Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A new English paper piecing project

Thank you so much for all your lovely comments on the last post - I hugely enjoyed reading what you're reading and listening to.

Kim B is our winner who wrote: Oooh, love to discover new UK fabric shops! As for what I'm reading, after finishing your recommendation of "Love, Nina" by Nina Stibbe, I moved on to Alan Bennett's journals! (well, the two books of his collected writings, which include his journals). I kept waiting for him to refer to Mary-Kay's nanny Nina, but it never happened. But he did talk about Mary-kay and Sam! in paper book fashion, I'm finally indulging in my first John-Banville-as-Benjamin-Black murder mystery and wondering what took me so long!!

Kim's comment may make very little sense to anyone who hasn't read 'Love, Nina', but I loved it as I know that I would have read Alan Bennett's journals waiting for him to mention Nina too. Kim, please do send me your address and I'll pass it on to Fabric HQ who will despatch your goodies.

This is what I'm currently working on - it's some english paper piecing, which I'm also intending to write up a pattern for, if anyone might be interested. It's not quite finished yet though as it's taking a frustratingly long time for me to decide on just the right colours for the next round of shapes. It uses some Liberty prints and some solid Oakshotts. 

You wouldn't believe quite how many things I cut out or even sew together and then realise that I'm not happy with the colours. All of the rosettes below (I actually made three of the patterned rosettes in the first photo, before deciding I wasn't happy with them!), won't actually be used. I think by the time it's finished I may have enough rejects to create a whole 'B-side' version though! 

Despite being so indecisive, I'm enjoying it hugely though and it's fun to be working with some shapes that are different from those in my Passacaglia quilt, as they've been my sole focus for the last six months and I decided I needed a brief break from them. My new project still involves a little bit of fussy-cutting, but isn't dominated by it, which again, I'm finding feels refreshing.

Wishing you a lovely week,
Florence x

Friday, 10 October 2014

An unapologetically Christmassy giveaway!

This is just a really quick post to invite you to leave a comment to have the chance to win these gorgeous fabrics from my sponsor, Fabric HQ, who have recently launched a shiny new website, as well as opening up a real-life, you-can-actually-touch-it shop in Buckinghamshire.

I know many people are hideously offended by thinking about Christmas in October, but for me, the moment three family birthdays are over at the end of September, my thoughts turn to how excited I feel about Christmas, so these bundles are unapologetically seasonal! However, I've already seen some people beginning Christmas sewing over on Instagram, so I do wonder whether sewists are naturally willing to embrace the whole thing earlier, just because we sometimes need longer to prepare our gifts if we're making them!

There's a fairly well-padded Christmas section, but I also love this 'Autumnal Woods' panel, which actually looks deliciously wintry to me.

But when not thinking about Christmas, Fabric HQ do offer a fantastic selection of fabrics. From memory, most of the prints in this stack are ones that I bought there when I first started on my Passacaglia quilt six months ago. But they also do some amazing dressmaking fabrics (rabbits and hares, and leaves!). If you want to keep track of what's coming and going at Fabric HQ you can sign up to their newsletter by clicking on the button that's right at the bottom of every page on their website

Anyway, how to enter - I'd love it if you'd leave me a comment telling me what you're enjoying reading, listening to or looking at, recently. 

Personally, I'm currently reading the newly published 'Us' by David Nicholls, author of the book (and now film), One Day. My sister actually sent me an Amazon gift voucher (with an incredible dancing dogs animation and a 'happy birthday' message even though it's not my birthday until March. It was quite thrilling - she knows just what's going to delight me) for this book so that I could download it to my Kindle and read it at the same time as her. We're both unsure of how much we love the characters yet, but we're both huge fans of David Nicholls' writing. I'm also reading-by-proxy, Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed (by proxy as I bought it for my husband, but he's relaying it to me chapter-by-chapter as he reads and we've discussed the ideas in it so much that I feel like I've read it myself - it's a sports psychology book and a really inspiring, empowering and fascinating read, irrespective of whether you have a direct interest in sport - so much of what's written in it is applicable to wider life). 

I'll announce a winner next week. Rae is happy to post the fabric to anywhere in Europe. Really looking forward to reading what you're enjoying at the moment.

Florence x

Thursday, 2 October 2014

A tiny piece of Liberty Jack

I made this a few weeks ago at my daughter's request, as she said that she'd really love something with a Liberty print Union Jack on it for her birthday. Coincidentally, it was around the time of the Scottish independence referendum when there was a lot of discussion about how the Union Jack would change if the Scottish St Andrew's element were to be removed, so while I was sewing I realised that it may be a last opportunity to sew it while it was still in circulation as our current flag. However, as a fairly unpatriotic person, I don't feel any real attachment to the Union Jack for what it represents, but I do feel a huge affection for it from a sewist's perspective. The way the pieces interconnect, the potential for using different fabrics, the variation in thickness of lines - they all combine to make it a perfect focus for patchwork. 

Several years ago, like many others, I fell in love with Janey Forgan's Liberty Jack quilt, which was shown as part of the V&A's Exhibition, 'Quilts 1700 - 2010'. You can see a little corner of it in the book I had out while I was sewing here (the book doesn't give a pattern for the quilt as it's a book discussing the pieces at the exhibition, rather than a pattern book) or see it in full in this old post.

