stitchings and musings on the art of quilt making by Mariss Stevens
My love affair with fabric and thread began in 2001 when I was shown the delights of quiltmaking by the Quilters of Grahamstowns (QUOGS). Since then I have honed my stitching skills, first by making bed quilts and then arts quilts. I have produced more than 100 quilts, from small to large, sombre to bright, and much inbetween. Houses and then trees have caught my imagination as subject matter. I am a member of the South African textile art group, Fibreworks. I have exhibited locally and overseas and have held three solo exhibitions in my hometown.
Hovering not in but on a threshold,
I ripped and sewed strips,
layer upon layer,
band after band,
Klee’s painted lines from
In the Sixth Threshold.
Mesmerised by the line, the colours, the mystery
of what threshold he crossed
and whether it was possible
to follow his steps, I sewed
in bigger bolder sweeps,
as line and colour, thread and needle
became the focus of uncounted strips
through the sixth threshold
into unnamed realms.
Thoughts about the shape and form and significance of the circle have been going round and round in my mind and have formed a kind of whirlpool of ideas that I can’t quite pin down. Strange times call for strange posts about strange thoughts. I have been appreciating seasonal certainties and am ever grateful for my garden with its regular tasks like sweeping up fallen leaves and pruning shrubs before winter leaves the southern hemisphere.
Stitching, too, provides a sense of certainty. My response to this week’s TextileArtist.org Stitch Club tutorial was this ‘unintended’ circle :
The challenge from Gregory T. Wilkins certainly nudged me out of my comfort zone. He urged us to get rid of the blank page by first making marks on paper or cloth with paints, pens, or anything else to hand. I recently treated myself to a small set of Inktense pencils and blocks and used them to create the background on a piece of lightweight, wet canvas. When it was dry I started to stitch a small circle with fine tapestry wool. The circle became bigger and bigger as I settled into the good feeling of the sharp needle gliding surprisingly easily through the canvas. Then I decided to weave gold thread under the longer stitched rows and finally bordered the circle with two rows of gold stitches to define the round shape. I enjoyed the kantha-style stitching more than the painting (!) and am happily surprised to have made a shining sun against the dark background.
The circle is, of course, a weighty symbol. It is also a rich word and I looked it up (as is my wont) in the OED and was delighted to be reminded of some of its meanings and associations : a perfectly round plane figure; an imaginary circle on the celestial sphere or terrestrial globe; a ring; a luminous ring in the sky; a halo; the orbit of a planet; a fairy-ring; area on a playing field, court, or rink; dark mark below the eye; a crown; circus ring; a ring of standing stones; curved tier of seats in a theatre; the area of influence or action; a vicious circle; a class or division of society; a spiritual seance; a railway or road forming a closed loop; circle dance.
To return to the theme of gardening, I have constructed a paved circular path in my garden during the COVID lockdown. My gardening-stitching friend who is also a wordsmith referred to it as a flat cairn when I told her I was collecting flat stones during my daily walks through the veld (bush). It is a perfect description for this marker (or reminder) of the days of lockdown. After those first 21 days of complete lockdown I and my dog were so pleased to be able to walk in the wilds.
Tomorrow (25 July) there is another TRADE at Home virtual market on Facebook and I have made a new batch of draught excluders and a baby quilt for my “market table”.
NOTE to my regular readers. I inadvertently found the umlaut button and so next time can type lamé correctly. Yay!
Two things happened this week that made me feel very grown up : the installation of a linen cupboard and the completion of my first quilt commission. Last week I added a teaser (which was also a prompt-to-self) about the quilt and promised to write about it this week.
But first the linen cupboard. I had thought that linen cupboards only appeared in British novels set in grand houses and was content to store the linen on spare shelves in the clothes cupboards. When we renovated our old house there was talk of that spot on the landing being a good place for a linen cupboard but other more essential carpentry took precedence — like the staircase itself and kitchen cupboards. And then along came lockdown. Look what The Woodworker has produced during this time:
Isn’t it the most handsome of cupboards. (The section of staircase that is visible in the photograph is also his work, treads, turned railings and newel post included).
While he was beavering away in his workshop, crafting the cupboard (which was made from old ceiling and floor boards that had to first be cleaned and planed) I was behind my sewing machine working on a commission for a pair of trees. Here I wish to publicly thank my patron for not only commissioning me, but also for her enthusiastic and supportive response to the quilts.
When she gave me the measurements and colour scheme, she also said she would not be adverse to “a bit of bling” and was happy with the suggestion of one silver and one gold tree, both made from lame (with an umlaut). She also asked for a moon and for birds, and that was how the idea of a night tree and a day tree came about.
The request came during the time of strict lockdown when the local fabric shop was closed and we were not allowed to travel. (I live 120 km from a city where there are some larger fabric shops and a speciality quilting shop.) So I delved into my store cupboard. I always knew there was a reason why we quilters like to stash away fabrics and sewing accessories. Here is a snap of the off-white, grey, duck egg green and silver and gold fabrics I pulled from my stash. Quite a motley collection, I thought. But it was what was to hand, and so I started to stitch.
