On Feeling Pleased

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.

The treeless backgrounds for the pair of quilts

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.

On Stitching

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:

Trowel #2 (33 x 26 cm)

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.

Trowel #1 (26 x 22 cm)

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.

Poem #33

Sunshine and shadow

That Sunday something more
than my Bernina’s flywheel 
turned as I stitched,
then turned again
to arrive 
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.

Sunshine and Shadow (108 x 73 cm)

On the Weather

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.

The Trade at Home virtual market inspired me to create a logo and an advertisement. It was fun — especially when I found I could place the logo inside the advert

FInishing line

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.

Solstice. Kantha sampler for June 2020 (19 x 19 cm)

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.

Poem #32

A String of Angels

for Bev

We can’t converse
with the beasts,
and it is only
through a tear 
in the tissue
that separates
the vegetable
from the celestial
that we may glimpse
the angels.

This string
of nine angels
was fabricated
one Saturday,
through a slip
of the rotary blade
(slicing like butter
through nine layers
of sandwiched
fabric squares)
when making
crazy stars.
A missed step,
four cuts
instead of five, and
the star shape was lost.
“Look! They’re angels!”
you said.

This small host
slipped through
a chink in the chain,
waved in greeting
and left their 
shape-shifted imprint
on nine blocks
of mispieced fabric.

On How One Thing Leads to Another

It was my intention to take a blogging break this week. But a series of happy coincidences got me thinking about material for yet another post about scraps. The clincher was when Facebook showed me that I had posted this photograph a year ago:

Honky-Tonk Blues (90 x 90 cm) made for the 2019 Fynarts Festival’s textile art exhibition, Shades and Tones

You’ve guessed, I am going to tell you about the scraps that came from the making of this quilt. It’s a long story, which also has its genesis in the wonderful tutorials and inspiration being offered by TextileArtist.org. This week’s Stitch Club tutor Susie Vickery urged us to embroider in the Jacobean style using plastic. Yes, she did. And hundreds of us have done just that and been surprised and delighted by the results. I decided the time had come to cut up the Liberty of London bag that I accepted against my better judgement (it being plastic) when I bought a roll of fat quarters from that iconic shop. The fabrics were then used to make Honky-Tonk Blues and I stored the scraps in the Liberty Bag. These offcuts were dumped on my cutting table while I stitched Susie Vickery’s challenge.

After that bit of plastic fun was finished, the fabric scraps started talking to me. The previous week, Stitch Club tutor and artist, Merill Cormeau had shown us the trick of stitching small pieces of fabric onto netting in order to make a collage. Given this newly learnt technique, the pile of scraps, and half a metre of newly purchased grey netting in petticoat weight, this is what happened :

An assemblage of strips, from the scraps, between two layers of netting

The next step will be to stitch down all the bits and then to applique on top of the background (there are still the tiny squares and slivers of scraps waiting to be used up!). I know this will means hours with a threaded needle. I also know that any non-quilters reading this will think I am a little crazy. So be it.

Finishing Line

While Liberty Lily was a quick stitch, the piece I did from Merill Cormeau’s prompt took a lot longer. The brief was to create a collage as a background for a flower of significance. I chose a plant called Crassula perfoliata (aka falcata) which is endemic to South Africa. It occurs on rocky outcrops in grassland and on inaccessible cliffs. In the wilder parts of the botanical gardens near to where I live it blooms spectacularly every February. Its common names include airplane plant, Buddha’s temple, propeller plant, scarlet paintbrush and sekelblaarplakkie. I could not find any reference to its significance in our personal plant books or on google, but feel sure it has folklore behind it.

On Maybe, Maybe not

As I sat and stitched around the letters M A Y to mark the month many thoughts about this lockdown month and the connotations of the word itself swirled about in my brain. But I will not bore you with my mullings and musings except to say that it seemed appropriate to capture the name in negative space in my kantha sampler for the month of May.

Kantha sampler for May 2020 (23 x 28 cm; 9″ x 11″)

The joy of making a sampler is that one is experimenting and therefore it does not matter if the result is not perfect. And then there are the small surprises along the way — such as the patterns that are formed when the stitching along two angled lines meets. I used the bricking stitch to outline and echo the letters until there was a stitched rectangle around the letters. For the border I used the blocking stitch. (For more detailed explanations about these stitches, please go to a previous post, On Learning the Gentle Art of Kantha with Dorothy Tucker.)