My finished Union Jack measured, from memory, just less than 5" x 2.5", so I decided to foundation piece it as some of the strips were too small for English paper piecing. I've done foundation paper piecing a few times in the past and never really enjoyed it as the whole process feels so counter-intuitive, but this time I felt quite delighted by it - perhaps because it was enabling me to do something that I couldn't do at that scale any other way - I'm normally a fan of anything that facilitates me working in miniature or with fiddly pieces. [If you're not sure of the difference between foundation paper piecing and English paper piecing: the former is where you machine sew fabrics onto a printed paper template, whereas English paper piecing is where you wrap fabrics around paper templates and then sew them together by hand - the method I use most of the time in my sewing].

It was very much trial and error as it was my own Union Jack print out and my own learn-as-you-go methods. However, afterwards Kerry gave me lots of helpful tips which I'll try out next time I do some foundation piecing. If you're new to FPP too or thinking of dabbling with it, you can find all Kerry's foundation paper piecing tips and tutorials here and one that particularly helps with dealing with templates for diagonals, which feature heavily in a Union Jack, here. Kerry also has patterns in the shop which she co-runs, Sew Ichigo, which look to come with full instructions so are probably perfect for beginners as well as experienced FPPers.

I used the Union Jack panel to make a little zippered p-o-u-c-h (There. And breathe. Such a hideous word) for my daughter. I'm really tempted to make a whole mini-quilt of them though. Since having more plain white walls of my own to decorate, I feel much more taken with the idea of making some mini-quilts and my husband has also requested some, for practical purposes, for his own walls. When we had the extra layer of rooms added to our house, he turned our daughter's old bedroom into an office/music room. Even though it's tiny, with no soft furnishings in there it has dreadful acoustics for recording any music - it seems that a wall of quilts would be the perfect thing for dampening the sound down, although they'll need to be Manly Quilts, which I'm not sure are so much about pastel Liberty prints and possibly more about some Parson Gray. Have you seen any quilt patterns that have an Esher feel to them maybe?

Florence x

Sunday, 14 September 2014

My new sewing room!

Finally, some photos of my sewing room! I can only put the delay down to an initial flurry of it feeling more urgent to use it than it was to photograph it! I've always loved seeing how people set up their work spaces, whether it's a huge studio or a corner of a dining room, so this is a very photo-heavy post with all the tiny details included! If you're also interested in seeing how I made a multi-tasking room work for me, you can read about it in this post as, until a few weeks ago, I've spent the last eight years sewing in our bedroom.

At the outset, I should say that everything apart from my desk chair is from Ikea, as it's relatively inexpensive, they do a huge range of white furniture (which is what I wanted) and it's flat-pack, which meant we could get it up the stairs easily. I've had Ikea furniture in the past and developed an allergy to the fibre particle-board (which sits inside the white outer casing), when it became exposed when I broke part of it during construction! This time, I decided to go down the allergy prevention route of asking someone more adept than me to construct it - that is a winning solution in so many ways!

Above, shows a bit of my design wall with some Passacaglia cogs in progress, the making of which I blogged about in more detail here. It also shows my cutting table. I spent much of the time that our loft was being converted agonising over how big the cutting table should be. It's not a big room, but in the end I decided to go for something that was a super-sized beast of a table, on the grounds that often sewing projects take just as long to cut as they do to sew. I also knew that I didn't want an ironing board in the room. I'm terribly accident prone and have lost several irons when I've knocked them onto the floor. I've also spent the last eight years alerting my children to the iron whenever they've walked into the room - so I wanted the cutting table to be large enough to also house a pressing pad, so that we'd all be safe, including the iron!

The cutting table is made up from four Ikea Kallax units, with a huge white desk top (also from Ikea) placed on top. I've used sticky-back velcro to keep the table top in place as I didn't want to drill it onto the units. The cutting table has a huge amount of storage under it. I've kept the most frequently used things in the more easily accessible storage boxes and the rarely used items sit in pull-out boxes behind the books.

I've left a gap in between the two sets of Kallax units, where cutting mats and perspex grid rulers are stored for easy access. At my father's suggestion (always surprisingly practical!), I chose to omit one of the shelves to make space for my knees, so that I can stand comfortably when I'm cutting. There are small pre-drilled holes exposed by doing this, but they're easily covered with little white sticky labels. I also wanted to raise the whole thing up to make it the right height for me to cut at, and also to leave room for my feet to tuck under the units, so there are legs attached to each of the Kallax units. The cutting table is about 33"/86cm tall by the time the top and legs have been added - it's perfect for my height and I've already spent many happy hours cutting there without backache - that feels like a huge luxury.

I keep my work-in-progress items stored in the open part of the unit…the coral and navy stripes are a jersey top that I've nearly finished.

I made the pressing pad from a large piece of wood, cut to size at the DIY shop. I then covered it in a thin layer of cotton and a layer of linen. I read quite a lot about making ironing pads before I did it and what I discovered I found really interesting. Have you ever had that thing where you make a quilt block perfectly and then you press it and it suddenly looks slightly distorted? Apparently, it's because regular ironing board covers have too much padding and 'give' in them, which can lead to the fabric distorting slightly. When I first pressed something on this board I could instantly feel the difference and understand why this would hold true.

