Variations on the Running Stitch

My faithful readers will know about my love affair with kantha-style stitching and the monthly samplers that I stitched last year. In making these samplers I discovered that the kantha stitch form has seemingly infinite variations. And it is all based on the simple running stitch.

The time had come, I thought, to share my love of kantha-style stitching. I offered an introduction class to my local quilting group, who graciously agreed to be my guinea pigs. This was followed by a second class. To my delight, some of the stitchers also fell in love with kantha and produced more variations.

Jean Schaefer took to the stitching like a duck to water and completed her sampler during the class. She then went home and added enchanting stitched creatures to the leftover spaces on the sampler cloth. She calls them ‘doodles’ done with needle and thread and is planning a ‘proper’ project. (I mistakenly thought the bird was dead (!) but Jean explained that he is just upside down)

After filling the four quadrants of her sampler cloth (above left), Hilary Mohr moved on to make her own beautiful flower design after the class. She says that she is captivated by the potential of running stitch. It shows in the work pictured above (right). As hilarymohrdesigns she makes elegant “mindful” clothes and accessories and said that she will in future add kantha-style stitching to her creations.

Gwenda Euvrard was also captivated and, despite her busy life, added this flower within a circle to her sampler after the workshop. Her stitching is remarkably neat and precise. It struck me that stitching style is a little like handwriting as everyone who attended the class produced different renditions, despite following exactly the same instructions for stitching the three basic patterns, taken from traditional kantha.

I have saved the photograph of Irene Vermaak’s sampler for last because it is also extremely neat and precise and gives a good example of what we did during the introduction to kantha-style stitching class.

This close-up view shows the three stitch styles of bricking (top left quadrant) stepping (top right) and the base-line for the blocking stitch (bottom left quadrant). The final quadrant shows two variations of the weaving stitch. Below is a full-size photograph of the sampler on which I demonstrated during the classes, and the kit, which included a pattern sheet, needle and thread and three layers of cotton and ramie fabrics.

What better way to spend a morning than sitting around a table, stitching together. The comments and quips were enlightening. Some said that what looks so easy is, in fact, not so. This is because one has to concentrate on the negative spaces. I was speaking from experience and could show them an example where I lost the flow and ended up also losing the pattern that the stitches make. We also joked about the ten thousand hour rule and worked out how many hours per day it would take to notch this up within x number of years. (Malcolm Gladwell claims in his book Outliers that in order to master a craft one has to put in ten thousand hours of practice.)

I have new respect for Miss Perks, who taught me and about 30 other 14-year-olds how to sew by hand. What a difficult task that must have been — I can’t image how she managed to convey her knowledge to a group of sweaty-palmed, disinterested adolescents. I am however grateful to her because she taught me a life skill that has stayed with me. The group of grown woman that I had the pleasure of teaching recently all wanted to learn and asked lots of questions. Even so, I found it is not that easy to pass on the tacit knowledge that is in one’s fingers. The best way, I found, was to demonstrate how to do it, rather than to over-explain with words.

We intend to meet again for a more advanced lesson. But before that the Festival will be coming to town in less than a month’s time. Speaking of which, here is the latest advertisement for my exhibition.

On a Dream Coming True

For a few weeks I have been nursing exciting news. I will be holding an exhibition of my work during the South African National Arts Festival. Because of these uncertain COVID times and the possibility of Festival plans having to be cancelled, I decided to hold my breath and keep my counsel until it became official.

This week the National Arts Festival released the programme for the Makhanda Live! section of the Festival and I breathed out. Then I made an advertisement and posted it on social media.

The town in which I live has for decades been the home of the annual National Arts Festival. Makhanda (formerly Grahammstown) has an art school that serves the local government high schools and, during Festival time, becomes the vibrant venue for exhibitions by local artists. I have long dreamt about exhibiting my work at the Carinus Art Centre and am thrilled that this year it will come to pass.

