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.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Sumptious Silk - Paradise Mill, Macclesfield

I have long felt a resonance with silk fabric, however, it is only of recent years that I have traced ancestors who were silk spinners and weavers.  Originally living and working in Scotland, my paternal great great grandparents John and Jessie English moved to the North West at the height of the industrial revolution.  I have often wondered about their daily lives working with this sumptuous fabric and I was therefore delighted to have the opportunity to visit the Paradise Silk Mill and Silk Museum in Macclesfield this spring.
Fabric is so readily available in my 21st century life and it is easy to forget that 150 or so years ago it was a highly treasured commodity resulting from huge skill and toil.  Everyday textiles for the majority would have been hard wearing and course cloth and I am sure that spinning and weaving sumptuous silk must have felt very special by comparison.
Macclesfield was one of three towns in Cheshire at the heart of the silk industry in the 19th century.  Prior to industrialisation, the spinning and weaving was a cottage industry which would have involved the whole family.  This weavers 'garret' in Pitt Street Macclesfield is typical of the building style with a large window on the to floor to give maximum light for the loom.
The intricacies of silk weaving were such, that it remained a hand process for longer than wool and cotton weaving. When it eventually migrated into factory premises, Paradise Mill as seen today is typical of how a silk mill with their 'Jacquard' looms would have looked - just a touch complex!  I was very fortunate on the day of my visit to Paradise Mill to meet Ian Richardson, who I cannot thank enough for his time and skill in simply explaining the weaving process in a way that I could understand!
All silk weaving in 19th century England began with imported raw silk which was skein dyed in large vats.  The silk skeins were wound onto bobbins in the mill to create the required thickness (doubling) and twist (throwing) for the 'warp' and 'weft' threads. 
The thread for the weft, usually untwisted, was wound from a bobbin onto a 'pirn' - a small narrow bobbin that fitted into the weaving shuttle. 
The warp thread could have been 'thrown' and/or 'doubled' a number of time before winding evenly across a wooden beam.  The number of threads for the warp in silk production was staggering - over 4000 for a piece of fabric 30" wide.  To avoid having to manage a bobbin for each of the 4000 plus threads, a system was developed to wind on the warp in sections.
The beam was then moved to the loom and fine warp threads had then to be manually tied into the loom through the eyes of tiny 'heddles' to create the warp thread.  This stage of the process alone would have taken a skilled weaver many days to complete.
The development of 'Jacquard' heads in the early 1800s to operate silk looms enabled highly complex designs to be created.  This principle by Joseph Marie Jacquard was in many ways an early computer and informed work later undertaken by Charles Babbage.
The required patterns for weaving were translated onto a series of oblong cards where each card represented a pattern row.  I can only imagine the concentration required to complete this task accurately and the consequences of getting it wrong!
The punched cards were then strung together above the loom and linked up to hooks to control the lifting, or not, of the warp threads beneath.  It was this lifting of the warp threads before the pass of the weft shuttle thread that created the desired pattern.
Even with this mechanisation, the weaving of the weft thread was still a highly skilled job, increasing in complexity with the number of colours required to make up the pattern.  The passion for continuing to weave silk with hand looms was long lasting and Paradise Mill continued longer than most until the 1980s. 

I felt humbled by all that I learnt on a sunny spring afternoon at Paradise Mill.  The skill, concentration and effort required by the spinners and weavers of silk is beyond comprehension in our automated world.  I feel indebted to all those who worked long hours in noisy and grimy mills and I can only marvel at how beautiful silk fabric resulted at the end.
The weaving process today, although now usually automated, still operates on the same principle and it is vital that heritage textile sites like Macclesfield Museum and Paradise Silk Mill continue.  On the day I visited Paradise Mill, there was a party of school children who I am sure will remember Ian's tour and most importantly they will now have an understanding of how textiles are created today. Please do visit if you are in the North West - Macclesfield is a pretty Cheshire town easily reached from Junction 17 of the M6.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Proggy Seat Cushion

I grew up with rag rugging as a necessary skill for making a comfortable home.  My Nan Emily regularly made rugs and mats with recycled fabrics - for most part they were functional rather than pretty and every scrap of available fabric was used - including old tights!  I've dabbled with rug making on and off over the years and decided this spring to christen a new set of rag rugging tools and make up something useful and not too labour intensive - a progged seat cushion for my studio.  First off, I marked my cushion pad size (plus an extra few centimetres) and a simple design onto a piece of hessian.