I have no idea why, but one of the things that's always really bothered me when I'm sewing is having to bend down and turn the iron on and off constantly in between stitching seams, as it feels like a task that disrupts work flow (and may in part be the reason for my knocking the iron on the floor so frequently). So I planned out my space around this. There's an extension lead that comes up behind the cutting table and sits on top of it. As each switch can be controlled individually it means that I can just flick the switch on and off without having to unplug it and it's right next to my pressing pad. It's such a small thing, but it makes me disproportionately happy!

My rotary cutters and scissors are all stored right below the cutting table in the little drawer unit I've put inside one of the Kallax cubbies.

Finally, above the cutting table are the tiny framed Liberty Tana lawn swatches, which I posted about here.

On the other side of my room is my sewing desk. I wanted this to be fairly long for several reasons: I wanted to be able to leave my sewing machines out (although most of the time, I actually store the overlocker in one of the cubby boxes under the cutting table - it's just out in these photos as I've been using it this week); my sewing room also needs to double as my office for when I'm working on the app business that I run with my husband, so I need space to have my laptop and all the paraphernalia that entails spread out; my daughter had said she'd quite like me to have a desk where she could use my second sewing machine and sew alongside me if she felt like it (we haven't done this yet, but it's nice to know we could if we wanted to).

I wanted to pack in as much storage as possible, so I've got two different types of Alex drawer units beneath the desk, but one of them is on castors, so that I can move it easily if I want more leg space to flit between two sewing machines. The photo above shows the desk when the larger set of drawers has been wheeled out of the way to make more space for sewing one evening last week! I only tend to store work things in that unit, so all my sewing paraphernalia is still to hand in the right-hand drawers.

The other thing that I really wanted in the room was something that would be a really comfy place to do some hand stitching; a tempting place to lure my husband upstairs to chat to me during the day; somewhere for the children to lounge around while I'm sewing; and perhaps most importantly, somewhere for my mother-in-law to sleep when she comes to visit; and something that offered flexibility in terms of how much space it took up depending on what I was using the room for. We put a huge amount of thought into this bit and we even went to Ikea for the first time in over a decade to test out the options for comfort! In the end we chose the one-seat section of the Kivik sofa and a footstool to go with it (for reference, it is a much firmer seat than the chaise longue from the same range, which felt too squashy to sleep on). This means that if I want to baste a quilt on the floor, I can move the footstool to the other side of the room, but the rest of the time, it stays where it is, as in the photo below. When my mother-in-law visits we add another footstool to this and then cover the whole thing in an obscenely well-padded mattress cover that somehow fits and makes the whole thing feel really quite lovely. She told me it was really comfortable and luckily she doesn't mind being surrounded by sewing paraphernalia as she's an obsessive quilter herself. 

Above with footstool. Below, with footstool moved aside to make a bigger floor space.

The chest of drawers as I come into the room holds all my fabric. The bottom two drawers have all my quilting fabrics inside.

I've sorted the fabrics into rough colour order as I find it easiest to work that way. 

On top of the chest of drawers are some treasures: favourite books, most given to me by my parents (spines rapidly fading, so perhaps it's not the best place for them); the lego sewing machine my husband and children gave to me nearly five years ago; printing blocks from sister showing an old Singer sewing machine, along with mine and my husband's initials; a special teacup and saucer (a gift bought with money from my father); a terrarium made by daughter the summer before last; a framed segment of the patchwork Liberty dog bed that I made for Nell.

There's also quite a big, but oddly sized cupboard built into the corner of the room to the left of the drawers. I'd quite like to store a vacuum cleaner in there at some point when funds allow the buying of a second one, as it suddenly feels that the one in the utility room two floors down is a very long way away.

Finally, here's the room in action. The thing that I appreciate most of all perhaps, is not having to tidy up a mess like the one below before I can go to bed at night…but also how much more quickly it can all be cleared away when I do tidy it all up. As you can see though, a cutting table can never actually be too big!

Sorry for the extreme photo overload - it's rare for photos to outweigh words on my blog, but I think I've actually managed it here! I hope you enjoyed it though. I feel like I've spent eight years designing and planning this room in my head and even when it was being built (just five weeks from start to finish!), I couldn't actually believe that one day it would be finished and that I'd really have a sewing room of my own - it feels slightly unreal. My favourite thing about the whole room isn't really anything to do with sewing at all though - it's the light. I'm now wishing we could balance all the rooms of our house on the roof so that every room could have skylight windows in it - they offer dramatic sunsets that must have always been there, but that I've been missing; the racket of pounding rain; and a feeling of complete privacy and not being overlooked.

Florence x

Monday, 1 September 2014


It's been a very, very long time since I've made a piece of clothing that I'm completely delighted with. So long in fact, that I'd almost decided that it may just be safer to stick to quilts, which always fit just right and never pull under the arm or unexpectedly transform me into a blancmange the moment I come into contact with it.

So this particular spate of dressmaking was entered into with low expectations. If I'd have picked out a label to sew into this top it wouldn't say 'Made by Florence', it would say 'Made by Eeyore'. My last unfortunate make a few months ago never actually made it onto my blog: it involved a pattern which seemingly looks amazing on everyone else in the entire world, some utterly delicious Atelier Brunette fabric and a huge dollop of optimism at the outset, but I was left with something that was just wrong in every single way. As part of an extensive mental post-mortem of the 'wrong' top, I realised that although I often wear blouses in summer, most of the time I really enjoy wearing things made from knit fabrics which just feel incredibly wearable and lovely. I wrote this post all about lovely knit fabrics and the Colette Patterns book about sewing with knits and then went back to some English paper piecing and ignored the lovely knit fabrics because I had had enough of sewing ugly clothing for the time being.

