Saturday, 26 August 2017

Somerset Arts Weeks 2017

I'm sure that I said this time last year, that Somerset Arts Weeks decided upon in the depths of winter always seems a lifetime away.  Then suddenly in early August boxes of brochures land and it all becomes very real!  This years title of 'Prospect' has certainly generated some lively debate.  On a simplistic level, the prospect of meeting other people who enjoy looking at creativity in Somerset sounds excellent to me!

This year I'm taking part in Somerset Arts Weeks with artists Anne Farmer, Jenny Graham and David Graham who are co-located where my studio is at Spring Farm Arts.  Here we all are on a sunny Sunday morning this summer looking very fetching in our yellow attire!

Jenny, David and Anne have often exhibited their paintings and photography and Jenny has created this lovely flyer for us all this year.

Our opening is on Saturday 23rd September at 11am and so it's heads down for us all for the next 4 weeks.  I'm really looking forward to meeting visitors - we are open every day other than Mondays and Tuesdays.  Spring Farm is just off the A39 and the A361 and is very easy to find - look for the usual yellow SAW signs for Venue 46..  Do pop in to see us for a good old creative chat.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Starting to Free Machine Stitch

I've probably spent more hours free stitching than any other type of machine stitch.  Yet it is a sewing machine skill that I've come to later on and free stitching was far from a happy experience at the beginning.  I tell the story of how my very first attempt with an ailing machine and little information left me emotional and frustrated.  Thankfully, this really doesn't have to be the case, although new free stitchers do need to be prepared to put in plenty of practice.  Here's one of my early free stitch makes - from which I learnt heaps.
I'd like to say that I have a magic wand that will enable frustration free stitching in an instant.  Whilst sadly this isn't the case, I can offer up information that will save many of the frustrations that I had at the beginning.  And so I'll start with the subject of feet, 'darning feet' to be precise or as is now often called - 'free motion feet'.  They've actually been around for a long time and older machines were often supplied with them as a standard to darn fabric.  With newer machines you nearly always need to purchase them as extra and it's important to be sure of buying a branded make for your particular machine.  I've accumulated 3 styles over the years, all with springs and all have their uses.
Free stitching usually requires dropping the feed dogs on your machine - the teeth beneath the needle plate that normally guide the fabric.  Mechanical machines usually have a button that does this on one side or tucked away at the back.  Computerised machines will have a setting in the menus.  Occasionally old or budget machine don't have a way of dropping the feeds, however, this can be got around by covering the feeds with a plate if supplied and if not, an old credit card taped down over the needle plate usually works.
Then you absolutely need to put in the correct machine needle.  Even experienced stitchers find it hard to believe that a needle type makes a difference and yet it does, a huge difference.  My favoured needle for free stitching is a Topstitch 90/14 - made by many of the needle manufacturers.  The large eye allows thread to move smoothly at speed and the sharp point will penetrate the densest of fabrics.
The right type of thread is also very important and needs to be seen as an investment.  Using up beautiful old machine threads seems a wonderful idea for free machining, however, sadly they usually lead to very troublesome stitching, likewise with budget threads.  Personally I favour Gutermann and Madeira brands which both offer up cotton, silk, rayon and polyester machine threads in an immense array of colours and perform very well.
My next bit of advice is very simple, 'walk before you try to run'.  First attempts at free stitching will feel very odd at best - a bit like first steering a car.  I've found through teaching free stitching that it is really important to avoid overly controlling at the beginning - run a mile if free stitching your name is suggested.  I'm unusually bossy this and I strongly recommend that new stitchers complete a fun exercise and make something I call a thread bowl.  This requires two layers of water soluble fabric in a large hoop and then using pretty colours to meander around in any direction you fancy.
A bowl can be comfortably finished in a few hours - with several breaks which are really important.  Try to keep your shoulders relaxed too - mine can still start to get tight when I forget.  Once a good coverage of stitch has been achieved, all that is then needed to is to take the work out of the hoop, cut off the excess water soluble fabric and then leave to dry over a glass bowl.  The finished results look amazing every time and any inconsistency in stitching really doesn't matter.  Anyone who would like to try this will find more information on this thread bowl post.
After making a few delightful thread bowls you will feel much happier about tackling something requiring a bit more control.  Stitching pictures was my aim from a very early stage and as scary as it felt, I was determined to achieve this.  I realise that where I was looking to stitch precisely, I needed as much visibility as possible and I therefore favour my open toe foot out of the three darning feet that I have for detailed work. 
It also found that it is very important to stablise fabric which is being free stitched to avoid horrible gathers - unless this is part of the planned effect.  This can be done by keeping the fabric hooped while stitching, however, my own preference is to stablise the fabric beneath.  Where the free stitching is light then a couple of extra layers of fabric will suffice, or a product called 'Stitch & Tear' which can be removed after stitching.  I often free stitch pictures very densely and then I use a very heavy duty product called pelmet Vilene.  Traditionally used for creating curtain pelmets, this paper pulp product can still be purchased in good quality curtain shops.  It has one adhesive side which is perfect for securing the fabric I am stitching on.  I can then pretty much stitch it to death without any risk of gathers.
What is hardest to explain with free stitching is how to control the needle and co-ordinate with the foot pedal and in truth the only way to learn is to experience.  And on this point, stitching without a foot pedal, as is promoted for the latest machines, will always be very much harder as you have less control over the speed and you lose the use of a hand to start and stop the machine.  I love teaching others how easy free stitching can be to achieve and I find it very satisfying when my recommendations enable a fabulous free stitch result.  This lovely Cornish coastal scene by Lynda Whittle was the result of a few days practice - just brilliant.
Sadly I find that stitch is far too often seen as functional rather than creative and I am very much o a mission to challenge this.  I have a plan to set up a online free stitch picture gallery this autumn to show how a sewing machine needle is as valid as any other medium for creativity.  I am currently supporting lots of lovely work through to completion this summer so watch this space.  I will also be displaying work this autumn at my studio at Spring Farm for Somerset Arts Weeks 2017 - do pop in to say hello and see the terrific work of my fellow artists, Anne, Jenny and David.