Then I found myself some suitable fabrics - I was lucky position to have purchased some sizeable lengths of Somerset Fox's flannel at amazing prices.  This fabulous fabric cuts like butter and often with very little fray, which is perfect for rag rugging.  I started off by cutting 1" strips and wound one around my nifty wood gauge.  It has a groove in one side just large enough for the underside of a pair of sharp scissors to be run down to cut through the fabric layers wound around.
This inexpensive cutting gauge is just perfect for quickly producing equal length strips and you can find for sale with other tools on the website of rag rugger Jenni Stewart-Anderson  You can use all kinds of fabrics including old t-shirts and blankets.  I recommend fabrics that don't fray too much and where you like both the front and the reverse.
Then to start progging in a central position.  You will find lots of advice about how to pull the cut fabric pieces through the hessian, however, personally I recommend a 'bodger' tool as being the easiest tool to use.  It's very straight forward to push the point of the bodger through strands of hessian and then 'grab' a short end of a fabric piece into the blunt end to pull through the hessian strands.  The fabric I was working in was a light weight flannel so I missed a few strands of hessian between the pieces on my first line of progging.
The initial line of progged pieces lie flat, so I worked a square of pieces close enough together so that the central pieces were standing nice and upright.
Then I changed to a toning colour and worked an area around using my chalk lines as a guide.
Regularly looking at the reverse of the work was important to check for consistency and that the progged pieces were far enough apart to not pull in the hessian - a common problem for new rag ruggers.
Then it was lots more of the same - I found regularly changing the fabric colour added interest.  Also, although I had drawn a design, I did deviate from it at times to make the best of the fabric I had available. It can be quite tricky to calculate how much fabric you need for progging - often more than you think and you may need to add in some extra fabrics to fill the whole design.
A progged design is not very defined on the right side, although much clearer on the reverse as can be seen as I was reaching the end of my piece.
To make a neat edge to the cushion pad, I turned in the hessian for my final round and progged through 2 layers of hessian.  This was a bit harder going, however, I made it a little easier by spacing out a little further apart.  The excess hessian can then be trimmed back and a backing piece put on the progged work.
And finally a bit of trimming on the right side to get all the progging nice and even.
I was very pleased with my final progged piece and that I stuck to my guns, using only what I had to hand in my studio.  It was surprising heavy for a smallish piece and I can imagine a large rug would have been extremely heavy and certainly help to keep legs warm when making up in the winter. 
If you have been meaning to get around to trying progging, then do give it a go.  It's a brilliant technique for reducing fabric scraps and turning them into something useful and beautiful!  My friend Ann progged this stunning cushion pad for an old oak chair and it feels as comfortable to sit on as it looks amazing.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Simple Sewing Machine Troubleshooting

There's one thing that is guaranteed when working with sewing machines, they will sometimes do other than what's wanted!  Breaking threads, birds nests, uneven stitching or worse still, no stitches at all, these things happen on budget and upmarket machines alike.  Strangely, I rather like these little conundrums to solve, although I'd rather they didn't occur when I'm on a mission to get stitching finished!  It's very easy to get frustrated and throw in the towel and yet a few simple actions is often all it takes to get your stitching back on track.
The step that very often sorts out problematic stitching is a simple rethread of the machine - both top and bottom threads.  And if you are unsure or have forgotten, it's best not to guess.  Modern machines usually have markers to remind you through the threading sequence.  Where this isn't the case, it really is best to look up how in the instruction manual.  And even if it looks like everything is correctly threaded, a complete rethread still often does the trick - one of those stitching mysteries!
