agreeing to be interviewed by me.

Although I had a strong belief in my vision for a book, in all honesty I hadn't expected to find a publisher who would agree to my approach, so I was both surprised and delighted when the acquisitions editor wrote back to say that she loved the sound of it and would like to put it in front of the rest of the team to get their feedback. I feel truly lucky that they were willing to take a risk on what, at that time, was a rather underdeveloped collection of ideas.

So, let me tell you a bit about the book that eventually grew out of those initial emails. The first half is full of discussion, stories and interviews, not just about English paper piecing, but more generally about working with our hands. Amongst other things, it will take you on a journey into prisons to hear about men who hand-sew as a way of creating a new life for themselves; we'll look into why humans are so drawn to symmetry and repeating pattern; I'll bring you with me on a day trip to see Lucy Boston's English paper pieced quilts in person; we'll consider how fabric has influenced the English language; you'll find out how the acclaimed novelist Tracy Chevalier came to write a story about hand-pieced quilts; we'll explore why people feel compelled to sew and what the mental and physical benefits of doing so might be; we'll meet the granddaughter of a man whose individual quilts contained more pieces than I could ever hope to sew in a lifetime; and from there, we'll go on to discuss what drives some people to undertake (and successfully complete) such extraordinary feats of quilting. In my research, I pored over books and papers written by quilt historians, neuroscientists, physicists (Richard Feynman and quilting have more in common than you might first imagine), psychologists and mathematicians, as well as consulting with fellow quilt-makers - the result is an eclectic collection of bite-sized articles and essays (for want of better words - neither of those actually feel quite right), rounded off by a series of interviews where I'll introduce you to some of my favourite modern-day English paper piecers.

In the second half of the book, there's an extensive techniques section that covers everything from looking at how different shapes tessellate, to how to make your own templates, along with step-by-step instructions and photos walking you through every technique you might need for EPP. The book also takes an in-depth look at fussy cutting and the effects that can be achieved by cutting fabrics in a variety of different ways (there are some fun visuals to go with this bit). Finally, there are three rosette patterns, each named after a place where I've lived, and then a bigger quilt pattern that contains more advanced techniques, including tackling curves.

My book is available for pre-order now through WaterstonesAmazon UK, Amazon US and other places where you can buy books :) I may also stock it on my blog to be sent out directly if there's any interest.
This feels like a long, wordy post, not broken up by many photos, but I'll share more over the coming months. My book is out in the US on 29th May and in the UK on 29th June, which was feeling like quite a long time away, until it received its very first review in a magazine this month and now suddenly it feels like my book may not just be a figment of my imagination and as though there may be a day when it's sitting on the shelves of a real bookshop or quilt store. Above, is the review written by Julie Sheridan in Popular Patchwork magazine - I'm not sure I could ever have hoped for a more generous write-up. Just click on the image to enlarge, if you'd like to read it.

I'll hopefully follow this post up with one about the book writing process as it's always something I'm interested in reading about from others.

Wishing you a happy week,
Florence x

Thursday, 8 March 2018

On Kew and Books

For my birthday treat this year, I'd asked if we could go to Kew Gardens - there were three exhibitions there that I wanted to see before they closed on Sunday (11th March), so in some ways, I am back to my usual thing of sharing the details of something wonderful, just before it's about to disappear...but if you happen to have a spare day before Sunday, then I'd encourage you to go.

The exhibition that I was most excited about was Life in Death, where the artist, Rebecca Louise Law, had strung an entire room with dried flowers and created a meandering path through. My expectations had been high, but the reality of the exhibition made them seem quite flat in retrospect: it was incredible. Rebecca has created a magical world with her work and it felt like a privilege to be allowed to walk through it.

This photo shows the copper wire that the flowers were strung on - knotted and tied to keep the flowers in place. With 1,000 garlands suspended from the ceiling, it was hard not to fixate on how many hours it might have taken to construct.

While some areas offered a rainbow of flowers, other zones were themed by colour.

The shadows cast on the white walls mingled with the etherealness of the garlands themselves and added to the sense of every step offering a different viewpoint.

