On Stitching the Christmas Star

About a year ago I confessed to having fallen hopelessly in love with kantha stitching and wrote that I hoped to make a kantha sampler for each month of 2020. Well I stuck to my declaration and think it is safe to say that the love affair developed into a long term relationship over the year as I experimented with different ways to use this versatile stitch form.

Kantha sampler for December 2020. 43 x cm (17 x 14.5 inches)

The twelfth sampler for the year was inspired by the bright Christmas star that appeared in the skies on 21 December when Jupiter and Saturn formed a “great conjunction”. I started stitching it on Christmas Eve and finished it this week. It is one of the larger samplers in the set and the pattern is fairly complicated. Before I started I thought long and hard about how best to stitch a star shape using the kantha stitch called “stepping” (where each new row of running stitches are placed at the halfway point of the previous row of stitches to create a diagonal pattern, or steps).

This is more or less how my thoughts went: there are 360 degrees in a circle, therefore the five lines that form the base of each point of the star should be 72 degrees apart. If I stitch along these lines as a starting point, the star will unfold. And it did. I did have to use my pencil to draw more lines and fill in the spaces with stitching at later stages to create the star shape. After I had finished the sampler I sketched the pattern roughly so that I have a diagram to follow if I ever want to make another star.

Despite my best efforts I did not manage to stitch perfectly straight lines and my Christmas star started to look like a starfish with curly ends. So I again did some filling in, as shown in the photograph below.

The white spaces inside the solid edge were filled in with more rows of stepped stitches.

To get the solid edge to the star I wove the thread through a row of running stitches, sewn in a straight line with the help of a ruled pencil line. Once the star was completed I stitched around the edge to make a border, using the same thread (hand dyed perle no. 12). To echo the points of the star I stitched rows of the blocking pattern, but decreased the stitch length on the third to sixth rows. Then I added three small running stitches, just to make a fine point. Finally, the background was filled in with seed stitch. All the kantha samplers have been finished in this way and so I have developed a rhythm to the stitching which I do in rows with one stitch sideways, one stitch slantways, with the pattern staggered in the next row. (Hope that makes sense.)

Background nearly done. A close-up to show the worthwhile effect of the laborious seed stitching.

A few people have asked what I am going to do with these samplers. (That two-letter word !!) For now I am happy to know that the project is done and that I enjoyed the doing (making) of it. But these month by month samplers are a personal record of a strange year and perhaps I will sew them all onto a backing to make a scroll or a hanging. The samplers are all different sizes, but are all stitched onto a white background.

Starting block

This week I also started a big project — to make a large quilt from a collection of travel fabrics. The cloths were not collected by me, so it was quite hard to make that first cut!

My Year of Stitching

Yesterday was the last day of a watershed year and I thought it would be appropriate to write a last post to bid farewell to the strange year of 2020.

But it did not get written. It somehow seemed flippant to review my year of happy quilt making when the same year has weighed so heavily on so many people. Then today I read Laura Bruno Lilly’s injunction to keep on singing (see Bye, Bye, MMXX). And it made me decide to ‘sing’ about my uninterrupted sewing time during this lockdown year.

The year’s highlights have been the stitching of kantha samplers; my first quilt commission; taking part in the TextileArtist.org community stitching projects; and winning a prize for my quilt Garden of Delights.

A detail from Waiting for the Rain, the first quilt made in 2020

As I write this on a misty, cool, wet, green first day of a brand new year I remember how last year started brown and dry from the long drought. When the rains finally came in January and the brown earth magically turned green during the course of the month I was inspired to record this in Kantha style stitch on a sampler. And so began a monthly challenge to make a sampler to mark each month and at the same time to experiment with this ancient and versatile stitch form.

I recall writing at the start of 2019 that I wanted to make a big quilt that year. I did indeed accomplish that during hard lockdown in March when I stitched a queen sized bed quilt. It was a marvellous distraction. It also helped me to bond with my walking foot as I did not want to hand quilt another large quilt. (One uses a walking foot attachment in order to machine quilt on a domestic sewing machine, FYI if you are not a quilter).

(BTW I have hand quilted six large double bed sized quilts over the years and each time, on finishing the quilt, have said I will not tackle another one. Ha ha.)

The quilt is called Hufflepuff and while it is big in size, it is not the big quilt that I want to make. I will continue to dream about and plan for the making of this elusive magnum opus.

To continue to brag, I have stitched 46 pieces this year: 16 small works, 18 quilts, and (nearly) 12 kantha samplers — hence the title of this post. Many times during the year I thought how lucky I was to be able to stitch my way through the days of uncertainty and boredom.

When the South African lockdown was extended for a further 21 days from March into April I marked this with the following kantha sampler, which is my favourite one.

Kantha sampler for April 2020

The tutorials offered by various artists through the TextileArtist.org Stitch Club were excellent and stimulating and experimental. I produced many practice pieces and my favourite is this rendition of a succulent called Crassula falcata. It was inspired by Merril Cormeau’s workshop.