If rethreading doesn't sort out the problem, then next up comes checking the thread and needles - getting both right makes a HUGE difference.  I'll start with thread quality and a quick mention about those lovely old threads that I started my stitching life with.  The disappointing news is that rarely perform as well on modern machines as their modern counterparts.  My best advice is to keep to look at lovingly and if can't resist using, a sewing machine needle with a large eye is a must.
Modern threads are of mixed quality and you generally get what you pay for.  Those bargain threads from discount stores on little cardboard reels are poor value for money and best avoided for machine use.  Personally I'm a Gutermann girl and I'm lucky to have a great thread supply in my Somerset Stitchery.  Other makes I rate are Maderia and Metler and I find the little extra cost is well worth it.
Even with a good quality thread, the sewing machine needle must still be right.  I know, at first glance all look the same and yet the difference the right needle makes is HUGE.  It's really worth getting to grips with the various types and I have covered the basics in my sewing machine needles post.  The bottom line is that the type of needle you have really does need to match the thread and fabric.  Needle problems often occur when you switch thread types and then suddenly the thread starts to break.  You may be amazed to hear that a fast moving thread creates a ridge in the eye of the needle and when a different thread is used, the ridge does not match the new thread and breakages occur.  Getting yourself a good stock of machine needles is a seriously smart investment.
Next up is tension, no not what you're feeling because you have a machine stitching problem!  What I'm referring to is the tension that your machine applies to the threads while stitching.  Modern sewing machines are built to tension the top and bottom threads as you stitch and to fully understand for your machine, have a read about the tension options in your manual.  Generally most sewing machines generally have some kind of top tension that can be adjusted and when the thread is too tight or loose, this is how stitching might look.
Unless the machine is fully computerised, the top tension is usually adjusted through a dial at the top of the machine.  You will also likely see a red marker or some of the numbers are marked in red and this indicates the standard tension setting or range.  I usually only change from the standard setting when a rethread and check of the needle and thread hasn't solved the stitching problem.  To increase the tension and tighten the top thread you increase the number and to decrease you go for a smaller number.  Oh and remember when you've finished to put back to the standard setting!
Assuming the bobbin is threaded correctly, I find that problems with the bobbin tension happen much less frequently.  When it does happen, too tight will ruck the fabric from beneath and the bobbin thread will come through to the top when too loose.
On a machine has a traditional push in bobbin, you will see a small tension screw on one side which can be adjusted with a small screw driver.  To reduce the tension you turn to the left and to increase to the right.  The amount you need to adjust is usually tiny, so go slowly.  I always have a spare bobbin case that I can mess around with and I mark it so I know which one is which.
I must also highlight that many front loading bobbin machines require oiling and serious damage will occur if neglected.  To be sure, you MUST check your manual which will give clear instructions on when and how.  Some machines will have an oil warning light, but not all.  I can actually hear when the oil is running low on my machines as the stitching sound is much harder.  PLEASE - find a way to remember this vital step if it is required for your machine.
Drop in bobbins are self tensioning and as long as they're threaded correctly, they don't require adjustment.  The most important thing to look for is a single line of thread from the left of the bobbin holder to the underside of the needle plate.  Sometimes this comes adrift with fast stitching and this is when the bobbin thread will become very loose and pull through to the top.
And one last consideration for some machines, is presser foot pressure. Not all machines have this and you will need to check.  Adding or decreasing pressure with setting can be useful when stitching very thin or thick fabrics as it helps to keep the presser foot flat.
For all that the solutions stitching problems are often simple, there are sadly occasions when technical help is required.  When the same problem keeps occurring regardless of thread/needle/tension, I know it's time to consult my friendly sewing machine mechanic Clive at Somerset Sewing Machines in Bridgwater.  For those living further afield in need of help, ask around fellow stitchers in your area and a name or two will quickly come to light.
I am sure that many readers of this post will already be aware of all the points I've covered.  The trick is of course to remember to check them through when stitching goes awry - not always easy when frustration has kicked in.  Just think TNT - THREAD/NEEDLE/TENSION and you will be amazed at how easily many machine stitching problems are resolved.