Although there were other people in the room, their forms were softened by the veil of flowers and the dark figures you can see in the photo above seem to have become a welcome part of the display.

It was maddening to have only brought the camera on my phone along - these photos don't feel like they do the exhibition justice at all. If you go before Sunday, it's worth walking through once with your camera and once without, because the temptation to photograph every little part of it is strong (I actually gave my phone to my husband for safekeeping the second time around because I knew that I couldn't be trusted).

We also visited the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition, which was beautiful. We decided that the early bird really does catch the worm when it comes to photography - there were so many beautiful shots taken in the early morning mist.

We also went to the Orchids Festival. My husband's father was a botanist and, as a consequence, my husband had spent much of his early childhood hunting for orchids on hillsides around the world. Even as adults, he encouraged us to have our eyes to the ground whenever we went on country walks with him. In that context, seeing the orchids en masse meant that they lost some of their appeal for us, even though the range of orchids was impressive.

The Palm House was the unexpected treat of the day and we were both charmed by the building's rusting elegance. As the temperature inside emulates a rain forest climate, it's hard to imagine how the building's decay could be stopped. We took a spiral staircase up into the roof and walked around a balcony where we could see the structure of the building more clearly and look down at all the palms.

I loved the flowers that dotted the framework.

My phone tells me that we walked nearly 15km. It rained on and off all day, but never enough for us to feel like it was the wrong day to visit and there are enough indoor areas at Kew to escape a heavy downpour.

Outside, some early flowers were starting to bloom.

And my husband met and photographed this fine fellow. 

At Waterloo, we stopped at Natural Kitchen to pick up some food to take home for a lazy dinner (if you haven't discovered Natural Kitchen, it's wonderful - lots of vegan and vegetarian food and exceptionally delicious) and I fell asleep reading Shirley Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' (now finished). It came recommended to me by my father, who in his retirement from work is a member of four book groups and a prolific reader. It's an ongoing challenge for my sister and me to discover authors that he hasn't already read and loved, as a memorable introduction merits many Daughter Points. My finest achievements in this area have been Kent Haruf and Nickolas Butler, but I am determined not to fall asleep on my laurels, even though these were considered to be exceptional offerings that could stand me in good stead for at least a decade. The hunt continues.

When I was out on a dog walk with my husband today, we ended up discussing the different rating systems we've been using for reviewing books and it left me interested to hear how others might be doing it. Here's how my own idiosyncratic system works:

The ratings I leave on Goodreads tend to be very different to those I'd leave on Amazon: on Amazon, when I rate something (relatively rare, but I still have a mental structure in place for it), I'm basing my star rating on whether I feel the book is a good, well-written book and fulfilled the promise of what it was offering. When I consider that my rating has the capacity to reduce the average star rating for a book at its point of sale, it seems unfair to rate it for something that's beyond the control of the author. By this I mean that if the book is autobiography when horror might be my preferred genre, or if the book is chick-lit, when I might favour literary fiction, it seems churlish to lower its rating on this basis (I should say that these are ridiculous examples - horror particularly would never be my preferred genre as I am such a scaredy cat). To me, the structure for reviews on Amazon makes it feel like it's less about what the book meant to me and more about my - still subjective - idea of whether something is good for the type of book it's intended to be (and if I didn't like it at all, then generally I wouldn't review it - I tend to only review the things I really loved on Amazon).

On Goodreads, I use an entirely different system, because of the way it's set up. Here, I've always felt that the idea is to create a personal bookshelf of what I'm reading and rate the books on it relative to one another according to my personal taste. So on Goodreads, something getting a lower mark because it doesn't fit into a favoured genre etc, feels more valid. As an overarching theme to my reading, I crave stories that offer a deeper understanding of people and what it means to be human and consequently, only books that fulfil this at some level tend to elicit a four or five star rating (for my mum, she's always looking for books that offer redemption - I expect everyone has their themes). When I was discussing this with my husband, I realised that - rightly or wrongly  - I haven't felt uncomfortable about giving a book a lower rating on Goodreads because in my mind it's not a reflection on the book itself, but more a reflection of what I'm seeking in a book generally and to what degree the book has succeeded in offering me this. I'm wondering whether most people are assuming this?