The tagline for this year’s Festival is BEYOND 11 DAYS OF AMAZING and it is being billed as a hybrid festival of the arts, anchored in our home of Makhanda, accessible online and coming to you in cities across South Africa. You can see the programme for the online and physical festivals on the National Arts Festival website by clicking here.

dolls’ clothes

In April I wrote about how I refashioned the traditional dresses on three dolls from a collection. I decided it would be nice to display a series of these folk costumes at my exhibition. There is no shortage of dolls or stamps to make more collages, but time is a most precious commodity at the moment (27 days to go, as I write this). I have been beavering away and have repurposed the costumes for the British Royal Guard, Italy, Scotland, and Switzerland. I will not repeat the details of the method I used. Instead, here are sets of photographs of the process of making each of the collages.

The Royal Guard

Stitching over those epauletes and medals was a bit of a challenge, even though they are made of painted cardboard and plastic. I had to stitch very slowly in order for the needle to miss landing in the middle of a medal! The hats were very bulky so I cut away the back part of the furry helmets. The chin straps had been glued onto the faces of the dolls and disintegrated when I tried to dislodge them. Luckily I have a stash of gold metallic thread and chain-stitched smarter chin straps straight onto the cloth.


I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the undressed dolls! This Italian couple’s clothes were rather difficult to stitch down because of the bulkiness caused by the tied sashes and the woman’s layers of petticoat and decorated apron. I ended up removing the petticoat (which was made of thick paper) to decrease the bulkiness.


This Scottish lass’s kilt is made of a thin fabric (not wool) and it was easy to iron it nice and flat before stitching it down. Her kilt was glued onto her waist and so the pleats had to be handstitched into place. Getting that cross-over shawl to lie neatly over the blouse was also took some tricky hand stitching.


This Swiss costume was also bulky around the waist area, where the blouse, skirt, apron and waistcoat needed to be stitched through simultaneously. I have a useful tool which came in a goody bag at the National Quilt Festival — it is a wooden pointed stick with a knob at the other end. I use this to keep the bulky edges in place as I stitch down a section (hence the photograph above, as an illustration). The laced section over the waistcoat is, in fact, made of plastic and had been added to the outside of the dress. Having learnt my lesson with Royal soldiers, I did not try to stitch this down by machine but hand-stitched it on at the end of the process.

Undressing the dolls and then refashioning the costumes into a one dimensional form is the most fiddly part of the process. I realised that the European folk dolls are probably made in the same factory — it’s obvious from the way the clothes are put onto the dolls and the type of fabrics used. These souvenirs are mass produced, using the quickest methods possible. Sometimes the clothes are glued straight onto the dolls and where there is stitching it is very rough and minimal. This makes me feel better in that I have not destroyed precious artefacts of folk history!

There are now seven collages of folk costumes sitting on my pinboard. (The sizes vary between 33 x 25 cm and 34 x 45 cm.) I was wondering how many pieces make up a series and decided, on the advice of my good friend The Artist, to aim for at least nine. Then, lo and behold, I saw a post on Instagram where someone wrote that she regards a series of works to be between seven and ten pieces. (Apologies for not crediting the post, I did not note it down.)

I am working on another set of themed works, which involve hand stitch and so are taking longer. So I have really cut my work out for myself (if you will pardon my mauling of the saying).

An Alphabet of Fruits

This is the idea I settled on in response to the theme of fruit for the AreYouBookEnough challenge for May. And this is the final result.

I took some poetic licence with the colour of the fruit beginning with an E. If you are struggling to name the fruits, the answer will be given at the bottom of this post.

Treat yourself and have at look at the wonderful book creations on the Instagram hastag #areyoubookenough_fruit. Every month this year I have written about the #areyoubookenough challenge and my participation in it. It is hard to believe that I have now made five fabric books and feel now that I am measuring out the year with handmade books. (I would not be able to keep count of the number of coffee spoons — with apologies to J. Alfred Prufrock.)