But then when I took my daughter to an art lesson in town last week, I happened to see some delicious drapey striped fabric in my local sewing shop and found myself buying it and telling myself that it was time to try to make some ugly knit clothing, instead of ugly cotton clothing and that maybe it would be less ugly than the ugly thing which had gone before it.

In my dressmaking history, the things that fit me the best are also those that I've drafted the pattern for myself, so I decided that for the preservation of sanity, I should go down that route this time. I made a really similar top to this one a few years ago, but have since lost the pattern pieces I drew up for it, so I set about re-drafting it, basing it again on one of my favourite tops that I bought about six years ago and which is so well-worn that it even has a hole darned up in one place!

So here is my top. I am really, really pleased with it, which doesn't feel like an entirely humble or seemly thing to say, but if you could see the amount of ugly things I've made I think you'd forgive me. I love it not because it's brilliantly made (it isn't) or an amazing design (I really like it, but it's nothing special and it doesn't have a Peter Pan collar, which is what makes things really special!), but because it fits really well (apart from at the neck, which could do with some refining, but which doesn't stop it from being wearable), it's really comfy, it was the first thing I reached for to put on when I went to get dressed this morning and because it has restored my enthusiasm for garment sewing, which I really do enjoy because I love clothes and I love the instant gratification of making them (compared to quilts…which can take me years, because when it comes to quilts I seem to like doing things slowly!).

You can see in the photo above that I'm wearing my new top and am straight back to cutting some more pieces out for some English paper piecing, which I'm going to carry on doing really s l o w l y, but that's okay, because I'm wearing my speedily made Breton top (which is proof that I have two speeds), and because I can also say (in my head…I don't actually ever say it aloud) that I'm someone who makes clothes again…which I haven't said for a while, but is a really happy thought.

It's almost worth making ugly clothes for the sense of having reached the top of the mountain when I finally make something wearable. Does everyone go through phases like this, or is it just me?

Florence x

Ps. I'm considering a second version in this Bari J knit fabric.
Pps. There are some sneaky peeks of my new sewing room in these photos. More to follow. x

Thursday, 28 August 2014

My summer reading

We stayed in the South Downs this summer, which isn't so very far away from where we actually live, but somehow offers a dramatically different landscape: big skies, vast open spaces, hours of walking uninterrupted by roads. Most days we did little else other than planning out a walk (normally with a cake or a pub at its heart) and walking for seven or eight miles. The landscape with either lush green or sparkling gold, as the wheat had only just been cut.

Our evenings were spent eating out at a local pub that did amazing food, which could be reached by walking through some fields and woods…which meant that our evenings were typified by a relaxing meal and then a frantic scurry through the woods trying to reach the other side before the light had faded entirely. Once home we read or played board games. It was a very simple sort of holiday, but utterly restful.

I thought I'd share some of the books I've read this summer, as I've read a lot, largely because I've been going through a Kindle phase, which seems to facilitate more instantaneous book purchasing and quicker consumption of the new books! However, I read a study last week reporting that users of e-readers, when tested, have a poorer recall of chronology within a book, perhaps because of the brain not being able to sense the rising stack of the read pages on the left and the decreasing wedge of pages on the right as they work their way through a book, which would help to give a physical marker of where different events occurred within the book. Occasionally, if I read a book that I think my daughter might like, I lend her my Kindle to read it on…research like this puts me off it becoming her main source of reading material though…I love the idea that our brains are clocking all these tiny details to help process details at a deeper level.

So here are the books that I've enjoyed:

Tiny Beautiful Things - Cheryl Strayed: Last summer, I recommended a book, The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz, which I know many of you bought and loved because I've had so many lovely emails since, saying how much it resonated with you too! (If you missed it the first time, I talk about it at the end of this post). A year later, it's still one of the books that I think back to most often and which is on my to-read-again list. Anyway, Tiny Beautiful Things feels like a continuation in that vein of reading, not least because Cheryl relates to people with the same kindness and empathy that's apparent throughout Stephen Grosz' book (although her language is less formally based in the world of psychiatry and psychology and her writing style more personal and unconventional). Like The Examined Life, Tiny Beautiful Things is not a self-help book, more a study of what it is to be human and why we do the things that we do. It's a collection of readers' letters and the beautifully written, insightful, and empathetic replies that Cheryl wrote during her time as an 'agony aunt' writing the Dear Sugar advice column at The Rumpus. The terms 'agony aunt' and 'advice column' do a complete disservice to the scope of these letters and answers, making the concept of the book seem trite or gratuitous - it's far from it. Sugar walks around a problem and looks at it from angles that at first don't appear relevant but that ultimately make sense of it and give the letter writer a different way of looking at a problem, understanding themselves or the people around them…and as a reader, you're somehow given a better sense and understanding of the world at large, because her replies normally take in some of the bigger picture.