A high note was getting third prize in the Brother competition. The theme of the challenge was ‘my favourite things’ and I entered a quilt about gardening. The forked trowel depicted in the quilt was first created at a Stitch Club workshop led by Sue Stone.

Garden of Delights. (Photograph from the Brother website)

It is good to know that the pair of quilts Day Tree and Night Tree give pleasure to the ones who commissioned their making.

The South African group of textile artists, Fibreworks, currently has an exhibition at the Tatham Gallery in Natal. I am proud to say that five of my pieces are hanging there. The exhibition spurred me on to complete a Kantha style piece called Full Lotus.

It is a companion piece to the following work, made earlier in the year and called Half Lotus


My year ended with the sad and terrifying news of the death from COVID of one of my close quilting companions. The statistics are no longer just numbers for me…

Christmas is Coming…

Wishing all who celebrate Christmas a peaceful and meaningful time and may everyone be well.

Our family tradition is to harvest a pine tree on Christmas Eve. It is being decorated as I write this. Hope you are also feeling the joy, despite these trying times.

On Nostalgia

Although it has been a busy week I have not done any stitching and so have no new work to post. Instead of not writing a blog this week, I decided to revisit a ten-year-old piece. It is called Wedding Dress and marked my debut as a member of the South African Fibreworks group of textile artists when it was exhibited in 2010 at the Fibreworks VI exhibition at the ArtB Gallery in Cape Town.

Ten years later and the group’s eleventh exhibition, FIBREWORKS microMACRO, opens this Sunday at the Tatham Gallery in Natal at 11h00. The exhibition is both virtual and live and if you would like to visit it via the internet please visit the Tatham Gallery website on 6 December to get the link.

Wedding Dress. 207 x 117 cm

The piece has a rather personal story behind it. It was made in the year of our 25th wedding anniversary after I decided I had to either use the silk scraps from my real wedding dress, or throw them away. I began by joining the large triangular pieces left over from the cutting of the dress’s wide skirt and then moved on to joining the smaller scraps. The replication of the dress happened organically when I discovered the negative shape of the original bodice amongst the scraps.

Here is the artist’s statement for the piece, which is still valid after a decade:

A statement about recycling and renewal, meditation and memory, nostalgia and nurture. Scraps of raw silk are hand pieced and layered on a backing of melkdoek [muslin]. This is in turn laid and stitched onto a quilted cotton counterpane. Silk and silver thread and old, fine crochet cotton hold the layers together. The creams and whites provide a canvas for a pair of hand beaded red shoes.

Having taken it out of storage and looked at it with fresh eyes, I am tempted to add a few more stitches and refashion it a bit.

This may end up being my last post for the year. If so, best wishes for the season.

On Another Kantha Sampler

Kantha sampler for November. 15 x 24 cm; 6 x 9.5 inches

My friend Laura Bruno Lilly wrote about the monthly kantha samplers I have been making during this strange year in a post called Pandemic Potpourri V and it was nice to be reminded that I had sung the praises of the simple running stitch (which is the basis for the various patterns that one can produce using this stitching style).

That said, I am glad to be on the home run of this self-imposed challenge to make a sampler per month during 2020 (or MMXX, with thanks to Laura for alerting me to this alternative convention for writing the date). November’s sampler is rather smaller than its previous monthly companions! I have an idea for December and plan to make a bigger piece as I enjoy the quiet time leading up to Christmas.

Any guesses on what I was up to this month with my stitching experiment?

Starting Block

Last week I mentioned that I was plotting and planning something with the extra templates given to us at the Elongated Hexi class that I attended. Here’s a photograph of the start of a hand-pieced Skinny Elongated Hexigon quilt. I am not planning to finish it any time soon as the patches are rather small. It is a marvellous way of using the scraps and fat quarters that have been given to me by my quilting friends, near and far.

On Hand Piecing

A few weeks ago I attended a morning workshop with Yolande Bowman of Pied Piper Quilt Shop (my LQS) and learnt a clever way to hand piece hexagon shapes. She showed us how to join the patches without using paper templates, as in the English Paper Piecing (EPP) method. I have fallen in love with Yolande’s method and finished the piece started at her Elongated Hexis class. It is designed to be a cushion cover and measures about 50 cm square.

The class was great fun with lots of quipping and swopping of fabrics. I started off using browns and muted autumnal shades from my stash. My neighbour’s selection was beautifully bright and, after she gave me the orange piece to brighten things up a bit, I boldy cut some shapes from an Australian fabric that I had brought along. This was my first fussy cut experience. (For any non quilters who may be reading this, fussy cutting is when one carefully cuts around a shape or image so that it can be showcased in a block, or in this case, shape.)

Yolande’s class sample was so beautiful that I did not even try to emulate her clever arrangement of tones and colours. And her stitching is perfect too!

Yolande Bowman’s Elecongated Hexi sampler

She kindly gave us bonus templates for a mini hexi and I am plotting and planning something for that. But first I must finish quilting my ‘brown study’. I have been using the left over threads from my Garden of Deliqhts quilt and am enjoying the slow stitching.