This book of fruits is made in the same accordion (or concertina) book format as the four previous books. It is the simplest of the book formats. Perhaps I will challenge myself to progress to making signatures and binding these into a book in the future. For now, I am sticking to what has worked before and am concentrating on the content and the stitching that goes into the making of the book.

An Alphabet of Fruits is hand stitched in the kantha-style and, like a quilt, has three layers. The cotton batting gives the book a lovely soft, almost squashy, feel. The batting is sandwiched between the red ramie cotton (which backs the book) and the hemp cloth used for the front. (I recently indulged in a large piece of this hemp cloth and I can’t find the words to say how pleasurable it is to work with it.) The thread is hand dyed no. 12 perle cotton from House of Embroidery.

Close up views of each of the six pages inside the book. They each measure 15 x 12.5 cm (5 x 6″)

I tried different ways to fill the small berries (above) with stitch and, after several unpickings, I coloured them in with ordinary pencil crayon as this was the colour that best matched the thread.

The title for the book ended up on the back cover as I did not want to stitch over the imprint of the apple which showed up the underside of the stitching and which is the front cover of the book when it is folded closed.

Here follows a brief description of the process for making the book. The drawings of the fruits were traced onto the white hemp fabric; the three layers were then laid on top of one another and pinned, with the seam allowance of red ramie fabric turned under the batting and stitched down; the dividing lines for each of the pages were then backstitched; and then the fruits were stitched in kantha-style patterns. Finally, the background was shadow quilted in white and the title was hand-stitched to the back cover.

Apple. Banana. Cherries. Dates. Elderberries. Fig. (Wish I could have typed it upside down!)

Finishing line

When I finished my Modern Mystery quilt, the offcuts were still “warm” and I could not resist stitching together a set of triangles that were offcuts from making one of the blocks in the mystery quilt. The pieced result sat on my pinboard for a while, then I decided to make it into a cushion, with overstitching — just for fun. It seemed to need a partner, so I made another cushion cover.

On Y-seams and Mitred Borders

Or, joining cloth at an angle

When three seams converge you need time, patience, plenty of pins, a ruler and cutting mat with 45 degree markings, a pencil, and an unpicker (seam ripper). Or so I found this week when stitching mitred corners for the next border of the Bernina Round Robin challenge. It also struck me that a mitred corner and a Y-seam are the same thing and that it is easier to stitch these by hand.

Process photographs taken while tackling the mitre at the corner, with the finished result at bottom right. This was the fifth one I stitched — that’s how many tries it took before I manage to get an almost perfect corner.

As mentioned before, I am stitching two versions of the round robin challenge and use one of these for experimentation. This month it came in handy as I could practise sewing the mitres on the experimental piece. I found the trickiest thing was to insert the sewing machine needle at exactly the right pinpoint where the three seams meet. In the end, I found it easier to start sewing slightly away from the corner and then to turn the work around and stitch into the corner from the opposite direction. This was when I nearly resorted to stitching by hand! But, in the spirit of the Bernina challenge, I used my sewing machine. It helped that there was a pencil line to follow. Bernina’s instructions were, once again, clear and easy to follow. This is especially commendable given the complicated procedure for constructing a mitred corner.

The experimental piece where I practised making mitres. The needle holes along the unpicked seams were covered with applique!

The second part of the May challenge was to decorate the 5 inch border with raw edged applique (with umlaut). I decided to repeat the applique I had done on the central square and cut out flowers from the same Kaffee Fassett fabric, called Row Flowers. This time I added a “stalk” of plain fabric and used satin stitch (rather than the more decorative blanket stitch in the central square) to applique the shapes. As before, I used a lighter fusible web (called spider web) which comes without backing paper. This means that the fabric has to be between two teflon sheets when the sticky web is being ironed into place. I managed to avoid getting a sticky mess on the underside of the iron this time. To stablise the main fabric I backed it with iron-on stitch and tear. This makes the applique stitch work smoother and the paper comes unstuck and tears away easily from around the stitched applique sections.