When it comes to written reviews, I'm probably more likely to write about a book here on my blog. The past month has been more about reading than sewing and as a result I seem to have made my way through quite a lot of books. In brief:

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett - my father bought me this in paperback as a Christmas gift last year, but I was struggling to get through it as I tend to read more on my Kindle, so that I don't disturb my husband by putting a light on. I really wanted to finish it though, so in the end I bought a copy on Kindle and then proceeded to romp through it - it's wonderful! A series of essays, that have all previously been published elsewhere, on a diverse range of subjects. Everything from the love of dogs, to training to join the LAPD.

The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson - I actually listened to this book on Audible, rather than reading it. I chose it because it's set in Rye, which is an area I love and know well. The story and characters were engaging, but ultimately, I probably didn't fall in love with it in the way that I do with some books.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson - this is a modern classic, first published in 1962, and probably fits into the Mystery genre, which isn't my normal stomping ground. It's a curious and unique book that I feel pleased to have read, but something about the writing or story left me feeling quite detached and I failed to become lost in it at any point.

A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler - I absolutely loved this book. It felt like it had so much to say about families and how they work. The characters were all flawed, but hugely likable - my favourite kind. Since reading it, I've often found my mind distracted by wandering around the rooms of their house (which features quite heavily in the story) and thinking about the lives of the people it contained.

Back When we were Grown-Ups, Anne Tyler - Continuing with the Anne Tyler theme, this book was more of a mixed bag for me. I loved the characters and the relationships that the book explored, but I struggled with some of the peripheral content - the central character organises a lot of parties and I found the details of those slightly excruciating and tiring to read about.

How to Break up with your Phone, Catherine Price - I pre-ordered this book after seeing the reviews. It's the perfect book for anyone who finds themselves taking their phone out to fill in a spare minute while waiting; opening Instagram for a few minutes and looking up to find twenty minutes have passed; or starting the day by reading the news in bed, when actually a book might be a better start. I've been guilty of all of these things. I enjoyed this book, which isn't saying that you should throw your phone out altogether (for photography, texts, listening to audio books, using an online shared calendar, banking, planning journeys and a whole host of other things, my phone feels indispensable and isn't something I want to forgo), but instead shares ideas of how to stop it being such a time sap. I've previously struggled with how to separate out the bits of my phone that I find useful and the bits that were stealing my time - this book has all the practical answers and a wealth of information into clever settings and apps to help. It also shines a much-needed light on how utterly bizarre the role of the phone has become in our society and why it's worth taking steps to change that. For my own part, I've had more free time since I read this book, which is a delicious luxury that I wouldn't want to unwittingly give up again. I haven't followed the 30 day plan that the book includes, but instead I've pilfered many of the ideas from it and instigated them straight away. It's an excellent resource and worth the cover price.

The Creative Writing Course Book, Julia Bell & Andrew Motion - At the start of this year, a friend and I enrolled on an creative writing class at the local adult education centre and I've enjoyed it so much that I bought a few books to supplement the course and I've been working my way through the exercises inside. I'm not sure which book I prefer yet, so I'll withhold judgment until I've finished working my way through the other one.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett - Ann Patchett is one of my favourite writers and I'm currently listening to this one on Audible. It's set in the Amazon rain forest and I'm finding the atmosphere and storyline somewhat claustrophobic and stifling, which is making me love it a little less than her other books, but I'm keen to see it to the end despite that. It feels a little like cheating to add it to this list when I haven't yet finished it, but as I'm two-thirds of the way through and will probably finish it before the end of the week, so it's going on to avoid being missed off at a later date.

I'd love to hear what you're currently reading and what your own system for rating books is.

Florence x
A few of the books/products that I link to on Amazon from my blog contain affiliate links and very occasionally, I'll mention a product that I've been given free of charge. I choose the things that I recommend carefully and my priority is to only share things that I love.