Monday, 31 July 2017

All Things Bayeux

First experiences so often stay etched on the mind and this is so true of my first school hand embroidery.  The Bayeux Tapestry was the inspiration chosen by my then junior school teacher, Miss Deddon, and while it has felt familiar ever since, it is only this year that I have seen the tapestry first hand.  Located in the pretty Normandy city of Bayeux, the magnificent 80m panel recounts the gory tale of the Norman conquest.  The word 'tapestry' is misleading, as the panel is an embroidery stitched with woollen yarns on linen.  Many believe that the design was of English origin and some say that the Bayeux Embroidery was the first ever 'cartoon'.
On visiting the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, I became one of around 400,000 visitors they receive every year.  The panel is housed in a glass cased gallery on the ground floor and this seemed the sensible place to head first.  An audio guide is the only information available for the gallery viewing, however, I opted to walk quietly along and to feast my eyes.  I was immediately struck by the length of the panel and the amount of time it must have taken to stitch.  Studying intently as I could in low level protective light, I wondered about the lives of those who had taken part in its creation.
I found insight to this and much more on the first and second floor of the museum, where there was extensive exhibits explaining what is known about the construction of the panel and the story it depicts.  It is quite incredible that the panel has survived nearly 10 centuries and that the linen and stitch work are still in such good condition.  A particular style of stitch was used throughout the panel - now known as the Bayeux stitch. In brief, the subject is outlined first with a stem stitch and then the long stitches used to fill the space are anchored down by small couching stitches. 
The dabbler that I am, I purchased a simple 'how to' book and I was delighted to find Bayeux Brioderie around the corner from the museum and meet the talented and friendly author.  Chantal James has developed designs in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry over many years and runs small workshops to teach the traditional stitches.  Oh that my schoolgirl French had been a little more practiced and I would have joined a workshop in a flash!
The Bayeux Tapestry has undoubtedly shaped its home city and inspiration can be found in all kinds of unexpected places.  Spending much time watching my step on the charming Bayeux cobbled streets, I saw this tapestry tree design set into the pavements many times!
Like its famous exhibit, Bayeux itself has survived the centuries remarkably unscathed and there is much to taken in admire in its pretty streets - such as its the oldest house at the corner of 'Rue des Cuisiniers'- perhaps there had been a 'Rue des Brodeuses' too!
The pretty river Aure runs through the middle of Bayeux and makes for relaxing strolls and stunning photographs - any of which could provide tremendous stitching inspiration.
There are also lots of pretty shops selling all things tapestry and Boutique Coquelicots made for a very pleasant shopping experience.  Red flowers, real and representational, are everywhere you look in Bayeux, and Normandy as a whole, and are a constant and most important reminder of the sacrifices made by so many in 20th century wars.
I highly recommend a visit to Bayeux - one of the prettiest cities I have ever visited and made all the more enjoyable by the friendly locals.  I returned home with my head full of creative ideas and with embroidery and poppies foremost in my mind, I very much enjoyed designing this free stitched applique cushion to make at my summer workshops and beyond.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Textile Art Competition - Taunton Flower Show