The flowers with their stalks looked a bit like trees to me (ha!), and so I added avenues of them when appliqueing the main piece. Here it is:

To return to the likening of mitred corners and Y-seams — in both cases three seams converge at a point. A quilter, Sue Bax, once noted at a workshop that it is easier to stitch Y-seams by hand and she is right. One has more control over where the needle enters the cloth and, provided you have drawn accurate pencil lines along which to stitch, making a neat Y-seam is very easy to do.

May I take this opportunity to show you the progress on my elongated hexagon piece (pattern and method by Yolande Bowman) to give an example of hand-stitched Y-seams. The photograph of a section of the reverse side of the piece gives an idea of how it is done. (This is a bit like showing one’s Y-fronts in public.)

May I also share with you my delight in the word convergence. As usual I looked it up and found that it has its roots in the Latin for “incline together”. One of the definitions of the verb converge is: “Tend to meet at a point; approach nearer together as if to meet or join (on a point)” (OED). I think it is the perfect description for the process and challenge of constructing mitred corners and Y-seams.

When I complained to The Woodworker that I was having difficulty with my mitred corners, he said that at least I wasn’t working in 3D, as happens when making mitred corners for wooden objects.

More On Trees

I have a strong urge to stitch another tree. It’s because of a profound book called The Overstory by Richard Powers (Vintage 2019), which I am reading. All day I have been thinking about this book and why it has affected me so deeply while, at the same time, trying to shake off an equally deep sense of gloom. More than that, I feel compelled to spread the book’s message. Bluntly put: in killing the trees the human race is killing itself.

The next terrifying thought is What can I do about it? I am not brave enough to spend ten months living on a platform in an ancient tree to protect it from being felled as do two of the characters in the novel. And in the end it did not help, the tree was cut down. I can try to spread the message of the book, by writing a blog post. I can plant more trees. I can pay homage to trees through my stitch work, I tell myself knowing that it will not help much.

The Overstory examines humankind’s blindness to the devastation we have wrought upon the Earth.

“What keeps us from seeing the obvious?” says Adam Appich, Professor of Psychology, later in the book while musing on the zealous actions he and his fellow tree followers had taken to protect old forests twenty years previously. He answers that it is other people that stop one from seeing. Earlier in the book someone points out that it is only through stories that people might come to see, or understand the dire situation.

Powers tells the stories of nine characters and how their lives are inextricably linked to the trees. He also speaks for the trees. Read it if you can.

Book cover photograph from Amazon.com website

This is the third time I am writing a post about trees. Three years ago, as a new blogger, I posted photographs of the tree quilts I had made and wrote about my fascination with trees. In November 2019 I repeated myself a bit, but with different photographs, in my second post On Trees.

On the Modern Mystery

That’s what I have called my newly completed mystery quilt. I have twice before mentioned the mystery quilt along offered by the Good Hope Quilters’ Guild when I posted photographs of the progress. Well the quilt top is now complete, after 12 weeks. Here it is, ta dah…

Modern Mystery. 185 cm square (73 inches square)

The instructions are apparently going to remain on the website for a while, so if you are tempted you can download the 12 sets of instructions (click on the link in the opening paragraph). I cannot sing high enough praises about how clear and easy to follow those instructions are. Not to mention the stunning design. So thank you again to Diana Vandeyar for generously sharing her expertise. Her largesse continued on an Instagram post where she offers further border designs to make the quilt larger, after receiving requests for ideas on how to do this. Click here to see the post.