First I stitched the backgrounds for the trees. They were pieced in units of nine-patch and four-patch blocks (I used 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 inch strips to make the respective blocks). A half-square-triangle was added to some of the four-patch blocks. Then I machine quilted, using my walking foot and matchstick quilting, and finally squared off and bound the quilted backgrounds. It was a relief that I managed to make them exactly the same size.
Then the fun of constructing the trees began. I did find that hand quilting the trees onto an already machine quilted background was hard on the fingers. To make the leaves I sandwiched two layers of fabric with fusible web and then cut out the leaf shapes. The birds were cut from specially made thread fabric (where the threads are sandwiched between two layers of wash-away web and secured with a grid of close machine stitching).
Luckily I also have a large stash of sequins and shiny threads and so could create a very bright moon (which someone thought was the sun!) Instead of stars I added a few small mirrors to the night tree.
I thoroughly enjoyed making these quilts. It was good to use a palette I would otherwise not have experimented with. And it was fun to dip into my box of shiny bits and pieces.
While mulling over the word stitch, it struck me that the literal meaning of joining, fastening, mending through stitching contains a metaphor for something deeper. Before I get myself into tricky terrain, let me just say that if were not for being able to thread a needle and to stitch on, these 100+ days of lockdown would have been much harder and harsher.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is lying open on my desk at the entry for stitch, and so I quote that stitch also means to “turn up (soil) in ridges in order to cover or protect the roots of potatoes etc. Also, plough (land) up deeply”. I did not know that and am enchanted by a small coincidence. Here’s why:
I stitched this piece in response to an online tutorial given by Sue Stone on the TextileArtist.org Stitch Club. She called it “The power of three” and the brief was to choose three fabrics and three threads and to use these to create a small stitched artwork. First we wove the strips of fabric to make a background, then we made a line drawing and stitched this onto the strip-woven backing, and then embellished it with hand stitching. I was not only inspired and challenged by Sue Stone, but also learnt some very useful practical tricks.
Again I sing the praises of Joe and Sam et al. of TextileArtist.org who established the Stitch Club, a most wonderful resource. Each week an established textile artist gives a beautifully presented, inspiring tutorial for a well-designed and manageable project. Then, at the end of the week, there are live question and answer sessions where the artists generously share their knowledge and expertise. What a feast! The Stitch Club is aptly named because members around the world interact and encourage one another through online platforms where we can post photographs of our work and comment on each other’s accomplishments.
The photograph above is mark two. The first piece (below) was made from fabrics and gold thread that friends had given me. Because it celebrated my quilting friends and their gifts I chose to (try to) draw a much-loved garden trowel given to me by a good stitching-gardening friend. I was so pleased with myself for managing to get a reasonable likeness, that I made the second piece. I also wanted to use higher contrasting fabrics and threads in order for the trowel to be more visible. Nevertheless, I am fond of the original, gold trowel. I hope you can see it now that you know what to look for.
This was not be the first time that I celebrated stitching in my blog which is, afterall, about stitching! (Pssst. Please treat yourself and click on the links above to Sue Stone and TextileArtist.org.)
To end off, here follows a teaser in the form of a small portion of a project I am working on. I hope to write all about it next week.
That Sunday something more
than my Bernina’s flywheel
turned as I stitched,
then turned again
at an unexpected place.
It was not the design
that I set out to copy
that turned up,
and fell into place,
but something else.
It’s a blustery, sunny, wintry day. The kind of weather I associate with the National Arts Festival which, for 45 years, started on the last Thursday of June in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), South Africa. It is ironic that the weather (often described as unpredictable, changeable) is the one thing that feels the same on this day (today) when the Festival was to have begun, bringing the streets and town to life.
This year, the year of the Corona Virus, is also the year of the Virtual National Arts Festival. While this is exciting and innovative, it does not assuage my forlorn feelings. There will be no fun of the fair on the village green, no tents with stallholders selling their craft, no crowds. Some things have “changed utterly” (W.B. Yeats) as a result of the pandemic. But there is a virtual village green, so all is not lost. I was not brave enough to sign up for it — it seemed too big a step from our “stoep stall” on our front verandah to a virtual platform.
Taking a smaller step, I have been loading images and descriptions of my market wares for a local virtual market called TRADE at Home, which will be happening on Facebook this Saturday (27 June). Thanks to the clear instructions and industry of the organiser, Tracy Jeffery, it has been fraughtless process. This is the second virtual market she has kindly organised to help the local traders to tout their wares.
Amidst the change wrought by the pandemic, the world continues to turn. The winter solstice happened in the southern hemisphere last weekend, and my June kantha sampler is a representation of this annual phenomenon.
To accentuate the shadow I placed a semi circle of patterned fabric from an old cotton sari on the left hand side of the circle that represents the earth. The stitching inside the circle is the “stepping” kantha stitch. The outside of the circle is shadow quilted.
We can’t converse
with the beasts,
and it is only
through a tear
in the tissue
from the celestial
that we may glimpse
of nine angels
through a slip
of the rotary blade
(slicing like butter
through nine layers
A missed step,
instead of five, and
the star shape was lost.
“Look! They’re angels!”
This small host
a chink in the chain,
waved in greeting
and left their
on nine blocks
of mispieced fabric.