I've always loved psychology books (I did a sociology degree, with some modules of psychology mixed in and have always regretted not doing a pure psychology degree…or just something textile related...). For me, Cheryl Strayed and Sephen Grosz' books feel like a continuation of some of the texts that I read at that time, but with a more commercial, easy-to-read bent. But more so, I find that the more I can understand people and their motivations, the more compassion I'm capable of - it's a way of making sense of the world. I know that many people draw on god or spiritual guidance to find compassion, my own route is through psychology and literature.

Onwards. Do you remember that a few years ago, I recommended R J Palacio's 'Wonder'? A number one on the New York Times Best Sellers List, it's a book that's had incredible success and seems to touch everyone - both young and old - who reads it. There's now a follow-up to it called The Julian Chapter, which tells the story from the point-of-view of the bully, Julian. As it's relatively short, it's only available as a download, so you'll need a Kindle or similar to read it. My daughter and I have both read it now, and agreed that it's just as strong as Wonder.

I've continued to devour what's classified as 'young adults fiction' this summer. I read an article recently that was discussing how many adults are now seeking out YA fiction over and above adults fiction, because it's just so incredibly well written, perhaps because teenagers are a tougher audience to please: whereas adults will often persevere with a novel because of who it's written by or in an attempt to see its literary merit or just because it's meant to be 'good', teenagers are apparently far more likely to just refuse to read it if it's not absolutely compelling. I don't know whether I entirely agree with this, but I do know that I no longer really differentiate between Young Adults and Adult fiction - I'm equally happy reading either, although I do often find the characters in YA fiction to have a more refreshingly honest feel to them. Either way, Out of My Mind, by Sharon M Draper was truly wonderful and the moment I finished it, I passed it straight over to my daughter, who loved it just as much as I did. Out of My Mind is about a girl called Melody, who has Cerebral Palsy, and tells the story of what happens when, aged 10, she is finally given the ability to communicate with others via a computer, shattering their assumptions about how much she really understands. It's about her family and their struggle to get Melody what she needs; her school as they begin a program of 'inclusion classes' for the children with special needs who had previously been unintegrated; and her classmates who, to varying degrees, struggle to accept Melody. Which all perhaps sounds rather earnest and hard work for a fiction book, but although it's a book that takes in all of those things (- wonderfully - and makes them not seem earnest or hard work for a fiction book), ultimately it's a book about Melody herself - a character so fascinating, compelling and likable that it was a book that I really didn't want to end.

Next, I read Nina Stibbe's 'Love, Nina', which, in contrast to any of the other books I've mentioned here, is very light-hearted. It's a series of letters sent by Nina to her sister during her time working as a Nanny to the children of Mary-Kay Wilmer, editor of the London Review of Books. It's published with Mary-Kay Wilmer's consent and is just incredibly funny. I read it during our holiday and my husband's most-asked question that week seemed to be 'Have you finished that book yet?' because I so frequently woke him up shuddering with laughter in the middle of the night as I read. In her letters, Nina frequently recorded the dinner table conversations that she'd had with Mary-Kay, her sons, and their regular dinner guest, Alan Bennett, and there's something delightful about her relationship with Mary-Kay particularly. They clearly adored one another, but neither seems to have very many fluffy edges to their personality, so their exchanges tend to have a very amusing formality to them as they discuss all manner of random, but fascinating, subjects.

While we were on holiday I also read the wonderful classic, 'The Peppermint Pig', by Nina Bawden, to my children - we've still got to find time to finish it now that we're home. I remember my own mother reading this to me and my sister when we were children - it's lovely to revisit it.

I also read and enjoyed  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart; Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, by Robyn Shneider; Butter, by Erin Lange (I didn't love the latter quite as much as the others somehow, but it was still very readable).

I'm currently part way through Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild' and Heather Ross' 'How to Catch a Frog' and when I feel like looking at something with more pictures, I'm dipping in and out of Carolyn Friedlander's 'Savor Each Stitch', which is wonderful and very inspiring (even though I'm struggling a bit with the fact that the title hasn't been anglicised for the UK market - I don't normally mind this with the word colour…I think it's because I didn't know that the word savour was actually spelt differently in the US, so it just looks like a glaring misspelling to my unaccustomed eyes). Which brings me onto a conversation we had on Instagram last week when I posted this photo of Nell in a cornfield.

'That's not a cornfield!' a chorus of commenters said: 'That's a wheat field!'. After an Instagram consultation with a real live farmer's wife (who asked her husband for official clarification), we discovered that farmers in England use 'cornfield' as a generic term to describe wheat, barely and oat crops, whereas American farmers would call a wheat field a wheat field. And they'd say that a cornfield contains only maize (corn-on-the-cob), while we call a corn-on-the-cob crop, maize (topically, the children and I went to a maize maze yesterday with friends - it was lovely by either name - cornfield or maize). I love discovering these strange international differences that exist that you have no idea of until you inadvertently use the 'wrong' word. These differences always make me think of my lovely Australian friend, Rhiannon. When I was four, Rhiannon and her family came to live with us in England for a few months (we would later move to live near them in Australia for a few years when my father's job took us there). When Rhiannon and I put our minds together we just seemed to come up with badness. Over the years, together we sprayed our hair green without permission and then wept in the shower together while undertaking vigorous hair washing following parental fury (aged 7), inexplicably painted bookshelves in a mixture of talcum powder and orange juice to 'clean' them (aged 4); broke a neighbour's toilet seat when we climbed out of a bathroom window together (aged 6), plotted against our older sisters who were so incredibly good and lovely; and did all manner of other awful deeds. But as much as we were partners in crime, we were also frequently at war with one another and a pretend game of 'shops' could suddenly cause a full-scale living-room war, when whoever was the shop keeper referred to the pretend money in the till as 'pounds', rather than 'dollars' or vice-versa. When our parents eventually came into the room we would then vehemently hurl our respective country's words of 'Dobber!' and 'Tell-tale!' at one another. We really were beastly and it's incredibly fortunate that we were separated by a vast expanse of ocean for the entirety of our teenage years. I'm pleased to report that whenever we've been reunited as adults, we've found that we're no longer afflicted by badness, although my children do love hearing tales of it.