I have been gardening like crazy after some days of welcome rain. (I won’t bore you with the photograph of the potatoes I harvested this morning, even though I am so proud of how beautifully they grew.) As a result I am a bit late with my post this week and nearly skipped it altogether. But I am glad I did turn on my computer, because I found an invitation to an upcoming Fibreworks exhibition for which I have submitted work. Here it is and I am proud to say that the bronze flower in the centre of the bottom row of images is my work.

On Delight

The word delight has a lovely lilt to it and an equally lovely meaning — to take or find great pleasure. And it was was with gleeful delight that I learnt this week that my quilt Garden of Delights has won third prize in the South African section of 20th annual Brother Quilting Contest.

Garden of Delights. Photograph from the Brother website

This means that the quilt will travel to Japan for the international leg of the Brother competition. It will be in good company with the other prize winners and finalists in the local competition.

When I finished the quilt I could not resist writing about it in a post called On Gardening so I will not repeat myself about the enjoyment I got out of making the quilt. Last year I entered a quilt called Turkish Delight and it was chosen as one of finalists and also travelled across the oceans to Japan.

On X for October

At the beginning of October Laura Bruno Lilly wrote a post called Family Travels MMXX. The symmetry of the date in Roman numerals caught my eye. MMXX for 2020 so much neater than MCMXCIX for 1999. (Hereby hangs another tale. If you would like to know why 1999 was not marked as MIM, click through to this website.)

At the time of reading this post I was pondering on what to stitch for my October kantha sampler, so thank you for the inspiration, Laura. Your use of this numbering system has also given me an idea for the November sampler, so a double thank you.

Kantha sampler for October. 20 x 47 cm; 8 x 18.5 inches

It is a long, narrow piece and was difficult to photograph. I used the kantha stepping stitch to form the letters and had fun working out how to stitch the acute angles. With three Xs I got lots of practice in negotiating the cross-over with my needle and thread. I started stitching from the middle of the cloth and so the second M was the first to be stitched. You might notice that it looks different to its companion M — this is because I had not yet found my rhythm and the length of the individual stitches is a bit too long.

While stitching this there was plenty of time to think about the use of Roman numerals. They were part of my education. The bigger numbers ( L for 50, C for 100, D for 500, and M for 1000) are not as familiar as the smaller numbers which are instantly recognisable to my brain. I was surprised to find that this is not the case anymore and suspect that this ancient numerical system is no longer taught to children. I write under correction. Google tells me that it is still taught, but scantily. While hunting and pecking on the internet I came across a useful article written by Paul Lewis on the use of Roman numerals in modern times. He notes that:

  • Roman numerals are still mostly used for the copyright date on films, television programmes, and videos, for example MCMLXXXVI for 1986 and MMXX for 2020.
  • They are also used to show the hours on some analogue clocks and watches. Here, though, the four is almost always depicted as IIII not as IV.
  • Intel, the computer chip maker, called the new version of its Pentium processor launched in May 1997 the Pentium II. The next version was Pentium III. But in 2000 Intel unveiled its latest chip as the Pentium 4. Maybe Intel thought that Pentium IV was too difficult for people to cope with.
  • They can be used for the preliminary pages of a book before the main page numbering begins.
  • Sporting events are often numbered using Roman numerals. The Athens Olympics in 2004, the 28th games in modern times, were called the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad, showing that it is the 28th games of the modern era since the first in 1896.
    In the USA the American football championship is called Super Bowl. The 54th game on February 2020 is called Super Bowl LIV.
  • Monarchs are usually numbered in Roman – e.g. King Edward VII of England, Louis XIV of France. Popes are also numbered using Roman numerals so the late Pope was John Paul II, followed by Pope Benedict XVI. However, it seems that the current pope is simply called Pope Francis
  • This form is also sometimes seen in naming eldest sons in American families where successive generations bear the same first name. The first time it happens the son is called Junior or Jr. In further generations Roman numerals are used.
  • Roman numerals are used for paragraphs in complex documents to clarify which are main sections and which subsections so II.3.iv.(5). They are similarly used to show the volume number of periodicals e.g. vol.VI no.5. 
  • The first and second world wars are often referred to as World War I and World War II or even WWI and WWII.
  • Roman numerals can be seen on public buildings, monuments and gravestones, sometimes when the inscription is in Latin but often just to give the date a certain gravity.
  • Before the 18th century they were widely used for the publication date on printed books. Since that time they are still sometimes found on the title page, usually on specially printed or luxurious editions.

Up until the eighteenth century Roman numerals were used in Europe for book-keeping even though the Indo-Arabic numerals we use today were known in Europe and widely used in Europe from around 1000 AD. There are said to be two reasons for this.

  • Adding and subtracting are very easy with Roman numerals.
  • Indo-Arabic numerals can more easily be mistaken or forged – a 0 can look very like a 6 or an 8 or a 9 or be turned into one by a single stroke.

Although simple arithmetic may be easier with Roman numerals, multiplication and division, fractions, and more advanced mathematics are difficult and the lack of a zero is a particular disadvantage. So Indo-Arabic numerals slowly replaced Roman ones in everyday life.

Information from Paul Lewis‘s website.