Another small surprise was to see that the back of the sampler spelled the word Y A M (which is the mirror image of M A Y).

Because there is no batting between the layers of cloth there is nowhere to bury the knots, so here is the back view, thread tails and all.

More on Containment

A couple of posts back I announced that I had finished with the the theme of Containment and would not be making any more textile works on the subject. As it turned out, the first exercise in the very exciting Stitch Club series, being run by TextileArtist.org, was to make containers to hold objects. The workshop was run by UK Artist Debbie Lyddon, who is inspired by the Norfolk coast. She showed us how to make containers containing eyelets. The tutorial was much richer than my sparse description and I had great fun painting canvas and then using it to stitch three containers, using cord and wire to stabilise the peepholes and top rim.

Three containers, contained in a little boat

The three vessels of varying sizes contain precious objects given to me by special people. Because they do not stand upright; and because I had seen some beautiful boat shapes made by other members of the Stitch Club; and because I had extra fabric and wire, I decided to make a boat for them.

This photograph gives a better view through the peepholes of the contents : a heart shaped shell, a polished rose quartz stone, and a palm stone.

For the Birds

During lockdown I became more aware of the sweet sound of birdsong and believed that more birds had come to roost in our garden and chorus from the trees at dawn. So I made a quilt to celebrate this.

BirdTree (156 x 114 cm)

And now for the story behind the quilt. The weekend before 27 March 2020, the day South Africa went into hibernation, we were at a supper party where one of the guests was wearing a beautiful shirt. The fabric caught my eye and I rudely asked where he had got the shirt. I learned that it had been lovingly hand made by his wife and so of course the next question was “Where did you get the fabric?” To my surprise and delight she told me that she had bought it out our local fabric store.

I live in a small town and the said fabric store specialises in Shwe Shwe and utility fabrics, so I could not believe my luck when I heard that there was a range of quilting fabrics along the back wall and that the fabric with bright parrots nestling in foliage, which she had used to make the shirt, was among the range. I held my breath until Monday morning and was relieved to find there was still yardage on the roll.

Not being sure of how to use it, but knowing that I wanted to make a tree full of birds, I started piecing the background while I thought about it. By now we were in lockdown and so I used my stash of greens (along with the plain bright green I had bought on that day of the lucky shopping spree) to make pinwheels. Here is a snap of the completed background:

And while I stitched I mulled over how to make the tree. I got stuck on the idea of cutting out the parrots and appliqueing them onto a golden tree. I pinned up some gold Thai silk in the rough shape of a tree, but it didn’t look right. Then, early morning as I was surfacing from sleep and listening to the birds the idea came to me to cut the tree from the fabric, so that the birds were embedded in the tree.

This bright idea spurred me on to finish machine quilting the background. I then constructed the tree shape and hand appliqued and then quilted it in place . The branches looked bare, so I machine appliqued a flock of parrots onto the tree top and also machine stitched around the edge of the tree trunk and branches to contain the fraying. To my surprise my open toed foot glided smoothly over the surface and did not pucker the quilt.

There was not enough yardage of the plain green for the back of the quilt and, because the shops were shut, I had to make-do with the fabric I had to hand and pieced the backing from the leftovers.

The back view of BirdTree

To end off this post, some musing on whether the birds are in fact flocking to the town and singing their hearts out during this time of decreased human activity and movement. A bit of research, via Google, has shown that my ears have been deceiving me. It seems that I have been hearing more birdsong because there is less mechanical noise.

According to British ornithologist Sue Anne Zollinger it isn’t true that the birdsong has increased. In an article published on NPR this ornithologist from Manchester Metropolitan University explains that because there is less noise pollution during lockdown, the birds have less noise to compete with and are, in fact, singing more quietly than they used to. Zollinger said: “We know from some earlier studies in the city of Berlin that birds sing quieter on the weekend mornings during the time that’s normally rush hour than they do during rush hour during the week because the noise levels are lower,” she added. “And that’s probably what’s happening now.”

Another article in the Irish Times states that people are asking if the lockdown has produced more birds. “The answer is no,” says Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland. “The number of birds is the same as it has always been. It is just people are more aware of them than they have normally been.”

People are not only noticing the birdsong, but are also watching them. The New York Times reports an increase in the number of birdwatchers in a beautifully illustrated article. Closer to my home I know of two friends who have formed bird watching groups and who are watching online talks on birds.