There's no doubt that a date in my diary spurs me into stitching action - since I started running stitch workshops my production rate has grown hugely!  It can be a little scary too, particularly when you're putting stitch work up for scrutiny.  However, I've found time and time again that the benefits of deadlines win the day and I'm therefore promoting this textile art competition at Taunton's Flower Show for 2017 - full details on this link.
Taunton Flower Show is the oldest show if its kind in the UK and I believe the 2nd oldest in the world.  The annual textile art competition has been developed of recent years under the wise direction of fellow stitcher Sue Drew.  She has set up some very innovative classes to inspire creative stitching from in and around Somerset.  Here's a list of the classes for 2017 - there's no lower age limit and young creative stitchers are very welcome to apply.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing the entries at the 2017 show.   Sue Drew has entrusted me to take over her excellent organisation of this annual textile competition from  2018 - also a little scary.  I'm really looking forward to meeting the current judges - Somerset textile artists Viv and Lizzie White and some of this years competitors too.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Cotton Fabric Chenilling

Like many UK stitchers of my generation, early sewing classes instilled an absolute rule that raw fabric edges must always be hidden or neatened!  My love of softness in fabric, however, will forever lead to me to experiment to the contrary - like creating chenille with cotton fabric which I'm having great fun with this summer.  It is a simple technique and with a little planning, costs can be kept to a minimum.  The outer fabric for this cushion was an fabric remnant I picked up by New York designer Paula Nadlestern - a child Spirograph fanatic, I adore her kaleidoscopic designs.
Any cotton fabric can be used for this chenille technique and many favour the use of brushed cotton.  Personally I favour standard cotton, as this is hugely cheaper.  I also tend towards plain fabrics in the layers as these look more vibrant when cut than patterned fabrics which often have large amounts of white in the weave.  For this project I used a teal base layer and lighter layers in to contrast with the black in the top fabric.  I layered the equal size pieces directly on top of each other and drew chalk lines half an inch apart around my central design.  It is vital that all stitch and cut lines are diagonal to the fabric weave on all layers - cuts with the weave or weft will unravel in a most unattractive way.
On this occasion I stitched between all the chalk lines - for a lighter fabric I would have marked the lines with a Frixion pen and stitched on these and removed afterwards with a hot iron.  The back of the piece looked like this once all the stitching was complete.
Then down to some serious cutting along the chalk lines with my favorite super sharp Tilda scissors - through all layers other that the base layer.  There are specific chenille cutters on the market, however, they can be fiddly to use and I think are an unnecessary additional expense. 
Then comes the business of 'blooming' the cut lines - those with a background of 'raw edge avoidance' need to hold their nerve at this point.  The simplest way to 'bloom' is to finger rub the cuts - which I promise will produce a pleasing result.  In fact, I personally find this a very satisfying task, particularly for a cushion where 'blooming' can be continued long after it is made up!
I am loving teaching this technique again this summer and seeing the fabulous fabric designs and colours that others choose to work with.  Here is a new piece of work that stitcher Loraine has yet to fully bloom.  There is a school of thought that blooming can be increased by washing the fabric, however, I prefer to retain the fabric finish and do the job by hand.
And here is a constructed piece which has been made up into a new summer project for my Open Workshops.   This is just one of many possibilities for how the chenille fabric can be used and I'm looking forward to exploring new project ideas at a specific chenille workshop I'm running on Friday 11th August 2017 at Threads in Minehead.
I highly recommend this creative fabric technique and exploring how to use at minimal cost.  Remnant baskets will often offer up striking exterior fabric pieces and cotton sheeting is a very cost effective option for the layers.  I would love to see photos of any experimentations and please do email me these.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Cotton Heritage - Quarry Bank Mill - Styal