I'd love to hear your recommendations or your thoughts if you've read any of the books that I've mentioned here. What did you read on holiday?

Florence x

Ps. None of the Amazon links in this post are affiliate links (although there are a few elsewhere on my site), so you may click away freely if you're someone who prefers that bloggers don't share in Amazon's profits. And just in case you're wondering why they're not affiliate links, it's because they take longer to produce and install on my blog and it's the summer holidays, so I don't have time to create them! x

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

In case of [Liberty] emergency, break glass

When I posted these tiny frames filled with swatches of Liberty prints on Instagram a few days ago, Dana (@danahannah310) commented that it looked like the warning boxes that you see on trains and buses which bear the words: 'In case of emergency, break glass'. I love that idea. 

Putting my sewing room together is a slow process, partly because it's the summer holidays and partly because I became a victim of picture-hanging-fear. I have such a terrible track record for creating large craters in walls whenever I try to put a nail in place, that I've become slightly fearful of doing anything which could taint the smoothness of these freshly plastered and painted walls. 

This reservation was only overcome when I started putting small swatches of some of my favourite Liberty print fabrics into tiny frames and fell so in love with what, in my eyes, had the potential to be something akin to having a shop window of Liberty print sweet jars mounted on the wall, that it finally felt I had a project worthy of beginning on some wall damage (that was before Dana had enlightened me to the fact that they're actually safety devices, not sweet jars). 

However, even with a newly acquired willingness to wield a hammer, I couldn't quite imagine how a creature so flawed in DIY basics was going to get nine nails into the wall, all perfectly aligned and inserted at the same angle. I was eventually saved from attempting this by remembering that I had some offcuts from the picture hanging strips that my daughter and I had bulk-bought when we went to the DIY shop and which I'd used in part to mount my design wall with. 

I used a grid of masking tape on the wall so that I could get the frames evenly spaced and only removed it once the frames were all safely stuck to the wall. It feels like a slightly odd thing to 'stick' pictures up in this way - strange in the same way that UPVC windows must have been when they were first introduced as an alternative to wood. Sticking plaster instead of nails? Crazy talk.

The frames are from Ikea, but they're now discontinued, so I'm hoping they might have something similar in the new catalogue when it comes out in August as I'd like to make some more up for other places in the house, because it was so hard narrowing down the fabric choices to go inside...

In other news, I was featured on Gnome Angel's blog a few weeks ago, for her series on fussy-cutters! You can find her interview with me here. Aside from her fussy-cutting series, Angie's blog is packed full with interviews from some amazingly talented quilters (as well as snippets of her own gorgeous work!), so it's definitely worth visiting if you have an hour or two to spare!

Florence x

Thursday, 31 July 2014

A quilt design wall

One of the things I'd always really wanted when I eventually had a sewing room of my own, was a quilt  design wall. You might remember this photo below from several months ago. After a few days of messing around with the colours and then packing it away again so that the room could be used for other things (like sleeping and getting dressed in the morning!), it somehow never got sewn together as it all felt too much effort. A design wall would have been perfect and made it all so much easier. However, I'm now unsure why I felt I needed to have a sewing room to have a quilt design wall - when I finished making one yesterday and stuck it to the wall, I realised that it would have looked absolutely fine anywhere else in the house as it just blends in with the wall when it's not covered in fabric.

Anyway, not being in possession of that knowledge, when I moved into my new sewing room this week, one of the first things that I did was gather supplies to belatedly make a quilt design wall. If you haven't heard of one of these, it's basically a large homemade 'wall' covered in either flannel or quilt batting, on which fabrics can be placed to enable playing around with the design of a quilt before sewing it together - the magic of it is that you can place fabrics on the wall without the need for pins as flannel or quilt batting naturally 'grab onto' the fabric and hold it in place. If you use polystyrene as a basis for the design wall, it also means you can pin into it, which is what I've done with the paper pieced cogs at the top of this post, which still all have their papers in place, so wouldn't stick to the wall.

I bought my polystyrene in small pieces from Hobbycraft as this was the only way I could find of buying it in England. On the upside, this meant I could make the wall exactly the size I wanted. The polystyrene is about 1"x12"x16" (that's a rough guess, as I didn't measure it before covering it) and cost  around £4 a board as it was on offer as it's being discontinued. I stuck it all tightly together with some white gaffer tape. I then covered my polystyrene in two layers of quilt batting, stapling it tightly in place on the wrong side. Then, for the final layer, I used a brand new white flannelette flat bed sheet from John Lewis. I taped this layer in place with the white gaffer tape as I didn't want staples to scratch the wall. The wall, being made mainly from polystyrene is incredibly light, so I just used Command Picture Hanging Strips to hold it to the wall - I placed about twelve of them on there, and I'm happy to report that the board is still in place this morning. The nice thing about these is that apparently they don't damage the wall if you want to remove them later.