My good friend Karen Davies also took part. She used a William Morris print as one of her fabrics and made this stunning quilt:

At our regular QUOGs (Quilters of Grahamstown) gathering this week there were many hands to hold up the quilts and so we had a photograph session. Here are the quilt tops, side by side:

Can you spot the differences? Karen followed the instructions exactly and produced a perfect quilt. I was in too much of a hurry (as usual) and so made two mistakes. Firstly I made my first blocks over a weekend and used what I had in my stash, thinking that I would be able to match the fabrics for the extra yardage. Ha. While the local fabric shop still had plenty of the purple, there was no more bright lilac and I had to make do with a lighter shade, therefore using three colours instead of the designated two. Then later in the process I got my background and main fabrics mixed up, so the colour sequence is incorrect, or does not follow the design. I decided to view this as a happy mistake and to make a second quilt in order to get it right.

I repeat myself from a blog post a few weeks back when I said that in making this mystery quilt I had learnt the joy of precision piecing. As you can see, there are many angles and corners in this quilt and it became a point of honour for me to get my corners to meet exactly. Even though I didn’t quite manage this every time, I am still pleased with the level of precision I achieved. (And, I realise now why I have avoided sewing triangular designs in the past — there is only one way to get perfect points and that is to sew carefully and slowly.)

I decided to include these rather personal shots because they say something about the companionship that quilting brings. At left are Karen and I with our quilts and (right) our sewing companions.

For me, the Modern and Postmodern movements are a bit of a mystery. I grappled with the concept while studying literature and decided that it is difficult to define something when one is right in the middle of it. This is probably self-indulgent problematising. When it comes to modern quilts I relish the clear, bright lines. The Modern Quilt Guild answers the question What is Modern Quilting? clearly and simply:

Modern quilts are primarily functional and inspired by modern design. Modern quilters work in different styles and define modern quilting in different ways, but several characteristics often appear which may help identify a modern quilt. These include, but are not limited to: the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work.

And, in the words of Diana Vandeyar the GHQG mystery quilt explores a few “modern quilt” elements such as large minimalist blocks, some negative space and high contrast between the units. This quilt is designed as a two colour (two fabric) quilt with a dark background fabric and a light, high contrast main fabric.

On Seminole Patchwork

There is nothing new under the sun. I was reminded of this fact when I realised that a quilt I made years ago was not a unique discovery but rather a homespun version of the Seminole patchwork method. I had set out to copy the diamond pattern of an ancient mosaic floor that I had seen in an art book by making long strips of fabric “tiles” and sewing them together on point. It involved a lot of unpicking to get the fabric tiles to match the pattern of the floor in the book.

African Mosaic (123 x 64 cm)

It was tricky to arrange the rust and black tiles in the square format around a central black block, which is why the bottom panel of the quilt is simple straight rows of diamonds. At the time I started another piece of “titled floor” and this morning decided to unearth the unfinished quilt top from a storage box marked “unfinished”. It was neatly packed with the unused fabric. (Perhaps the time has come to finish it.)

When I tackled the third challenge in the Bernina Round Robin this month I realised that the above pieces are in fact Seminole patchwork and that I would have saved myself a lot of unpicking if I had done some research before starting to stitch the mosaic floor. But I was new to quilting, had not yet built up a little library of quilting manuals, and there was no internet for quick and easy reference.

The brief for the Bernina Round Robin was to make a Seminole patchwork border. The introduction to the set of instructions notes that Seminole patchwork is created by joining a series of horizontal strips to produce repetitive geometric designs and gives the following background: “This intricate technique was developed by the Seminole tribe from Florida in the 1800s as a necessity for clothing which had to be made from scraps of material. The style developed into distinct designs made of tribal motifs with significant meanings. As sewing machines replaced hand-stitching, the designs became even more intricate.”

A most useful book The Quilters’ Ultimate Visual Guide, edited by Ellen Pahl (Rodale Press, 1997) not only gives clear instructions on how to construct Seminole patterns, but also includes this interesting folklore:

Without the facts of a written historical records, there are a variety of theories about the origins of Seminole patchwork. Some say the Seminoles, driven deep into the swamp by pressure from farming settlers, were reduced to using even scrap strips of fabric for their clothing. Others say the tartans of Scottish settlers in southern Florida inspired the Seminole tribe to create complex and colorful patterns. We know that runaway slaves found protection with the Seminole people, and perhaps one of them carried the concept of strip patchwork into the Everglades.