It was poignantly a dismal March day that finally took me and a fellow Somerset stitcher to Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire.  A national heritage centre for cotton weaving, this North West National Trust venue had strangely stayed on the edge of my textile research radar.  From the sheer size of the building alone, it was clear that this impressive mill had some weighty stories to tell.
I have long been aware that although cotton fabric today is promoted as a natural textile of choice, its history is steeped in misery and poverty.  The import of raw cotton to England and the links to the slave trade are well known.  What I suspect is less known, is the grim reality of the 19th century processes that transformed a bale of cotton into functional fabric.  These quickly came to the fore on the day of visiting Quarry Bank.
People were a vital commodity in 19th century cotton textile production to operate the newly developed machinery for each of the stages.  The upside of this was that the mechanisation of spinning and weaving provided mass employment and the population of North West cities like Manchester increased at a rapid rate.  Indeed, my great great great Grandparents Queintin and Jane Kenndy were among the thousands who migrated south from Scotland to Manchester in the mid 1800s for work in the cotton mills.
However, the first requirement of any mill was the need for a strong water source and Quarry Bank was chosen by its Irish born founder, Samuel Greg, because the meeting of the nearby rivers Bollin and Dean provided exactly that.
It was fascinating to learn how the power of the rivers was harnessed by the huge mill water wheels to drive the machinery of the day; an achievement in its own right requiring immense creativity and determination.  The height of water was so vital to mill production at Quarry Bank, that the mill manager's house was positioned so the river could be seen at all times.
When weaving was added to yarn production at Quarry Bank, steam power became all important for powering the mills looms.  The first 10 horse power engine was increased in capacity multiple times over the lifetime of the mill, to a final 60hp speed.  Dense smoke was part and parcel of mill life throughout all these years!
It was a little comforting to learn that Quarry Bank was one of the more humane cotton mills of its time.  The housing for mill workers was by far superior to its inner city equivalent, as were the living conditions for child 'apprentices' who lived on site.  The influence of Samuel Greg's wife Hannah, a mother of 13 children, was seen to be very influential in this.  Working life at Quarry Bank would have been a tough existence all the same and exhaustion from long working hours and little time off were undoubtedly a starting point.
Most sobering was the detail of precarious mill working.  Loss of limbs and life were common place and the child apprentices were often at most risk crawling beneath working machinery.  Plus all mill workers suffered from the fine white cotton dust that permanently clouded the air and wreaked havoc on the lungs.  Add into the mix closed windows to maintain humidity for the cotton and the noise of the mill machinery that increased with each development of mechanisation.  This was clearly a grim working environment for all that were involved.
All same, Quarry Bank undoubtedly provided a quality of life for those who lived there way ahead of its time. The clean housing, child education and health care provided by the Greg family were rarely if ever provided by other mill owners.  I am sure that the life of my ancestors in central Manchester would have been a much easier lot had they worked at Quarry Bank.
The exhibits at Quarry Bank provided an honest, albeit uncomfortable account of English cotton textile production at its peak.  It particularly saddened me to think that there are still textile mills around the world today where these dreadful working conditions are not so dissimilar.  We left Quarry Bank mill that March day feeling massively informed, although rather heavy with our newly acquired knowledge.  I strongly recommend a visit to all to increase appreciation of both the history of cotton textiles and working conditions in textile mills that still exist in the poorest parts of the world today.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Stitch Competition - Inprint by Jane Makower

I love to promote British textiles and I was therefore delighted this year to find British designed fabrics by Inprint at Jane Makower.  Jane's family has been in the business of designing fabrics for 150 years and it is still a family run business in 2017.  Including in their fabric range is a fabulous set of cotton prints designed by the talented British designer Danielle Saletes.
Living on the Somerset Levels, this week I could not resist a modest purchase of nature inspired prints by Danielle with otters, herons, wildflowers and dragonflies - all seen regularly here in Somerset.  Whilst very tempted to squirrel away for my own use, I have put most for sale in my Etsy Shop so that stitchers in Somerset and beyond can enjoy working with these inspirational prints.
I'm also delighted to support a competition being run by Jane Makower until mid June.   Send me a photo of any project made in any of these fabrics purchased from me, and I will refund half the fabric cost.  Plus I will submit the photo to Jane Makower and there is a first prize of £100 which can be spent with me on workshops and stitch goodies, and there are also runner up prizes of Inprint design packs.
Please email photos to me by Wednesday 14th June and I will submit entries in time for the closing date of 16th June 2017.