This wall is so soft and snugly that it actually makes you want to cuddle it. Actually, I have to admit that after my husband and I had put it up, we did take it in turns to stand flattened against the wall with our arms outstretched, faces turned to the side, enjoying how incredibly soft the flannel was, especially when placed over a pillow of quilt batting. Wall hugs are a completely unanticipated benefit of a quilt design wall.

The rest of the room is slowly coming together…I'm still waiting for a few bits of furniture to arrive and  it's taking an inordinately long time for me to decide where to hang my thread racks and put pictures up and other inconsequential, but enjoyable, preoccupations like that…but it's getting there and it's pinch-myself-lovely to have a room where I can now store all my things. Once we'd moved all of the sewing paraphernalia up to the third floor, I walked back into our bedroom and had a complete realisation moment of: so this is what normal people's bedrooms look like! No sewing machine, no thread reels hung on the wall, no work-in-progress pieces on the desk. From nearly a decade ago, when sewing was more of an occasional thing for me, I have a memory of how lovely our bedroom at our old house always felt - it just looked so tidy was such an oasis of calm, which I realised I've really missed in sharing our room with all my sewing. And as well as calm, we also have storage! For clothes! And under the bed I can now store shoes instead of fabrics. It all feels quite incredible.

I'm also enjoying having a room just across the hall from my daughter's new bedroom - I'd never wanted to feel detached from the rest of the house if I had my own sewing room and it's actually felt incredibly cosy to be up here together.

Florence x

Monday, 28 July 2014

In which I stick my head above the parapet

Over the weekend I read a blog post by Abby Glassenberg that talked about an issue that had lodged in my head, but which I'd been too confrontation-averse to previously mention anywhere publicly, other than to discuss it with my husband. I had kept wondering though: are other people as shocked by this as I am…but no one had said anything, so I'd assumed it was just me being fussy and kept my feelings to myself.

To give you some background to the brand in question, unless you follow some high-profile designers, you may not be aware of how the popularity of Aurifil has arisen, but Aurifil has quickly gathered a cult status, after being used by dozens of high profile quilters and designers (their piecing work and quilts hashtagged with Aurifil), which quickly trickled down to it becoming widely stocked by independent quilt shops worldwide. To me, this rise of Aurifil is largely attributable to one man - Aurifil's frontman, Alex Veronelli. For those not familiar with his online presence, Alex is charismatic, likable, charming and mildly flirtatious in an inoffensive way. In the predominantly female quilting community, his presence has seemed to seal the deal of making Aurifil's Italian thread a highly covetable item. I don't have a problem with this at all - we are all susceptible to presentation - I'd be the first to admit that when I buy something, I'm often buying into the whole lifestyle of what that product has been packaged to convey (my husband and I laughed over this when we realised we'd bought some dog treats for £5, largely because they had been placed in a small, recycled cardboard box, stickered with an attractive label and postured as organic and wholesome. Lucky Nell! I'm not sure whether she actually appreciated the difference though).

Before I detail what I've found troubling about Aurifil's recent marketing campaign, I feel I should preface this by saying that I've met Alex once in person, albeit very briefly, and he seemed to actually be very reserved and this is borne out by what others have said about him too - all who've come into contact with him seem to say that he's respectful, professional and also been hugely supportive of their work.

However, a few weeks ago, during the time that Quilt Market was being held in America (a trade only event where designers and manufacturers unveil their new lines to the industry media and shop owners), photos began popping up on the feed of Aurifil's PR woman, showing an ever-growing series of different high-profile women from within the quilting industry sitting on Alex Veronelli's lap, hashtagged with #aurigirl, collected over the course of a few days. After several photos in this vein, I unfollowed the woman who was posting them, as the whole thing felt a bit, for want of a better word, vomit-inducing. I couldn't quite understand what this particular marketing campaign was trying to say to me as a potential Aurifil user…other than that if I used Aurifil threads I could become defined by them and hashtag myself as an #aurigirl and aspire to sit on the knee of Alex Veronelli too… I like the threads and he seems like a very nice man, but as a grown-up woman living in 2014, neither of those things speak to me on a level that feels in line with how I wanted to be marketed to.

In the interests of giving a rounded view - there was one #auriboy and one fantastic photo of Angela Walters, where she'd clearly refused the request and said that he could sit on her knee instead if he wanted. Alex is sitting grinning, while Angela's arms are placed firmly behind her chair, rather than wrapped around him.  Apparently all of these women were happy to take part and most look really quite happy and in the comments to Abby's post, some have said that they still feel completely happy with it. However, for me it's not really about that at all - it's more about what Aurifil are trying to say as a company and what their message is. I don't think there's anything wrong with a woman sitting on Alex Veronelli's knee at all if she's happy to do so…it's more how it looks when seen on mass with the hashtag #aurigirl applied to it - it begins to feel slightly misogynistic and like a collection of 'calendar girl' shots.