Whatever its origins, Seminole patchwork is an ingenious technique for creativing machine sewn patchwork designs the appear deceptively complex.

p. 217. “Seminole Patchwork” by Cheryl Greider Bradkin
The addition of the Seminole border to my Bernina Round Robin block

I am not really happy with this border but was running out of time to meet the end of the month deadline for the Round Robin challenge. The initial plan was to make smaller blocks (three-quarter inch finished size) in a random set of plain colours that are echoes of the main Kaffe Fassett fabric called “Row Flowers”. This requires a lot of stitching and I had not left myself enough time to complete the project. But all is not lost as I am in fact making two pieces simultaneously, one that follows the instructions to the T, and a second one that stretches the rules a little.

I will not bore you with a step by step explanation of how to make this design. Bernina asks that we post process photographs on its Round Robin challenge site. Here they are for anyone who may be interested.

Finishing Line

The ending of the month also brought the submission date for the #areyoubookenough challenge that runs on Instagram. The theme for April was body language and here are photographs of the cloth concertina book that I made. It developed organically and is hand-stitched.

Welcome to my Sewing Space

With too many projects on the go and nothing to show that is completed, I wasn’t going to write a post this week. But it felt wrong to miss a deadline — even if it is a self-imposed one. So, when I noticed the soft autumn light in my workroom this morning an idea popped into my head.

I have a voyeuristic fascination with other people’s studios when watching online interviews with textile artists and assume I am not the only one! Recently I was entranced by posts by blogging friends that offered “tours” of their studio and sewing spaces through a set of photographs and am unashamedly copying Tierney (https://tierneycreates.com/2020/12/19/in-the-studio/) and Emmely (https://infectiousstitches.wordpress.com/2021/03/27/sewing-room-tour/). So here follows a set of snapshots of my workspace. It comes with a viewers’ warning that I did not tidy up before I took the photographs. This is what greets you when you open the front door to our house. A cupboard full of fabric (!) and, behind that, signs of sewing activity.

My work space is in the entrance room to our house. While it is a fairly large room, it also houses the staircase and the front section of the room acts as a passageway. It was therefore quite a tight fit to get the worktables and storage units into the remaining floor space of about 5 square metres. The only option for the cupboard holding my fabric stash was facing the front door (behind it is a large map cabinet in which I store finished quilts, etc.) I am embarrassed that the prominent position has not encouraged me to be more tidy. But, as quilters will know, fabric has a way of disarranging itself while one is looking for that particular piece you know is stashed somewhere in the pile of red (or blue, or black, etc.) materials.

Once you are inside and the door is closed there is a little more space. The following photographs were taken in an anti-clockwise direction.

From this view, the screen blocks off the array of fabrics, rulers, cutters, works in progress, clutter, etc. on the work surfaces.

The screen was made for the practical purpose of screening off the untidyness but it does also give me pleasure when I see the light shining through the fairly translucent Island Batik fabrics. If I am working on a large project or pinning a quilt on the cutting table (also made by The Woodworker) I move the screen aside.

So what is behind the screen? Here goes, and please remember that you have been warned:

Then we move to work surfaces for sewing and ironing. My ancient workhorse Bernina is under cover in front of the ironing station, waiting for the next heavy duty project. The desk I use daily holds the younger 1008 Bernina. Alongside is the map cabinet and various inspirations pinned onto a pegboard and the back of the fabric cupboard.

The textile works on the walls and pinboards are part of my inspirational pieces and were not made by me. Here are some close ups.

And now it remains to show some photographs of the top of cutting table. It is customised to my height and easy to move and is an absolute pleasure to work at it.