Aurifil's other curious marketing campaign is a take on the Ryan Gosling caption pictures that went viral last year. If you don't remember these, people honed in on how generally lovely the actor Ryan Gosling seems to be and began posting pictures of him looking generally cuddly and helpful with lines like: Hey Girl, you carry on sewing, while I make the dinner tonight. Aurifil's take on this has been to post pictures of Alex Veronelli lying (apparently) naked beneath a quilt; lying over a sea of thread cones; or erm, a photo taken from beneath Alex, showing him standing astride something with the camera clearly focusing on his crotch, and asking fans to write captions for the photos. It feels like the sweetness of the Ryan Gosling idea has somehow been lost in Aurifil's translation of it and morphed into something that just feels really quite weird.

I do wonder how much of this is Alex being a good sport and playing along with the ideas that the Aurifil PR department are coming up with for him. Or, when surrounded by a sea of adoring women, whether he's lost sight of what he actually wants to be doing and is just trying to people-please and live up to the Italian stallion reputation that's previously worked so well for his company. Or maybe he's actually happy with this line of marketing…who knows.

Alex's Twitter presence has always been on the risqué side of things - when I first began following him on Twitter about three years ago I was bemused by the jokes that would randomly appear in his stream, until another quilter told me that she thought he consulted a joke book for these. Either way, they were fairly inoffensive and some of the ones that I saw actually made me laugh. However, I tend to use Instagram more than Twitter nowadays, and it seems the jokes now have a slightly more unpleasant feel to them. In her post, Abby sites several examples, but to give you a quick flavour, a recent joke that he posted was "Do you want to know the 'Victoria's Secret'? Their lingerie doesn't look the same on your girlfriend as it does on their models". For those who aren't aware of it, Victoria's Secret is an American lingerie chain. For anyone who remembers the overnight downfall of Gerald Ratner and his chain of jewellery shops in the 1990s, the first rule of business is not to insult your customers. With a list of predominantly female followers, is this really good PR to be posting jokes like this that are at the expense of everyday women?

I generally take the approach of, if I don't like something I ignore it or stop looking at it. However, when a company's whole marketing campaign seems to be based on things that have misogynistic overtones it feels bigger than that and it makes me feel that if no one joins Abby in saying 'hang on a moment - I'd really love you to market your threads to me in a different way' then nothing will change. I think their current marketing campaign currently makes a fool out of its customers.

When I was growing up, I'd always thought that things like this really didn't matter too much. I lived with lots of men at university and never once felt offended by their banter or conversation. In my life as an adult, I'd pretty much thought feminism in England was unnecessary, as the battle for equality here had already been fought and won a long time ago - the people I surround myself with like women and don't see them as anything other than equal. However, a few months ago, I watched a documentary called Blurred Lines, presented by Kirsty Wark. It was one of the most eye-opening things I've ever watched and it completely changed my perception of why saying the smaller things like this aren't okay is really important, even in England where we don't suffer the kinds of horrendous oppression that some other cultures do.

So, back to Aurifil, this isn't an attempt to vilify Alex or Aurifil. It's simply a public request for them to do things differently and make other people aware of what's going on, so that if you feel the same, you can ask for that too. In our age of social media, any mistakes that a company or person makes are painfully clear for all to see - which is quite difficult when we're all human and so do make mistakes. I really believe that it shouldn't be the (in my opinion) error of judgement that's the issue, it's how a company or person reacts to people questioning it that matters. I think that Alex is a brilliant and charismatic front-man for Aurifil, I just wish that they'd market their products to me as though I'm an intelligent consumer, rather than someone who will be swayed by photos of prominent women sitting on his knee with Alex in Father Christmas mode or invitations to catchphrase a man's crotch.

This isn't a request for people to boycott Aurifil. Their success has been backed up and largely facilitated by being stocked in independent quilting shops, most of which are run by independent businesswomen. If it's the thread that you'd buy anyway, by stopping buying it, quilt shop owners will be left with thread stock that they find difficult to sell. I'm imagining that they don't stock Aurifil on a sale or return basis, so that would seem a fairly awful consequence and isn't something I'd want to be implicated in.

To me, the best approach seems to be to politely ask Aurifil to change their marketing tack - whether that's through writing a blog post or messaging Alex on Twitter or writing to them directly. If enough people let them know that they'd prefer to be marketed to in a more respectful way, then hopefully they'll take that on board.

I'd love to know what you think,
Florence x

UPDATED: Alex responded to me via Twitter this morning with the following comment: Loved your post and its clear storytelling, you're rightly pointing out suggestions that I will make treasure of. This evening, Abby Glassenberg wrote to let me know that Aurifil have now removed the offending photos. What a fantastic result - I'm so pleased.

Thanks so much to Abby for starting the conversation about something which many of us, including me, didn't have the confidence to begin despite feeling quietly offended. And thank you for taking the time to comment on both my and Abby's blogs - I really think your comments made a difference and brought about a speedier result than the lone voices of two women could have done. I'm also personally grateful as I'm not really an 'over the parapet type of person', so your support meant a lot - I'd been slightly afraid that this post could be met by deafening silence or worse, vitriol against me - it was a relief to find that these feelings resonated with you too and that you felt it was something worth discussing. Thank you. x